J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Stanislaw Lem on Film: Solyaris (1968)

In space, only one thing can hear your guilt trips. That would be the sentient ocean on planet Solaris. The very same Solaris. Four years before Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Russian television produced a surprisingly distinctive two-part adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s source novel. It was a leaner, darker Solaris, with a “y” added for greater Cyrillic-ness. Although subsequently overshadowed, there is still considerable merit to Boris Nirenburg & Lidiya Ishimbayeva’s Solyaris, which screens during the Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.

Dr. Kris Kelvin has been dispatched to check up on the space station orbiting planet Solaris. Much to his surprise, he finds the station in shambles and his best friend Gibaryan has committed suicide. Dr. Snaut’s reception is disconcertingly cagey, while Dr. Sartorius is downright standoffish. Kelvin soon discovers why. The collective mind of Solaris’s great ocean has plumbed the darkest corners of their subconsciousness to generate so-called visitors. In Kelvin’s case, it will Hari, the wife he inadvertently drove to suicide.

Snaut and Sartorius would much prefer to be rid of their visitors, but not Kelvin. At first her visitation is painful, but soon he embraces her presence as a second chance. In fact, he might just be falling in love with her, perhaps for the first time. Of course, this puts him diametrically at odds with Snaut and Sartorius.

It is really not fair to compare the 1968 Solyaris with Tarkovsky’s lofty classic. They might have the same basic story, but they exist on different planes. That does not mean we can safely dismiss Nirenberg & Ishibayaeva’s version—quite the contrary. While quite faithful to Lem’s narrative, their black-and-white interpretation is distinctively moody. Their evocative use of light and shadow suggests film noir, while the severely industrial sets hint at German expressionism.

While the Russian TV version lacks Tarkovsky’s sweep, there is a stark intimacy, like far-future science fiction by way of Cassavetes. Yet, despite the boxy aspect ratio, Solyaris is still quite a cinematic work. It is also easier to follow the strategies devised by Snaut and Sartorius to quiet the Solaris ocean during the second half.

Vasiliy Lanovoy is more tightly restrained than the guilt-wracked Donatas Banionis in Tarkovsky’s film, but he aptly suits Nirenburg & Ishimbayeva’s quieter, nearly suffocating film. Vladimir Etush’s Snaut is more of a compassionate, slightly schlubby everyman, but like his Tarkovsky counterpart, he too makes a strong impression. Frankly, the 1968 telefilm’s weak link is Viktor Zozulin’s Sartorius, who looks and acts somewhat cartoonish.


Adapting Lem is never an easy assignment, so you have to give Nirenburg & Ishimbayeva credit for getting the general spirit of his work and executing it with so much style. Arguably, the fact that such a credible Solaris predates Tarkovsky’s film probably made it easier for fans to give Stephen Soderbergh a chance with his 2002 non-remake adaptation. Both Russian takes are very highly recommended when Tarkovsky’s Solaris screens this Saturday (11/4) and Thursday (11/9) and 1968’s Solyaris screens this coming Sunday (11/5) as part of Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.

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