Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian film, Solaris, is a richly woven tapestry of imagery, sound, character, symbolism, and philosophy. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem, and the screenplay is written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky. The film explores multiple deep and complex themes, but in this review I would like to focus in particular on the subject of memory. Through its cinematic focus on specific objects, pictures and photographs, and reanimated individuals and landscapes, Solaris highlights the strange transformation that occurs between an actual experience and a memory of that experience, with implications for the way humans construct morality.
The film follows it’s main character, psychologist Chris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis), as he travels out to a space station, which is positioned over an ocean on an alien planet named Solaris. Chris is meant to evaluate the three remaining scientists onboard who are reportedly experiencing strange hallucinations and other psychological troubles, and also to evaluate the mission for its lack of research productivity. Shortly after arriving, Chris himself is visited by his long dead wife and is forced to reconcile with her and with himself over the course of the rest of the movie.

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Tarkovsky utilizes long shots, constant camera motion through panning and tilting, and unique angles to create a dreamlike quality in the film and to allow the visual imagery to take precedence over other elements such as dialogue, plot, or soundtrack. The natural imagery that opens the story—grasses flowing beneath water and lush greenery—is juxtaposed to great effect with the sterile destruction of the space station. The low-volume soundtrack, with its electric version of a Bach chorale, mirrors the underlying tension between new discovery and nostalgia for the past that runs as a thread throughout the story and drives the plot slowly forward.

One of the most innovative and fascinating things the film does, however, is in its explorations of memory. The scientists on the station inform Chris that in response to their X-ray probes of it, the alien ocean sent its own probes which took shreds of memories from their heads and created “visitors” from these scraps of memory. One of the films most profound conflicts comes from this resurrection of Chris’s dead wife, Hira, out of his memories of her. From a photograph of her that Chris carries with him in his bag, it is clear that the memory she was created from comes directly from how she was at the moment the photo was taken. The implication is that the memory he has of her is based less on the true experience of who she was and more on the object-image he has used to represent her.

Later on, the replica Hira begins to understand that she is not the real Hira, and she and Chris engage in the recall of a memory about his mother. Significantly, the scene is shot from behind the characters as they speak in front of mirror. We watch not them but their reflections as they try to piece together an event that he lived through and she did not, a scene which she is only able to participate in through a home video that Chris shows her. Again, this underscores the displacement of real life experience into image or replica, and explores the idea that what humans understand about who they are, where they come from, and even how their consciences are constructed comes from this flattened, two-dimensional space of memory.

Towards the film’s climax, Chris exclaims in a feverish state that, “Shame is the feeling that will save humanity.” Shame is a mostly reflective emotion. It occurs after the event in question, looking back on it and realizing that an action that has already been taken was morally wrong. This is one of Tarkovsky’s most powerful messages: through image and object it is necessary to reflect on, heal, and honor the past to build a stronger morality on which to rest the future.

  • Tarkovsky, Andrei. Solaris. Film. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1972. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1972. Online video.