When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all.
Ingmar Bergman preferred to call Andrej Arsen’evič Tarkovskij this way: the greatest of them all. We are not talking about a simple director; Tarkovsky is first of all a philosopher, one of the greatest thinkers of the last century: the one who better succeeded – among the filmmakers of the 1900s – in combining the audiovisual art with the deep, emotional and spiritual fragility of the human being. Although there are movies that he left to posterity – only seven (his activity is limited in twenty years, from 1966 to 1986) – the experiences in each of these movies are unique, surreal and abstract; The man, stripped of everything, shows himself in front of the camera and is reflected in us: faint, dead, abandoned. What is the hero’s attitude caused by? Maybe by his desires and his sacrifices?
To answer this question, we want to quote a contemporary philosopher and psychoanalyst, Slavoj Žižek, who often “treated” the cinema, and the philosophical digressions associated with it, according to his personal style: he uses the amalgam of the old and the new, skillfully moving from Lacanian psychoanalysis to the main themes of the 21st century. By using his great knowledge about Lacan, he also published a short and deep essay about one of the Tarvosky cinema’s themes with the title “The Thing from the deep space”.
We add some more questions, so that we can interpret it better: what is the thing? Why is it so important for the cinema of Tarkovsky?
In Seminar VII – The ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan claims: “Art itself is always based on the central emptiness of the impossible and the real thing.” But it’s not the emptiness that Žižek wants to focus on; on the contrary he wants to underline “How the reason for the thing appears in the diegetic space of cinematic narrative.” To sum it up, he wants to talk about those films in which the narrative deals with “a traumatic thing”.
Once I’ve made this brief premise, I would like to better focus on the elements that need to be analyzed so that we can give an answer to the previous questions. There are basically two milestones of the soviet director to analyze and they are also his two most iconic feature movies: Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).
We quote Žikek again: “The thing as a space, as a sacred and forbidden area, in which the gap between the symbolic and the real is finally filled, is also an area where our desires immediately materialize.”
By analyzing Solaris and Stalker, we can see how the two movies are one the antithesis of the other – despite the various elements in common – they can perfectly describe what is the thing in Tarkovsky.
Both inspired by two novels: Solaris by the homonym novel of Stanislaw Lem on 1961 and Stalker inspired by Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugakij on 1971. Tarkovsky remodeled them with his poetic and his style, making them become a part of his design through the psyche of the human being.
Solaris tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a scientist who will be sent on Solaris, a planet covered in a mysterious gelatinous ocean, source of studies, which haven’t had any concrete results for decades. Whereas Stalker – set in an apocalyptic future – tells the crossing of the so-called “zone”, an inaccessible place apart from the stalker, of the men who know it perfectly and who guide (whoever pays them) through it until they get to the Room where you can see all your “intimate and hidden desires” come true.
The planet in Solaris and the Room in Stalker are two different ways of interpreting and conceiving the most hidden desire of every human being, who are expressed by the Soviet Director: in Solaris we face a thinking matter (the ocean gelatinous) that is always able to materialize – with human features, albeit with a different biological composition – the dead wife, before Kris departs from Solaris. On the contrary, in Stalker the room fulfills any desire that is inwardly thought by those who get inside the room; on one hand we find therefore the compulsion of desire, Solaris; on the other hand the fear of desiring, Stalker.
Žižek, in reference to Solaris, says: “This thing-other, implies a short-circuit psychotic and that is to say it short-circuits the dialectic of the question and of the answer, of the need and of its satisfaction. It offers, or better, it gave us, an answer even before that the question is asked through the direct materialization of the most intimate fantasies that support our desire.”
The exact opposite instead happens in Stalker, where it’s not the answer to cause the angst of men, but the question. What is indeed the most hidden desire we have? There is no answer to this (we are not pure beings; we are corrupted and diverted): desires change and disappear depending on the situations. There’s only one desire, but are we sure to know it?
Analyzing these two theories -opposite in the movies- and following the line drawn by Žižek, we can claim that the thing-other represents these two places which are unknown to the human being (Solaris and the room), whereas the problematic around which the understanding of the two films revolves is: for Solaris the excessive satisfaction, for Stalker the pure belief and faith. The latter, which will be retraced through the practice of the sacrifice that leads to the achievement of pure belief, in the last two films of the Director: Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986).
So what is the cause that pushes the Tarkovskijan hero towards the desire and/or towards the sacrifice? The answer is simple and furthermore, once at the end it’s even intuitive: the thing; which – according to Lacan – is “something alienated, unfamiliar to me even if it’s standing in the center of me” and – I would add – in the center of Tarkovsky, that hero who, in the end, represents us, and the man.