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Golem posterPolish speculative fiction remains, on the whole, something of a terra incognita to international audiences. There are a couple of very notable exceptions: Stanisław Lem’s name remains firmly established in the canon of Cold War science fiction writing as one of the few representatives of the socialist block; and the Witcher franchise based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s books currently enjoys global popularity, as proven by that inarguable marker of twenty-first century mainstream clout, its own Netflix series. Yet beyond those leading lights, few authors have broader name recognition, nor is it easy for curious readers or watchers to access many works in translation.

The issue of availability, at least, has been slightly eased by the recent launch of the publicly funded, internationally accessible—and at least until the end of October, free—streaming portal, which collects Polish cinema throughout the decades in one place, available in high definition and with English subtitles. It is not a portal with any specific focus on speculative fiction, which forms a small minority of the total offering, yet a handful of such titles can be found and provide international viewers with a refreshing taste of a culture that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Among the most intriguing of these are the post-apocalyptic allegories of the director Piotr Szulkin: Golem (1980), The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981), and O-bi, O-ba: The End of Civilization (1985) (the first two are currently marked as available until October 31 only).

As the titles suggest, Szulkin very consciously plays with the legacies of European fantasy and science fiction: Golem is loosely based on Gustav Meyrink’s classic expressionist horror tale of the same name, while War of the Worlds credits both H.G. Wells’s novel and Orson Welles’s near-mythical radio adaptation of the same. O-bi, O-ba, on the other hand, is an original story, although one borrowing heavily from the biblical legend of Noah’s Ark for its imagery and themes. One can also find in the films fleeting allusions to classic science fiction films like Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein. Yet in all cases such canonical blueprints only serve as springboards for Szulkin’s own peculiar visions that take these stories to new and unexpected places.

All three films take place in worlds reeling from traumatic, sudden change, inviting obvious readings which might identify these apocalyptic moments with Poland’s own painful emergence from the Second World War and subjugation under totalitarian rule. In Golem, an unnamed society is struggling to reconstruct after an alternate WWII that escalated into nuclear warfare; the society turns to the production of artificial humans (hence the reference to the golems of Jewish myth) as one way to help humanity flourish again. The film follows the life of one such—unknowing—specimen, Pernat (Marek Walczewski), as he seeks to make sense of the world around him and his place in it.

In War of the Worlds, the initiating catastrophe is less destructive but equally dramatic, as the world adjusts to the arrival of technologically superior and supposedly friendly Martians in the feverish days before the turn of the millennium. The hero of this story, the excellently named Iron Idem (Roman Wilhelmi), is a populist host of a television news show (not unlike Tucker Carlson and his ilk) that gets drawn to the frontlines of the ensuing societal transformation as nefarious forces enlist him to spout pro-Martian propaganda on air while his personal life descends to chaos. Finally, O-bi, O-ba returns to the trope of nuclear annihilation, probing the despair and coping mechanisms of a small community of survivors huddled together in a makeshift shelter complex that is collapsing before their very eyes.

War of the Worlds poster

Structurally, all three films are of a piece: they track their protagonists aimlessly roaming around these desolate worlds, bouncing off the eccentric and erratic characters they meet, trying to make sense of it all and chart some reasonable path forward, both for themselves and for society at large. Following the outline of classic dystopian fiction, the audience learns incrementally about these strange new worlds through the fumbling investigations of the heroes—who feel equally lost and cut adrift in the post-apocalypse. Consequently, there is an episodic quality to the narratives, and each film forces an unenviable load on the shoulders of their main actors, who thankfully all deal with the challenge admirably—O-bi, O-ba’s Jerzy Stuhr with his hangdog demeanour being the pick of the bunch.

The three films are very much products of the time and place in which they were made: it is impossible to watch them without thinking about Poland’s experience of totalitarian rule during the Cold War, and especially the harsh martial law imposed on the country between 1981 and 1983. This is despite half-hearted, handwavy attempts to distance the stories into alternate worlds, for example by insisting that the people really speak English even though the dialogue is in Polish (War of the Worlds); or by naming the invisible nuclear nemesis “the Boers” (O-bi, O-ba).

In Golem, Szulkin employs the motif of the artificial man to draw attention to the alienation of modern society, the inhuman reduction of living persons to simple functional cogs in the machine. The totalitarian undertones are highlighted by repeated fruitless battles against bureaucratic authority as well as by the occasional appearances of shady government actors pulling the strings in the background.

In War of the Worlds, meanwhile, the critique of communist rule is even more blatantly obvious, as the Martians arrive to force compulsory registration regimes on the populace and launch coercive blood donation drives (the implication being that they drink human blood); a stapled label on the ear much like a cattle tag confers the status of “Friend of the Martians” in an unsubtle dig at communist party membership; and loudspeakers in the streets lead people in chants of “Martians love law” (performed in accented English). It’s hardly a surprise that the film was banned immediately on its release, only finding its way to screens after the lifting of martial law.

