When Jazmin Moreno, the programmer for Austin Film Society Cinema’s “Lates” series (“the new cult film canon”) introduced the recent, sold-out screening of Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe), she said that, if you were so fortunate as to have seen the film before its 2016 restoration by original director of photography Andrzej Jaroszewicz, you likely only saw a heavily yellowed print and not in a complete translation. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve seen it translated now. Part of the reason for the perceived incomprehensibility of the piece is that it’s unfinished, but given what extant footage remains, I doubt that the film would have become a success even if the director had been permitted to finish it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In 1975, three years after leaving his native Poland in order to avoid censorship by the communist government, director Żuławski achieved financial and critical success in France helming L’important c’est d’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love). The Polish cultural affairs office opted to invite him to come home and work on films in his native language once again. After spending two years adapting Trylogia Księżycowa (The Lunar Trilogy), science fiction novels written in the first decade of the twentieth century by his own great uncle Jerzy, Żuławski began production, but the project was halted in early 1978 by the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, supposedly due to the film going over its budget, but in reality because the Polish government was uncomfortable with the film’s anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian themes. Although Wilhelmi died in a plane crash shortly thereafter, it was not until the collapse of the ugly communism of that era that the film could be released, and even then only 80% of it had been completed. As completing the film as originally envisioned was essentially impossible, Żuławski filmed contemporary (late eighties) Warsaw along with some nature footage, and he recorded voice over describing the events from the screenplay that were no longer possible to bring to life on film. This was completed in 1988, and the result was screened at Cannes.
Depending upon how you look at it, the story behind the scenes of On the Silver Globe is either an ugly parable about political interference, a warning about the potential pitfalls of overreaching ambition, or a ballad of ultimate, if pyrrhic, victory against the forces of totalitarianism. Depending upon your perspective, this is also the story that happens within the film, although your mileage may vary. When I walked out of the screening and made the same joke to my friends that I made in the introduction above–that I still wasn’t sure I had seen the translated film–I wasn’t kidding. I’m far removed from the production of On the Silver Globe by space, time, philosophy, language, and politics; I honestly can’t figure out how Wilhelmi could possibly have sifted through the material and found enough of a thread of cohesion to definitively determine that any of it was seditious or subversive. To be honest, I wasn’t even entertained. Mystified, yes. Confused, yes. Engaged, also yes. And I was taken on a journey to somewhere I had never dreamed of, and saw things I could not have imagined. That is something truly astounding and deserving of commemoration, even if nothing about it makes sense.
For some context (and a pretty effective demonstration of how little anyone really understands this text), the film’s Wikipedia page identifies it as an adaptation of only the first novel, from which the title is taken. The page about the novel series on which it is based states clearly that “the film adapts the whole trilogy.” Based on the synopses: the first novel is about the initial expedition to the moon to discern whether or not the dark side of the satellite has an atmosphere that could support life, and the colonization of said orb by these pioneers; the second novel is about the coming of another terrestrial visitor who is hailed as a messianic figure by the descendants of the first group and enlisted in their war against the hostile lifeforms which seek to conquer and enslave them, with mixed success; the third novel tells the story of two lunar astronauts on an expedition to the earth. It all seems straightforward enough, right? But while the first and second novels’ plots are definitely present in the film, the third… might be?
The film opens (after an introductory narration from Żuławski) with a man in dirty but ornamented cloaks, furs, and a headdress riding a horse across a snowy wilderness against a sonic backdrop of mournful woodwinds. He bursts into some kind of dilapidated performance hall, where two men in silver suits, presumably astronauts, discuss their situation: they are here among apparently primitive humans, perhaps indigenous, whom they fend off by dispensing speed pills. The younger of the two is criticized by his elder for his apparently having gone somewhat native, including having taken on the facial markings of these tribal humans and even taken their offer of a woman, who now “belongs” to him. The rider from the opening presents them with a piece of space debris, which they identify as ancient and are skeptical that it could have only just fallen from the sky as claimed, but they discover that it is full of “old style” data discs, which they take to a laboratory and view . . . .
