What does one make of a film whose construction is so tinged with the reminder of its near erasure? At once an incomplete balance of filmic orthodoxies and a political retention of Polish re-Stalinization, Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie) faced the prohibition of its own production when, in 1977, the Polish director was confronted by an opposing political ideology that ceased funding, blocked filming, and attempted to destroy costumes, materials, and the film itself. But fragments survived—of the film and of Zulawski’s desire to complete it. He reconstructed On the Silver Globe, filling its gaps with commentary and footage rooted in the harsh realities of 1980s Poland. These bits contrast with the fantastical, fictionalized landscape of the film’s telling, but they differ to both social and political ends. Here, erasure allows for a film troubling yet compelling, achieving its wild ambition across history and screen.
On the Silver Globe explores the growth of a new society on an alien planet, a frontier discovered by astronauts traveling from Earth. Several generations of humans populate the region, living, breeding, and regressing to a neo-primeval society governed by religious myth. They live among a population of bird-people, known as Sherns, yet revere intermittent astronauts as gods and political rulers. Its landscape is a site of extreme human affairs, an idiosyncratic masterpiece by Zulawski.
If we consider On the Silver Globe in light of Zulawski’s recent passing, our recollection of the director’s career will articulate the reasons for the film’s disturbing style. Zulawski died on February 17 of this year, only two days before the release of his last film, Cosmos, at the Lincoln Center in New York. Obituaries read in large numbers of a director not easily forgotten, nor comfortably received. Critics described his style as “emotionally savage,” “hyperkinetic,” “frenzied,” and “awful.” Such language reveals viewers’ visceral reactions to his unique filmmaking as much as it recognizes his directorial ability. If we consider, for example, The Third Part of the Night (1971), Zulawski’s directorial debut, we realize the appropriateness of such biting reviews. In the first scene, the Gestapo murders the family of the film’s protagonist. What ensues is a gross dramatization of the Nazi occupation as a young man escapes its wave of death while confronting his own image. But haunting sights of figures in corridors, coffins, and deathbeds causes our own cautious understanding.
What On the Silver Globe shares in stylistic development is all the more resonant through the films’ censorship. Zulawski’s troubling tone is one way to make a mark in the wealth of European cinema, but it often arrives accompanied by authoritative censorship and incomplete projects. On the Silver Globe assumes the most remarkable of examples of government censorship, providing the impetus for Zulawski’s consistent expatriation. After being kicked out of Poland for the release of The Devil, Zulawski traveled to France, completing That Most Important Thing: Love to international acclaim. He was invited back to the Polish People’s Republic, a strategic move by way of public relations, to complete an adaptation of his great-uncle’s famed science-fiction novel, Moon Trilogy.
Given the project’s government funding, it was expected to reflect well as an image of the communist country. But the film’s various historical allegories and Zulawski’s directorial refusal attest to a film motivated by drastic difference. The construction of the screenplay was, itself, a two year endeavor, presaging its filming within Poland and abroad. Zulawski traveled throughout the Gobi desert, the Wieliczka Salt Mines, the Georgian Caucasus Mountains, Crimea, and the Baltic Sea. These sites provided the film with an alien landscape made all the more foreign through the hues of green and blue. (A black and white camera was rigged to achieve these colors, making this new world appear at once forested and bleak.) Despite Zulawski’s efforts to keep the film drastically under budget, the ministry of cultural affairs shut down the project in 1977, attributing its failure to its flagrant cost.
Zulawski told a different story, however: Poland’s historical permissiveness suddenly shifted in a decision of artistic iconoclasm. A tradition of lenient censorship, a result of the country’s de-Stalinization in 1956, is reason for the films of Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Andrzej Wajda, under whom Zulawski studied before his own directorial autonomy. Therefore, it seemed acceptable, especially for Zulawski, to create a film about the blind ideology of an emerging corrupt society—one that drew several commonalities to totalitarian Eastern Europe.
When Janusz Wilhelmi was elected as Deputy Minister of Culture and Art in 1977, the permissive nature of Poland’s cultural production shifted drastically towards conservative censorship. A re-Stalinization took effect that had almost immediate effects on the production of On the Silver Globe. Wilhelmi found the over-abundance of religious imagery in the film to be an equation of religious and political subservience. Given the Polish People’s Republic’s opposition to the political power of the Catholic Church, this seemingly propagandistic material was, according to Wilhelmi, not worthy of government support. Zulawski moved back to France, once again disillusioned by the fallacies of his own country.
It was not until 1987 that communist control of Poland began to ease, providing the space and renewed interest for Zulawski to finish the film he began more than a decade earlier. With what fragments of film remained, Zulawski edited On the Silver Globe for its entry into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. Its reconstruction necessitated new audio as well as visual components. Zulawski ad-libbed the entire film, and he filled missing scenes with shots of contemporary Poland. Zulawski dubbed these extra scenes with his own commentary, explaining the missing portions and detesting its censorship. But such pauses in the progression of the narrative achieve filmic and political intrigue. Zulawski continuously breaks the fourth wall in providing the viewer special insight into the production of the film, the director’s reflection, and Poland’s national history, then and now.
On the Silver Globe speaks honestly to the dangers of a polarized political society, a lesson all too fitting for a contemporary American audience. The film forces us to reconsider our own political climate—how a society should be governed, how our leaders should conduct themselves, and what examples we might distinguish for our own common good. When authority becomes the means of effecting change, how might we answer to its results?