21 Jul 2014

Solaris, Or, Do We Really Want To Make Contact?

By Paul Johnston

On Earth
As with many of his films, the opening section of Tarkovsky’s Solaris sets the scene for what is to come. Almost inevitably it starts with water. The camera lingers on a leaf floating down a stream, then on the weeds and reeds, pulled into movement by the flowing water. Slowly, insistently, the camera explores the peace and mystery of a world without humans - until we chance on part of a human figure and the camera pulls up to reveal the film’s protagonist, Kris Kelvin. This solitary individual may be vaguely aware of the beauty that surrounds him, but he is unable to draw any sustenance from it. It’s there, but it can’t help or really touch him. He is trapped in a world where there are always things to be done, but not much to be gained from doing them. A black horse trots by, magnificently at home in the world. Kelvin notices it and moves wearily on. In the distance a car draws up at the house and his father calls out to him, but Kelvin would rather be alone. And if the rain pours down on him until he is soaked, what difference does it make? He stands resolute, brooding emptily on his pain but determined to go on. After all, what else can he do?

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Kelvin is staying with his father and his aunt and, despite the civilised atmosphere, it’s tense. He will soon leave on a mission that probably means he will never see his father again, but it is more than that. There is a sense of conflict and misunderstandings. Kelvin’s mother is dead and the house seems haunted by an absence that both father and son must have struggled with, but which hasn’t brought them together. It’s a large house with three people who are constantly getting in each other’s way. Everyone seems too full of his or her own emotions to have time for anyone else’s.

The arrival of Berton, a friend of the father’s who wants to talk to Kelvin about his mission, is another unwelcome intrusion. There were already too many people before he arrived. He brings his young son, who we see shyly and silently meeting the aunt’s young daughter - at least in this human contact, there is still something innocent and hopeful. The boy is alarmed when he sees the horse, now in its stable, but the aunt takes him by the hand and helps him to see that the horse is a beautiful creature and nothing to be frightened of. Meanwhile Berton insists on having a one-to-one conversation with Kelvin, but the discussion quickly goes wrong and Berton storms off, telling the father that, since their 20-year friendship had to end sometime, it might as well end now. The father in turn lambasts the son, saying that he shouldn’t be allowed into space because things out there are too fragile. The earth has adapted to people like him at a price, but they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere else. The tentative efforts of father and son to reach out to each other collapse.

Berton’s Unnerving Experience. 
Kelvin’s mission is to the planet Solaris and Berton visits him because he had an experience on that planet that he has never recovered from. Solaris is a paradox and an irritation - it is possible the planet may harbour some form of super-intelligence, but years of research have not been able to get beyond the initial promising but confusing signs. Has humanity finally come into contact with another intelligent form of life or is Solaris just another nondescript planet among countless others? Berton worked on the research station as a pilot and when an aircraft containing two scientists went missing, he was part of the search and rescue mission. His craft got separated from the others and he was sucked into a strange, swirling fog above the planet’s ocean. When he returned, he was in a state of shock and ran to his cabin, frightened at the idea of going outside the space station and terrified even to look out of a porthole.

Some time later when he had partially recovered, he insisted on making a formal statement about a discovery that he believes will change the future of the whole Solaris research project. Dressed in his military uniform and just about holding it together, he describes how, when he was sucked down into the fog, the surface of the ocean began to change and then formed itself into something that looked like a garden. The assembled scientists are shocked - it’s a big claim, but a weirdly senseless one: what would a garden be doing on the surface of a planet millions of miles from Earth? Berton appeals to the evidence of his video camera, which recorded everything he saw - except it didn’t; the film just shows clouds. Now it is Berton who is confused - did he really experience what he thought he experienced? To a sceptical audience and increasingly agitated, he continues his account. The garden was only the start. Shortly, after he saw a human figure, moving and being moved on the ever-changing ocean. But there was something horrible about the figure. It had no helmet or space suit - in fact, it was a child, a baby and huge, gigantic - something like four metres tall. And naked, absolutely naked, but with a horrible, sticky liquid, glistening all over its body. It was an image of human vulnerability turned into something horribly alien, which wasn’t dead but which also wasn’t fully alive.

