A Journey to the core of humanity
On The Silver Globe is the magnum opus of Polish director, Andrzej Żuławski, which premiered in 1988. The story is adapted from a trilogy written by Jerzy Żuławski, the director’s granduncle.
Jerzy Żuławski was a prominent literary figure in Poland, as well as an important philosopher and translator. He enjoyed a twenty-year writing career before he died in World War I in 1915. His body of work is vast and includes numerous volumes of poetry, a few collections of literary criticism and five novels.
What immortalised Jerzy Żuławski was his creation entitled The Lunar Trilogy, made up of On the Silver Globe (Na Srebrnym Globie), The Conqueror (Zwycięzca) and The Old Earth (Stara Ziemia).
In 1972, Andrzej Żuławski left his country and went to France, seeking artistic freedom. At home, the totalitarian communist regime allowed no room for true artistic expression, which can only be achieved when the individual is free.
In France, the Polish director attained success with his 1975 movie, The Important Thing Is to Love. The fame which Andrzej Żuławski attracted after this film made the Polish communist authorities to reconsider their stance on his art.
As such, they invited the director to return to his country and create a project of his own choosing. Żuławski chose to screen his granduncle masterpiece in what became On The Silver Globe.
However, the project came to a halt in 1977, as Janusz Wilhelmi was appointed the the Vice-Minister of Culture. The themes that the movie was presenting were perceived to be dangerous to the totalitarian ideology that the communists enforced.
When Wilhelmi shut down the production, the film was about 70-80% done. Devasted, Andrzej Żuławski returned to Paris. Fortunately, the reels weren’t destroyed, as the authorities ordered initially.
In an unexpected turn of events, Wilhelmi died in the spring of 1978 in a plane crash and Żuławski wanted to return home. However, the Cold War was intensifying.
This meant that it took another eight years until he could return to Poland. Once back home, Żuławski edited the unfinished project into a rough approximation of his initial vision. Perhaps this is why Vice called the film, “the best Sci-Fi film never made”.
The movie begins with a group astronauts who leave Earth and crash on a similar planet. We know this because the survivors can breathe and the terrain looks somewhat familiar: hills of sand, some vegetation and the sea.
Years pass and only one of the astronauts survives – Jerzy. He witnesses the birth of a new society of primitive people who build a religion around a mythical Earth and himself, calling Jerzy “The Old Man”. He is treated like a demi-god: people are praying to him, offering human sacrifices and asking for his blessings.
Eventually “The Old Man” dies but before his passing away, he sends back to Earth his diary. A researcher named Marek receives Jerzy’s diary and travels to the planet. When he arrives, Marek is received as some sort of divine saviour, as a Messiah, who can help them defeat the Szerns, a species of bird-like giants.
While the plot seems straightforward, its execution is inherently abstract.
From the start, we are told by the movie itself that this is not an orthodox piece of cinema. The filming style, the dialogue, as well as the themes discussed straight after the first sequences are a deviation from what one would expect from a movie that just started – some direction and emotional context.
Instead, the emotional structure of the film is hidden.
For example, after the crash, one of the astronauts is badly wounded. As he is dying, the man philosophises about life and death. His lines are utterances about the meaning of human existence while the camera replicates the walk of another injured astronaut, hopping, rotating and jolting.
The viewer is left to interpret whether the overarching emotion conveyed by this scene is pain, lamentation, fear, owe, relief or wonder. Indeed, the suspense of the movie is built not by the unfolding events as much as by this spiritual journey through the unknown.
This can be noticed especially in the aesthetics of the movie, which place the spectator in an eternal place of unfamiliarity.
To replicate the alien terrain, the film was shot in various locations, including the Baltic seashore at Lisi Jar near Rozewie, Lower Silesia, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the Tatra Mountains, the Caucasus mountains in Georgia, the Crimea in USSR, and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. And, as Daniel Bird, a film director and historian, put it:
“Zulawski really shot from the hip. He didn’t obey any form of authority, he was an anarchist”.
The visual elements are combined with philosophical themes, lines of dialogue that are woven together by narration over footage of people on escalators or walking on the sidewalk and a soundtrack which accentuates the feeling that you are engaging with something strange, something of its own kind.
That is the essence of how the entire film is delivered to the viewer: raw in its artistic expression – and it is what ultimately makes On The Silver Globe so memorable.
One of the core themes of the movie, and the one which presumably bothered the communists the most, was freedom. The communists interpreted some of the scenes from Żuławski’s movie as a critique towards the government, thinking that the type of freedom the director was aiming to highlight was freedom from the rule of the Party.
However, if one watches the movie closely, the notion of freedom in Żuławski’s creation is with a capital “F”. It’s not primarily related to the relationship between people, as much as between people and Existence itself. The film discusses freedom in the metaphysical sense.
In fact, there isn’t a discussion per se, but a series of questions which are raised within the viewer as the movie unfolds: Freedom from what? From social norms? From cultural norms? From oneself? From authorities? From God?
On The Silver Globe is a journey to the core of who we are, as encapsulated by the following quote which, perhaps ironically, is uttered by the enemy – by a Szern:
As Andrzej Seweryn, a Polish actor, put it:
“This movie was raped by a cruel power, but is a testimony of these times. 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.”
On The Silver Globe is a testament that even in the darkest times, the eternal truth of individual expression finds a way out of the rubbles of history and climbs the pedestal of humanity in the form of art.
Images from On The Silver Globe by Andrzej Żuławski and Culture PL.
Sounds from On The Silver Globe by Andrzej Żuławski (the voice) and Max Richter (the music).