On the Silver Screen: Science Fiction Film of the People’s Poland
default, On the Silver Screen:
Science Fiction Film of the People’s Poland, Still from 'On a Silver Globe' directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1988, photo: Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum, center, #000000, na_srebrnym_globie_forum_2.jpg
From pictures scored by the Polish Experimental Radio Studio to adaptations of futuristic short stories, join us on a journey through sci-fi films from Poland under the communist regime.
‘First Spaceship on Venus’ by Kurt Maetzig (1960)
This Polish-East German co-production is a Cold War classic adapted from Stanisław Lem’s debut novel The Astronauts (1951). In a near-future world which has achieved standards comparable to what we today call fully automated luxury communism, scientists find a mysterious cylinder at the site of the Tunguska Event – a historical and still somewhat unexplained explosion which took place in 1908. Concluding that the cylinder contains a message from the alien inhabitants of Venus, space agencies worldwide pool their efforts to decode its contents. A band of multinational astronauts sets off to greet the Venusians, carrying tidings of peace.
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The film transports viewers to an alien world with an ethereal score by Andrzej Markowski assisted by the sound engineers Krzysztof Szlifirski and Eugeniusz Rudnik of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. Electronic oscillators and magnetic tape recorders yield a meditative sonic landscape of blips, clicks and whirs.
Radio is also central to the film’s plot as the lifeline that tethers our spacefaring astronauts to their Earthly home. The film explores radio as a form of expression and communication with the utopian potential to transcend national, species and planetary difference. Radio is an emblem for mankind’s technocratic turn, but it is not portrayed as utilitarian or sterile. It is technology at the service of love. The film’s techno-optimism is best expressed by the astronaut Tulus, who interrupts a public radio broadcast to send a personal message to his beloved Mona as he leaves her behind on Earth:
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Forgive me, radio listeners, but I must speak to you, Mona. Don’t worry, we have the best technology. Mona, do you hear me, my Mona? You mustn’t cry…
The film contributes to Cold War polemics on cybernetics: the art of machine communication as conceived by Norbert Wiener. The Venusians’ missive is decrypted by the world’s largest computer helmed by a cadre of cyberneticians and linguists. As David Crowley has written, cybernetics represented ‘a new front for post-Stalinist science’. It was prohibited under Stalinism and demonised as a ‘zombie science that would replace humans with docile machines’. First Spaceship on Venus rehabilitates the science as a method of communication and translation indispensable for any vision of global or extraplanetary solidarity.
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Like other science fiction films of its period, such as Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB-1 (1963), the film dispenses a moral lesson cautioning against atomic warfare. Upon arrival to Venus, the astronauts find it in a state of nuclear holocaust. The crewmember Sumiko Ogimura’s motive for becoming an astronaut lies in her mother’s tragic death during the bombing of Hiroshima. She soberly reports:
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The rosy portrait of international cooperation embodied by the mission’s diverse crew is undercut by a bittersweet, not-quite-Hollywood ending. With its uncanny hybrid of extraterrestrial landscapes and real historical reference points (the Tunguska Event; the bombing of Hiroshima), the film’s pacifist message hits home.
‘The Big, the Bigger, and the Biggest’ by Anna Sokołowska (1962)
Yet another film scored at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, The Big, the Bigger, and the Biggest caters to younger audiences. Adapted from a beloved children’s novel by Jerzy Broszkiewicz, the film begins as a prosaic tale of the siblings Ika and Groszek. The little heroes grow attached to an old banger of a car – a pre-war Opel they endearingly call by its model name, Kapitan. Despite its rust and outmoded design, the car is a forerunner of today’s Teslas, for it drives autonomously and even speaks to its passengers in a manner prescient of contemporary voice-based operating systems. Kapitan becomes the children’s fast friend and loyal guardian, and together, they set off on wild adventures.
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Kapitan belongs alongside Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Herbie the Love Bug, and the groovy DeLorean time machine of Back to the Future as a charming automotive invention of the cinematic imagination. In its socialist Polish milieu, Kapitan is a testament to how personal vehicles carried the promise of higher standards of living and technological progress apace with the West. Cars were symbols of social and material transformation – luxury made accessible to all.
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Carrying out the promise of its title, the film ramps up from modest adventures to cosmic ones. In its climax, Kapitan whisks the children lightyears away, to a planet orbiting a star called Vega. The Big, the Bigger, and the Biggest repeats the anti-war cautionary tale of First Spaceship on Venus, albeit in a friendlier tone: the planet’s inhabitants have seen evidence of the atomic activities of World War II. They fear the war-hungry people of Earth will someday encroach on their territory. The children must convince their alien acquaintances that these events were an aberration and that the people of Earth have learned from their mistakes.
