“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!” — Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a masterpiece of filmmaking and an incandescent jewel of the science fiction genre, and perhaps my favorite of all his films — if I could choose one. Based on the book by polish author Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s take is decidedly more spiritual and metaphysical than Lem’s story, which focuses primarily on epistemology and the science of the planet Solaris, yet both stories explore the limits of Mankind’s knowledge when confronted with something so entirely unlike himself — the truly unknowable. Only I find that Tarkovsky takes it a step further and shows that not only is Man’s knowledge limited, but that there is this deeper internal struggle, desire, and need that lies within him that goes beyond even the quest for knowledge itself.
To begin, Snaut, one of the two remaining scientists on Solaris Station, first introduces us to this idea in his famous speech:
“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 is describing this concept of what Man thinks he is striving for, but actually does not want. He derides science as being useless in regards to the situation they find themselves in with the planet Solaris. He even tosses one of the books to the ground in disgust. It is clear that despite all this time of Mankind studying Solaris, he had come to be no further along in understanding it. We saw this previously in the opening sequence where Kelvin is watching the Solaris Hearings with Burton, and how they conclude with “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.” and Kelvin remarks dryly, “We’re in exactly the same situation today.” Further, in an almost throw away line that happens just before Snaut’s speech, when he invites Kelvin to his “birthday” in the library. He says, talking about the library itself: “At least there are no windows in there…”
No windows. I was struck by this imagery, especially since the whole station is filled with circular windows, openings overlooking the Solaris Ocean. The library room, a place representing the knowledge of Man, has “no windows.” It doesn’t have to behold the Cosmic!
So, Snaut, in his characteristic perceptiveness, understands that man is actually terrified to find the Other, to behold the Unknown, but instead desires a mirror, to find a reflection of himself. Now this could be taken in one sense as man desiring to extend himself, to remake the cosmos in his image, filled with his knowledge and his might, i.e. Man wants to continue with the familiar, rather than face the completely alien. This is its meaning, but there is also another meaning too, I believe, which is: man desiring to find absolution.
When we first meet Kelvin, he approaches the Solaris problem as a cold reasoner, and is pretty harsh towards Burton, and offends him by his logical, objective approach to something that has completely stirred Burton to his soul, i.e. his experience on Solaris. As Kelvin’s own father tells him “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!” So, Kelvin represents Man’s reason, Man’s science, his glory and his legacy of empirical knowledge.
Yet once Kelvin gets to the Solaris Station and meets the first manifestation of his dead wife, things instantly begin to spiral out of control for him. Instead of approaching the problem as a scientist, he completely succumbs to the emotions of it, falling into the arms of what the Ocean has sent to him. And as we come later to discover, he does this out of guilt and shame, having not loved his wife in the past, of her committing suicide and him not doing anything to stop it because of his own pride. This all comes to light. So, it is within this new “Hari” that Kelvin sees a chance for something he perhaps never realized he needed until now, redemption.
Yet this Hari isn’t the real Hari, but the Ocean using Kelvin’s own memory and thoughts of her to connect with him, to make contact. So, in this sense, Kelvin is seeing himself, this Hari is a reflection of a part of himself - that once revealed to him, shows itself to be a need and this is what connects him to the Ocean. As Hari later reprimands Sartorius and Snaut:
“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.”
She says this in her own plea of her humanity, of her worth, and the desire for respect and care. In this, we are shown how Kelvin has approached the Ocean and its manifestations humbly and contritely. Instead of trying to treat it as something to measure and understand, he simply embraces it. In a moving scene when Hari becomes overwhelmed and breaks down, Kelvin goes to her and kneels down at her feet. I love the shot of showing her bare feet, which I think has a Christian overtone to it. Bare feet is a strong symbol in the Bible, where when approaching sacred ground, one removes their shoes as an act of respect, worship, and intimacy. Also, this imagery shows up with Jesus Christ when he washes the disciples feet in John Chapter 13 or when Mary washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (John 12/Luke 7). It is supposed to represent humility and the deepest act of love and adoration. And when Kelvin does this simple, meaningful act, cool-headed Sartorius, the most reptilian and scientific-minded of the bunch, breaks out in distress and cries “Get up! Get up right now!” He cannot stand to see Kelvin in that position, because he reveals to him his own insecurities — his own needs — his own failures — his own weakness.
