“There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless.”
—The Republic, Book IX 572b
What’s the best way to describe the mania of an Andrzej Żuławski film? William Grimes, eulogizing Żuławski for The New York Times chose “emotionally savage.” J. Hoberman used “hyperkinetic,” “frenzied,” and “‘awful’ in its root sense of inspiring dread. Daniel Bird, writing about the most recent Lincoln Center screenings in New York, chose “deeply disturbing.” These descriptors make perfect sense after experiencing a Żuławski film, but I’ve never been able to sell his films to a newcomer this way. How could I? They’re much too primal for adjectives in our delicate English language, crafted to communicate Enlightenment-era ideas in a pleasing series of vibrations. The intensity of this director’s films could only be described in some sort of ancient Lovecraftian squelching, like Isabelle Adjani’s desperate gurgling in Possession or the bird-people’s telepathic screeches in On the Silver Globe. The closest popular visual aid may be the recent Mad Max: Fury Road,with its extreme color palettes and even more extreme acrobatics. The closest auditory aid may be the dying breath of 70s punk or the origins of industrial and harsh noise (I would honestly be surprised if Żuławski didn’t love Plastic Ono Band). If anyone else had chosen to mix these elements, the results may accomplish little more than repeated glances at watches and repeated squirming in seats. Żuławski knew to combine this with genuine investigation of the world’s history of ideas, and every film feels as if entering a library. It’s an uncomfortable, dim library, but every book contains its own light.
On February 17 of this year, just two days before his last film Cosmos would make its U.S. premiere at Lincoln Center, this singular talent died. He had directed fifteen films after working as an assistant to Andrzej Wajda and had written twenty-plus books (none have been translated into English). He always drew from a deep well of sources for his projects: his father’s World War II novel (The Third Part of the Night), his great-uncle’s sci-fi epic (On the Silver Globe), Russian opera (Boris Godunov), experimental literature (Cosmos), music (The Blue Note), Dostoyevsky (L’amour braque), as well as history, philosophy, and, in nearly all of his films, his own personal life. The latter worked as a two-way road, as Żuławski’s productions would often interfere with his own life. The Polish government asked Żuławski to promptly leave his homeland after he released the controversial (again, the word, though accurate, never does enough justice) The Devil. He married actress Sophie Marceau, who would star in three of his films and divorce from him after 2000’s Fidelity. Perhaps the most oft-repeated of these anecdotes is the turbulent production history of his masterpiece, On the Silver Globe.
That story goes something like this: after being politely kicked out of his country, Żuławski was called back. His commercial success with That Most Important Thing: Love in France gave Żuławski’s name international recognition, and the Polish People’s Republic was want for anything resembling good PR. Żuławski was then offered to return to Poland to film an adaptation of his great-uncle’s Moon Trilogy, best known for inspiring a young Stanislaw Lem. Since the film was funded by the Polish government, the elder Żuławski’s work must be adapted to reflect well on the Polish government. Given the sheer amount of historical allegories within the trilogy as well as Żuławski’s no-bullshit temperament, this is remarkably difficult. Żuławski took two years to adapt a screenplay, but shot both within and without Poland: many scenes take place in the alien landscapes of the Gobi Desert, the Wieliczka Salt Mines, the Georgian Caucasus Mountains, Crimea, and the Baltic Sea. Despite working for cheap, the ministry of cultural affairs shut down the production in 1977 for going over-budget. Or, at least, that’s the official story.
A second story, offered by Żuławski and his crew, points to a very specific political atmosphere in the People’s Republic. Poland, despite being a censorious Communist country, was rather open to opposing points of view in culture. Most of this permissiveness came from the country’s de-Stalinization in 1956 and evinces itself in the brutal films of Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, and Krzysztof Zanussi, as well as the inclusion of Radio Free Europe. This precedent gave Żuławski some hope in creating an epic film that criticizes blind ideology and lays out an origin story for corrupt nations that looks identical to totalitarian Eastern Europe. That hope was dashed in 1977 with the appointment of Janusz Wilhelmi as Deputy Minister of Culture and Art (Andrzej Korzynski, Żuławski’s regular composer, called him “a King Kong of sorts” at the screening at Lincoln Center). Wilhelmi was reportedly disturbed by the sheer amount of religious imagery in the film that seemed to propose that dogmatic acceptance of political power is no different from dogmatic acceptance of religious power. While this comparison may seem tame and uncontroversial today, it’s important to keep in mind that the Polish People’s Republic was vehemently opposed to the power of the Catholic Church that embedded itself in all of European history and culture. This immediately prompted reports of overspending and ultimately shut down the entire production. Wilhelmi repeatedly denied all requests to shoot the final few scenes and even ordered the dismantling of all sets, costumes, and props (which crew members kept tucked away in their own apartments). Żuławski, now completely disillusioned, moved back to France. When the Communist Party began to lose influence in Poland in 1987, Żuławski quickly restarted the project and edited the surviving materials for entry to the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. Korzynski recalled that these materials did not include any audio tracks, so Żuławski was required to ad-lib the entire film for its initial screenings. In the “finished” version, Żuławski replaces missing scenes with shots of his contemporary Poland, dubbed explanations of the missing narrative, and frequent complaints about censorship. To my mind, this is the most powerful use of breaking the fourth wall in cinema history, asking each viewer to live both in and out of the film, national history, and production history. With the opening lines, Żuławski growls that the film was “murdered” by his government. This is not another Star Wars.
