‘Einstein was a woman!’ and ‘A male is your enemy!’ are just two of the sayings which have firmly embedded themselves into Poles’ everyday speech. But it’s worth remembering that Sexmission is not simply an original comedy with a fantastical plot but also a sharp satire on totalitarian society. This is one of the reasons why in Poland’s eastern big brother, the authorities’ reception to the film was rather cold.
In the Soviet Union, the movie’s name was changed to The New Amazons: the censors would not permit the release of a picture by the provocative title Sexmission in Soviet movie theatres. However, the film distributors did not stop there. They cut almost a half hour of material from Juliusz Machulski’s movie, including every scene with erotic undertones. Many of the political allusions were also removed from the theatrical version. All the same, it instantly dawned upon Soviet audiences that before them was not a piquant fantasy, but a satire of a totalitarian state – evil and precise. In the words of Machulski himself, around 40 million people saw the film in the USSR.
Sexmission impossible: the making of a cult comedy
Machulski came up with Sexmission back in 1977 when he was working on the screenplay for Vabank: his dream was to make a film in a completely different style, his ultimate goal being to create one movie in each genre, like his idol Stanley Kubrick. Machulski originally titled the screenplay of the new film Lamia – the name of the leading female character. Back then, he couldn’t imagine ever having the chance to produce it.
Everything changed after Machulski met Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Kawalerowicz was one of the preeminent Polish filmmakers of that time and the head of the Kadr film studio. He believed in Machuski’s abilities and ensured that Vabank would be made exactly how the young director wanted.
Vabank was a huge success. Immediately after work on that film wrapped up, Kawalerowicz asked Machulski what he would like to do next. The young director wanted to make a movie about the poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, one of the most tragic heroes of Poland’s war generation (Baczyński and his wife were killed within a few days of each other during the Warsaw Uprising). He intended to approach Andrzej Wajda with this idea at his film studio X, but the studio closed during Martial Law, and Wajda himself emigrated to France. Either way, Kawalerowicz wasn’t keen on the movie’s premise, but then Machulski remembered Lamia. The maestro liked this idea much better.
Truth be told, Kawalerowicz was embarrassed by the incipient film’s genre: fantasy was an unusual and difficult-to-produce field for Polish cinema. They even considered making the film a joint project with Czechoslovakia. Barrandov studios showed interest in the project and a Czech screenwriter began to edit the prepared script, but nothing came of this venture. Filmmakers from the fraternal socialist state were perturbed that the plot of Lamia took place in the not-too-distant futute – in the year 2044. They openly complained: a movie that clearly stated that communism and the Soviet regime would no longer exist in sixty-odd years was unacceptable.
Nevertheless, Kawalerowicz declared that he would make every effort for the filming of Lamia to begin as soon as possible. He kept his promise. The censors, who found sedition and anti-Soviet attacks in just about every script, actually deemed Lamia to be relatively harmless, and in 1982 Machulski proceeded with production. He was one of only a few directors who managed to avoid clashes with censorship that year. Kawalerowicz secured a sizeable budget for the picture. Work began at once.
Fidelity to Kubrick
The title Lamia gave rise to many arguments. In Greek mythology, Lamia was Poseidon’s daughter. Her children were killed by Hera, and she soon lost her mind. She began to seduce men and drink their blood. But this mythological reference would likely be missed by many viewers, so it was decided that another title was needed. Kawalerowicz and the head editor at Kadr insisted that the picture be retitled The Female Principle, but Machulski didn’t really like this option. He countered with Sexmission: the new title was disliked by everyone else, but the name somehow caught on.
The idea to make a movie about a society in which there’s no place for men came to Machulski after reading the book Forecasts About the Science of the 21st Century. At first, he wanted his main characters to be astronauts sent on a voyage that would last two years for them, but last fifty years on Earth. But accomplishing such an idea would be expensive and technically difficult; additionally, this plotline had already been well trodden by other films. So Machulski came up with something else: the characters would be participants in an experiment by a certain Professor Kuppelweiser.
The image of a demonic professor in a wheelchair was a singular homage to Stanley Kubrick and one of his most famous characters, Dr. Strangelove. References to other Kubrick films can also be found in Sexmission: keen eyes will spot the apes and spacesuits from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a character named after Colonel Dax, the hero of the war epic Paths of Glory.
