Friday, April 1, 2016


This is the third entry in a four part series on director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films — Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the Night, Diabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe — which I recently had the pleasure to see at the Lincoln Center in New York. The series will conclude with an interview with the retrospective’s co-curator, writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird.

Arguably Żuławski’s most challenging film, this sci-fi epic was unfinished, thanks to the interference of the Polish government, and Żuławski was forced to abandon it in the late ‘70s. Though he was able to partially complete the film in 1988, it is still missing significant portions of the narrative. I first encountered On the Silver Globe as a bootleg copy missing obvious chunks of its running time and lacking English subtitles. The recent restoration, therefore, should be considered one of the major film events of 2016 and if you did not get a chance to attend the Lincoln Center screening, hopefully it will find its way to a home video release soon.

An adaptation of the first two books of his great uncle Jerzy Żuławski’s sci-fi trilogy, Trylogia Księżycowa aka The Lunar Trilogy, the film can be loosely split into three acts. In the first, a group of scientists travel from Earth to the moon, where their ship crashes, leaving them stranded. One of the scientists (Jerzy Trela) records their difficulties with their semi-inhabitable new home on a video diary. They learn that near the water, the atmosphere is breathable, so they settle near the sea. They begin to have children, who mature much faster than the normal human rate. Their children’s culture becomes primitive and, led by a strange priestess, they regard the only surviving scientist as a holy man, building myths around him. Before his death, he sends his video diary back to Earth.

In the second act, the descendants' primitive society has become sharply divided by class and they are subjugated by the planet’s native species called the Szerns, monstrous telepathic creatures with wings. A new scientist, Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), arrives and learns that they are waiting for a messiah, whose coming has been foretold in a prophecy. In the final act, Marek assumes the role of this religious figure and leads the people against the Szerns, but the priests doubt that he really is the messiah and crucify him.

On a Silver Globe’s disjointed and frequently nonsensical narrative can only really be compared to the mystical epics of Alejandro Jodorowsky from the same period, such as Fando and Lis (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). The plot is not always easy to follow, thanks to very little exposition and numerous characters, many of whom aren’t given names. Because he couldn’t film all the missing scenes, Żuławski’s way of dealing with this lost material was to insert mundane sequences of life in a modern city with his own voice narrating what was to occur in the intended scene. Though confusing at first, this comes to feel like a response to the early video diaries and comes to provide an interesting juxtaposition with the cave-dwelling society depicted in the second and third acts.

Żuławski’s reputation for hysteria and emotional excess takes on a new meaning here with rituals that devolve into orgies, bizarre ceremonies that could be described as pagan Gothic, and characters falling into trances and going mad. The film is also fairly gory, for example there are graphic scenes of victims impaled over the beach on wooden spikes that stretch impossibly high into the air. The film’s singular visual world includes an eerie blue color palette, costumes and set design that seem to actually come from another planet, and threatening lunar landscapes shot everywhere from the Baltic Coast and the Gobi Desert to the shores of the Black Sea. While contemporary science fiction films are often little more than a blend of mythic tropes and soap opera trapping set in space or in futuristic societies, On the Silver Globe is a true cinematic work of science fiction, if a deeply nihilistic, dystopian one. 

It helps that the source material is one of the finest science fiction literary works of the early 20th century, on par with Frank Herbert’s later Dune series. Popular Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem has cited Jerzy Żuławski as an important influence and it’s something of a mystery that he hasn’t been translated into English yet. (I was forced to read On the Silver Globe in German, for instance.) Far more than a writer of pulp novels, Żuławski was a well-rounded and influential literary figure, once a prolific poet, philosopher, translator, dramatist, essayist, and literary critic. 

He was associated with an intellectual movement known as Młoda Polska or Young Poland, sort of a descendent of Polish romanticism. In The Polish Review, Bogdan Czaykowski describes the movement as concerned with “decadence, neo-romanticism, modernism, parnassism, symbolism.” While many of their aims were wrapped up in producing theories about art, aesthetics, and poetics, this was also a period where many young intellectuals struggled with concepts of identity and freedom on both personal and national levels. Since the country was partitioned in the 1790s, Poland had been a land subjugated by Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite a comfortable life as a writer and magazine editor, Żuławski himself joined the cause to fight for Polish independence in WWI, where he died of typhus at just 41 years of age.

At least in part, it’s easy to interpret this trilogy as a response to political tensions and anxiety about an unstable, rapidly changing world. Written between 1901 and 1911 — first published in installments in various Polish literary journals — the trilogy is pessimistic, poetic, and increasingly dark. Żuławski was deeply influenced by 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, on whom he wrote a dissertation. One of the forefathers of modern metaphysics, Spinoza was also a harsh critic of organized religion. In a controversial early work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he wrote, “The supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation” (3).

