Friday, July 29, 2016

Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe

It is like the trippy, absurdist science fiction epic Jerzy Grotowski never made. Andrzej Zuławski also considered it the film he never made, or rather the film that was “murdered,” despite stitching together his surviving scraps into over two and a half hours of immersive strangeness. Thanks to the ham-fisted Polish Communist censors, it is an even more surreal viewing experience. Digitally restored to a clarity probably never really seen before, Zuławski’s mauled and maligned masterwork On the Silver Globe (trailer here) re-releases today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

In both narrative and aesthetic terms, Globe is closely compatible with Aleksey German’s adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers novel, Hard to Be a God, which should either thrill or despair viewers, depending on how severe and adventurous their tastes might be. Both films tell the stories of space travelers from Earth who essentially go native on a distant world. In the case of Globe, it is astronauts Marta, Jerzy, and Tomasz who give birth to a new human civilization, like an Adam and Eve threesome, but with all the jealousies implied by the “two’s company, three’s a crowd” cliché.

As the new civilization becomes increasingly tribal, their descendants welcome Marek, a new arrival from Earth as the messiah in the battle against the Sherns, the planet’s sinister bird-people, who seem to have some sort of extra-sensory powers. Or something like that.

Frankly, Zuławski was never really going for narrative cohesion in the first place. Yet, when the new Communist culture commissar Janusz Wilhelmi shut down his two-years-and-counting shoot and ordered the destruction of all the film and components Zuławski and his crew couldn’t hide away, it literally left gaping holes the auteur eventually filled in the late 1980s with voice-overs. Considering Zuławski always makes it explicitly clear why his narration is necessary, Globe might just be the most savagely passive aggressive film you will ever see.

It is also remarkably heady and bafflingly obscure. While the religious symbolism is tough to miss, the finer points of the alien culture and the characters’ relationships seem to shift and evolve with confounding regularity. Yet, like German’s film, it is loaded with outlandish set pieces and gritty, grimy world-building detail. Cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s wide angles and fish-eyes gives it all a truly otherworldly look, while Andrezej Korzynski’s electro-ambient-symphonic-blues-prog-rock score heightens the eclectic, anything-goes vibe.

No matter how you cut it, Globe simply was not a great showcase for its cast, unless there was a state-approved hack director looking for a thesp to run amok like a naked shrieking wild man, smearing mud and blood on his chest. However, it is bold cinematic vision from an aesthetically and ideologically rebellious artist. Arguably, Wilhelmi shot himself in the foot banning and marring a film that so many would have found utterly incomprehensible, but they understood perfectly the oppressiveness of his decree. Even if you have no idea what to make of it (and the cinema gods will readily pardon you for that), it is still nice to have it available in all its raggedy, defiant glory. Recommended for serious film students and patrons of censored works, On the Silver Globe open today (7/29) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.