Jerzy Stuhr’s finest hour
The next important task was to cast the roles. Machulski immediately considered Olgierd Łukaszewicz, who was already quite famous at the time. Łukaszewicz was known mainly for dramatic roles, but Machulski wanted for Albert, the film’s main character, to appear serious, and therefore seem ridiculous and vulnerable, which is important for comedy. Machulski initially considered Jan Englert for the role of Max, but then he soundly judged that a Max played by Englert would not make a good pair with the serious Albert played by Łukaszewicz. The two main characters had to be completely different from each other. Then the director thought of Jerzy Stuhr.
Machulski invited Stuhr to be in Vabank, but he couldn’t get him interested in the proposal. This time Stuhr wanted to read the script, and he was promised that the script would be delivered to him the next day. However, when Machulski told Kawalerowicz about Stuhr, he sharply stated that it would be better not to associate with such an actor. Kawalerowicz explained his doubts:
He was an actor of the cinema of moral anxiety, too dark, behind him were a trail of roles that were the opposite of comedic.
Jerzy Stuhr had become famous as a dramatic actor thanks to roles in serious and poignant films by Feliks Falk (Top Dog and Chance) and Krzysztof Kieślowski (Camera Buff and The Scar). Troubled by these arguments, Machulski came to the next meeting with Stuhr without the promised script. The actor, nevertheless, asked the director to tell him a little bit about the forthcoming film, and while the director spoke, he listened, asked for clarification, suggested some things, and reacted animatedly. As the conversation progressed, Machulski realised that he would never find another Max like this, and neither did he want to. As for Stuhr, he desperately wanted to get the role because he was tired of drama. Upon hearing of Machulski’s decision, Kawalerowicz gloomily said:
This is a professional actor, he could play anyone. The decision is his.
Finding an actor for the role of Her Excellency, the dictator of the female world of the future, took a bit more time. Initially they wanted to cast a woman, but then they figured that the role ought to be played by a man made up to look like a woman. Machulski thought that the famous comic Wiesław Michnikowski might be a good fit for the role. But before he managed to connect with him, Michnikowski, who had already heard about the movie, called him first. In their conversation, the actor admitted that he was very interested in the role, but he couldn’t come because he was in hospital with an injured arm, and for some reason had been put up in the maternity ward. When he heard this Machulski realised he wouldn’t need to find anyone else.
It was simpler with the female roles. For the most part, they sought actresses who were little-known and young. Of course, Doctor Berna, the head of the archaeological institute, was played by the Polish film star Beata Tyszkiewicz, but the rest of the actresses, like Bożena Stryjkówna, who played the role of Lamia and was Machulski’s wife at the time, were hardly known at all.
Twins on the set
The production itself turned out not so easy. Almost all of the decorations had to be built in studios in Łódź, and the scenes frequently had to be filmed late at night because Jerzy Stuhr had to perform at a theatre in Kraków during the evening. As soon as the play would end, he would go by car to Łódź (a journey that takes over three hours) and work on the needed scenes. When they were done, he would race back to Kraków, and the crew would try to catch up on sleep.
Machulski got along well with his colleagues. It was only his second film, but during the production of Vabank he was able to find people he could comfortably work with. In particular, the cameraman was once again Jerzy Łukaszewicz, who was the twin brother of Olgierd, one of the starring actors. The presence of the twins on set, one of which stood in front of the camera, and the other behind it, only added to the shoot’s comedic atmosphere.
In the spring of 1983, Sexmission was ready.
Copernicus was a woman
The censors raised almost no objections. The censors were mostly offended by the phrase Max pronounces when climbing up onto the earth’s surface:
To the east! There has to be at least some kind of civilization out there!
In Poland, this was taken as a definitive allusion to the Soviet Union. Many saw this phrase as satire, and it had to be cut out of the film.
Incredibly, the authorities, like with Vabank, didn’t perceive Sexmission as a dangerous film. But if the protest within Vabank, which is about resistance against a well-organised evil, was difficult to pick up on, then with Machulski’s new film everything was much more obvious.
Machulski was showing that the state, whatever its incarnation, suppresses and lies. Any firmly-organised ideology, whatever lies at its foundation – the rights of workers, a nation or a gender – is engaged in the oversimplification of the world and the struggle against dissent. With the help of the fantasy genre, Machulski exposed contradictions that, in the society of that time, were often drowned out by conversations about the necessity and progressiveness of socialism. Sexmission was a movie about how this is funny. If it can be said that Poland is a country where the rights of workers and labourers is the priority, then why can’t you say that Copernicus was a woman? What’s wrong with that? After all, everyone understands that workers in socialist countries are poorer and have less rights than those in capitalist countries, but at the same time the one ruling and unremovable regime is called the Workers’ Party. So, following the same logic, it’s also possible that Copernicus could in fact not be a man.
