A work of makeshift grandiosity as well as of genuine folly, Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe was born in a turmoil mirrored by its chopped narrative. Started in 1976 as an epic adaptation of a turn-of-a-century philosophical sci-fi trilogy by the director’s great uncle, the production was then abruptly stopped by the communist ministry of culture in 1977. Officially too expensive to continue, the movie was in fact too politically incorrect to handle.
It wasn’t till 1987 that Andrzej Zulawski was allowed to tinker with the incomplete footage and assemble it into what it currently is: “a stump of a movie,” per his off-screen opening remark. In the meantime, pieces of costumes and set designs were clandestinely preserved in private apartments by the film’s heroic crew, with the original negative miraculously ignored—and thus rescued—in a pile of cans standing next to a film archive’s hallway radiator.
However maimed, the movie is all the more fascinating for its incompleteness. Much like Andrzej Munk’s unfinished The Passenger, On the Silver Globe presents itself both as a narrative and an essay upon its own making. Plot gaps are filled with non-narrative footage that varies from static nature shots to frenzied zipping through the streets of contemporary Warsaw and Kraków—all overlaid with Zulawski’s own voice, dryly synopsizing unfilmed sections of the script.
The effect is nothing less than haunting. The literal plot of the movie, having to do with a group of space travelers discovering a new planet and building a civilization from scratch, is juxtaposed with documentary footage of the crumbling failed experiment that was communist Poland. Zulawski’s focal point of interest throughout is the primordial soup of burgeoning religious impulses—the process of “human minds oozing religion out of themselves,” as he described it to a TV interviewer in 2000.
More than any other film in the director’s oeuvre, On the Silver Globe relies on the characters addressing the audience directly—an act which is itself mirrored by Zulawski’s reading the script in the explanatory inserts. The movie’s first hour is presented as found footage: eons before The Blair Witch Project, we get a faux-home-movie representation of the fantastic. As the astronauts are slowly forming a kernel of civilization in the midst of the unwelcoming, ashen-grey planet (represented by the Gobi desert), the visual rhythm is dictated by nervous jump cuts and handheld camera movements, which mimic the characters’ sense of growing panic and irresolution.
The film’s long second act is devoted to the visit of a Messianic figure of Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), sent to investigate the new civilization and welcomed by its members as their savior from a malevolent race of bird-like “Sherns.” It is here that Zulawski’s camera goes into its full hypnotic-immersion mode, with some madly propelled shots of insane energy, which reportedly made Martin Scorsese gasp and ask the director about the enormity of his budget.
On the Silver Globe, based on a work the director felt particularly close to (“It’s the saddest book I ever read”), doesn’t always work well as storytelling, but is immensely rich as an act of philosophical inquiry. Its dialogue full of expertly disguised nuggets borrowed from the likes of Norman Mailer and Karl Marx, the film is a desperate meditation on the human hunger for religion, as well as our shared need of submitting ourselves to figures of authority. As such, it’s probably the bravest Polish film ever made. The final shot of Zulawski making a brief appearance as a passing reflection in a shop window has a Wellesian gravity that echoes the finale of yet another maimed masterpiece, especially as we hear the film’s last spoken words: “My name is Andrzej Zulawski, I’m the director of On the Silver Globe.”
BAMcinématek’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski” runs from March 7—20. For more information, click here.