Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Shot by Shot: A 22-Minute Breakdown of the Director’s Filmmaking

“What is Bres­son’s genre? He does­n’t have one. Bres­son is Bres­son,” wrote mas­ter film­mak­er Andrei Tarkovsky in his sem­i­nal book Sculpt­ing in Time. “The very con­cept of genre is as cold as the tomb.”

Nonethe­less, Tarkovsky made two of the most praised, best-regard­ed sci­ence fic­tion films in cin­e­ma. Stalk­er is a meta­phys­i­cal rid­dle wrapped in the trap­pings of a sci-fi thriller. In the ver­dant area called the Zone, ringed off by miles of barbed wire and armed sol­diers, pil­grims come to behold an uncan­ny land­scape ruled by a pow­er­ful, oth­er­world­ly intel­li­gence. The film seemed to pre­fig­ure the Cher­nobyl dis­as­ter that hap­pened years lat­er and proved to be the unlike­ly inspi­ra­tion for a video game.

Adapt­ed from a nov­el by Stanis­law Lem, Solaris is about a space sta­tion that orbits a sen­tient plan­et that caus­es hal­lu­ci­na­tions in the cos­mo­nauts. The hyper-ratio­nal pro­tag­o­nist, Kris Kelvin, is thrown for a loop when he is con­front­ed by a dop­pel­ganger of his dead wife who killed her­self years ear­li­er. The log­i­cal side of him knows that this is a hal­lu­ci­na­tion but he falls in love any­way, only to lose her again. Kelvin is caught in a hell of repeat­ing the mis­takes of his past.

Solaris was seen as a Cold War-era response to Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies are mind-alter­ing deep-space epics that raise more ques­tions than they answer. Yet Tarkovsky hat­ed 2001’s osten­ta­tious use of cut­ting-edge spe­cial effects. “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,” he 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 pho­ny on many points, even for spe­cial­ists. For a true work of art, the fake must be elim­i­nat­ed.”

Indeed, Tarkovsky seemed to delib­er­ate­ly half-ass the gener­ic ele­ments of film. He used leisure­ly shots of tun­nels and high­ways of 1971 Tokyo to depict the city of the future. He devot­ed only a cou­ple min­utes of the film’s near­ly three hour run­ning time to things like space­ships. And you have to love the fact that the space sta­tion in Solaris has such dis­tinct­ly unfu­tur­is­tic design ele­ments as a chan­de­lier and a wood-pan­eled library.

Tarkovsky, of course, isn’t inter­est­ed in sci­ence. He’s inter­est­ed in art and its way to evoke the divine. And his pri­ma­ry way of doing this is with long takes; epic shots that res­onate pro­found­ly even if the mean­ing of those images remains elu­sive. Solaris opens with a shot of water flow­ing in a brook and then, lat­er in the scene, there is a sud­den down­pour. The cam­era press­es into a shot of a teacup fill­ing with rain. It’s a beau­ti­ful, mem­o­rable, evoca­tive shot. Maybe the image means some­thing. Maybe its beau­ty is, in and of itself, its mean­ing. Either way, Tarkovsky forces you to sur­ren­der to his delib­er­ate cin­e­mat­ic rhythm and his pan­the­is­tic view of the world.

In a piece called Tarkovsky Shot by Shot, video essay­ist Anto­nios Papan­to­niou dis­sects a few scenes from Solaris, break­ing down each accord­ing to cam­era angle, shot type and dura­tion while point­ing out recur­ring visu­al motifs. “Dia­met­ri­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from Hollywood’s extrav­a­gant moviemak­ing Tarkovsky’s Solaris is in a cin­e­mat­ic uni­verse of its own,” writes Papan­to­niou in one of the video’s copi­ous inter­ti­tles. “Sym­bol­ic images and meta­phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions are cre­at­ed and expressed in a poet­ic way where every visu­al detail mat­ters.” Watch­ing Shot by Shot, you get a real sense of just how beau­ti­ful­ly his films unfold with those gor­geous­ly chore­o­graphed long takes. You can watch the full video above.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in June, 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mas­ter­ful Polaroid Pic­tures Tak­en by Film­mak­er Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Film­mak­ers: Sac­ri­fice Your­self for Cin­e­ma

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mes­sage to Young Peo­ple: “Learn to Be Alone,” Enjoy Soli­tude

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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  • Barry Beckett says:

    I often won­der if those who write about spe­cif­ic films have actu­al­ly seen them or researched before­hand on the Facts” or opin­ions they express.

    What Kelvin and oth­er mem­bers of the space sta­tion crew expe­ri­ence are not “hal­lu­ci­na­tions” but phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions aris­ing from the the thoughts of the cos­mo­nauts while they are in the ener­gy field of Solaris. Kelv­in’s doppelganger“wife” even comes to real­ize that she is not his wife, but has a sim­i­lar behav­ior pat­tern; she attempts sui­cide by drink­ing liq­uid oxy­gen. I asked Tarkovsky about this at a BFI Nation­al Film The­atre talk in Lon­don in 1984. Yes, “they are not hal­lu­ci­na­tions”

    And as for the space sta­tion’s “unfu­tur­is­tic design” of a “chan­de­lier and a wood-pan­eled library.”, these too are phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions cre­at­ed from the earth­bound minds of Dr.Snaut and Dr. Sar­to­ri­ous who strug­gles with a midget attempt­ing to escape from his room. It may seem a moot point, yet it is an impor­tant point in order to make sense of the movie; to know the dif­fer­ence between an Hal­lu­ci­na­tion and a Man­i­fes­ta­tion.

    I have a record­ing I made unof­fi­cial­ly of most of the talk, which does not seem to have been record­ed offi­cial­ly. A Russ­ian friend informed me that the simul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion giv­en at the time is very poor.

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