From here we follow the story of the first expedition to an unidentified planet (not the moon as in the novel, owing to the advance of scientific knowledge between 1903 and 1977), where a craft of five explorers has crashed, leaving one dead, one critically injured, and three relatively unharmed. Tomasz, the critically injured astronaut, dies shortly after arrival and is mourned by his pregnant lover Marta (Iwona Bielska), the only woman present. Piotr (Jerzy Grałek) becomes the default leader of the group, and Jerzy (Jerzy Trela) uses their cameras to record a history of the expedition, presumably the same one that fell to the ground and is being viewed by the aforementioned astronaut duo. The small group makes their way to a seashore, where they settle in. Marta names her newborn son Tomasz after his father, and she notes that he is growing more quickly than children on earth do; within an undefined but explicitly short period of time, he appears to be six or seven, and the mostly mute Marta begins to paint both his face and hers in the same kinds of patterns as those seen on the primitives in the prologue. Another time jump, and Marta has had several more children, all Piotr’s, and between their rapid aging and maturity, an entire small community has appeared on the shore and, despite the frequent allusions to carrying on only the best things about earth and leaving the ugliness of it behind, this group is still plagued by petty jealousies and sexual violence.
Jerzy lives largely removed from this community and becomes the “Old Man,” a kind of supernatural figure to the fledgling society, possessing a rationality and memory of their former homeworld that is seen as arcane–and perhaps dangerous–knowledge. After Piotr is killed by an unknown force, Marta convinces Jerzy to give her one last child; she dies in childbirth. Some time later, Jerzy returns to the seaside and is disgusted to find that these new humans have lapsed into mythologizing their origin almost immediately, characterizing a flash flood that the landing trio endured as a religious deluge and painting Marta as a goddess: “Fertile Marta begat thunder with the moon in heaven . . . She returned swept by the flood and begat fishes,” they say. Now attended by a hunchbacked “actor” and his own mad daughter, Jerzy finds the village under the rule of the “second” Tomasz (really the third, the grandson of the original astronaut who died after the crash), where ritual sacrifice and interpersonal violence are common, women are subjugated as breeding stock, and death has no meaning. Tomasz decides to lead his people across the sea to see what lies on the other side, only to return and tell Jerzy that they found a great city there, but that it was filled with an evil presence that will soon fly across the sea to take vengeance.
Thus ends the first third of the film, as Żuławski’s narration (which runs over apparently unedited footage of Polish shoppers descending an escalator) describes the ultimate fate of the scientific duo from the prologue: taken from the underground laboratory and town limb from limb. Seeing it all on the page like this, it almost seems comprehensible, even logical, doesn’t it? But this is just the narrative; the film itself is comprised almost entirely of philosophical monologues that are delivered in a series of screams and shrieks. An example: “Wait! Do you remember a man being born? The father endows him with the seeds of every possibility. Each man must cultivate it within himself. If it is vegetal, he will be a plant. If it is sensory, he will be an animal. If it is rational, his essence will become divine; finally, if it is intellectual, he will be an angel or the son of man.” Or: “Although we have thus attempted to get an austere view of this reality whose existence may depend on a decent life, on our work, our honor which permits us to express no more than what we ourselves have seen.” Or perhaps you’d prefer this one: “There is truth in anything I say if I am capable of expressing it. Freedom exists and resides in darkness, it turns away from the lust for darkness to lean towards the lust for light. It embraces the light with its everlasting will. And darkness strives to capture the light of freedom but it cannot do that because it is centered on its own lust and turns to darkness again.” And the whole time, you as an audience member are thinking to yourself, “Is this what the Polish government was afraid of? This circular and defeatist rhetoric that makes little to no sense?” Every single line is delivered with the same intensity, which becomes exhausting, and the only time you get a break is when someone gets upset and runs into the ocean, which happens with great frequency. People are forever trying to run from their problems into the ocean, getting to waist depth, and then delivering another monologue.
