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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972) & ‘Stalker’ (1979)

Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky || Produced by: Vyacheslav Tarasov [1], Aleksandra Demidova [2]

Screenplay by: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky [1], Arkady &  Boris Strugatsky [2], || Starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Juri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky [1], Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn [1, 2], Alisa Freindlich, Alexander Kaidanovsky [2]

Music by: Eduard Artemyev || Cinematography: Vadim Yusov [1], Alexander Knyazhinsky [2], || Edited by: Lyudmila Feiginova || Country: Soviet Union || Language: Russian

Running Time: 161-166 minutes || 1 = Solaris, 2 = Stalker

A professional acquaintance of mine — a Jewish Ukrainian-Russian expatriate living in the United States, criticized state censorship of Russian cultural expression in a recent social media post; arguing that much of what the international community considers classical Russian arts (e.g. Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky) was purged throughout the Soviet era (1924-1985, with a brief respite during the Khrushchev Thaw), his articulate yet bitter rant ended with a condemnation of modern Russian popular culture, including its movies, music, and literature. I asked him how he thought of the works of renowned Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, including arguably his most recognizable features of Solaris and Stalker, to which he responded, “I find some of it too boring, and in some cases I think the books are better than the movies — that includes your examples.”

Many sentiments within this person’s diatribe I find relatable on some level: Most Russian genre films (see Fyodor Bondarchuk) I find more interesting as benchmarks for state propaganda than for their artistic vision; the overbearing censorship of Russian filmmaking mirrors what I’ve seen in mainland Chinese productions (the best Chinese films are, to this date, often helmed by filmmakers trained in Hong Kong, for example), and yes, Tarkovsky’s directorial style, a well defined vision though it is, would be described by most audiences as interminably dull. That being said, dismissal of a filmmaker’s entire body of work on account of mainstream viewers’ alleged boredom, let alone on unfavorable comparisons to a film adaptation’s literary source material (Stanisław Lem’s Solaris [1961] and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic [1972]), is the sort of kneejerk, subjective “analysis” to which I can’t relate.

Left: Lead Alexander Kaidanovsky awakens in Stalker’s opening scene of its sepia-toned Act I. Right: In Act II, the film switches to traditional color as Kaidanovsky leads supporting actors Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko into “the Zone.”

Tarkovsky always came across to me as a sort of Soviet version of Stanley Kubrick or Yorgos Lanthimos, a dedicated auteur with a distinct, uncompromising vision that either enraptures or turns off most audiences. Having seen several Kubrick and Lanthimos films but no Tarkovsky features until about a week ago, I went into my sampling of Solaris and Stalker prepared for a complicated experience and was not disappointed. Solaris, an emotive, meandering type of Soviet reaction to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Tarkovsky described Kubrick’s seminal art film as “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.”), describes a psychologist’s (Donatas Banionis) journey to an interstellar space-station orbiting a mysterious alien planet, the titular Solaris, where strange, unexplained apparitional phenomena have occurred. Stalker is just as emotive and even broader in thematic scope, following the latest expedition of Alexander Kaidanovsky into an ominous, quarantined “Zone” where reality is warped. Both films are defined by Tarkovsky’s dedicated long takes, which average at least a minute in length, whether the camera’s static, pans, tracks, or zooms; this nontraditional method of cinematography not only dominates these films’ rhythm but also determines actors’ blocking — characters often walk in and out of frame in static shots, while more fluid takes see the camera pan back and forth smoothly between multiple figures — and the cadence of their dialogue. The most immediate effect of this directorial vision is the slow pace of both films, the aforementioned boredom that my colleague mentioned earlier, which either accentuates or undercuts the emotional impact of each film’s character arcs depending on whom you ask.

For my part, Solaris handles this atypical visual storytelling better than Stalker, as its screenplay is structured into three distinct acts, each with notable visuals and clear ending points. Banionis (also, the audience) is introduced to the problem faced by the Solaris station and makes his decision to embark (Act I); he arrives at the station above the eponymous planet and experiences the bizarre hallucinations and apparitions faced by his predecessors (Act III); and then discovers the source of these phenomena and how best to “deal” with them in a powerful conclusion. It’s like a script, like an actual movie!

Where Stalker struggles with Tarkovsky’s endless, drawn out long takes, in comparison, is in its far looser narrative format that sidesteps its character arcs until near the end of Act Three and muddles its dialogue, which feels tedious compared to even the most longwinded ramblings within Solaris. I appreciate the shifts from sepia tone to full color (similar but less frequent color grading is present in Solaris) to convey the significance of entering the mysterious Zone, but it does little to modulate the story’s pace or improve its cast’s chemistry. The Zone itself features brilliant location-photography and set-design given its backdrop of abandoned industrial yards reclaimed by Estonian woodlands, but even their welcome is worn by the 8th or so character monologue.

One area where Stalker bests Solaris is in its music; both soundtracks primarily use a combination of synthesizers and novel recordings of classical pieces by Bach or Beethoven, but I found Stalker’s audio component complemented its visuals better and even feels haunting in multiple instances. Solaris‘ music, by contrast, is forgettable outside its weird Bach covers and occasional electronic flourishes.

Donatas Banionis explores a space station in apparent disarray in the second act of Solaris.

Both movies fail to take full advantage of their premise (the sheer dearth of composite shots, establishing shots in outer space, etc. in Solaris, the lack of concrete, visualized threats to our principle characters in Stalker) if you ask me, but neither that nor the weaknesses described above justify dismissing their entirety as boring or not adhering closely enough to their source material. Their stories are a function of their deliberate pace, sure, but I say that about many effective, influential works of cinema that excel nonetheless. Solaris and Stalker are true auteur pieces defined by their singular directorial vision, a vision built atop diverse long takes and deceptive edits that emphasize the passage of time — diegetic and not — above all else, a storytelling rhythm as nontraditional as that of Yasujirō Ozu. Unlike many critical darlings of yesteryear, these two movies’ dependence on dialogue to inform characterizations feels contemporary in a sense, but their character-driven narratives remain ever subservient to their director’s powerful eye.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Andrei Tarkovsky’s most well known features flaunt the patient, sometimes excruciating pace the auteur became known for in the decades since his death. Solaris works because and in spite of this pace thanks to its meditative exploration of human pain and memory. Though Stalker is more inconsistent, its great set-design, music, and shifts in color tone accentuate its production values.

However… Tarkovsky’s long average take length grows burdensome the longer each film runs, and with each lasting over 160 minutes, the precision of each long-take camera movement becomes less impressive. Stalker in particular feels like it treads water for much of its second act.

—> Solaris comes RECOMMENDED as a Soviet companion-piece to Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Stalker.

? The audience could’ve surmised every single thing Alisa Freindlich’s monologue to camera described.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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