Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker
The making of two inner-space odysseys
Andrei Tarkovsky was not a fan of science fiction. When pressed on the subject, the grand master of Soviet Russian cinema dismissed the sci-fi genre for its “comic book” trappings and vulgar commercialism. The son of a poet, Tarkovsky was an uncompromising visionary who dreamed of making films that combined the devotional majesty of medieval icon painting, the symphonic beauty of Bach and the moral weight of Dostoevsky.
Even so, Tarkovsky still happened to make two of the most revered and visually ravishing epics of the genre. Bookending the 1970s, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) are inner-space odysseys with much in common. Both were based on cult novels. Both share key cast and crew members. And both are cryptic cautionary fables about men who boldly go to the outer limits of human knowledge, where they encounter alien entities that can read their minds and grant their deepest desires. So be careful what you wish for.
A deeply religious man who believed great art should have a higher spiritual purpose, Tarkovsky was a perfectionist not given to humour or humility. His signature style was ponderous and literary. But he turned to science fiction almost for salvation, to get himself out of a fix with the Soviet film authorities. His previous feature, Andrei Rublev (1966), had been denied a domestic release, while his next submitted script was deemed too bourgeois and personal by Goskino, the USSR State Committee for Cinematography. That screenplay was shelved, later to resurface as Mirror (1975).
Instead, Tarkovsky proposed a film version of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical 1961 sci-fi novel, Solaris, reasoning that a futuristic thriller set on board a remote space station would prove populist enough even for the censorious commissars of Soviet cinema. He was right. A small-screen adaptation had already aired on Russian television, which also helped his pitch.
With Lem’s endorsement, Tarkovsky and Friedrich Gorenstein completed their first script in 1969, shifting two thirds of the action to Earth. But the changes angered both Lem and the Mosfilm studio committee, so Tarkovsky produced a second draft more faithful to the novel. The project received official approval from Goskino in the summer of 1970.
Lem’s compact novel begins with psychologist Kris Kelvin arriving on a space station floating close to the surface of Solaris, a planet covered by a vast, sentient ocean with the disturbing power to read human minds and reproduce perfect copies of their deepest memories, including those of people. Sent to assess whether the station should be closed down, Kelvin is thrown into emotional turmoil when confronted with a doppelganger of his ex-wife, Hari, who killed herself years before.
Tarkovsky’s film diverges from Lem’s space-set yarn with a long preamble set on Earth. Played by the brawny, soulfully brooding Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, we first meet Kelvin in an idyllic country landscape as he bids farewell to his parents at their lakeside dacha. These languid close-up shots of water and nature are pure Tarkovsky, recurring like musical motifs through his body of work.
At the dacha, Kelvin also consults with Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a discredited astronaut who once witnessed disturbing hallucinations on the surface of Solaris. The retired spaceman later sends cryptic warnings via videolink from his car as it speeds through an ultra-modern city, which is nameless but clearly shot in Tokyo. Like Blade Runner (1982) a decade later, Solaris takes contemporary Japan as a template for the high-tech urban future. Switching between colour and monochrome, this long and largely wordless sequence is set to Eduard Artemyev’s ominous electronic score. This again is classic Tarkovksy: hypnotic vistas unfolding at real-time speed in lengthy, unbroken shots.
Arriving on board the shabby and battered space station, Kelvin finds the surviving human crew to be obstructive and erratic. But his own coolly rational self-belief is soon shaken when Solaris sends him an uncanny double of his late wife, Hari. Kelvin manages to eject the phantom from the space station, but Solaris keeps conjuring up further copies, exacerbating his long-buried shame over her suicide. Given a second chance, he tries to save Hari, but the tragedy repeats itself over and over.
At this point, the story spills over from scientific puzzle into psychological horror movie.
Author and critic Phillip Lopate stressed the thematic parallels between Solaris and Hitchcock’s Vertigo in his liner notes to the film’s deluxe DVD release: “the inability of the male to protect the female, the multiple disguises or resurrections of the loved one, the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.”