From there, we take another leap forward in time to the arrival of Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), another earthman. His ship is met by an envoy from the settlement and he is borne back to them on a kind of parade float, drifting through sylvan, pastoral vistas before being met by a group of acolytes bearing massive banners and ornamented headdresses. Like everything else in this film, it is visually stunning. When he arrives at the seaside, he finds that they have grown into a veritable (if tiny) nation, complete with an underground civilization (give or take the “civil”). Believing Marek to be the prophesied savior who will lead them to victory over the Sherns, the flightless telepathic bird people Tomasz’s envoy discovered across the water and who, it can be assumed, were the ones responsible for the attack that killed Piotr. In addition to carrying out attacks on the human colonists, they have been experimenting on humans and attempting to create hybrids by raping captured women. Marek is given a woman (Krystyna Janda) to be his consort, and he commits to his role without much hesitation, first defeating a captured Shern in a telepathic battle before leading an assault on their city, which ends poorly. He returns to find that the settlement’s inhabitants have lost their faith in him, executing those who are true believers and ultimately crucifying Marek. Literally.
Again, an out-and-out summary isn’t an accurate way to convey anything about this film, but I felt obligated to share one here, if for no other reason than the fact that I haven’t been able to find a coherent one anywhere on the internet, and even claiming that this one is authoritative would be inaccurate. Some of the elements that I couldn’t parse in my viewing only made sense when taken in conjunction with others’ readings, and in some of them there are inaccuracies that I can identify, meaning that none of us has a true idea what is happening here. Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney helped to clarify that much of what I perceived as unexplained warfare is in fact mass ritualistic battle, but he didn’t follow the narrative throughline “explaining” (ha!) that Marta’s first child was Tomasz’s, followed by an unknown number fathered by Piotr, and bookended by the birth of Jerzy’s child. John Coulthart’s review makes explicit that Marek defeated a Shern telepathically, which I mentioned in my summary above; at the same time, his reading of the text is that the discovery of Jerzy’s footage is what prompts Marek’s expedition, which (a) makes perfect sense but (b) I’m not sure is accurate. Given that the third novel’s narrative was about a reciprocal recon mission back to Old Earth, I think that the scenes with the two astronauts living among primitives and viewing Jerzy’s footage might have been the intended adaptation of this plotline, meaning that what we are seeing are Marta’s descendants returning to the homeworld and finding that mankind has descended into the same kind of barbarism as the tribe of Tomasz. My interpretation here is supported by the earthlike portraiture high in the eaves of the baroque performance hall in which this scene takes place, but Coulthart’s interpretation is supported by the fact that it makes more narrative sense (then again, cohesion was never this film’s intent). Only after reading Scout Tafoya’s review for RogerEbert.com did I understand the secondary narrative intercut with Marek’s story, about another scientist who is Marek’s friend; apparently, he and Marek’s girlfriend were having an affair and sent Marek off to investigate the previous expedition so that they could continue to see each other, and their incomprehensible dialogue is about their attempts to justify the fact that they sent him off to his likely death for their own selfishness. By the time that these scenes are happening, the viewer’s senses have been so thoroughly assaulted that finding meaning in the threads of this apparent chaos is an exercise in futility.
So much of this probably sounds like a complaint, and while that’s not not what’s happening here, that ignores the fact that this movie is stunning. At the intersection of ambition, melancholy, madness, and capital-A Art, there lies the Silver Globe. Sure, the dialogue vacillates between philosophical broadness and situational specificity that it induces whiplash as it bounces from meaningless to incomprehensible and back again, but the words spoken on screen are like the plot: simply background dressing. This is a film that is about the image, and spends all of its run time barreling forward (and backward, and side to side) with a frenetic energy that is never anything other than utterly captivating, disoriented but grounded, and very much alive. If by some miracle this film finds its way to you and you get the chance to experience it, don’t be put off by its 160 minute run time or the fact that you’ll be unable to wrap your head around it after one viewing (and after one viewing, you may never want to experience it again, and that’s fine), and just go and have the experience. Failing that, you could also just watch the trailer that AFS cut together for it 107 times to get an idea.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond