A&E Reviews

On The Silver Globe

by Chris Spangenberg

I’m a changed man. I usually say that after every encounter with another specimen film from the far fringe of our civilization, but this time it feels different in my gut. There is a ‘first’ for every film, from your generic ‘firsts’— first kiss, firstborn, first watching of 2001: A Space Odyssey — and then there’s the first time you watch an Andrzej Zulawski film. That happens only once too, but the experience invades your psyche with such exquisite tendrils. 

\r\n In December at the Cinematheque, I witnessed the digital restoration of his audacious sci-fi masterpiece On The Silver Globe on the opening night of Hysteria & Heartbreak, the in-memoriam program of the late (1940-2016) great Polish auteur Andrzej Zulawski. And while there’re lots of extraordinary and outlandish films, and not enough consciousness to process them, Zulawski’s film On The Silver Globe is essential viewing.

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\r\n Though ‘film’ is only the format of On The Silver Globe, it exceeds the typical narrative techniques of the medium. Marking Zulawski’s return to Poland (Polish cultural authorities enticed him back with a carte-blanche offer to produce a film of his own choice), the visionary Polish auteur decided to adapt one of his grand uncle’s (Jerzy Zulawski) novels from The Lunar Trilogy, an acclaimed science fiction series, for the big screen. The film was On The Silver Globe. However, production was shut down and the footage ordered destroyed in 1977 by the newly appointed cultural minister for its quasi-seditious content. A decade later, the surviving body of the film stitched together with voice-over narration and a delirious patchwork of pristine nature and 80s city street-level visuals (footage). On The Silver Globe premiered at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. What is left, then, is not really a film, but the shred of a film.

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\r\n The first act sees a group of astronauts leave Earth to find freedom and crash-land on an Earth-like planet. One of their members, Tomasz, dies, leaving only his wife Martha, his brother Piotr, and fellow crewmember Jerzy to unwittingly establish a primitive human society amid the planet’s native bird people. Equipped with a camera, Jerzy, the last living crewmember, films the history of their survival and the human society that arises. Before his death, when he has attained the status and appearance of a mystical hermit, he retreats to his crashed spacecraft and sends the transmission back to Earth. Cue the second act, where Marek, the next astronaut to crash land on the planet, is welcomed as a messiah by the human society. Years of change have gone by, and the humans are now in war with the Sherns, the native bird-like race who have kidnapped and mated with human women to create half-bird soldiers. Marek leads a military operation against the Sherns in their city while bewailing the breakup with his girlfriend back on Earth. Back on Earth, we learn he was only sent to the planet so that his girlfriend could continue her affair with a fellow officer.

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\r\n On The Silver Globe is all the former, denoting madness, frenzy, and ecstasy. Yet I expect nothing less from an infidel’s quest for the Holy Grail, the source of religion, which is the larger subject of the film. Zulawski treats it with an unapologetic audacity. Recurrent Christian motifs and religiosity loom in the background: questions of good and evil, the Old Man of the mountain, the Sufi parable of Solomon and the Angel of Death, as well as crucifixion. Moreover, the madness — the hysteria — prevalent in religiosity shows its face through the image of heretics impaled on raised wooden poles on a beach, the question of incest between the ancestors of the original astronauts, and the appeal Marek makes to the humanity of the despised half-bird soldiers, much like Christ befriending the lepers.

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\r\n Yet the madness blazes forth first and foremost from the crew of astronauts. The protagonists are histrionic Nietzscheans fond of gibberish soliloquys, none so eloquent or tortured as the messiah Marek caught in the throes of heartbreak and self-affirmation. Halfway through the second act of On The Silver Globe, I was reminded of Macbeth’s soliloquy delivered shortly before his death: “a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing”. Our tale here sure doesn’t signify nothing, but what sound! And what fury!

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\r\n American audiences are not well acquainted with Polish auteur Andrzej Zulawski, UBC instructor Helena Kudzia explained in the special introduction to the film. This is apparently due to a lack of availability and copious censorship. But with the endless capacity of an open Internet, that excuse is now as démodé as disco. And when your local cinema screens a gorgeous digital restoration of Zulawski’s film, throw away your books and gather in the aisles. There are lots of strange films and not enough consciousness to process them all; save your breath for Andrzej Zulawski and his phantasmagoric On The Silver Globe.

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