The Big, the Bigger, and the Biggest has many virtues: its plucky heroine, wise beyond her years, is a fledgling feminist role model. At the heart of this optimistic film is a touching message: if we show our material possessions love, caring for them after the consumer market deems them obsolete, they will reciprocate, loving us back and carrying us off to fantastical worlds.
‘Nieznana Planeta’ (Unknown Planet) by Stefan Szwakopf (1962)
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Still from 'Unknown Planet' directed by Stefan Szwakopf, 1962, photo: Studio Miniatur Filmowych, Warszawa
Some voyages can be pursued without ever leaving one’s bed. Such is the premise of Jacek Śpioszek – an animated series produced at Warsaw’s Studio of Film Miniatures and named for its affable hero. Each night, tucked into bed, Jacek’s dreams transport him to bygone eras and remote worlds. ‘Nieznana Planeta’ (Unknown Planet) is the series’ final episode, in which Jacek sets off on an intergalactic adventure in the company of his sidekick Scottie dog.
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The understated animation style, together with the lack of dialogue, renders the vast cosmos approachable for a child audience: stars are strewn like confetti over the vacuum of space, spied through the glass observation dome of Jacek’s minimalist spacecraft. His destination is the eponymous ‘unknown planet’ populated with peculiar but welcoming fauna: daisies with humanlike faces, kelp-like trees that wave in the wind, and animated geometric shapes that respond acoustically to human touch.
The episode’s moral lesson echoes that of many tales of planetary exploration: upon finding a dark mass deep within a crater, Jacek fancies himself superior to the blob and playfully pelts it with stones. Yet he has underestimated the alien substance, which rises up from its subterranean lair to engorge the meddling child. Lucky for Jacek, his faithful Scottie dog is standing by to reel him into the safety of the ship. The episode ends happily, but its lesson is clear: tread carefully on planets you know not and respect the life that resides there.
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Like so many films mentioned here, the cartoon is elevated to new heights by its soundscape. Waldemar Kazanecki’s score complements the alien visuals with jangling, clinking sound effects. But the cartoon’s finest highlight may be the pleasure of watching a nimble Scottish terrier scamper around in zero gravity.
‘Roly-Poly’ by Andrzej Wajda (1968)
By what criteria is individual identity defined? Andrzej Wajda’s Roly-Poly ridicules the notion of individuality in this giddy, maudlin satire based on Stanisław Lem’s story and radio play Do You Exist, Mr Jones? Richard Fox, a race-car driver in near-future Warsaw, copes with a rather severe occupational hazard: every race ends in a collision which sends him to the hospital with bodily injuries. This situation has been normalised, for modern medicine can swiftly stitch together bodies from whichever spare parts are at hand. A cavalier, barely clad surgeon stands at the ready to reassemble the driver jigsaw-style from appendages sourced from less fortunate patients. The film anticipates the contemporary ambitions of transhumanist medicine and its vision of the human body as an immortal assemblage of replicable parts.
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While the surgeon ushers Richard through countless transformations, the legal system lags behind. A befuddled lawyer visits Richard after each surgery to unravel his puzzles of scrambled identity, which grow ever more complex. The lawyer’s ineptitude in the face of these quandaries may carry an implicit critique of bureaucracy, which the film portrays as woefully out of sync with medical and technological progress. At what point does Richard Fox cease to be Richard Fox? Is he responsible for the parental or professional duties of those whose organs he now carries? Does he inherit their wealth? Carry their debts? Can he collect life insurance on his deceased brother if he now carries 30% of his body as his own? Does some integral kernel of his identity remain intact as he comes to incorporate parts of his brother, his brother’s wife, innocent bystanders… and even a random street dog?
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Impressively for its era, Wajda avoids transphobic messaging when Richard is equipped with women’s body parts. The emerging femininity of the originally cis-male driver is not presented as problematic or even particularly strange: it is simply one of many identity alterations Richard undergoes over time. When his body below the waist is female, he describes himself cheerily as man above and woman below, ‘like butter on bread’.
Warsaw’s neon signage, the protagonist’s raucous laughter and the playfully dinky score (again the work of the prolific Andrzej Markowski) all contribute to an ambience of euphoria: the world seems to be bubbling over its cusp. Comic-book intertitles lend the film pop-art accents. Decadent interiors feature bearskin rugs, verdant potted ferns and psychedelic mid-modernist design. On its surface, Roly-Poly is a light and rollicking comedy, but at its core is a radical dissolution of identity and individuality as essential categories of being. The human being is pure collage. Do you exist, Mr Fox?