Adding a frisson of autobiography, Tarkovsky initially planned to cast his ex-wife Irma Rausch as Hari. He then changed his mind, signing Swedish star Bibi Andersson, former collaborator of his directing idol Ingmar Bergman. But finally he settled on Natalya Bondarchuk, the beautiful Russian actor who had introduced him to Lem’s novel. Hari’s death scenes gained extra resonance in 2010 when Bondarchuk revealed she had an affair with Tarkovsky during the shoot, and attempted to kill herself after they split in 1972.
One of the sly ironies of the film is that the human visitors come to study Solaris, but the planet ends up studying them. Dense with scientific speculation, Lem’s novel is essentially about the impossibility of communicating with any alien life forms that mankind might find in deep space. But the film is a much more personal story about guilt, shame and the search for some divine pattern at work in the cosmos. As usual with Tarkovksy, the story takes on an explicitly religious dimension.
Lem disliked Tarkovsky’s interpretation, accusing him of making Crime and Punishment in space. But there is crossover between book and film. A scathing speech by one of the station’s crew appears in both: “We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the cosmos. We are only seeking Man. We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors.”
While the novel ends on an ambiguous note, the film has one of the most haunting final twists in sci-fi cinema. Crushed by guilt and grief over Hari, Kelvin returns to his parents in the idyllic country house home seen in the opening scenes – but this comforting illusion is just a giant replica created by the planet-sized brain of Solaris. It looks like home, but Kelvin can never go home again.
“The characters in Solaris were dogged by disappointments, and the way out we offered them was illusory enough,” Tarkovsky later wrote in his cinematic memoir, Sculpting in Time. “It lay in dreams, in the opportunity to recognise their own roots – those roots which forever link man to the Earth which bore him. But even those links had become unreal for them.”
The first cut of Solaris ruffled the Soviet censors, who ordered Tarkovsky to remove all references to God and Christianity. The director stood his ground, only conceding to minor edits. He was rewarded, winning the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes and earning a cult following in the West.
At home in Russia, the film stayed on limited release for 15 years, selling more than 10 million tickets.
Moscow propaganda hailed Solaris as a superior Soviet riposte to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Tarkovksy was certainly scornful of Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic sci-fi epic, calling it “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth” and a cosmetic vision devoid of human emotion.
“For some reason, in all the science-fiction films I’ve seen, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the details of the material structure of the future,” Tarkovsky told Russian film journalist Naum Abramov in 1970. “More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phoney on many points, even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated.”
Such fighting talk was in part standard Cold War rhetoric, of course, and partly an expression of the egomania that drives most great film directors. On reflection, Lopate claims, the rival cosmic visions of Kubrick and Tarkovsky actually have much in common.
But nothing dates faster than yesterday’s vision of the future, and Tarkovsky’s space opera has certainly not aged as gracefully as Kubrick’s. The garish interior of the Solaris space station, designed by Mikhail Romadin, now looks alarmingly like an Austin Powers bachelor pad. The churning ocean beneath – made with acetone, aluminium powder and dyes – also radiates a threadbare Hammer Horror cheapness.
Interestingly, Tarkovsky’s earlier films still feel more timeless and contemporary than Solaris, perhaps because the director treated the futuristic setting as a superfluous detail. “Unfortunately the science-fiction element in Solaris was nonetheless too prominent and became a distraction,” Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time. “The rockets and space stations – required by Lem’s novel – were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.”
Later in the decade, Tarkovsky returned to his dream of a philosophical sci-fi epic that transcended genre entirely. His final domestic feature before exile to western Europe was Stalker.
Stalker was freely adapted from the 1971 novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a dark satire which had been heavily censored by the Soviet authorities.
The book takes place in a fictionalised western country around one of six special Zones left behind after extraterrestrials briefly visited Earth en route to another galaxy. Inside the Zones, potentially deadly disruptions in the normal cosmic rules occur, confronting brave visitors with their true selves and granting their deepest wishes. There is a great disturbance in the Force.
Working with the Strugatskys, Tarkovsky penned his first screenplay for Stalker in 1976. Stripping away many of the sci-fi elements, he replaced the alien back story with a more opaque astronomical explanation for the paranormal Zones. The plot revolves around a single journey led by a professional Zone infiltrator – the stalker of the title – and his two soul-weary companions, Writer and Professor. Tarkovksy cast the angular, intense Alexander Kaidanovsky as Stalker, and Solaris veterans Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko as his fellow travellers.
