The Cinematic Poet | Tarkovsky’s Solaris: The Pursuit of the Unknown
Finding absolution in the encounter with Mystery
Contemplating the Work of Andrei Tarkovsky | Part II
"The poet must stir souls, not nurture idolaters."
This is part two of my three-part series where I am exploring the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. We have already journeyed out into “The Zone” with Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and this week I’d love for us journey even further into the unknown, to contemplate my favorite of his filmography (if not my favorite film of all time), Solaris. A deeply sensitive and serious soul who created works of beauty under an oppressive regime, Tarkovsky could be heralded as one of the greats of cinema, alongside Kurasawa, Bergman, Scorsese, and Kubrick. Yet I believe more than any of them, Tarkovsky was the most intent on stalking Heaven, as I would describe it. “I believe that to form a concept of art you first have to face another, more important question: why does man exist?” Tarkovsky explained, “We have to use our time on earth to improve ourselves spiritually. This means that art must serve this purpose.” To improve ourselves spiritually is to Tarkovsky the noblest pursuit of the artist – or in this case the filmmaker – and in this way Tarkovsky’s films become sacred spaces to quiet the mind and stir the soul. Whether or not Tarkovsky found heaven in the end, weighed down by the sorrows of his life and leaving this world through cancer, is something we cannot know for certain, but I believe with all my heart that through his films we can touch the fringes of Heaven’s garment, and perhaps by doing so find our hearts restored.
“It’s what we wanted: contact with another civilization. We have it, this contact! Our own monstrous ugliness, our own buffoonery and shame, magnified as if it was under a microscope!” | Quote from the original novel by Stanislaw Lem.
Solaris. It was a living, breathing alien ocean that defied all human understanding. It was, simply and completely, inexplicable – an entity that brought forth terrible visions as real as nightmares and as ephemeral as dreams. It could not be poked, prodded, studied, or categorized. Mankind might as well have tried to understand the depths of his own soul.
When we first meet Kris Kelvin, a psychologist and in every way a sound specimen of the reasoning man, he is strolling upon the grounds of his father’s homestead, lost in personal reveries. He overlooks the lush trees and swirling grasses for the final time. He has been called away on an important mission to Solaris Station. There have been disturbing reports coming from the Station, and he must evaluate the situation and then judge if study of this great Ocean should continue on. The exploration and study of Solaris has been going on for years already, and has gotten them exactly nowhere even after all this time. “Solaristics is exactly where it began. Years of work have been in vain. Everything we now know about Solaris is negative, and has come to resemble a mountain of disjointed, incoherent facts that strain credulity.”
Retired pilot and friend to the family, Burton, is there to see Kelvin off, but also to gauge where his judgement will fall. Burton was one of the first to explore that distant Ocean and what he saw and experienced there had struck him to his very soul. His account speaks of strange, unspeakable things: gardens made of undulating alien substances and a thirteen-foot child with blue eyes and dark hair manifested from the Ocean in front of his very eyes. Yet despite Burton’s surprisingly vivid and accurate account, it was written off as hallucinations by the Review Board at that time. Now with these reports coming from the Station, perhaps it wasn’t going to be as simple as that.
Burton is a man struck with passion, who steadfastly maintains the reality of his experience with the Ocean and the value and necessity of continuing Mankind’s encounter with it. Kelvin, approaching the problem with cold reason, argues that truth and knowledge should be found out at all costs, whether to prove these things hallucinations after all and perhaps put an end to the mission or to bombard the Ocean with radiation in order to control it in some way. Burton, offended by Kelvin’s logical and pragmatic approach, leaves the homestead in righteous fury. Kelvin’s father, who has witnessed the argument, observes of his son, “You are too harsh! It is dangerous to send people like you into space. Everything there is too fragile. Yes, fragile! The Earth has somehow become adjusted to people like you, although at what sacrifice!”
