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‘On the Silver Globe’ is an Unfinished Cathedral

Let’s take a tour

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

I only watched On the Silver Globe because they were about to take it away from me. There it was, nestled away on the BFI Player (a platform I’ve been hymning since my earliest days on Medium), sitting idly on my to-watch list — that is, until the clock started ticking down. I don’t know about you, but in these days of near-unlimited viewing options, this is often the sort of kick I need to finally get around to watching something. In this case, that something was an unfinished, Polish language science-fiction epic weighing in at nearly three hours. Its days on BFI were numbered; it would only be available for another twenty-four hours. My flatmate Nick and I took our chance, and we couldn’t be happier that we did.

Let’s start with the facts. In the late ‘70s, Polish director Andrzej Żuławski worked on a film adaptation of the Lunar Trilogy series of novels by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski. (These early-20th Century classics have only recently become available in English, and if anyone has read them then I would love to hear from you.) The director had had great success in France, and had been invited to return to the People’s Republic of Poland by Edward Gierek’s government. Gierek may be remembered as the First Secretary who liberalised and modernised Communist Poland — any leader’s term might look attractive when followed by the grim Jaruzelski years — but Żuławski’s experience gives this the lie.

He seized what he thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity to realise his great-uncle’s vision, and dedicated years of his life to the production before it was shut down in the middle of principle photography by the Communist authorities, citing apparent budget concerns. In a chilling act of vandalism, these philistines destroyed the materials created for the film — sets, props, the astonishing costumes — rendering a resumption of production impossible.

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

Żuławski was eventually allowed to preside over a final cut of the extant footage, and the movie premiered at Cannes in 1988. As it stands, the movie flaunts its massive discontinuities. The director himself provided recorded inserts, played over footage of modern-day Warsaw, in which he explains the missing footage. The effect isn’t unlike reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which scholarly commentary must step in where the original tablets are illegible.

Now let’s be clear about two things. First, Żuławski is neither shrill nor melodramatic when he claims that this movie was “murdered” by the censors. This announcement comes during the opening voiceover. At first I thought one could get away with less extreme descriptions — gored, maimed, perhaps disembowelled — but as the film presses on despite its gaping wounds one can think of nothing more apt. Second, this movie is still a masterpiece. As much as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, or Keats’s Hyperion poems, it’s an overwhelming aesthetic experience. So authentic and visionary are the assembled fragments of this film that they beggar speculative completion. The inserts can only torture us with the word-shadows of vanquished images.

God damn those thugs.

Here’s the best that I can do to recreate the events of the film after a single viewing. I couldn’t begin to indicate where description ends and interpretation begins; to watch it is to puzzle at riddles. I can only hope to convince you to seek out this thwarted yet unbowed monument. Here’s a film not soon forgotten: a science-fiction spectacular that makes Kubrick look coy and Tarkovsky seem plodding as it throws its mighty arms around no less than the origin and destiny of intelligent life itself. It gives the lie to William Golding’s vision in Lord of the Flies. The true nightmare isn’t chaos, but civilisation.

We open with two astronauts from Old Earth, long established on some other planet and firmly ensconced among the local population. It’s a familiarly verdant world, and the inhabitants are an uncanny bunch, clearly human despite their heavy cloaks, elaborate headdresses, and mystifying facepaint. There’s mutual incomprehension between natives and visitors, yet also tentative harmony based on barter; the astronauts receive food, security, and awe in return for portions of their mind-altering drugs. (When, oh when will I get to see this movie again? Clearly there’s satire already in these opening reels. How much was missed on a first viewing?)

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

One day their hosts bring them a damaged spaceship module, a sort of Sputnik small enough to be swaddled and held. They claim that it fell from the sky, and the astronauts reckon it’s half a century old; it’s legible only to their oldest equipment. They sit down to watch the footage, which sets up the massive mise-en-abyme that is this unfinished cathedral’s holiest-of-holies: decades’ worth of found footage documenting the fate of a previous space voyage, depicting no less than the progeniture of the alien civilisation that they find themselves among.

