*** Warning: ‘Ere be spoliers ***
If you think of Soviet era east-European science fiction movies as being impenetrably weird and obscurely (obtusely?) intellectual, then Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe is going to be exactly what you expect. The movie started production in 1975 on an impressive budget, with an army of a production crew, but in spring of 1977 it was halted by the Polish authorities, who imagined that the movie’s message was somehow subversive. Personally, I don’t think they should have worried, as few people would probably have understood it anyway. But then, the authorities themselves did not understand it. They felt, however, threatened enough to actually destroy most of the impressive and expensive shots, so that the movie we have today, which was ”restored” and ”completed” (words that are really too big to describe what was actually done) with virtually no budget in 1986, remains woefully unfinished. Zulawski himself says that the movie was killed, and he is no doubt correct in this assessment.
The narrative of the movie is an epic one. It takes place across several decades. The storytelling is punctuated and subtle, containing little explicit substance but much that is implicit. It is an art movie all the way, with very little in the way of coherent and straight-forward plot.
It begins with four astronauts – three men and one woman – having reached an Earth-like planet (same sort of climate and vegetation; breathable air and such, but apparently without intelligent life), and being unable to return to Earth. Time moves differently on this planet, and the people age more slowly. After some fifty years of procreation (necessarily including inbreeding), they have turned into an entire culture of at least a hundred people, as children grow abnormally fast on this world. This culture has developed its own mythology and religion, and revere the original four as gods. One day the leader of this culture decides that they should expand their territory, and takes a fleet of dug-outs across the ocean. On the other side, they find a race of winged aliens who kill all the humans of the expedition (except one who brings news of what happened back to the village), and who proceed to abduct some of the remaining women, impregnating them to produce a mysterious hybrid race. Protracted wars ensue. Around the same time, a fifth astronaut from Earth arrives on the silver globe, and is hailed by the villagers as a messiah and a warlord – a role he gleefully assumes. He captures one of the hybrids and tries to find out who and what they are. This hybrid is given a crown of thorns and crucified, and by the end, the fifth astronaut is himself stoned and crucified by his own people. Very messianic indeed. Meanwhile, we hear about other Earth people who are attempting to contact the fifth astronaut.
Most of the dialogue of the movie is rambling, hysterical, philosophical gibberish. Is there method in the madness? Well, of course there is. But for long stretches it doesn’t seem to make any sense. You just want to throw up your arms and shake your head (esp. since the English subtitles were made by a Pole without a full grasp of English grammar). But the point of the movie, quite clearly, is to take us through the developmental and existential stages of history and human thought. From the earliest beginnings of religion, to the stone age, the middle ages, great wars, and finally, the dawn of reason and science. The characters constantly and agonizingly philosophize about what it is to be human. Are we just physiology; is there nothing inside us but intestines? Or are we actually gods and masters of reality? This existential pain and doubt is represented as extreme physical hardship; ”the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”, in Hamlet’s words. Another theme is our reaction to difference; how we first reject, then seek to understand, that which is different from ourselves.
As I hope I am conveying, it is an interesting movie with plenty of artistic substance. However, it is over two and a half hours long, and that’s with at least a quarter of the original footage missing. Much of the movie features bleak landscapes and senselessly raving characters. The colors are muted so that the movie is almost in black and white. The editing doesn’t seem to be quite wholesome; it appears that too much material that should have been cut out has been included to make up for what was lost, and the movie is still, in the present incarnation, too long and too much of a challenge to the viewer’s patience. At this film festival, about a third of the audience emigrated during the sold-out showing, and I can well understand why, as I myself found it quite hard to sit through. It is worth adding, though, that the first half of the movie is much more boring and bleak than the last half, which has much more action and much better production values. But this is not exactly the kind of curve of excitement that spellbinds most audiences. This is not a movie whose purpose is to be entertaining; it is a movie that is trying to make us think, and to engage us in the existential agony that human cultures have progressed through, up through history. In other words, it is a movie that epitomizes a great many of those themes that Soviet era east-Europeans found meaningful and resonant in their own lives and societies. This, perhaps, more than anything else, is what, in the final analysis, makes the movie a worthy heir to the main works of Tarkovsky.
Would On the Silver Globe have been better in its original incarnation, with all its impressive sets and costumes intact? Absolutely. Would it have been a good science fiction movie? Well, it would certainly have been different. It still would not have been for the masses. Zulawski is a director whose idea of art is very much like, in the words of Shakespeare’s Romeo, caught in a confused moment, a ”misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms”. I believe that one of the fundamental characteristics of science fiction is a rational quality; a predominant reliance upon a scientific worldview. This movie could be said to be about that, although its postmodern mission seems to be, among other things, to problematize this foundational tenet of the genre. Still, the movie is very much open to multiple interpretations, and one might, for instance, see the Earth and the original astronauts as coming from some utopian perfect society (which is perhaps even supposed to be a perfect Communist society), and inadvertently starting the cycle of cultural development all over again by crashing on the silver globe and re-igniting human culture from scratch, making a new human race relive the extreme trauma of nascent understanding, undergoing the full range of intellectual evolution from religious constructs, dealing with cultural difference and to social and biological self-knowledge.
Ultimately, the movie’s quality will depend on subjective preferences. Zulawski’s idea of artistic expression is somewhat too frantic and hysterical for my taste, even if I have to acknowledge that there is meaningful substance in it. I just find it difficult to enjoy it, which I think Zulawski would approve of, as he thinks art is a very serious matter. I do, too, but for me artistic themes need to converge towards beauty. That, in fact, is why I believe that effective entertainment in itself acquires an admirable artistic quality: it appeals to us, pleases us and fuels our optimism and cheerfulness – qualities we need in order to make a better world. Zulawski’s school of art wants to be shocking, believing that we can find some important and valuable self-knowledge inside the depths of trauma and pain. That we must be broken before we can become our true selves. I believe that this school; this sensibility is so obsolete as to have lost most of its progressive power (at least in the Western world), but I can certainly see why it would resonate with many people in poorly working societies like those of the old east-bloc, as they were (are?) still living through the traumatizing era of human culture that Zulawski’s art is portraying.
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Andrzej Sewerin, Jerzy Trela, Iwona Bielska, Jerzy Gralek, Elzbieta Karkoszka, Krystyna Janda, Grazyna Dylag
Runtime: 157 min