‘Tender Spots’ by Piotr Andrejew (1981)
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Still from 'Tender Spots' directed by Piotr Andrejew, 1981, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Warsaw, 1998. Water is scarce. The air is toxic. Citizens are advised to stay indoors. The crisis is not specific to Poland or its region. It is planetary, and the prognosis is bleak: Earth will lose its ability to support life within 10 years. Tender Spots is the story of TV technician Jan Zaleski and his unrequited infatuation with the ravishing but irreverent Ewa.
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The film was created in 1980 amidst widespread strikes culminating at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk with the formation of the trade union Solidarity. These events, so emblazoned in history, provoked the instalment of martial law in December of 1981. Tender Spots premiered the August prior, when the state’s hostility toward the consolidating opposition was already evident but before the imposition of martial law. However, by the time the film made the rounds at international festivals, Poland was under martial law, and Western critics seised the film as a message-in-a-bottle from behind the Iron Curtain.
A recent interview with Andrejew groups the director with Piotr Szulkin, Ryszard Waśko and others as ‘calligraphers’: filmmakers united by their fine attention to formal detail. Andrejew cites Tender Spots as the peak of his experiments in ‘calligraphic’ style. Indeed, the complex dynamic between Jan and Ewa is borne out in minute aspects of the mise-en-scène and wardrobe. As Jan is increasingly emasculated by Ewa’s haughty scorn, he is surrounded by cleverly planted phallic imagery that diminishes his stature on screen.
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These formal subtleties were lost on Western reviewers at Cannes, who expected a more transparent political parable. One French reviewer foregrounds martial law as the film’s immediate context, even though it was made one year prior, and faults Andrejew for his ‘total reticence toward confronting current events’. The success of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron, which had won the Palme d’Or at the previous year’s Cannes, had been more to his taste, perhaps due to its portability as a parable of censorship. If this critic had looked closer, he may have found that the film does offer social commentary, but one that strays from the expected script.
Tender Spots rewards the attentive viewer with a sophisticated critique of the cult of masculinity embodied by male-coded bureaucracy. Jan is cast as one of the film’s many impotent men who have ushered in a technocratic era with no fail-safes, leaving the planet in a state of irreversible disrepair.
‘Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes’ by Piotr Szulkin (1986)
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Still from 'Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes' directed by Piotr Szulkin, 1986; pictured: Daniel Olbrychski & Krzysztof Majchrzak, photo: Krzysztof Wellman / Studio Filmowe Zebra / Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Piotr Szulkin is best known for his dystopic opus O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985), which provides a neat allegory for witnessing the socialist system’s final years. While Ga-ga shares O-Bi, O-Ba’s penchant for gibberish titles, the allegories encrypted within it are far more puzzling.
Ga-ga tells the story of Scope: an ex-convict turned astronaut, who is sent on a doomed mission to a backwater planet. The film explodes the romance of space exploration with its very premise. In the 21st century, no humans willingly take on the risks of space travel. Yet this does nothing to abate Earth’s drive for imperialist expansion. Prisoners are therefore coercively dispatched to remote planets as colonial emissaries.
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Our hero is played by the unflinchingly deadpan Daniel Olbrychski, whose facial muscles hardly twitch throughout his hours onscreen. Scope is destined for the bleak winterscape of Australia 458, where he is dealt harsh lessons about what noble ideas like ‘freedom’ and ‘heroism’ really entail. Freedom amounts to nothing more than the right to choose the voice interface of your spaceship computer. Heroism, meanwhile, is a form of indentured servitude. Scope learns that his sole duty on Australia 458 is to commit a heinous crime so that he can be publicly (and rather gruesomely) executed – a spectacle engineered to instil fear and obedience in the planet’s population. The storyline and themes anticipate Russian author Viktor Pelevin’s celebrated novel Omon Ra (1992), which critiques the Soviet space program as a disingenuous spectacle.
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Aesthetically, the film carries onward Szulkin’s signature carnivalesque style. On Australia 458, the neon signage of cosmopolitan Warsaw seems to have been airdropped into a blank and desolate world. Women are festooned in flamboyant showgirl garb. A ‘Natural Food’ bar serves its clientele only hot dogs and layer cakes – a vivid cosmic rendering of a gas station isolated on a deserted American freeway. This space opera has no luxury starships, no freshly pressed cadet uniforms, no tender moments of first contact with alien species. The fictional universe of Ga-ga is one that has expanded beyond its means, leaving derelict outposts in far-flung corners of the galaxy connected to one another only by a disciplinarian and under-resourced central power. Progress is not an upward trajectory, but a horizontal line extending infinitely and without aim.
Offsetting these nihilistic portents is the film’s ecstatic ending: Scope finally writhes free of the depraved world. At his side and sharing his decrepit yet functioning space shuttle is his love interest Once, whose very name carries a halcyon, fairy-tale glimmer of hope. Together, they make for the nearest unpopulated planet and start civilisation anew. Does this picture-perfect ending merely extend the film’s ruthless satire? Only the viewer can decide.