Kris Kelvin is the embodiment of Man’s reason, his science, the legacy of his empirical knowledge. From his perspective, the Unknown is not impenetrable. In the end, Mankind will always be able to understand, to know, and in essence – to conquer that which first eludes him. Yet as Kelvin stands over a burning bonfire of memories before he leaves, we catch glimpses of some of those mysteries that lie deep within Kelvin’s own soul. And as we watch Burton drive away, there is a child who sits beside him who had journeyed with him to the homestead, a child who has blue eyes and dark hair. . .
“Science? Nonsense. In this situation, mediocrity and genius are equally useless. We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we’ll never find it. We’re in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.” | Snaut
When Kelvin arrives at Solaris Station, there is no one to greet him. The place is as silent as a tomb and in complete disarray, as if there had been a great tumult or the inhabitants had stopped maintaining the Station all together. Snaut, Sartorius, and Dr. Gibarian are the three remaining scientists reported on board, but as Kelvin later discovers, Dr. Gibarian, a man who was his close friend as well as colleague, had committed suicide just before he arrived. Devastated and disoriented, Kelvin is already met with impenetrable mysteries and frustrating obstacles as he mourns for his friend and ponders his unsettlingly last recorded words: “Here, it could probably happen to anyone. Just don't think that I've lost my mind. I'm of sound mind, Kris. . .”
As the mysteries of the Solaris Station continue to unfold, Kris finds the remaining scientists Snaut and Sartorius unnervingly evasive and wasted by fear, haunted beyond endurance by something else entirely. “Kris, understand that this is not madness. It has something to do with conscience,” Gibarian had said, and it isn’t until Kris Kelvin is visited by his first guest, that Solaris begins to reveal its terrible nature to him. Moving as it seems from a dream to a dream, the form and body of his wife Hari manifests before him. She has come back to him, impossibly, for she has been dead for ten years, and yet here she is, standing beside him in the flesh. Terrified and panicked, Kelvin ends up trapping this Hari within a capsule and ejects her into space – as if to banishing something dark and unwanted from the depths of himself. Yet as Snaut later warns him, the Ocean will not stop. Hari will come again, “Hari the Second,” as the Ocean relentlessly persists with this grotesque form of “contact” – sifting through Kelvin’s memory with abandon, using his own soul as the mechanism by which it communicates.
What can science and reason do under such circumstances? When the Unknown meets with Man face to face, “the Other” revealing itself in all its alien clarity, how can it be born? Snaut astutely describes this concept of what Man thinks he is striving for, but actually does not want. Would we rather find a mirror, to find a reflection of ourselves within the Deep, something familiar and easily understood? Perhaps man desires to extend himself, to remake the cosmos in his image, to reason it into submission - bringing that harshness to the intangibility of the Unknown. When Snaut invites Kelvin and Hari to his “birthday” celebration within the library, he says in an almost throwaway line, “At least there are no windows in there…” This is such striking and intentional imagery, as the whole station is filled with circular windows, openings overlooking the Solaris Ocean – the shape of the circle taking on the symbolic nature of the Unknown. Yet the library, a place which holds Man’s knowledge, has “no windows.” It doesn’t have to behold the Cosmic!
Perhaps, though, there is something even deeper too that lies in this desire for “a mirror," namely, within the face of the Unknown man desires to find absolution. Where once Kelvin had so stubbornly and resolutely upheld Man’s reason believing it the only way to get to the truth of the matter, he now completely succumbs to this experience with the Ocean. He falls unreservedly into the arms of what the Ocean has sent to him – the arms of his wife. Between Kelvin and this Hari, a most terrifying love affair unfolds as the both of them become entwined, enmeshed, and indistinguishable from one another. At the beginning, this manifestation of Hari cannot be away from Kelvin even for a moment, as she claws her way through a metal door just to get to him when he had innocently left her side. Torn and wounded almost to death, once back in Kelvin’s arms, Hari begins to heal impossibly – Kelvin making her real once more. Once the Ocean is able to manifest her more solidly, becoming fully an independent image, still neither seem to be able to leave each other’s side. They cling to one another. We later discover the emotions that spur Kelvin to such passion. It is his own guilt and shame, his own “monstrous ugliness” under that microscope. We learn he did not love his wife as he should have and of how she committed suicide – and through terrible neglect and pride - he had done nothing to help or prevent such a catastrophic end. In this “Hari” Kelvin sees a chance for something he perhaps never realized he needed until now, redemption.