Stalker would become the most tortuous and troubled production of Tarkovsky’s career, with some claiming it even led directly to his early death.
Initial locations were scouted in Tajikistan, but a powerful earthquake made that shoot impossible. Further searches in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea proved fruitless. Tarkovsky eventually found new locations in the Baltic state of Estonia: a dilapidated ship repair yard, a crumbling hydroelectric station, an abandoned oil processing plant and other post-industrial ruins around the capital, Tallinn.
Shooting exteriors in Estonia during the spring and summer of 1977, Tarkovsky and his cinematographer Georgy Rerberg used a new Kodak 5247 stock supplied by producer Sergio Gambarov. But on return to Moscow, they found the processed footage was an unwatchable shade of dark green. Months of work had been ruined by technical error or, as the director suspected, sabotage.
“Tarkovsky was certain the film was swapped,” the film’s sound designer, Vladimir Sharun, later told Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “This newer Kodak which Gambarov sent specifically for Stalker was stolen and in some way or another ended up in the hands of a certain very well-known Soviet film director who was Tarkovsky’s adversary. And they gave Andrei a regular Kodak except that nobody knew about this and that’s why they processed it differently. Tarkovsky considered it a result of scheming by his enemies. But I think it was just the usual Russian sloppiness.”
This disaster was the final straw for Rerberg, who walked off the film, never to return. With his state-funded budget in jeopardy, a devastated Tarkovsky was initially reluctant to continue. A minor heart attack in April 1978 reinforced his fears that the project was cursed.But he eventually came up with a solution, persuading the film board to finance a new, longer, two-part version of the script. Stalker evolved from dystopian road movie to sombre spiritual quest.
Filming resumed in Tallinn in June 1978, with Alexander Knyazhinsky behind the camera. But there was further on-set friction when a freak summer snowfall delayed the shoot. According to Sharun, cast and crew filled the long, empty days in their run-down suburban hotel with epic binge-drinking sessions. Some even got wasted on cheap cologne mixed with sugar. A furious Tarkovsky ended up sacking several crew members, branding them “drunks”, “cretins” and “childish degenerates”. He even fired his art director Shavkat Abdusalamov for the glorious crime of “behaving like a bastard”.
Finally completed in 1979, Stalker stands up today as one of Tarkovsky’s most beloved, enigmatic and endlessly absorbing films. It is still a strikingly beautiful viewing experience, containing some of the director’s most experimental innovations.
The soundtrack is more avant-garde ‘musique concrète’ than music, with clanking mechanical ambient noises woven into Eduard Artemyev’s minimalist electronic score. The blighted landscape outside the Zone is mostly filmed in gorgeous sepia-tinted monochrome, while inside bursts with lush greens and warm brown earthtones. Nobody makes dank, rusty, post-industrial ruins look quite as pornographically seductive.
Stalker is layered with echoes that spoke directly to Cold War audiences, and still resonate today. Kaidnovsky’s gaunt, shaven-headed Stalker instantly suggests the emaciated inmates of the Gulag prison camps. Indeed, the character is an ex-convict who embodies the bitter irony that real freedom lies behind the barbed wire of the Zone, not within his country’s rulebound borders: “for me, it’s prison everywhere,” he says.
Anybody living behind the Iron Curtain would have felt that biting subtext. But Tarkovsky always resisted the “wild conjectures” of viewers looking for metaphorical meaning in Stalker. “People often ask me what the Zone is, and what it symbolises,” the director wrote in Sculpting in Time.
After a thriller-like first half, the film moves into more ruminative philosophical gear in its final hour. Deep inside the Zone, Stalker and his bickering fellow travellers suddenly get cold feet as they approach the mystical Room where our deepest wishes allegedly come true. While Writer agonises about his mediocre and shameful occupation, Professor contemplates destroying the miraculous Room with a nuclear bomb to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. Stalker merely berates his companions for their cowardice and uncertainty: “you’re not even capable of thinking in abstractions.”