So what does this time capsule disclose? Here follows an hour of glory and rapture. A voyage to the stars went awry and the vessel crashed on an Earth-like planet. The commander is killed on impact; another astronaut, Tomasz, is fatally injured. He dies raving and babbling of the ineluctable freedom of the spirit while his comrade Piotr rhapsodises the great republic of intellect that shall be inscribed upon the blank pages of this raw world. Tomasz’s partner Marta mourns him savagely, and we’re to understand that this mythic wound is the foundational violence of a new religion.

Time passes, and like a Joseph estranged from a Mary transmogrified by immaculacy, the rational empiricist Piotr finds himself shut out of the ferocious love of Marta and her son, the second Tomasz. Failing and flailing as a stepfather (“Earth is what I feel for you”), he turns to abstract thought to heal the fissure between man and nature. Faced with an irrationalism vibrant and alive beyond anything in his repertoire of Enlightenment clichés, he tries to resuscitate thought through faith and to ground faith in rootedness. He fails not only because his effort is circular, but because he discovers that there is no transcendental morality in nature. Ultimately he succumbs to atavism.

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

We are privy to all this thanks to the dogged persistence of Jerzy, the other surviving astronaut. Significantly, he not only shares his creator’s Christian name but also his initial with another certain creator. J, or Yahweh, of the Hebrew Bible, was a much more anthropomorphic deity than the celestial monarch of later Christianity, and he was partial to taking walks among his subjects. Just ask Enoch. Jerzy continues filming the benighted mission for untold years after his companions have abandoned their body cams — even after their deaths — and then through something like antediluvian longevity becomes a divinity to the rapidly proliferating population. (Off a first viewing I’m still baffled by generational time in this movie. Could it be that Jerzy simply seems deathless by dint of outliving his peers? And also: much like when reading Genesis, you’re simply going to have to accept that incest can spawn an entire people.) Naturally the children of Marta would turn to the old man for guidance and revealed wisdom, but he thwarts their yearnings.

From the beginning Jerzy posed himself as apart from his fellow travellers, steering a third way of sceptical nihilism between Piotr’s enlightened totalitarianism and Tomasz’s gnostical dissidence. Perhaps believing in nothing makes him not only a free man but also the perfect camera man. Or maybe not; to his horror he realises that he has been complicit in bringing chaos to a clean world. Again like the great god J, he retreats into a silence that infuriates the people. His narration is withheld from its subjects, and it’s his inscrutability which makes him divine. Their theological uncertainties are displaced into voyages of discovery, and their nascent civilisation embarks on what turns out to be a suicide mission that awakens a sleeping dragon.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the juncture at which we realise that the movie has been fucking butchered. Inserts have to do the heavy work of drawing Jerzy’s saga to a close, returning us to the present-day astronauts, bringing their story to an enigmatic conclusion, and then introducing an entirely new segment. Up until this point, the occasional intrusion of explanatory voiceover could almost be rationalised as a Brechtian instrument of disruption. After all, the movie flaunts its artificiality in other ways: not only in terms of mythopoeic suspension of disbelief, but also through deliberate theatricality. This is no mere found-footage feature; Żuławski grants himself the freedom to toggle between frenetic handheld camera-work and breath-taking neoclassical compositions. The inserts also work as miniature intervals granting us room to breathe amidst all the invention on display. I genuinely needed it.

We’re informed that the younger of the two astronauts weeps at what he’s seen and that he no longer knows who he is. He’s reeling from a Darwinian trauma that has obliterated the distance between him and the planet’s natives, but there’s more to it than that. His shock is at least as spiritual as it is scientific. His tears are also ours, for we have just witnessed a story of Abrahamic proportions and bathed in the waters of life. This story of the first generations could be extracted to stand alone as one of the greatest sci-fi fantasies and religious epics of all time. You can bet that the costume designers of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah are familiar with this movie.

