Spectres & Spectacles of Modernity: Ertegun Trinity 2021 Film Series

The film discussion group continued for its second term in Trinity, this time featuring in the following order: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960), Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), and Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003). Apart from the organiser, Janice Cheon, the participants were largely neophytes to film scholarship, and so the series both allowed participants to develop their close watching skills and benefited from naivete and fresh eyes of the participants, whose responses displayed an immediacy unaffected by knowledge of film theory. As in the Hilary series, the film series attracted scholars from diverse perspectives and backgrounds -- such as medieval art history, oriental studies, European literature, classics and Byzantine studies, and philosophy -- and provided a vibrantly interdisciplinary backdrop for our biweekly discussions. 

Ranging from commercial fan-favourites to philosophical epics to the frankly unclassifiable, the four films spanned a breadth of directorial styles, aesthetic palettes, and genre types. Our most cerebral, “otherworldly” film was Tarkovksy’s Solaris, which takes place on a research space station investigating the planet Solaris, the station’s once prodigious crew reduced to a mere three. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is summoned to the station to investigate what appears to be a growing madness among the scientists, one of whom has recently committed suicide. We read the film as a meditation on human nature, and as such it neither makes claims nor theorises. Like the diegetic station, Tarkovsky’s filmic meditation orbits around the existence of Solaris, a sentient oceanic planet. By doing so, Tarkovsky foregrounds the problem of communication; the planet, though apparently intelligent, is a mind which is inaccessible to the characters and to us as the audience, and thus mutual comprehension, despite the scientists’ repeated, often violent, attempts to communicate with it, is seemingly impossible. The mere presence of a radically different form of intelligence creates a reflection back on the nature of human consciousness, and the strangeness of communication with the planet in turn reflects back into the difficulty of mutual understanding between the film’s human characters. As one of the stations’ scientists, Snaut, suggests, the film’s voyage into space is a voyage into the human:

We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We're in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.

The attempt to escape into space (and here, space exploration is presented as a way of fleeing from earthly life) only throws the human back onto the human. Solaris provides the mirror for the scientists’ own minds: their deepest guilts and hopes are manifested and amplified on the station. We, Snaut suggests, are desperate for genuine encounters with other humans, and, yet, Snaut fears, such encounters are tragically unobtainable. These lines perfectly capture Tarkovsky’s own use of the science fiction genre, in which the creative imagining of the future, the cosmos, and the possibilities of science are not only presented as a given but also are used in service of exploring apparently timeless questions about human nature. Tarkovsky seems less interested in the details of the outer cosmos than those of the inner. 

In a similar, microcosmic way, communication between Kris Kelvin and his wife, Hari, is fraught and inaccessible throughout the film. The original, human Hari died by poisoning herself ten years before the events of the film, for which Kris feels deep guilt - he describes her suicide in the following way:

We argued. Towards the end, we argued a lot. I gathered my things and left. She made me understand without saying it directly, but when you live with someone for a long time, such things aren't necessary. I was sure they were just words, but then I remembered that I'd left the laboratory specimens in the refrigerator. I had brought them from the laboratory and explained how they worked. I got scared. I wanted to go to her. But then I thought it would look like I had taken her words seriously. After three days, I couldn't take it anymore and I went to see her. When I got there, she was already dead.


Despite Kris' belief that after year of marriage, mutual understanding can occur without the need for words, Hari’s suicide results from Kris’ failure to understand her. 

The three days in which Hari dies reverses the three days of the Easter resurrection, and yet, perhaps, Hari is resurrected in the film. After the scientists bombard Solaris with radiation, the planet seemingly responds by manifesting people from the scientists’ memory that appear as light beings, composed not of flesh and blood but neutrinos. Thus, Hari appears again to Kris on Solaris Station - but, naturally, it remains mysterious what sort of mind this light being has (we suspect that scientists’ attempt to force the oceanic planet to reveal its secrets using radiation technology, and its following seeming defence of itself, represent the technological penetration of nature under both capitalism and communism). At the beginning, the new Hari appears to be merely a manifestation of Kris’ memories, and as such cannot exist when separated from Kris, but as time passes she develops into something more human-like, who can exist apart from Kris, and is perhaps less and less Hari. Whether through Hari, the scientists can communicate with the planet, and whether through Hari, Kris can communicate with the past, is left unknown. Kris is apparently offered an opportunity to redeem his past, but as the mere Hari from his memory, she is never a full being, and as she becomes more and more real, she drifts further from the Hari that was. 

Snaut claims that Solaris “derives guests from us while we dream”, and so it is natural to think that the manifestations perform a Freudian dream function, allowing the scientists to play out the guilt of their unconsciousness. And yet, Kris’ guilt is not resolved by the encounter with his wife. After he kills the first manifestation of Hari, the second follows the way of the original, by voluntarily going to her death.

In the end, Kris is not enabled by his experience to return to Earth, to real life. Rather, Solaris apparently cares for this broken man; in the film’s final aerial shot, the camera zooms out through layers of thick clouds to reveal that Kris has remained on the planet, who has constructed on her surface, for the first time, his childhood dacha and has allowed him to live there, with a manifestation of his father. Indeed, one of the disagreements that surfaced in our discussion was the value of living in such a dream-world. We ended this discussion in happy ambivalence, leaving suspended the question of whether the tone of the film’s ending was pessimistic or redemptive.