It would be foolishly optimistic to suggest that the danger of totalitarian rule has now lifted to such an extent that its critiques no longer carry the same urgency as in 1980s Poland, but in any case Szulkin’s films have more than that to offer to contemporary viewers. This is especially so with O-bi, O-ba, a far more subtle analysis of the frustrations of power and people’s ability to delude themselves than the earlier two films. While the protagonists of the other films exist in liminal positions between authority and society, facing the choice of collusion or resistance in the time-honoured tradition of dystopian fiction, the main character here, Soft (Stuhr), represents instead what little remains of the ruling class after the disaster, forcing the viewer to empathise with his impossible situation.

Soft’s job consists primarily of trying to coax his people to go on surviving for another day with a carefully calibrated mix of comforting lies and harsh realism. The made-up myth of an all-saving Ark, both propagated and denied by the rulers, becomes a fixed point around which the fates of all the characters—including Soft’s—turn. His journey is more intriguing because it is more difficult to pin the blame for the situation in which he finds himself on anyone in particular. There are no shadowy puppet masters just out of view, just catastrophe and the infinite variety of personal suffering—and the impossibility of providing an adequate, human response.

O-bi, O-ba coverBeyond analyses of power, another theme that binds all three films together is a concern with the numbing influence of mass culture on society, spreading falsehoods and suppressing individuality. This is alluded to in brief scenes in Golem that present a cinema as a post-cataclysmic church and an illusionary rock concert where cheering audiences are added in with special effects; in O-bi, O-ba it arises in the survivors’ eager adoption and evolution of the lie about the Ark. War of the Worlds makes this concern into its central theme, as the shadowy television executives seem to take direct control of reality and, in the climax, turn Iron Idem’s desperate resistance speech into yet more fodder for the masses in a satirical twist reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece Network (1976).

Nevertheless, there is an evident learning curve in Szulkin’s oeuvre throughout these three films—evident in, but not restricted to, the greater thematic complexity of O-bi, O-ba hinted at above. Golem, the first of the three, is also the roughest in terms of craft, with scenes hanging together by the loosest of threads, characters’ motives incompletely sketched out, and the totality of the story remaining opaque and sketchy—perhaps deliberately so but not in a particularly satisfying way. The latter two films showcase a more confident understanding of how to construct a film, with tighter plots and clearer dramatic progression. War of the Worlds in particular benefits from a seemingly higher budget allowing for a greater variety of sets and locations.

Yet, increasing sophistication of craft aside, all three films retain an enjoyably ramshackle, knock-about flair reminiscent of something put together by enthusiastic amateurs—a stylistic looseness reminiscent of Western works like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991). This is no doubt helped by the limited budgets, which the films turn into an advantage: post-apocalyptic desolation is ably portrayed by mundane, crumbling apartment blocks and grimy cellars, with just the occasional oblique halogen light or hunk of nondescript heavy machinery to provide a dash of futurist flair. Lighting is also expertly employed to convey mood, especially in Golem’s oppressive greenish-yellow hues and O-bi, O-ba’s freezing blues.

Among the less impressive qualities of these films is a constant underutilisation of, and underappreciation for, their female characters. Women have very little to do here beyond being pined for by the oddly virginal male protagonists, while expressions of female sexuality repeatedly draw implicit rebukes. They also, almost without fail, die horrific deaths that serve no other purpose than to raise the dramatic stakes and push the main characters further along their path. These tropes are hardly rare in genre fiction, whether from the 1980s or today, but are disappointing nonetheless, especially since it’s such a waste of talent—notably Krystyna Janda, who appears in all three films, could obviously have done much more with better material.

The enduring impression these films leave on the viewer is one of profound cynicism about the ability of humanity to improve its lot. Made under communist rule and obviously anti-authoritarian in their inspiration, Szulkin’s works nevertheless do not opt for the easy way out—that is, the fantasy that a change of system would provide instant liberation. Instead, the heroes of these films find out, to their horror, that oppression precedes the oppressor; that people readily collude in the suppression of their own freedom and potential. That foundational cynicism helps make these films relevant for contemporary audiences, as they encourage introspection and vigilance regardless of the currently prevailing politics of this or that society, and a wariness of the stories one listens to or tells oneself.

For less analytically oriented viewers, Szulkin’s films simply provide fascinating glimpses of genre filmmaking behind the iron curtain, of counterculture creativity flourishing despite obviously restricted means and hostile authorities. Given these films’ brisk pacing and short running times—all three films clock in at around 90 minutes—why not take a chance on one of them, especially while they are free? Much can be found here that is comfortingly familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic or dystopian science fiction; but these familiar themes and motifs are inflected through a slightly different idiom, presented in a slightly new light, and therefore prove freshly exciting.

Mikko Toivanen is a historian and a writer with a fascination for the city in all its iterations, past, present, and/or future. He can be found on Twitter and is the co-author of a bilingual blog of fantastical and fragmentary fictions, Intricate Concrete.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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