But we’re only about a third of the way through the action, and what’s left is far more problematic in form. The seizure and destruction of the production materials by the Communist hooligans not only ruins the major transition; it leaves what ought to be the New Testament ragged with ellipses, bleeding and delirious at the threshold of incoherency. Our viewing is interrupted at seemingly every turn, and even long, unmolested passages challenge the viewer’s concentration and intellect with dense soliloquys which abandon the moral or psychological representation of character in favour of abstract ideas. There was plenty of that in the first segment, and throughout the movie the content and intended tonality of these speeches remain elusive. However, in the second part this abstruseness is actively punishing, because we’re denied the emotional and purely “human” connection that we were able to establish with Marta’s generation and their immediate progeny.

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

And yet there’s an undeniable pathos, both intrinsically and meta-textually. The movie’s tattered incompleteness stands as witness to the mind and spirit-choking horror of 20th Century totalitarianism. But this doesn’t require special pleading like Suite Française or Der Kaiser von Atlantis. There’s nothing partial or approximate about its effect on the viewer: it’s an exhausting experience, one that left me feeling knackered for a full day afterwards. It’s the exhaustion of having lived a million lives in less than three hours. The second part is as crucial as the first, despite all reservations.

So, “some years” after the time of our original astronauts’ viewing session, a messianic cult has arisen around the promise of further visitations from Old Earth, and the Brotherhood of Waiting keeps the hope alive for one who will deliver Marta’s children from the tyranny of the Shern. These hideous, flightless vulture-men (not a million miles removed from the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal, now that I think about it) are the true natives of the planet, who hadn’t noticed humanity until they came to their shores in defiance of Jerzy. The apparent deliverer arrives in the form of Marek, an astronaut guided by Jerzy’s old footage and seemingly fleeing from marital discord.

As far as I could tell, four lines of narrative emerge and interweave. Two of them — Marek’s romance with the high priest’s daughter, and a Shakespearean comic subplot involving that same priest and some wandering actor — survive in the final cut as nothing but inscrutable fragments. My notes taken during our viewing tell me that “the movie venerates its female characters as vectors of culture and lifeforce without being reducible to liberal feminist didacticism.” Make of that what you will.

A third plot involves the pursuit of Marek by those he left behind on earth: his wife Aza, and her lover Jacek. With this matter the movie’s imagery glitches into outright surrealism. Aza is costumed in 20th Century haute couture, and Jacek drives an old banger while dressed as an astronaut. Is this a satire on commercial “realism”? No matter how you interpret it, it’s like having a finger poked in your eye. Perhaps the filmmakers never planned to resolve this disjunction, but did they intend these incongruous images to scan as aggressively as this?

Image: Studio Filmowe Kadr

At any rate, the most potent and suggestive passages depict Marek’s messianic journey and his obsession with the Shern — in particular one that he’s taken prisoner, whose infuriating reticence reprises Jerzy’s. (I assure you: the movie, such as it is, introduces this plotline as abruptly as I just did.) How should we read these creatures? Vengeful nature as the return of the repressed? Fanged noumena? God and nature are equally deaf to human inquiry, and their silence constitutes mankind’s alienation from both. But just as Jerzy was a false God, the Shern turn out to be a false image of nature. The whole saga turns out to be a chronicle of human error in interpreting natural phenomena. Leading a raid on the Shern capital — and this touch feels like something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft — Marek discovers frescoes depicting their society’s foundation upon an ancient and elaborate hierarchy (heartbreakingly, this is conveyed by insert). The idea of a “true” nature is a human construct.

All this culminates in crucifixion, and even without being able to explain exactly how, this remains the most impressive restaging of Christian mythology that I have ever witnessed. Along the way there are scenes of awe and wonder, and apocalyptic tableaus which bridge the gap between surrealism and early devotional art. There is hope and despair, tenderness and fury, agony and ecstasy. Much as one yearns to see it finished, much as one can only dream of seeing it finished, its incompleteness gives it a more than peculiar interest.

The film is more than merely a martyr to Communism; it’s an affirmation of aestheticism itself, of style as the determinant of content. It’s not enough to be told what we would have seen, and interpretation can only fall silent before this film’s gaping lacunae.

Even truncated, this is a work which thrills, exhausts, and elevates. It magnifies the viewer by expanding the possibilities of human imagination. I will never forget it.

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Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.