Andrei Tarkovsky and the Nuance of the Human Condition
November 7, 2011
In a 1977 article, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa wrote of the end of his first meeting with Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky who “excused himself saying, ’I still have work to do,’ and disappeared . . . [A]fter a while I heard such a big explosion as to make all the glass windows of the dining hall tremble hard. . . . That was the way I knew Tarkovsky was shooting Solaris.”1
This explosive meeting belies the subtle complexity of Tarkovsky’s cinematic work.
As film critics J. Hoberman and Gideon Bachmann wrote in 1983, “Here is a director as rampantly pictorial as Akira Kurosawa, as torturedly moody as Michelangelo Antonioni, as perversely self-willed as Robert Bresson, as steeped in his national mythology as John Ford.”2 In fact, when officials criticized one of Tarkovsky’s films saying that the audience would have trouble following it, the director was said to have responded, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”3
His name is spoken in the same breath with filmmakers like Bergman, Bresson, Mizoguchi, Eisenstein, and Antonioni. Like that remarkable Italian filmmaker, Tarkovsky perfected what has been described as the “long-take aesthetic.”4
Orson Welles commented on this aesthetic saying, “I don’t like to dwell on things. It’s one of the reasons I’m so bored with Antonioni—the belief that, because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, ‘Well, he’s not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.’ But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she’s gone.”5
What Welles does not appreciate, others do. Roger Ebert, for instance, put it plainly when he said that Tarkovsky “uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation.“6
As you will see, this starts at the very outset of the film with the lengthy focus on beautiful scenes from the planet earth. These scenes not only serve as an important visual touchstone, but they also reinforce thematic dichotomies that may be traced throughout the film.
Tarkovsky juxtaposes nature and technology, freedom and restraint, the individual and society, human and alien, sanity and insanity, morality and deviance. Such binaries are characteristic of the science fiction genre, but Tarkovsky’s work surpasses these binaries, exploring the complex nuances of the human condition.
This is a story about the frontiers of knowledge and the limits of human comprehension. It is a story about technology expanding the universe and the human desire for a simpler time. It is a story about the responsibilities that scientists bear to humanity and about our responsibilities to ourselves. Ultimately, what makes it so compelling is that this is a story about what it means to be human.
I remember a review of this movie when it came out in 1972 contrasting it in Marxist terms with Kubrick’s 2001 as the “thesis” and Solaris as the “antithesis, and that reflection on both led to a diabolical “synthesis” of perspectives on man in the universe. Pretentious maybe—but an interesting idea.
In relation to this political interpretation, it is certainly worth noting the struggle with Soviet authorities that Tarkovsky went through to try to realize his artistic vision. It is no coincidence that he only completed seven feature films in nearly three decades as a director, including Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and the Sacrifice, each a thematically unified artistic statement.
When this film debuted in 1972 at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the Grand Prix Special du Jury. Salman Rushdie later called it “a sci-fi masterpiece,” and it is ranked 68th on Empire Magazine’s list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema.”
I hope you find the film as compelling as audiences have in years past.
- Kurosawa, Akira. Tarkovsky and Solaris. Nostalghia.com: An Andrei Tarkovsky Information Site. http://people.ucalgary.ca/%7etstronds/nostalghia.com/TheTopics/Kurosawa_on_Solaris.html. Accessed 3 November 2011.
- Hoberman, J., and Gideon Bachman. “Between Two Worlds.” Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews by Andreĭ Arsenʹevich Tarkovskiĭ, Edited by John Gianvito. Jackson, Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 2006. Page 88. Originally published in American Film (Nov. 1983): 75-79. Accessed 3 November 2011.
- Qtd. in E. Tsymbal’s Tarkovsky, Sculpting the Stalker: Towards a New Language of Cinema. London: Black Dog, 2008.
- Lopate, Phillip. “Solaris: Inner Space.” The Criterion Collection. www.criterion.com. 25 November 2002. Accessed 3 November 2011.
- This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum. New York: De Capo, 1998. Pages 103-4.
- Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert Website. rogerebert.suntimes.com. Posted 19 January 2003. Accessed 3 November 2011.