‘On the Silver Globe’ Is the Best Sci-Fi Film Never Made
The story of how one of the most stunning sci-fi films ever made was (almost) swallowed by history.
All images from the unreleased remastered version of On the Silver Globe. Courtesy of Daniel Bird/KADR Film Studio
This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular series exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
It's hard to imagine what it must've felt like to see Star Wars for the first time when it was released in 1977, but according to pretty much everyone who was there, it was nuts. The fantasy space opera was a pinnacle of technical innovation in American cinema that would go on to win ten academy awards and quickly become the highest grossing film ever up to that point.
At the same time Lucas was being showered with accolades for his "weirdo" space opera, another cinematic revolution was underway on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It was a science fiction film called On the Silver Globe and it was to be the magnum opus of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski.
Like Lucas' blockbuster, Zulawski's film was a space opera that was both technically and thematically unprecedented, but that's where the similarities end. Rather than taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the film takes place on Earth's moon in the not too distant future. It is profoundly unsettling, cinematically jaw-dropping and the exact opposite of "fun and funny."
On the Silver Globe is one of the best sci-fi films I've ever seen, or at least it would've been if Zulawski had been able to finish it.
As it exists today On the Silver Globe is only partially complete, a victim of censorship by Poland's communist government. Fortunately Zulawski returned to Poland to rescue the film in the late 1980s after a period of self-imposed exile following the implosion of his masterpiece, so we have at least some idea of what could've been.
At once the retelling of a 100-year old sci-fi novel written by Zulawski's granduncle, a meditation on communist Poland, and a deeply personal insight into the breakdown of Zulawski's marriage, On the Silver Globe is a kaleidoscopic tour de force that was almost swallowed by history.
At a time when humans are seriously considering the permanent colonization of other celestial bodies, On the Silver Globe feels as timely now as it was while it was being made in the late 1970s, less than a decade after Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.
The film is ostensibly about a group of dissident astronauts who crash land on the moon after escaping from a degraded and vaguely dystopian Earth. This original group of astronauts eventually makes their way to the shore of an ocean (yes, the moon has liquid oceans—more on this later) where they establish a camp and begin the task of populating the moon. Upon the birth of the first moonchild, however, it is apparent that the children born on the moon grow up a lot faster than they do on Earth.
As it exists today On the Silver Globe is only partially complete, a victim of censorship by Poland's communist government
This unexpected complication involved in populating the moon means that several generations of children can be produced during the lifetime of one of the astronauts born on Earth. Each successive generation of moonchildren grows increasingly hostile or indifferent to the knowledge of the astronauts and begins developing their own primitive culture. Gone are the days of teaching the moonchildren calculus on the shores of the ocean—instead, those born on the moon grow up in a society dominated by a pagan religion in which the original astronauts serve as a priestly caste.
After the second to last male astronaut is murdered in a thinly veiled recounting of the story of Cain and Abel, the sole remaining astronaut becomes a sort of demigod whom the moonpeople simply refer to as the 'old man.' Right before he dies, the last astronaut sends a small rocket back to Earth, containing all of the footage that was being taken by the camera on his helmet since the astronauts had crashed landed.
The capsule containing the footage is found by a scientist on Earth named Marek whose wife had recently left him. In the throes of despair, the scientist decides to abandon his ruined life on Earth to travel to the moon to confirm the veracity of the tapes. Upon his arrival he is treated as a messianic figure by the moonpeople, his coming supposedly foretold in their religion.
When the scientist Marek realizes that these people consider him to be the messiah, he adopts the role and helps the moonpeople win their war against the Szerns, a race of telepathic half-bird, half-human brutes who are native to the moon. Yet once Marek has freed the moonpeople from slavery under the Szerns, they turn on him and hang him from a massive cross for his failure to fulfill their prophecy by returning the moonpeople to Earth.
Although the film clearly draws its themes and imagery from a number of canonized and apocryphal Biblical stories, the film is really based on a trilogy of science fiction novels published in 1912. Collectively known as the the lunar trilogy, these novels were written by Andrzej Zulawski's greatuncle Jerzy Zulawski.
Like Andrzej, Jerzy Zulawski was classically trained in philosophy and its influence shows in his only major work of fiction. At once a blend of Poland's catholic sensibilities, cosmological ignorance, and Jerzy's natural observations from his time spent in the mountains (he was an avid alpinist), his lunar trilogy is a fantastic odyssey to a moon where fire burns green, liquid oceans harbor untold varieties of fish, and strange moon fowl run wild on the lunar terrain.