The comical female world in Sexmission is terrifying precisely because everything is built on lies and omissions, on suppression and division. Everything is fake in this world – from the personality of Her Excellency to the declaration that life is only possible underground. In such a society, television, school and medicine all become tools for these lies. And wherever there are lies, inequality and aggression arise. First, they want Albert and Max to be turned into women, and later to kill them because they are different. They disrupt the usual order.
In the world of Sexmission, pragmatism is the prevailing notion, which invariably evolves into totalitarianism. Here, Albert and Max have no purpose: at the most critical moment they shout, suffer and helplessly pray for mercy. None will come. So, despite their cowardice, they decide to run away from the underground totalitarian world towards certain death on the surface.
Their escape is a striking metaphor for the relationship between the people and the state. Once they decide to sacrifice their lives and break out of your cage, they find out that the cage doesn’t even exist. The underlying ideological basis of this underground society of women, their ‘dogma’ about the uninhabitable world above, collapses like a house of cards.
A wild male dream turns into a nightmare
Audiences clearly understood Machulski’s point. How couldn’t they? When Sexmission came out in theatres, the country had only just abolished martial law, but was still under the authority of General Jaruzelski.
Of course, audiences were enrapt by more than just satire about the current political situation. Ultimately, it is simply a hilarious movie. It so happens that comedies with cross-dressing, with confusion between male and female, have always achieved enormous popularity throughout the history of cinema: just recall Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. Machulski managed to accomplish a similar focus. Every scene of Sexmission plays upon the relationships of men and women and has powerful erotic subtext that the film’s heroines are completely unaware of. The director plays with the expectations of the public. Many men may dream of being in Albert and Max’s place, but it’s more fun that the wild male dream turns into a nightmare and almost leads to the most unfortunate results.
Sexmission immediately won a lot of fans. The movie was quickly broken into quotes and became a cult classic. Machulski somewhat shied away from his popularity, considering that he was working in a low genre, but the praise from important figures in Polish culture were more valuable to him. Czesław Miłosz watched Sexmission when Machulski brought it to America and told the director that his film was truly a parody of the ‘wild masculine anti-feminism of the communist regime’. An interesting story also happened with Jerzy Stuhr, who took a lot of pride in his portrayal of Max but experienced a feeling of awkwardness before Krzysztof Kieślowski because of it. Stuhr sincerely thought that Kieślowski was too serious and remarkable a person to watch such a film. He was even afraid to speak with him about his work. Imagine the surprise of the actor when Kieślowski admitted that Sexmission was his favourite comedy and that whenever he feels sad, he simply puts the movie on.
The chief comedy-wright of Poland
After this movie, Juliusz Machulski was established as a leading comedy writer in Poland. He didn’t rest on his laurels: even before he finished working on Sexmission, he had already began filming for Vabank 2. Then he went on to make yet another satirical fantasy called Kingsajz. Machulski never got tired of experimenting. He really did attempt to make one film in every genre, but all of his works, with the exception of the historical drama Szwadron (which is recognised as a flop), had a comedic character. At the end of the 1980s, Machulski decided to become a producer: he founded the Zebra film studio and helped bring to light a multitude of successful films from a wide range of genres. Among them were Władysław Pasikowski’s thriller Pigs, Krzysztof Krauze’s dramas, the comedies of Marek Koterski and even the heavy philosophical parables of the very same Jerzy Stuhr.
Machulski thought about making a sequel to Sexmission. He wrote a screenplay that he called Sexmission-3. The very title was a joke: as if the characters and audience had slept through the second part. The script is about two astronauts who return from their voyage and land on Earth soon after the events of the first part. They discover that men have already begun to appear on the planet, but the women are using them like slaves for their needs and pleasures. The new heroes try to change this situation. Machulski wanted to begin filming in the 1990s, but there wasn’t enough money to make the movie at the time. Then he completely rejected this idea, deciding that stepping into the same river twice was unnecessary.
And he was right. Sexmission was only possible because of the Soviet regime. In another era, this story just wouldn’t work out. Without the previous political context, the plot of two men, having found their way into a world of women, becomes a banal comedy with erotic elements. But Machulski’s film was about more than that – inequality, resistance and the wickedness of those in power. Not too bad for a fantastical comedy.