In fact, the film itself is often more absurd than anything George Lucas dreamed up. (Korzynski complained that the release of Star Wars set a standard for large sci-fi productions that financially hurt On the Silver Globe on its official release and may have kept it from ever being marketable.) The story is structured as a hellish One Hundred Years of Solitude, as several generations of humans live and breed on an alien planet, ultimately misremembering their history and reducing (or enhancing?) it to religious myth. Visiting humans from Earth are treated as gods and are given ultimate political power within the tribes. The tribes incur factional differences: some disagree with the tenets of their ever-evolving religion, some breed with the native population of telepathic bird-people called Sherns (whose costumes are remarkably cheap, silly, and terrifying), and some just wish for order and a rock-solid authority. There’s a literal depiction of Plato’s Cave, as much of the tribe lives in a cave, denying them knowledge of the outside world, while the Sherns drone on about the Forms (it helps that Plato’s Cave is ultimately an allegory about how to best set up a political system and is oftentimes indistinguishable from fascism). There’s also a literal crucifixion as one of their gods becomes a bit too heretical, peaceful, and yet power-hungry. It’s all played as seriously as possible, even as a god screams at a bird person after being telepathically chastised. It’s the ultimate mix of cheap Eastern Bloc sci-fi and post-2001 grandiosity that could only be matched by the films of Piotr Szulkin. However, where Szulkin would play by the rules and look forward to a more democratic Poland, On the Silver Globe finds any sort of authority devoid of value and ultimately dangerous. To quote Eugene V. Debs, “In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People.” But even Debs would win votes with ideology, myth, narrative, and appeals to the past for a better future.
The film itself has always kept that level of political substance and and a pretty profound impact on me when I first watched it on DVD a few years back. That transfer was pretty renowned for being awful: the entire film had a garish yellow tint, every shot looked nearly out of focus, and only half the dialogue was translated—as only half the dialogue could even be heard over the music. Thus, when presented with the new digital transfer at Lincoln Center, I’d felt as if I were seeing a brand new film: it’s the masterpiece I’d always loved, but better in every conceivable way. Cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz used a different lens for each of the protagonists’ perspectives, and those subtle differences really show. A black-and-white lens was re-assembled to only let in shades of blue and green, making the Gobi Desert look both lush and dead at the same time. Light hits the salt mine with a particular diffusal that blankets an intense interrogation scene in penumbra, and those shades of black are finally discernible. A complete remix of the audio was completed for this transfer, so, possibly for the first time, each line of dialogue can be heard. The characters like to ramble, and the conversations don’t always make sense; but their screams and babbles and murmurs are finally free. On the Silver Globe is finally free.
The shutdown of Żuławski’s production marked one of the first acts of re-Stalinization in the Polish People’s Republic. In the same year, Polish censor Tomasz Strzyzewski defected to Sweden to reveal what, exactly, his government wanted excised from the minds of its citizens. Solidarity, a trade union consisting of Roman Catholics and the anti-Communist left, began to exert political sway until Communist Party leader Wojciech Jaruzelski shut it down and imprisoned its top members. Before the spirit of Solidarity reached the general Polish population in 1989, censorship and the removal of civil liberties was fairly common. It was in this environment that Żuławski, frustrated with his country and his marriage, made Possession, by far his most famous film. But, Possession was made in France. As were The Public Woman, L’amour braque, My Night Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Boris Godunov, The Blue Note, Fidelity, and Cosmos, Żuławski only made one film in post-Communist Poland: his most controversial Szamanka. The expat feeling runs throughout all of these films as the actors never feel quite comfortable in their environment and often run away as fast as they can.
But none of those films quite hit that atmosphere of political violence inherent in On the Silver Globe. It’s a film that wears all of its history and imperfections at the end of its raggedy sleeve. Like Żuławski himself, it’s brutally honest about the state of human affairs. This year, the United States has been exceeding even 1968 for the level of polarized conflict (sans a few assassinations). The national conventions for the elections are still months away, but the promise of partisan bloodshed is already here. It’s up to films like On the Silver Globe to make us reconsider our assumptions about how a society should be set up and managed. Should there be an overarching Platonic noble lie to keep the body politic stable? Whose authority is scarier: leaders or the broad public? Perhaps, as stated in one of the astronauts’ final soliloquies, we should place our highest value in epistemology and seek to not only know our “true” history, but rather seek to know the tools by which we can evaluate our history’s veracity. Perhaps we should admit our faults and try to reform according to that old adage: “think locally, act globally” (or was it “think globally, act locally”?). Perhaps we should return to idealism. Or, perhaps we should burn it to the ground.