Solaris, dir, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Berton can’t cope with his experience, but neither can his audience. The majority conclusion is that, despite all his years of service and his professional discipline, Berton had a hallucination. His experience had no (or virtually no) relation to reality and so has no implications for research into the nature of the planet. Berton’s pathetic protests that he saw it all with his own eyes cut no ice - after all, haven’t we all mistaken a bush for an animal when it is dark and we are tired? Berton should just put everything behind him and move on - nothing or virtually nothing happened and it is certainly not worth thinking or worrying about. Ironically (or perhaps predictably) Berton’s discussion with Kelvin follows the same pattern - Berton feels he has something very important to say, his attempt to explain gets interrupted and the conclusion is that probably nothing happened, and even if it did, it does not have any significance and won’t affect the plans of the people who count. The reality of Berton’s experience - the moment that shattered a lifetime of disciplined professionalism - is denied, derided and discounted. What a ridiculous man!

Actually, he is a generous man. Humiliated (again), and confused and full of doubt, he doesn’t abandon his mission and, after storming off, makes a video call to pass on the information he hadn’t succeeded in sharing. After he left Solaris, he made contact with the family of one of the missing scientists whom he had been searching for when he got pulled into the fog. The scientist had separated from his wife shortly before or after the birth of their son, a child whose features were those of the baby Berton had seen bobbing on the ocean on Solaris. More Berton nonsense? Perhaps, but Kelvin should bear it in mind when he gets to the planet.

So what should we, the viewer, make of Berton’s experience? Later we learnt that the Ocean can project ideas from an individual’s unconscious, so perhaps the garden and the baby reflect what the missing scientists were longing for or were worried they would never see again. But why is this experience so destabilising for Berton? Later, he himself has a son and, although he is a rather preoccupied father, the boy offers him love and comfort, which he appreciates. (Interestingly, the mother is again very absent). In fact, babies and children are wildly out of place in the world of Solaris research and exploration, and in Berton’s world of technical proficiency and professional duty. What place in these worlds for vulnerability, growth and uncertainty? Really there should be no baby, but there is - only it’s a monster. It hasn’t developed, it has just grown; but growth without development is a horrible distortion. This is not a baby that warms the heart - it’s a baby that makes you wish you had never been born. (And why, one might ask, is that?)

More Unwanted Guests

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
When Kelvin gets to the Solaris space station, there are only two men on it - the loveable Snaut and the ruthless Sartorius. There was a third man - Giberian, a sensitive, philosophical type who was the first person to be sent Ocean-created “guests” and who committed suicide. Why? Sartorius’s verdict is clear - he was a coward. When the team’s research started to generate difficult-to-deal-with effects, he lost his scientific discipline, wallowed in his emotions and then gave up. An alternative explanation is loneliness and fear of madness. Giberian was the first person to be affected, so maybe he thought it was just something to do with him or that there was something wrong with him. There is an element of truth in this, but from a video message he left for his friend Kelvin it is clear that he recognised that others were also likely to get visitors. So perhaps it was the nature of his visitor? But we see her - a young girl in a blue negligee. Hardly a frightening apparition and she seems devoted to Giberian - in the video we see her bringing him a glass of milk. But he pushes her away and doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. Is this a guilty conscience? Is she someone he was involved with or wanted to be involved with in a way he now condemns? Or is it just that her innocence and submissiveness is painfully out of kilter with where he is and whom he feels he is? Whatever the detailed explanation, Giberian's conclusion is that he does not deserve to be alive.

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Giberian’s response to his visitor is one extreme - he accepts the visitation as a judgement, tries to live with it but is unable to do so. Sartorius goes to the other extreme - he denies the visitors any significance. They are an irritation, a nuisance, and a trial or rather, since those words are already too emotional a description, they are a phenomenon that we must seek to understand and then learn to control. In the face of this crisis, Sartorius jettisons his humanity and clings to his role as a scientist. It is not hard to see whose response Tarkovsky has most sympathy with. At least, Giberian was brave enough and human enough to acknowledge that the appearance of his visitor raised questions about who he was; and if he could not unravel those questions in a positive way, at least he confronted them and make a choice that was real and his, even if despairing.