‘Pan Kleks w Kosmosie’ (Professor Inkblot Goes to Space) by Krzysztof Gradowski (1988)
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Professor Inkblot conjures Ms Frizzle, Willy Wonka and all the whimsical, dishevelled mentors of the childhood tales many of us grew up on and loved. The figment of poet Jan Brzechwa, Professor Inkblot (in Polish, Mr Kleks) is the eccentric head of an Academy for boys which only admits pupils whose names start with A. Brzechwa penned three volumes of the Kleks series between 1946-1965, the first of which is now available in English in Marek Kazmierski’s translation.
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The books were adapted for the screen throughout the 1980s. Their punchy disco aesthetic endemic to that decade may seem dated today, but not at the expense of the films’ charm. While the entire Inkblot cycle is suffused with the fantastic, the third film – Pan Kleks w Kosmosie – is the first to adopt a straightforward science-fictional premise. It is also the first to abandon Brzechwa’s source texts, which is, if anything, a testament to the poet’s imaginative investment in the Inkblot world, which left others fodder enough to continue the professor’s story on their own.
One snowy winter night, the children of a provincial orphanage receive an esteemed visitor – a former ward of the orphanage who emigrated to Chicago and has returned to Poland a wealthy business magnate. He brings the children a special gift: a supercomputer prototype from his American firm. In the thick of the night, the computer wakes of its own accord to tell the children a ‘memory from the future’. A rogue mad scientist called the Great Engineer on the faraway planet Mango invents a device that can instantly transport objects from one point to another (a cousin of the iconic Star Trek transporter). The Great Engineer puts the machine to ill use, abducting a young girl from Earth. To rescue her, a band of children enlist the help of Professor Inkblot and set off on an interstellar voyage of their own.
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Pan Kleks w Kosmosie was a joint Polish-Soviet-Czechoslovak production, making it a curious artifact of Eastern Bloc cooperation on the eve of the socialist system’s collapse. The film tours through flagships of socialist architecture – shot on location at the Azoty Nitrogen Plant in Puławy and an iconic UFO-shaped café in Bratislava. Despite the story’s whimsical and farfetched scope, it captures contemporary realities of Polish experience, like the trope of a relative living in diaspora who returns to Poland bearing gifts.
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The film betrays a fascination with computers as mystery-units that can connect one country to another, one planet to another, and eventually, the present to future and past. Its proto-internet cybernetic dream of a network of interconnected machines stamps the film as of its time and even prescient of the digital age to come. In hindsight, however, the hulking closet-sized supercomputer and its grungy, pixelated interface come across as charmingly archaic.
‘On the Silver Globe’, directed by Andrzej Żuławski (1988)
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Still from 'On a Silver Globe' directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1988, photo: Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum
Rarely is a film’s production history more exciting than its plotline, especially in the arena of science fiction. On the Silver Globe may be one such case. Shot in 1976 and ’77, its production was brought to a halt in 1977 at the order of the Ministry of Culture. Years later, the director, Andrzej Żuławski, returned to Poland from an involuntary hiatus in France when he was granted a trickle of funds to finish the film. The final product is aesthetically uneven, with lavish scenes offset by simpler supplementary footage shot later. The resulting roughness does not, however, detract from the film, which reads as a tumultuous journey between different worlds and different sensibilities. The film is a loose adaptation of The Lunar Trilogy (1901-1911) – a turn-of-the-century science fiction masterpiece by the director’s great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski.
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Settlers arrive on an alien planet to start human civilization anew, but their mission swiftly goes south. Their pioneers’ vision of a pristine world gives way to bitter interpersonal struggle and adversities inherent to the planet itself. Żuławski does not dwell on the worldbuilding details typical of space-settler fiction: we do not know how the atmosphere is breathable or the length of their seasons, days or nights. Żuławski’s real interest lies in the existential stakes of forging a new world that may not be immune from the vices of its human architects.
Great swaths of the film’s running time are taken up by lengthy, feverish monologues conveying scarce pragmatic data about planetary conditions and devoted instead to psychological and philosophical musings. As the story progresses, one gets the impression this depraved colony is no other than Earth seen through a glass, darkly.
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polish science fiction
polish sci-fi films
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fall of communism
Written by Eliza Rose, Jun 2020
Sources: ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto’ by Aaron Bastani (New York & London: Verso, 2019); ‘The Art. Of Cybernetic Communism’ by David Crowley in ‘Utopian Reality: Reconstructing Culture in Revolutionary Russia and Beyond’, ed. Christina Lodder et al. (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013), pp. 219-238, 223.