Tarkovsky is an iconic director, tough and unforgettable. I saw ‘Stalker’ for the first time over 35 years ago. Seeing it again now, the images swim up to greet me like the ocean giants of childhood experience. This is the power of Tarkovsky. His dialogue is sparse, his use of sound ascetic, his narratives have the mysterious internal logic of dreams and his imagery is mesmerisingly slow, lyrical and freighted with a uniquely poetic visual vocabulary. Scenes of desolation are constant thread: landscapes awash with mud, rainstorms of Biblical proportions, fields strewn with battle wreckage. The interiors are ancient, dilapidated, often dripping with moisture and dark, darkness is everywhere and he uses both monochrome and colour to express different moods. The narratives often seem arbitrary, but there is a quality of the strangeness of experience which you recognise and keeps you hooked.
In his first film, ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, he moves seamlessly between naturalism and the symbolic, from the immediacy of lived experience through dreams and memory. At any moment the viewer is both within the drama and an observer. This is surely how we experience consciousness: we move through the various states of memory, fantasy and ‘reality’ simultaneously, with unconscious ease, so the film has great verisimilitude. Though the content ( the boy’s life during the war between Russia and Germany) may be outside our experience, a profound empathy is made possible.
The film ‘Solaris’ is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem. You can find in Tarkovsky meditations on nature versus urbanisation, the nature of love, the pursuit of knowledge without morality, and on the possibility of our knowing anything beyond the limits of our own framework of perception. The strange oceanic plasma which surrounds the station seems to represent the unknown and poses the age old question of whether the workings of our minds are subject to outside interventions,( aliens, gods, muses,) or are products of our own psyche. However, the overarching theme is the exposition of grief: a man whose wife committed suicide after an argument, travels to a space station where he and his two colleagues are ‘visited’ by phantoms from their past and we watch his trajectory towards sanity.
The space station is a state of mind. Yes, there are wires and dials but it’s not a realistic hi tech functioning interior. In fact the corridors are strewn with unidentifiable debris and surreal leaning towers. There is a wood panelled library within but not integrated with the spaceship. It contains drifts of dishevelled books and shards of cultural referents: a classical Venus, a candelabra. This is a mental landscape and one which expresses metaphysical dislocation.The pilot joins his companions in space to find them driven to dysfunction by their phantoms whom we do not see. The focus is on the pilot. His companions represent alternative responses to loss. The scientist, denies all ambiguity or emotional life, the ‘doctor’ is emotionally awash, grasps futilely at quotations from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and lapses into drunkenness. The phantom wife functions as figures do in dreams: the key phrase is ‘‘they are manifestations of our consciousness’ and with great subtlety and insight, the wife is made to carry the contradictions and the uncertainties that his conscious mind denies. ‘ Who am I?’ She says, ‘am I the same as the Hari on earth?’ He does finally resign himself to reality, though he never gives up longing for the impossible, (a superbly insightful touch), and he, quite literally returns to Earth. Tarkovsky’s genius lies in creating for us an experience of the psyche with all the mystery of reality.
Hastings Independent Press No.60