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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Tarkovsky's Solaris: Soviet engineering and the glories of Soviet science fiction

I was reading a review of two new books about car production in the USSR, and the discomfort created for the Soviet authorities, at least initially, by the private ownership of cars, a bourgeois, individualistic practice that symbolised a dangerous freedom. And then I remembered that curious sequence in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972): in the opening section the cosmonaut Berton visits his fellow cosmonaut, Kelvin, to discuss the latter’s forthcoming trip to the spaceship in orbit around Solaris in order to investigate the problems being encountered there. They have a row and Berton returns by car to the city in a sulk.

This trip has virtually no narrative importance and takes several minutes of film, but it does give us an opportunity to see Soviet urban motorways and cars – or so I long thought, assuming that the sequence was inserted in order to glorify Soviet road engineering, and against Tarkovsky’s preferences. I have discovered I was wrong on both counts. The sequence was filmed in Tokyo, and at the insistence of Tarkovsky, as a science-fiction element in the film, a suggestion of the ‘city of the future’. Berton, incidentally, is not seen actually driving the car but merely sitting in it as a passenger carried effortlessly to his destination.

In general, I think Tarkovsky’s slow pace is an essential part of the seriousness of his films. For once, more is more. But this sequence adds very little to the film and feels like an awkward insertion. It does do one thing, however, because it allows him to use superimposition of images for the night shot, which does impress me because it is so unusual in a modern narrative film.

I have always liked Solaris for the way the spaceship, when Kelvin gets there, presents a scene of disorder, at least of real-life untidiness and clutter, especially when compared to the American spaceship in 2001, which is immaculately clean and clinical – unlike real life. It is prescient too of the condition of the Mir space station, the pride of Russia in the late 1990s when it became the International Space Station, messy, disintegrating and smelly. The secret supplies of vodka on Mir were labelled ‘psychological support materials’, a very ‘Solaristic’ touch – a pity Tarkovsky didn’t think of it.


  • Lewis H Siegelbaum Cars for Comrades (Cornell UP 2009)
  • Andy Thompson Cars of the Soviet Union (Haynes 2009)
    reviewed by Tom Vanderbilt in the Times Literary Supplement 30.1.2009
  • Bryan Burrough Dragonfly: NASA and the crisis aboard Mir (Fourth Estate 1999)

Not Moscow . . . but Tokyo

Nighttime superimposition