Snaut handles things differently from both of his colleagues. He is a man of compromise. He does not deny his humanity or seek to block out the reality and the meaning of the visitors; he just tries to find ways to get by. In part, he does this by not taking things too seriously. He pretends that his visitor’s being there is not that unusual, and he keeps himself constantly busy in a manic attempt to distract himself. When he can, he tries to laugh about the situation or see the irony in it. But his struggle is as desperate as Sartorius’s (or for that matter, Gibarian’s); and, while the violence of Sartorius’ denial is repulsive, the pathos of Snaut’s attempt to cope is deeply moving. The man is a wreck and, although his intelligence and his resilience are impressive, it really doesn’t look as if he is going to hold out much longer.

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Kelvin, of course, is the one who finds a way through. His first response to the appearance of his dead wife Hari is Sartorius-like - he locks her in a rocket and, despite her screams, blasts her into space. But he is fortunate in who his visitor is - or perhaps the Ocean has finally worked out how to choose the right visitor. Kelvin is a well-defended man, but he has one weak spot (or possibly two) - his love for his wife meant something to him and he can’t quite reconcile himself to throwing it away (just as he can’t quite draw the line under his love for his lost mother). Kelvin makes a serious attempt to come to terms with his visitor. That involves taking them both seriously, being open to the pain of experiencing and thinking about things. 

Ironically (and in a way that creates some difficulties for the viewer), Kelvin is not a very sympathetic character - he is arrogant, narcissistic and a bit superficial. He is the hero of the film, but he is also the hardest character to admire. He does work hard on his relationship with Hari, but it is a struggle for him to admit his feelings for her, and even by the end of the film he still doesn’t seem to have taken on board the idea that a relationship involves two people and that you should at least try to see things from two perspectives rather than just one. So Kelvin and Hari never make it to a happy relationship - in fact, towards the end they are arguing just as much ever. But they do have a relationship and Kelvin does acknowledge both his need for contact and his difficulty in sustaining it. He is a wiser man at the end of the film - still sad, but able to experience his sadness and to try to make sense of it, so there is hope and an openness to the possibility of growth. 

The Problem of Hari. 
Kelvin’s dead wife Hari (or the Ocean’s recreation of her) is at the emotional heart of the film. Philosophically, one might think the big question she raises is: “What makes a living entity a human being?” or “When should we treat a living entity as human?”, but Tarkovsky is not very interested in that sort of question. In fact, Hari is the most human person in the whole film - she certainly serves as a role model for the men as to what being human does (or could) involve. Sartorius, of course, tells her that she is nothing - a matrix, a mechanical reproduction of the past. It is a brutal assault on her vulnerability, and she staggers under the blow; but she doesn’t take refuge in denial and she stays committed to thinking and feeling - unlike Sartorius, who smashes his glasses in pain and frustration and wanders off, muttering unconvincingly about others taking the easy route. 

Are we nothing? And if we are something, can we accept the something we are? The Ocean’s actions pose these questions to everyone on the space station, and the person who grapples with them most directly and most honestly is Hari. As a result, she learns and grows through the film, so that eventually she is much more than the Hari that was. Her first incarnation is child-like - unfazed by the strange situation she finds herself in, she accepts the good things it has to offer and seems to have little sense that anything could go wrong. She cannot explain her need to be in visual contact with Kelvin at all times, but she loves him and she trusts him - until he shuts the rocket door and blasts her screaming into space. Her second incarnation is more knowing and more painfully aware of her need for Kelvin - when he accidentally shuts another door on her, she is torn to pieces by her desperate need for him. 

Hari’s search to understand who (or what) she is has a terrible pathos, which is itself hard to endure. At times - for example, when she suggests to Kelvin that she may have epilepsy - we risk slipping into Sartorius-like complacency and forgetting that her situation of not knowing is not so different from our own. Generally, however, what we experience is sympathy with her pain and admiration for her willingness to face up to the truth. At one point Hari finds a picture of herself and only by looking in the mirror does she recognise who the photo depicts - it’s a heart-rending moment. We may like to think that “finding ourselves” is an exciting voyage of discovery, but as Hari’s experience demonstrates, recognising that you don’t know who you are is a terrifying experience. Instinctively, she turns to Kelvin for companionship - “Do you know yourself?” she asks, to which his defensive and not very convincing answer is: “As much as any Man does”. 