The Lunar Trilogy certainly shares this bitter criticism of religion and it stands as a polemic to man’s gullibility and obsession with utopia and salvation. The first book, Na srebrnym globie (1903) aka On the Silver Globe, follows a man’s bleak account of homesickness and unrequited love. The absolutely beautiful prose is full of lines like, “It is a terrible thing to love the stars! For the earth is only a star, which I love above all else.” The narrator and his fellow survivors did not mean to relocate to the moon, but merely to undertake an expedition there. When their ship crashes, they are permanently stranded and struggle to survive in a hostile environment.

While Andrzej Żuławski’s adaptation is quite faithful to the novel, it abandons the strong, sentimental themes of existential isolation and disappointed love. The novel’s female character, Marta, journeys to the moon solely because she is determined to follow her lover. She tells him, “I followed you and will follow you everywhere, even on the moon!” While she must wrestle with depression and grief when he dies, the narrator also suffers from his unrequited feelings for Marta. A two dimensional character who largely becomes a breeding vessel by the second half of the novel, her obsessive love is shown to be a corrosive influence on the new generation of moon dwellers.

The second volume, Zwycięzca (1910) aka The Conqueror, follows another lovelorn character — Marek, also the name of Żuławski’s son who was born during this period — who is going to the moon to run away from heartbreak on Earth. It presents a radical, nihilistic interpretation of the savior myth, which also makes up the second half of Andrzej Żuławski’s film adaptation. The final, apocalyptic volume, Stara ziemia (1911) aka The Old Earth, is missing completely from the film. It takes place further in the future, where new characters escape a complete societal breakdown — including elements that loosely anticipate atomic warfare — by returning to the now abandoned Earth. I can’t help but wonder if Żuławski would have attempted filming The Old Earth if On the Silver Globe’s production hadn’t been interrupted by the Polish authorities.

Parallels can be made between the environment in which Jerzy Żuławski wrote the trilogy and the political climate in which Andrzej Żuławski filmed his adaptation. After being forced to leave Poland because of The Devil, Żuławski was invited back after the success of his next film, L’important c’est d’aimer (1972), in France. But On the Silver Globe’s subversive anti-totalitarian themes were obviously too much for communist Poland and the film was cancelled after production was nearly complete. Władysław Gomułka’s communist Polish People’s Republic at first took a more open-minded attitude towards censorship — at least compared to their Russian neighbors — but the yoke had tightened by the late ‘60s and art of nearly any kind was targeted.

While On the Silver Globe can hardly be reduced to a simple political treatise, it is easy to see the film as an attack against the Marxist utopian vision. Another intellectual kicked out of communist Poland, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, explored this theme in his lecture, The Death of Utopia Reconsidered (1982). He wrote, “A utopian vision, once it is translated into political idiom, becomes mendacious or self-contradictory; it provides new names for old injustice or hides the contradictions under ad hoc invented labels. This is especially true of revolutionary utopias, whether elaborated in the actual revolutionary process or simply applied in its course. The Orwellian language had been known, though not codified, long before modern totalitarian despotism. Rousseau’s famous slogan, ‘One has to compel people to freedom,’ is a good example.”

Both Żuławskis seem to imply that — as with revolution — starting from scratch is not a viable option either. Kołakowski explained that, “The victory of utopian dreams would lead us to a totalitarian nightmare and the utter downfall of civilization.” On the Silver Globe, then, is an exploration of this nightmare from beginning to end: the hope of a new beginning perverted merely by human nature, by the aggressive longing to be led to salvation. It is somewhat ironic, then, that this anti-utopian epic was nearly destroyed by the Polish government. After the film was close to complete, Minster of Culture Janusz Wilhelmi cancelled the production and ordered that the unique — and thus nearly irreplaceable — props and costumes be destroyed.

Kołakowski wrote, “The great works of our century are anti-utopias or kakotopias, visions of a world in which all the values the authors identified themselves with have been mercilessly crushed.” Though a defeated Żuławski had to return to France in the late ‘70s, his epic was eventually able to see the light of day. Thanks to the efforts of the cast and crew, who stored or sometimes outright hid the film reels, props, and costumes, Żuławski was able to complete the film in the late ‘80s, after the fall of communism in Poland. 

He was finally able to present the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, narrating over the missing footage himself. The triumphant, though bittersweet last shot of the film — a distorted image of Żuławski, reflected in glass while he briefly explains the film’s complicated history — remains a fitting tribute, not only to the tenacious vision one of Europe’s greatest and most unconventional directors, but to a challenging sci-fi epic with no real equal. Hopefully its restoration will allow for a much deserved wider audience for this persecuted masterpiece.

Originally written for Diabolique.

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