“I think that Kris Kelvin is more consistent than both of you. In inhuman conditions, he has acted humanely and you act as if none of this concerns you, and consider your guests — it seems that’s what you call us — something external, a hindrance. But it’s a part of you. It’s your conscience.” | Hari
Kelvin has been so moved by the Ocean and its manifestations, that he responds to it humbly and contritely. Instead of trying to treat it as something to measure and understand, he simply embraces it, bows in humility before it, as someone who is unworthy to even be a part of it. In a moving scene where Hari becomes overwhelmed with emotion and breaks down weeping, Kelvin goes to her and kneels down at her feet. I love the framing of her bare feet – as we think of God’s command to Moses: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Kelvin bowing before her feet is both a sacred act and an intimate one. It is both an act of adoration and of worship. And when Kelvin commits this simple, meaningful act, cool-headed Sartorius, the most reptilian and scientific-minded of the bunch, breaks out in distress, “Get up! Get up right now!” He cannot stand to see Kelvin in that position, because it reveals to him his own insufficiencies, his own failures, his own weakness – all of which Kelvin is all the more willing to own.
And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. | Luke 7:37-38
Later, as circumstances begin to reach their zenith, Kelvin, in a feverish state, starts to wander the station in a dream-like daze. Snaut and Hari come to help him, to carry him back to his room - the light of the Ocean and the receding circles of the station moving around them. Kelvin reflects on Gibarian, “How did Gibarian die? You still haven’t told me,” he asks, and then answers himself, “Gibarian didn’t die of fear. He died of shame. Shame — the feeling that will save mankind.” Understandably shame usually has a negative connotation, but one definition is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt.” It is a response of becoming aware of one’s own guilt, one’s own frailty, and within the context of this film, I think that points us towards true humility. Mankind becoming aware of his own guilt and admitting to it will save him.
In the final and concluding encounter with the Ocean, we get a glimpse of Kelvin’s relationship with his parents. It is clearly very tried and estranged. We have already been given a sense of this before Kelvin left his father’s homestead. We know his mother is dead, and that it was perhaps something that put a wedge between them. There is also the hint that his mother didn’t like Hari, and that this caused a rift between them as well. Only now his mother appears to him in a vision, and Kelvin has a heartfelt conversation with her. Towards the end, in probably one of the most moving sequences of the film, Kelvin calls out to her with tears in his eyes – like a lost child calling for his mother. She turns to him and notices that his arm is dirty. She takes a basin of water and begins to clean him off. Like when Christ washed His disciples’ feet, it symbolizes being made clean, of sins being washed away, of true absolution. Ultimately, this is what Kelvin receives from the Ocean.
“I know only one thing, senor. When I sleep, I know no fear, no hope, no trouble, no bliss. Blessings on him who invented sleep. The common coin that purchases all things, the balance that levels shepherd and king, fool and wise man. There is only one bad thing about sound sleep. They say it closely resembles death.”
As these manifestations and visions begin to blur Kelvin’s reality, his hours become just like dream states, ephemeral and surreal. There are many significant sequences of Hari and Kelvin in bed together, sleeping or sick, or lost in delirium. Hari even came to Kelvin both the first and the second time when he was asleep. Sleep, in this way, is being likened to death, as Kelvin seems to be passing from one life into another. Tarkovsky intentionally frames one shot when we first see Kelvin go to sleep after his arrival at the Station. It is a very obvious foreshortened shot, and I was instantly struck by its similarity to the painting “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” by Andrea Mantegna (1480). It is famous for its use of foreshortening in a period where it was extremely unusual and unprecedented, especially in its depiction of Christ. This is truly significant. For Tarkovsky the imagery of sleep and death are being equated with the death of Christ.