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Hari’s search for truth may make her seem like Sartorius, but Sartorius does not want to understand, he wants to control. In fact, the response of Sartorius (and the other scientists) to the Ocean shows that it is not knowledge itself that they want; rather what they cannot cope with is not knowing, not understanding. If the Ocean is a mystery, an Other that cannot be subsumed into the reassuring conformity of the known, then it would be better it was destroyed. The Ocean is not seen as something that we might enter into dialogue with; rather it is a threat to the idea that Man knows (or one day will know) everything. Science is supposed to be about going beyond our own limitations and seeing the world objectively, but in Solaris that search for knowledge does not look very open-minded; on the contrary, as exemplified in the character of Sartorius, it looks like a blind and desperate insistence that the only right way to see the world is the way we humans see it.

By contrast, Hari is open to difference. While the men argue over which of them is right, she highlights the different way each of them reacts and sees this as something to accept and to welcome. While Kelvin strives to live in an impossible (and potentially rather bland) harmony with her, Hari wants to face up to their differences in the past and their difficulties in the present. She is also prepared to recognise the wider context of her relationship with Kelvin and the fact that this can generate conflict. After seeing a video in which Kelvin’s mother appears, she says, hurt and confused: “That woman hated me”. Kelvin, of course, wants to sweep everything under the carpet: “But you never met her”. To which Hari replies: “Why are you trying to confuse me? I remember perfectly well how we had tea together. And how she told me to go away”. 

The Ocean’s visitors confront Kelvin and his colleagues with aspects of themselves that they are reluctant to recognise or have anything to do with. Ironically, Hari faces a similar sort of issue in relation to her past. As Sartorius’s laboratory tests confirm, she is not Hari - if you prick her finger to take a “blood” sample, there is no need (and no point) in giving her cotton wool to staunch the bleeding. So how can “Hari” relate to Hari? At some points in the film, she relates with hate and envy - the only way she could be herself would be if she could kill the other Hari and destroy all trace of her. Later, she seems to come to terms with her own identity (and her difference), but is haunted by the fear that Kelvin won't be able to deal with her 'otherness': “I disgust myself. You must find me disgusting too. You do find me disgusting”, she screams. Part of the difficulty of real contact with others is that it puts you in contact with yourself. 

Solaris, dir Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972 

Hari has one other problem - she cannot die. Snaut, of course, jokes about this and talks about Satorius working on the Faustian problem of how to find a remedy for immortality; but when he is confronted with Hari coming back to life, he runs away - he cannot stand to watch these pseudo- resurrections. They make a joke of death and even for Snaut that is a joke too far. Towards the end of the film, Hari tries to choose suicide, but all she achieves is a painful death and an even more painful revival. Unlike Giberian’s suicide, Hari’s suicide attempt seems abrupt - an impulsive suicide of despair. She has reached a point where she no longer has the strength to go any further. But she has no choice but to go on. Her suicide would have been less meaningful than Giberian’s, but her inability to die made the attempt transparently meaningless. By the end of the film, she does achieve death, and this time it is a chosen death based on an understanding of who she is and what she wants. Eventually, Hari dies but she dies with dignity, and it is a better death than all her previous deaths including the death on Earth of the real Hari.

Coming Home
At the end of the film, as they reflect on all that has happened, Snaut tells Kelvin that it is time for him to return to Earth. The question is raised of whether Snaut still has a connection to earth (and so whether it will ever be time for him to return), but the focus is Kelvin, and it is clear that he will go back and go back a different man. The theme of homecoming is highlighted in the meditation on Brueghel’s Return of the Hunters painting. Interestingly (and appropriately), Hari is first draws our attention to it. What can a scene of medieval hunters returning to the warmth of their homes in the depth of winter mean to her? 

Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) 'The Return of the Hunters/Hunters in the Snow', 1565

At the beginning of the film, Kelvin has no thoughts for his home - insofar as he seems capable of thinking of anything, it is of his mission and its challenges. Sartorius too has no time to think of home. He thinks only of expanding the certainties of human knowledge until the whole universe is swallowed up. He is typically contemptuous of Giberian’s wish to be buried on Earth - what sense does that make? Is he missing the worms? But from Tarkovsky’s perspective, it is vital to have a sense of where you come from. As Hari looks at the picture, she clearly understands what it is like to come home, although perhaps she feels sad at the thought that there is nowhere for her to come home to or that her sense of what it might be like to come home is something she has stolen from someone else (the “real” Hari).