Although we did return to more realistic, earthly terrain in our next film, Goodbye Lenin!, our discussion reflected a shared thematic continuity. Memory, or rather the reconstruction of a past in an attempt to protect a broken psyche, once again provides the foundation for the film’s unique dream-world. In a single room, Alex Kerner, the film’s teenage protagonist, attempts to keep communist East Germany (GDR) alive in a newly reunified Germany to protect his devoutly communist mother, Christiane, from the shock of learning that the Berlin Wall--and consequently her beloved country--has fallen. Christiane fell into a coma after seeing Alex brutally beaten at the October 7 demonstrations for the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and Alex believes another shock will lead to her death. He goes as far as to create fake news reports to continue the pretence, thus, comically -- and ironically, for a film that has been accused of presenting an overly sentimental and rose-tinted view of East German life -- uses film media to construct a fake reality. 


As in Solaris, a liveable lie is preferred to an unbearable reality, and, naturally, there is a suggestion that in the phenomena of Ostalgie, the nostalgia for aspects of GDR communist life, there exists a preference for a comfortable existence enabled by the pervasive lies of the communist state over the harsh realities of capitalism. Even though the film is steeped in historical realism, and is indeed often seen as a historical artefact of post-reunification Germany, we were pleasantly surprised at the turn of the discussion, namely towards a reflection on the familial relationship. In constructing the relationship between Alex and Christiane, Becker strongly suggests that they are driven less by a desire to protect a certain societal and political structure of the Vater Staat, than to protect a particular form of their family, particularly their own mother-son relationship. Indeed, in the end of the film, we discover that Christiane’s own devotion to communism was a defence mechanism, her psyche protecting itself from potentially devastating guilt over her decision not to follow her husband to West Berlin as they had agreed, and then lying to her children that their father had abandoned them in fleeing to the west. In the film’s penultimate scene, as Alex once more attempts to use a faked news broadcast about a fictional version of German reunification to keep up the pretence for his mother, we suspect that Christiane, whose eyes watch not the film, but her son, understands Alex very well. On this note, one of the points of contention in our discussion, not unlike in Solaris, was whether authentic, valuable relationships could be founded on the basis of deceit, or even, more strongly, if deceit is sometimes necessary. As in Solaris, a grand setting (here, the historical fall of the Soviet Bloc, there, a futuristic sci-fi voyage into space) is used to set up a distinctively human drama. 


Perhaps the strangest of the films, particularly due its interplay of terror and comedy, was The Housemaid, in which a middle-aged, rising-middle-class piano teacher, Dong-sik Kim, becomes the object of two of his students’ romantic attention with devastating consequences. He resists the advances of these two students in such a strictly moralistic way that his actions lead to the suicide of one of them, only to succumb to the forceful advances of his deeply strange new housemaid, Myung-sook. The housemaid seems barely human in the way that she combines childish naivete with positively demonic traits, such that it is hard to know whether she is the victim of Kim and his wife’s desire to protect their social status, or a vengeful spirit punishing them for their failings (her piano “playing”, which consists in her unrestrainedly banging on the keys, is at once the playing of an incompetent child and deeply sinister). Either way (and presumably both), her presence in the house destroys the stability of the westernised two story house the aspirational couple had recently built for themselves. After Mrs Kim pressures Myung-sook into miscarrying the child she had with Mr Kim by throwing herself down the stairs, in an attempt to save their social reputation rather than protect Myung-sook and her child, Myung-sook responds by causing the Kim's young son to die by falling down the very same stairs (whose violent death sits discordantly with his jester-like role in the preceding events of the film). Yet, still not satisfied, and still demonically possessive of Mr Kim, Myung-sook, in a delightful subversion of Romeo and Juliet, forces Mr Kim to commit suicide with her by ingesting rat poison (a motif of the film), but Mr Kim, having given Myung-sook his body, refuses to give her his soul: he does not die next to her as she wishes, but painfully crawls to his sleeping wife, to die by her side.


This shocking, difficult ending is then subject to a remarkable bathos. The film begins with Mr Kim reading to his wife a story from the newspaper about a man having an affair with his maid, and the ending returns to this same scene of him reading the story from the newspaper, before he turns to the camera, and with a deep, hearty guffaw (of a kind not heard before within the film) tells the audience:


Listen to me. As men get older, they spend more time thinking about young women. That's how they become attracted to women, who could lead to their destruction. This is true for all men, even those of you who are shaking your heads!


This direct, comical address, in which he jests about the randy tendencies of the male audience, sits absurdly with the darkly oppressive final scenes. Indeed, this breaking of the fourth wall and circularity of the film casts doubt on the narrative: were the events of the film simply a dramatization of the kind of story Mr Kim was reading from the newspaper? Moreover, this apparent life lesson at the end gives the suggestion of a didactic nature to the film, in which it serves as a parable to caution the wandering attentions of older men - and yet precisely the unlikeliness of the events of the film undermine this possibility (indeed, Mr Kim is largely coerced into having an affair, and when he speaks to an older colleague, whom he takes to be a figure of moral authority, about adultery, the colleague laughs off Kim’s anxieties and compares infidelity to traffic violations). Indeed, whether the film’s ending should be interpreted as offering a moral lesson was a point of disagreement in our discussion, yet it seems such a possibility is undermined by Mrs Kim’s own take on the moral of their story, when she laments over her husband’s body that it was her own desire for a new house which led to the tragic events (again, a rather comically ridiculous moment in an otherwise moving scene). The ending thus appears not so much as a lesson, but rather as a further disorientation and gentle mocking of the viewer, which perfectly captures the interplay between lightness and darkness of this film. Indeed, in the perplexing, disturbing and powerful emotional responses that the film provoked, Ki-young seems to be following Kafka’s maxim that fiction should be “be the axe for the frozen sea within us”. 


Janice Cheon and Henry Straughan