In Colossians Paul implores “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…” and then in Romans: “…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We know that Christianity is based around the idea of a very specific kind of death being the means to life. Christ died upon the Cross that all may live in Him, and there is a constant putting to death of the deeds of the flesh, the sinful parts of ourselves, in order that we might live unto Christ. As Paul declares triumphantly in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Death in this connotation, then, is being likened to the salvation that we have through Christ’s death and resurrection. Here we begin to pierce through the layered poetry of Tarkovsky as he shows us the heavenly fruits of Mankind’s magnificent encounter with the Unknown, which we come to realize is truly the Divine.
So, human knowledge, reason, and science have been shown as wanting in meeting the deepest parts of Man’s soul, but of course this wouldn’t be a proper science fiction piece if it completely eradicated science and the pursuit of knowledge. I don’t believe that is Tarkovsky’s intention, but he does frame it in a very specific context which brings us to one of the most beautiful climaxes in all of cinema.
Towards the end of the film Hari ends up asking Snaut and Satorius, without Kelvin’s knowledge, to put her through the Station’s annihilator, the only thing capable of destroying her alien form. She does this, though, out of love for Kelvin, as she realizes – the Ocean realizes – that it cannot continue on with this alien love affair with humanity. Both Snaut and Satorius’ guests have also not returned. So, having the days of visions passed from them, Kelvin and Snaut are together soberly talking amongst themselves. Snaut begins his conclusion by saying: “In my opinion, we have lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood it perfectly. They never would have asked why or what for.” In this he is saying that he believes Mankind has lost that sense of something grander and bigger, something more profound than himself and that is outside of himself. Man has become too concerned with trying to define and put his universe into order, to contain and control the very cosmos, all to establish his intellectual dominance. This reveals that questions often come from a place of pride and arrogance, but this attitude misses the whole point of asking those questions to begin with, namely the deep desire to approach and stare in wonder at that which cannot be touched, that “Holy of Holies” - to truly behold the Cosmic!
When Kelvin asks Snaut if he has been content or happy with being on Solaris for so long, Snaut tells him that he might as well be asking about the meaning of life, and that the question of happiness is banal in of itself. He says “When a man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.” and further, “The happiest people are those who are not interested in these cursed questions.” He isn’t saying that these questions should not be asked, only they should be asked with a certain attitude - humbly and earnestly - and at a certain time – when one has come to the end of one’s life, the end of one’s self - concerning things that are eternal, not just empirical. And that perhaps it is conducive to this kind of understanding if one allows for mystery. As Kelvin says, “To ask is always the desire to know. Yet the preservation of simple human truths requires mystery.” He then observes that since man does not know the day he is going to die, that this perhaps is the reason man is in such a hurry to know everything, to gain as much knowledge as he is able. Snaut says not to rush, and Kelvin agrees. Let mystery pervade. For, “To think about it is to know the day of one’s death. Not knowing that day makes us practically immortal.”
Now we see fully the cumulation of Tarkovsky’s poetic ruminations bearing fruit to their inevitable revelation: eternal life.
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” | John 10:28-30
As we transition, like a dream to a dream, we see Kelvin is back on Earth on his father’s homestead. There are the same beautiful trees, the lush fields of brush and flower, and the tumbling river with the grasses that seem to mimic the undulations of the Solaris Ocean. Kelvin is at peace here, and he eagerly seeks out his father, putting his face up against the window of his home. Only then does a sudden chill of dread fill the senses, as we see water gushing and dripping from the ceiling and Kelvin’s father abstractly tossing another book onto a large pile of thoroughly soaked books. When his father sees Kelvin, he goes to open the door, and Kelvin without hesitation, collapses to his knees and embraces him. Like Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, the wayward son has finally returned home, into the arms of his father, forgiven, cherished, and loved. As the camera slowly pans out, we see that the homestead is constructed from a small island, an island of which is surrounded by the impossible immensity of the Solaris Ocean itself. In the final act, as such terrible awe and power fills and shatters the heart, we see Kelvin has been embraced finally and completely by the Unknown, the Man resting in the arms of His God.