Aside from a few minor technical updates to make the film feel vaguely futuristic, Andrzej Zulawski's film is remarkably faithful to the original book trilogy. Despite having scientific knowledge from nearly a decade's worth of human presence on the moon, Zulawski chose to keep the scientific anomalies found his granduncle's books, as well as their narrative structure.
The main differences between the books and the films is a result of the former being written Jerzy in a pre-Soviet Poland where the Catholic Church was synonymous with power, whereas Andrzej's film was being crafted during a time where the authority of the church in Poland was entirely denied by an increasingly authoritarian Communist state.
As a result, Zulawski's film is neither pro-Communist nor pro-Catholic. Instead, it is an ideological goulash, drawing equally from Buddhism, apocryphal Christianity, historical materialism, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to produce a powerful meditation on the human drive to produce meaning in a universe devoid of any.
A provocateur from the outset, Zulawski's second major project, The Devil, was a period drama released in 1972 that served as a critique of the March 1968 riots in Poland (a pivotal moment in the history of the country, insofar as they sparked off the authoritarian crackdown while prefiguring the popular democratic movements that would define Poland in the 1980s). The themes of the film rubbed the Polish cultural authorities the wrong way and his film was banned soon after its release. Disillusioned by the cultural repression in his homeland, Zulawski left for Paris shortly after his film was banned so that he could pursue his art without censorship. It was here that he wrote and directed That Most Important Thing: Love, which was so successful in France that the Polish government invited Zulawski back to his homeland to make films again. Upon his return in 1975, Zulawski began adapting his granduncle's lunar trilogy into a script. When he applied to Poland's ministry of culture for funding, his project was far and away the largest cinematic undertaking in the history of Polish film.
After securing funding, Zulawski had to find actors for what was clearly shaping up to be the young director's magnum opus. Andrzej Seweryn, who was a well-regarded actor in Polish television in the 70s and 80s, still vividly remembers how the first time he met Zulawski. Seweryn was acting in a Polish television series opposite of Malgorzata Braunek, Zulawski's wife. When Zulawski came to the set of the show one day, he offered the advice on how Braunek and Seweryn should make love on camera.
"Then one day Zulawski called me and asked me to meet him in his apartment," said Seweryn. "He gave me a script and I was very, very happy with this new original world. He hadn't decided what part I should play, but after sometime he decided to give me the leading role of Marek."
When I called Seweryn in his hotel room, he had just returned from a rehearsal at the Polski Theatre in Warsaw, where he is the head manager. Seweryn is still one of Poland's most acclaimed actors on stage and in front of a camera, and he has worked with some of the best directors in the world, including Spielberg, who gave him a role as Julian Scherner in Schindler's List. According to Seweryn, however, his ability to work with high-maintenance A-list directors was learned during his time with Zulawski on the set of Silver Globe.
"The first thing he told me [on set] was Polish actors are too fat," said Seweryn. "He said I should be less fat and from this moment on, I still generally don't eat bread. Zulawski was very precise and demanding, but after working on On the Silver Globe, I was ready to work with anybody in the world."
"Zulawski really shot from the hip. He didn't obey any form of authority, he was an anarchist."
Zulawski's notoriety for precision and timeliness was confirmed by Daniel Bird, a film director and historian who had spent the better part of the last two decades working as a sort of ad-hoc assistant to Zulawski in Poland. Yet in spite of his notoriously austere approach to filmmaking, Bird maintains that Zulawski wasn't all gloom and doom on set.
"Zulawski was a very heavy person, but he had a great sense of humor," said Bird. "And when you think of it, there is a sense of irony in On the Silver Globe. It doesn't seem to be funny at first, but there is a kind of cosmic sense of humor at play there. I think that's often lost."
Part of Zulawski's stern approach to On the Silver Globe was a result of separating from his wife, Malgorzata Braunek, just prior to beginning his screenplay adaptation of the lunar trilogy. In many ways, Zulawski used the film to escape the heartbreak of the separation, but at the same time he also had to be careful not to tread on the toes of the Communist cultural authorities who were bankrolling the film. At the time On the Silver Globe was being produced, Polish artists were lashing out against the increasing artistic censorship being levied by the government. In order to avoid this tension turning into outright rebellion, the ministry of culture instituted a period of critical self-reflection which allowed artists to be critical of the soviet regime—at least up to a point.
These few years of the liberalization in the Polish cultural establishment gave rise to the "cinema of moral anxiety," a period of Polish cinema defined by a movement away from historical films to films that critically focused on the psychology of everyday Poles under communism. These were the years that saw the release of Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble as well as Krzysztof Zanussi's Camouflage, now considered gems of Polish cinema. Although Zulawski was a contemporary of these Polish directors and On the Silver Globe was being produced around the same time, according to Bird the film shares absolutely no traits with the films of moral anxiety.