This feels like Tarkovsky speaking – the artist as messianic seeker of truth, berating the so-called experts for their spiritual shortcomings. “The Stalker seems to be weak, but essentially it is he who is invincible because of his faith and his will to serve others,” Tarkovsky explains in Sculpting in Time. “Ultimately artists work at their professions not for the sake of telling someone about something, but as an assertion of their will to serve people.”
These religious undertones surface again during the closing scene, in which Stalker returns to his long-suffering family. His wife (Alisa Freindlich) gives a resigned monologue direct to camera about how she has devoted herself to her single-minded husband, despite the pain and disappointment she knew it would bring. In the cryptic final shot, the couple’s sickly daughter (Natasha Abramova) moves three glasses across the table using psychic powers. After Stalker’s fruitless magical mystery tour inside the Zone, it seems the real miracle has been waiting at home all along.
This bewitching twist was sparked by Tarkovsky’s interest in Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina, a superstar psychic famed in Soviet Russia for her telekinetic powers. “Tarkovsky believed in miracles, no question”, Vladimir Sharun told Komsomolskaya Pravda. “He firmly believed in the existence of flying saucers and he even claimed he saw one near his home in Myasnoe, in the Ryazan province. Tarkovsky wouldn’t allow any doubts in the existence of extraterrestrials. Incidentally, it all harmoniously combined with his faith in God. He knew the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke practically by heart and could quote whole paragraphs.”
Inevitably, Stalker caused tensions with Moscow’s cinema Tsars. Goskino advised Tarkovsky to make the film faster and more dynamic. He replied that it should be “slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”
Winning the Ecumenical Jury Prize in Cannes, Stalker sold 4.3 million tickets in the Soviet Union and became an evergreen cult movie in the West, where critics hailed it as a stark political allegory and even a Russian cousin of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
Tarkovsky shot his final two features as an exile in the West. He left the Soviet Union behind, and never returned to science fiction. But he did express an unlikely admiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), claiming “its vision of the future and the relation between man and its destiny is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art.”
In December 1986, Tarkovsky died of lung cancer in Paris. He was just 54. The same illness had already killed his favourite leading man, Solaris and Stalker co-star Anatoli Solonitsyn, and would later also claim his wife and directing assistant Larisa Tarkovskaya.
Sound designer Vladimir Sharun believes all three were victims of the deadly Stalker shoot, downstream from a toxic chemical plant in Tallinn. After the collapse of the USSR, an unproven theory began to circulate that former KGB boss Viktor Chebrikov engineered Tarkovsky’s death as punishment for his increasingly anti-Soviet views.
However negative he felt about science fiction, Tarkovsky enriched and elevated the genre, inspiring others to follow suit. Steven Soderbergh directed a slick but dramatically inert remake of Solaris in 2002, with George Clooney as Kelvin. Other recent films, including Contact (1997), Sunshine (2007), Another Earth (2011) and Gravity (2013), all borrow from Tarkovsky’s cerebral, metaphysical classic. The film has inspired stage plays, musical compositions and visual artworks like Dmitry Morozov’s Solaris project – a bowl of green liquid gloop that responds to human brainwaves.
The ravishing ruins photography of Stalker left its own deep cultural legacy. Its powerful disaster-zone aesthetic helped spawn an entire subgenre of dystopian future-shock thrillers, from Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984) to David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) to John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).
Some commentators later hailed the film as a prophecy of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and the collapse of the Soviet Union generally. Launched in 2007, the Ukrainian post-apocalyptic computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. picks up the Chernobyl theme, overlaying it with key elements from Tarkovsky’s film.
The enduring cult of Stalker seems to renew itself for each generation. As recently as 2012, the film was remade as Zone (2012) by Finnish director Esa Luttinen, satirised by the late Russian auteur Aleksei Balabanov in his darkly surreal comedy Me Too (2012), and lovingly deconstructed by author Geoff Dyer in his playful cinematic memoir, Zona.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s immersive inner-space odysseys are transcendent, sometimes maddeningly slow, and spellbindingly beautiful. But like any Old Master leaning over his canvas, Tarkovsky understood that any mission to unlock the miracles of the heavens above begins with a search for intelligent life on Earth.
The BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season runs until 31 December 2014. Find out more at bfi.org.uk/sci-fi