Kelvin’s sense of where he comes from grows during the film. He (and the other scientists on Solaris) learn many painful lessons, but being so far from the Earth also teaches them to love it and to accept their need for it. Giberian comes up with the idea of tying bits of paper around the ventilation ducts to create a noise that sounds like the rustling of leaves, and, while Snaut and Kelvin embrace this simple innovation openly even Sartorius makes use of it on the quiet. It is a noble thing to go where no Man has gone before, but it looks more like a flight than a sacrifice if you refuse to accept the loss this means for you. How can you know whom you are or what you are doing if you have lost any sense of connection to where you came from?

More positively, Kelvin’s experience of Solaris allows him to see the Earth and humanity as something that can be loved precisely because it is something that could be lost. We like to think that in a sense the world did not exist before we humans became conscious of it; and similarly, it suits our narcissism to see the Ocean as passive and to focus on our efforts to make contact with it. But this is a one-sided and defensive perspective. The unfathomable mystery of Solaris confronts us with a world that does not need us. Sartorius thinks we must understand the Ocean because it is Man’s destiny to understand Nature - as if our not understanding Solaris is Solaris’ or the universe’s problem rather than our own. Kelvin comes to understand that we ourselves are just a small part of Nature, but that still makes us something precious and worthy of love.

Sartre said that hell is other people, but he was wrong. Hell is our difficulty in dealing with our need for other people. This is the slow and painful journey Kelvin takes. He starts the film an intensely lonely figure, but his experiences on Solaris force him to confront the reality of his relationship with Hari. They also bring him back to earlier relationships and earlier losses. It is hard to know quite what to make of Kelvin’s mother and of his relationship to her - she is loving and beautiful, but she also seems slightly cold and distant. Kelvin clearly loved his mother, but while she was alive, he seems to have resented his need for her and when she died, he seems to have felt desperately abandoned. After a radiogram of his thoughts have been transmitted to the Ocean, he falls into a fever and in a strange dream is at last able to have contact with his mother that goes beyond his anger and recognises his need, but in a realistic way that his loving and not-too-bad mother can actually meet.

And then there’s the father. If Kelvin’s relationship to his mother is troubled, what hope is there for his relationship to his father? As with his mother, Kelvin has great difficulty acknowledging what his father means to him or the pain he feels at the distance between them. But, unlike his colleagues, Kelvin has a chance to go home; and the film ends with an image of him accepting his father and his father accepting him. So perhaps life is not just about focussing on your mission and forgetting everything else, maybe it is about feeling things and growing. Maybe contact with the Other is possible and bearable after all.

Solaris, dir, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972


  1. Thanks Paul! Lovely work.
    Your reading of the film places it close to my-and-Kramer's reading of 'Gravity': http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/gravitys-pull.html. Which is interesting to me.
    But surely your reading misses the most striking feature of the film's end: that it appears that the coming-home, in this case, is not genuine: that Kelvin is lost in fantasy, in effect stuck in/on/near Solaris. In this way, it seems to me that actually 'Solaris' is quite distant from 'Gravity'.
    I think that 'Solaris' is actually closer to 'Melancholia' (See my http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/thinkingfilm-co-founder-rupert-read-has.html ). Melancholia plays neurosis to Solaris's psychosis.
    In the book-version of my 'Melancholia' material, I am going to explore further this link between these two planets that are really states of mind, and that force us to feel the depth of our homedness on Earth (I like very much your reflections on how 'Solaris' challenges our quasi-solipsistic self-preoccupation and anthropocentrism; though, as I say, I think that 'Solaris' ends in pessimism on this front, unlike 'Gravity' and 'Melancholia'.).

  2. I would say that it does not matter too much that the final encounter with the father is not real. What matters is the growth it represents in Kris - at the start of the film, he could only relate to his father in terms of angry and bitter rivalry, but at the end he is able to be a son and have a father. If the encounter had been real, it would have felt like a Hollywood they all lived happily ever after ending; whereas in the film there is growth but the growth does not involve pretending that the difficult past never happened.