On the Silver Globe
1987Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Grazyna Dylag, Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Seweryn
ndrzej Zulawski started work on On the Silver Globe in 1976 and was nearing the end of shooting when the Polish government shut down production in 1978. The sets and prints were destroyed, but the director and members of his cast and crew managed to smuggle some of the pieces out of the country. Zulawski then returned to the relatively open Poland of 1986 to try to finish his movie. He didn’t quite succeed, but what he ended up with is fascinating.
The 160 minutes of the movie break down pretty neatly into three acts. In the first, four astronauts, three men and a woman, crash land on what I believe is meant to be the dark side of the moon, and birth a huge amount of strange children before dying off. The children grow up extremely rapidly, begin to have children themselves, and develop a peculiar religion in which the original astronauts are gods—including the one who survives, whether he wants to be a god or not.
The second act takes place many generations later and concerns the arrival of a new astronaut, Marek, whose coming was foretold in prophecy and who supposedly will be a savior, leading the people in an uprising against their alien oppressors (yeah, there are alien oppressors—sort of). The third act alternates between Marek’s battle against the alien Shernes, who have enslaved the humans, and some bizarre goings-on on what may or may not be Earth, as well as the complete dissolution of any ties to narrative structure that the movie ever had.
And these ties are only tenuous at best. Communist Europe somehow produced a great deal of hallucinatory science fiction, starting perhaps with Iakov Protazanov’s psychotic 1924 movie Aelita, on to the novels of Stanislaw Lem (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s beautiful film adaptation of one of them, Solyaris), and beyond. On the Silver Globe hallucinates with the best of them.
It’s hard to know how to approach this movie. On a certain level, I rebel against it. Artistically, it’s easy to call it a failure: it’s incoherent and unfinished (there are even whole missing scenes that Zulawski has to narrate to us), and actually rather ugly. The color palette is overwhelmingly skewed to the gray-blue, to the point where sometimes I wondered if I was entirely imagining the presence of color. As a feminist, too, I have trouble with it; the role of that first female astronaut, Marta, whose job it (apparently) is to have countless babies and then die in childbirth, makes me deeply uncomfortable, as does her later veneration as a mother-goddess—and that’s just in the first hour; later on we get temple sex slaves and lines like “His male creative power turned into female readiness.” At least there’s equal-opportunity nudity, which is more than can be said of Hollywood.
Beyond the level where I’m uncomfortable, though, is another where I keep thinking that this movie is a remarkable object. As philosophy and literature, too, it is a lovely riddle. The nature of the Shernes, particularly, is intriguing: winged, resembling angels and demons equally, silent but eloquent, possibly (it is suggested) illusory, they are one of the greatest true aliens in cinema. This is science fiction like Dune or the Book of the Long Sun novels by Gene Wolfe, which is to say epic fantasy that replaces magic with trappings of technology, which is not to say that the difference is cosmetic.
Here, Earth is a place of myth, half revered and half disbelieved by the human population of the alien planet, longed for as a lost home by the astronauts (“People don’t kill on the Earth,” Marek tells his temple bride). And then, of course, there were the moments that made the science fiction fan in me go squee!, like when we find out that the Shernes keep their blinky light-up eyes in drawers. This new DVD release is also the only glimpse English speakers have at a classic of science fiction literature; it’s based on The Lunar Trilogy by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), published from 1901 to 1911 and translated into just about every European language except English. Maybe some kindly Polish speaker will see the movie and be moved to translate the novels…please?
There are all kinds of “lost masterpieces” in any field of art, from great non-albums by The Beach Boys and Captain Beefheart to missing Da Vinci paintings. Add one to the list for cinema. It is tempting to wish Zulawski had had a chance to finish his movie on his own terms, but I think maybe it’s better this way. It seems almost as though this film’s natural state is one of incompleteness, and it is hard to imagine what completion would add. No matter how finished it is, it’s not a likeable movie, not a reasonable one, and while no amount of polish could make me like it, no amount of roughness can keep me from loving it.
On the Silver Globe will be released on DVD later this month.
By: Ethan Robinson
Published on: 2007-08-16