This whole concept is taken further in a later sequence, when Kelvin is in a feverish state and begins wandering around the station. Snaut and Hari come to help him, to carry him, and I love the intense light and the receding circles of the station as he reflects on his colleague Gibarian, the one who committed suicide before Kelvin was able to get to the station. “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.” I know shame has a negative connotation to it, but from Merriam Webster dictionary, one definition is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt.” It is a response to becoming aware of one’s own guilt, one’s own frailty, and within the context of this film, I think it is pointing towards humility. Mankind becoming aware of his own guilt and admitting to it will save him.
In the final manifestation, Kelvin has a conversation with his mother. I was trying to understand what the scene meant, to put the pieces together of the kind of relationship he had with his parents. It seemed like it was tried and estranged. We know his mother is dead, and that it was perhaps something that put a wedge between him and father? There also was the hint that his mother didn’t like Hari, and that it caused a rift there. In any case, Kelvin has this heartfelt conversation with her, and towards the end of it, in probably one of the most moving sequences, Kelvin calls out to her in a very child-like way and that is when she notices that his arm is dirty. She takes a basin of water and begins to clean him off. Again, another very strong Christian image, likened to when Christ washed His disciples’ feet. It symbolizes being made clean, of sins being washed away, of true absolution. This is what Kelvin receives.
The Christian imagery continues even further as there seems to be this correlation of sleep and death, and death is a very interesting theme within this context. In the library scene, Snaut has Kelvin read an excerpt from a book:
“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.”
There is this connection of sleep being made to death, and how it equalizes all men (which death also does). In most of this movie, Kelvin and/or Hari are shown sleeping or lying in bed, things becoming dream-like and ephemeral. Hari comes to Kelvin both the first and second time when he is asleep. Further, there is this curious shot when we first see Kelvin going to sleep after he has arrived 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. It is famous for its use of foreshortening in a period where it was extremely unusual and unprecedented, especially in its depiction of Christ. I just don’t see how it could be a coincidence. We have Kelvin going to sleep, mimicking the dead Christ image, so it seems this correlation of sleep/death is taking on a Christian connotation!
Within this context of Kelvin finding absolution on Solaris, I cannot help but draw the connection of what death means within the Bible. In Colossians 3:5 Paul implores “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…“ and then in Romans 8:13: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” 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 frail human parts of ourselves), in order that we might live to Christ. As Paul declares triumphantly in Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Death in its connection to absolution, as Solaris is making a point of here, is undeniably and resoundingly a Christian idea.
However, before I conclude this theme of death in Solaris, I want to quickly circle back. As I have outlined, human knowledge, reason, and science is being shown as insufficient, but if it wouldn’t be a proper science fiction piece if it completely eradicates science and the pursuit of knowledge! I don’t think it does, but puts it in a very specific context. Towards the end of the film, 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, the concept of the Other, something more profound than himself and who is outside of himself. Man has become too concerned with trying to define and put his universe into order, to conquer physics, the cosmos, all to establish his place as supreme in all knowledge. I think it shows how asking questions can come from this place of pride and arrogance, an attitude of which misses the whole point of asking those questions to begin with, namely the desire to approach and stare in wonder at that which cannot be touched, that “Holy of Holies”, the Unknown! And so we see that seeking and questioning are not the problem in of themselves, but it really comes down to what kind of questions you are asking and how and why you are asking them!
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 and at a certain time, 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 perhaps it is for this 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 how this cumulation of death and absolution comes to its inevitable climax: immortality. These are themes of the sublime, these are themes of the heavenly.
I think this made even more clear by the final scene of the film! It is one of my absolute favorite endings in cinema of all time, so chilling, so profound, and so awesome. Kelvin falls into the arms of the manifestation of his father, as we slowly pan out of the small island which is on Solaris. And this image is very clearly mimicking Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” where the wayward son returns to the arms of his father, forgiven and loved. Kelvin has been embraced by the Unknown, the Man resting in the arms of God.
It is just so beautiful! It’s really such a powerful piece of cinema, that really pushes the boundaries of the science fiction genre. Tarkovsky actually was very critical of his own work here, saying that he believed it didn’t transcend the genre, as he was intent on bringing cinema into a form of high art. I very much disagree with his own personal criticism. I think he has definitely achieved what he has set out to do and made a timeless masterpiece of cinematic art that gives us so much to ponder on, and really shows us the awe of the Unknown, the truly Divine.
“Do I have the right to turn down even an imagined possibility of contact with this Ocean which my race has been trying to understand for decades? Should I remain here? Among things and objects we both touched? Which still bear the memory of our breath? What for? In the hope that she’ll return? But I don’t harbor this hope. The only thing left to me is to wait. I don’t know what for. New miracles?” — Kelvin