"Zulawski really shot from the hip," said Bird. "He didn't obey any form of authority, he was an anarchist. As a consequence he paid the price and has always been an outsider. Wajda, by contrast, knew how to push the authorities to a point, but he never had a film banned."
A radical in a time when some degree of radicalism was officially tolerated, the production of Zulawski's On the Silver Globe was abruptly canceled after nearly two years of production that had brought Zulawski and his colleagues from the salt mines of Wieliczka to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia (a deal that was brokered because Mongolia owed Poland some debts and exchanged rights to film in the country as partial repayment).
The official reason for the cancellation cited budgetary restraints, but Seweryn and others believed that the real reason was that the film was too critical of the communist establishment and blame the cancellation Janusz Wilhelmi, an overly ambitious secretary of cinematography in Poland's cultural ministry, who sought to make a name for himself by attacking films he saw as against Soviet principle.
"The order of our minister of culture was the order for everybody," said Seweryn. "[Poland] didn't have private cinema, it was a cinema of the state so stop meant stop. We tried to protest, to sign a letter, but it was without any result."
After Zulawski saw his magnum opus swept out from under his feet by Wilhelmi's orders, he fled to France, devastated. He wouldn't return to Poland for another decade.
When Zulawski did return to Warsaw in 1988, he had already produced Possession, generally considered to be the pinnacle of his filmography. With the help of a production assistant, Zulawski managed to secure the working shots from On the Silver Globe and he filled in the unfilmed gaps in the film's narrative with shots he took from around Warsaw documenting everyday Polish life in 1988.
"Zulawski knew when he came to Poland ten years later that all the actors would be too old and the footage wouldn't match if he kept filming," Bird said. "The simplest thing to do was embrace the fact that the film was a ruin and rather than hide those flaws, embrace them. So the contemporary sequences connect this phantasmagorical world in the 1970s with contemporary Polish reality in the 80s: a country on the cusp of collapsing."
Zulawski managed to smuggle On the Silver Globe out of Poland and into France, where he screened the semi-completed film at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. During the screening, Zulawski stood on stage and provided live narration explaining what was supposed to be happening during the parts that were missing from the film. He provided live commentary for three screenings before recording a version of his voiceover that was included on the film's release. The commentary is full of vitriol, the bitter observations of a man who saw the pinnacle of his life's work irreparably disfigured by the vicissitudes of politics.
On February 17, Andrzej Zulawski passed away from cancer at a hospital in Warsaw. Three days later, a restored version of On the Silver Globe premiered at Film Comment Selects in New York. The screening was attended by Bird (who re-produced the restoration), Andrzej Korzynski, and Andrzej Jaroszewicz, the film's composer and cinematographer, respectively. According to Bird, both Korzynski and Jaroszewicz considered it to be the first time the film had been seen the way Zulawski had intended.
During the production of On the Silver Globe, Jaroszewicz shot using a green filter, which lends the original release of the film its moody, washed out color palette. The problem of course is that when Zulawski and his colleagues tried to do color correction in post-production, the chemicals lowered the film's resolution. Although the only other two films Zulawski produced in communist Poland (The Devil and The Third Part of the Night) had received funding for restoration from the Polish government in the early 2000s, On the Silver Globe never received the same treatment.
To rectify this oversight, Bird set out to acquire the funds necessary to digitally remaster the film, improving its coloration and audio. Despite his close relationship with Zulawski, Bird didn't tell the aging director his intentions to seek funds to remaster the film until after the process was in motion.
"Zulawski considered On the Silver Globe a broken film and it was very difficult to get him to talk about it," said Bird. "He described the film to me as like opening a tomb and I think he did what he could to not confront dealing with it. So I secured the finance for restoring the film without him knowing because I knew if I asked him he'd say no."
Although Zulawski passed away just days before the premier of the remastered version of his film, he was able to see a color corrected version at his home in Warsaw. According to Bird, Zulawski was pleased with the result.
As both Bird and Seweryn were quick to point out, Zulawski was always a director who was ahead of his time, and nowhere is this more evident than in On the Silver Globe. Although Zulawski himself considered the film a failure, it is difficult to watch his partially completed masterpiece today without feeling moved.
At once an incredible story of adventure and survival, a product of a bleak time in Polish history, a monument to Zulawski's personal grief, and an unprecedented philosophical exploration of what it means to be human in a meaningless universe, On the Silver Globe cannot be represented by any one of its elements, but must be considered only as the incomplete sum of these fragments.
"This movie was raped by a cruel power, but is a testimony of these times," said Seweryn. "It is proof of the strength of Polish artists. During shooting we thought we were doing some special, exceptional movie and still today I think we were right."
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