This is Polish cinema as you've never seen it before. Dug out from the abyss of the Polish Television’s archives, these short- and mid-length feature sci-fi films are proof that the world of cinematic fantasy also had a place around the Vistula river. Tomasz Kolankiewicz, a member of the editing team of Feature and Documentary section at TVP Kultura, comments:
The titles shown as part of the Zagubione w przestrzeni (Lost in Space) series constitute a fantastic example of the creativity and inventive nature of Polish cinema artists, who had to make do with small budgets and significant design limitations. What is most apparent, however, is the latent humour of these films, a factor so often lacking in contemporary Polish productions.
Here are eleven forgotten classics of Polish science fiction:
Professor Zazul, dir. Marek Nowicki, Jerzy Stawicki, 1965
Ijon Tichy falls asleep behind the wheel as he's driving his Opel. In his dream, he finds himself in the deserted house of a professor Zazul – and instead of the owner, he encounters the professor’s double. The real professor is conserved in a jar in a laboratory.
It is one among two screen adaptions of Stanisław Lem’s novels from the director-cinematographer duo Marek Nowicki and Jerzy Stawicki.
Roly Poly, dir. Andrzej Wajda, 1968
When Andrzej Wajda began working on adapting Lem’s Do You Exist, Mr. Jones? he invited the author himself to collaborate on the production. It must be one of the reasons why Roly Poly is the only film adaptation of his novels of which Lem later spoke with sympathy.
Wajda’s grotesque garnered a special mention at the fantasy film festival in Sitges in Spain, and it was later presented by European television channels. Much of the credit for its success must go to the excellent acting of Bogusław Kobiela, who impersonated the race driver Richard Fox. Together with his brother Thomas, he suffers a tragic accident. When the two men encounter a genius surgeon (Jerzy Zelnik), Richard has organ transplants from the dead Thomas. And it is only the beginning of the macabre medicine which awaits the unfortunate driver.
Friend, dir. Marek Nowicki and Jerzy Stawicki, 1965
Much to his own surprise, Professor Tichy discovers that a powerful electron brain has begun forging the results of his research. Will he discover the plot set up by a lonely and naive mechanic in time? This 20-minute black and white film from Marek Nowicki and Jerzy Stawicki is based on Lem’s short story published under the same title.
Avatar, or the Swapping of Souls, dir. Janusz Majewski, 1964
James Cameron was a ten-year-old admiring the black and white Mickey Mouse on TV when a film bearing the same title as his future production from 2009 was already being made in Poland.
The adaptation of Theophile Gautier’s story directed by Janusz Majewski is the best of Opowieści niesamowite (Uncanny Stories), a series realised by Polish television in the 1960s. Awatar czyli zamiana dusz (Avatar, or the Swapping of Souls) is the story of an unfulfilled lover who, in order to seize the woman of his dreams, is ready to "swap souls” and enter the body of her husband. For this costume-comedy production, Janusz Majewski was presented with the FIPRESCI award at the International Festival of Television Films in Monte Carlo (1966) as well as the Golden Asteroid of the International Fantasy Film Festival in Trieste (1967).
Where Are You, Louise? dir. Janusz Kubik, 1965
A radio message informs us that visitors from another planet have landed on a Polish roads. Mysterious creatures convince the people they encounter on their way to undergo experimental examinations in exchange for gaining youth and immortality. The television film of Janusz Kubik is an adaptation of Czesław Chruszczewski’s short story, Fotel na autostradzie (Armchair on the Highway). Realised by the Se-ma-for studio in Łódź, it audaciously employed trick photographs to significantly reduce the costs of decorations and set design.
Governor - dir. Stanisław Kokesz, 1965
The mad Professor Fogg invites a friend to his villa. He tells him of his plans to gain power over planet Earth with the aid of beings from another planet, with whom he communicates through special devices. Unfortunately, he himself does not live to see the moment of the invasion – he dies of electric shock and the voices that reached him from outer space turn out to have been his own thoughts.
Stanisław Kokesza’s fantastic film impresses us with technological novelties: a soundproof magnetic barrier, a photocell with a recording of barking dogs, and… a system for opening gates by remote control.
Biohazard, dir. Janusz Kubik, 1977
The former boss of the Scientific Institute, Professor Molnar, returns to his former workplace in order to undergo treatment for heart disease. His previous assistant and now the new head of the Institute, Egberg, is conducting research. This is the same research that Molnar had decided to pull out from, because of the possible risk of overstepping what he considered the limits of interferring with the human structure. Molnar becomes incapacitated and when he awakes after surgery he discovers the terrible truth – his brain has been transplanted into the body of a resentful Egberg.
Ten years after Wajda’s Roly Poly, the notion of morality in science and medicine returned once again to TV screens, dressed in the guise of science-fiction cinema.
Professor H. – dir. Janusz Majewski, 1964
The eccentric assistant Traumera enters the lab of Professor Foss. We soon learn that mad Professor Hammler is the one behind Traumera’s appearance as he seeks to transplant Foss’ brain into the body of his assistant.
The film is based on a screenplay from J. G. Sandbarmay. The duo hiding under this alias is in fact Janusz Majewski and Jerzy Mierzejewski. The real pearl of this short-length feature is a jazz motif composed by Andrzej Kurylewicz, evocative of Bach’s fugue.
The First Pavilion, dir. Janusz Majewski, 1965
The young scientist Professor Foss is kidnapped by strange personas and finds himself in a mysterious little hut. Here, his former teacher, Professor Franton, experiments with shrinking people. Yet this fantastic film from Janusz Majewski did not follow in the success of Avatar, which he'd made one year earlier, and this is spite of the fact that Majewski managed to gather a team of excellent actors, such as Jan Machulski, Leon Niemczyk and Roman Sykała.
Through the Fifth Dimension – dir. Marek T. Nowakowski, 1973
Through some strange experiment, Siwiec, a journalist, gets moved back in time. In this new dimension, he encounters unforeseeable adventures, including a meeting with himself.
Marek T. Nowakowski’s film was one of the best performed Polish science-fiction films, with such stars among the cast as Gustaw Holoubek, Jan Nowak, Karol Strasburger and Leon Niemczyk.
Insomnia Station - dir. Piotr Wojciechowski, 1973
A former school colleague tries to free Dr. Weronika from the claws of a dream-thief hypnotist. When the mission ends with success, the unfortunate girl becomes his torpid tool. Although Stacja bezsenność (Insomnia Station) is a fantasy film, its authors cast the action in contemporary reality and thus entirely gave up sci-fi decor. The effect is that of a fantastical and scientific film in the guise of psychological cinema.
All of the films are made available to viewers of TVP Kultura and the audience of the 38th Gdynia Film Festival. Festival projections are crowned with meetings with the authors. The review on TVP Kultura is presented every Saturday in September.
Sources: TVP Kultura, Filmpolski.pl, Gdynia Film Festival, Filmweb. Edited by B.S. 04.09.2015.
Translated by Paulina Schlosser 23/10/2015