Science fiction cinema has a long history. It can be traced to at least the beginning of the 20th century and the French trick shorts of Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage). Then came Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Hollywood’s batch of 1950s B-sci-fis and the sometimes intellectual, sometimes heart-pounding and sometimes funny classics that we’re most familiar with—titles like A Clockwork Orange, Alien, Terminator, Back to the Future.
Yet for each Metropolis, there is an Alraune (Hungary, 1918) and for A Clockwork Orange, an End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Czechoslovakia, 1966). Granted, production of science fiction movies on the other side of the Berlin Wall did not truly begin until after the erection of that wall and the beginning of the Cold War; but it did begin. And not counting the odd Soviet sci-fi film, these productions are mostly unknown in the West.
To start to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, here’s a brief introduction to a few Polish science fiction films from the 1960s onwards:
The Silent Star (1960)
d. Kurt Maetzig
One of the earliest examples of Polish sci-fi cinema—actually a Polish-East German coproduction with a Japanese actress, Yoko Tani, thrown in for good fun. The story is about an international mission of Earthlings who fly out to Venus to prevent a venetian invasion of the home world. The look and quality of the film is about what you’d expect from a Soviet bloc production trying to mimic 1950s Hollywood. Beware, however: several different dubbed and re-edited versions have seen their way onto international screens over the years. The original isn’t a classic, but the re-edits are worse. Finally, it makes sense to point out that The Silent Star is based on Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem’s first novel, The Astronauts. Lem, whose work also provided the source material (however minimally) for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, was Poland’s most-famous sci-fi writer and one of the giants of the genre globally. You’ll read his name again.
Layer Cake (1968)
d. Andrzej Wajda
In fact, you’ll read it here: Layer Cake (a.k.a Hodge Podge) is a 40-minute b/w psychedelic part-adaption of Lem’s story “Do You Exist, Mr. Jones?” written by Lem himself. It’s zany and about a race car driver who keeps getting into accidents and damaging body parts that are then replaced with the corresponding parts of some of his victims and a dog. Trouble strikes when the driver begins to exhibit bits of his donors’ personalities. Who is who, and, more importantly, who will pay the medical bills? Layer Cake is directed by Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most internationally-distinguished director. It’s an oddity in his ouevre, which consists largely of historical and period films (though often literary adaptations) and intellectual dramas. The best known is his informal “war trilogy”—A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds—out in a nice Criterion box. Layer Cake stars Bogumil Kobiela, one of the best Polish actors of the 50s and 60s.
Inquest of Pilot Pirx (1979)
d. Marek Piestrak
This one’s a little harder to track down, but is another coproduction (Poland, Ukraine, Estonia) and another Lem adapation. This time the source is a story from a collection of stories about the character Pirx (released in English in two volumes as Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.) The film deals with themes of robotics and space flight, so think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. More specifically, Pirx is the pilot on of a mission meant to test the usefulness of a robot crew member in spaceflight—the twist being: the crew is all people plus one android, and no one knows which member is the android. To say more would spoil the plot. Despite not being widely seen, Inquest of Pilot Pirx is a solid sci-fi movie. Yes, some of the effects are cheesy; but I think the filmmakers did well with what they had to work with.
Sexmission (1984) / Kingsajz (1987)
d. Juliusz Machulski
Finally, some Polish science fiction not based on works by Stanislaw Lem! Both of these are classics. Sexmission is one of the most beloved Polish comedies and has become an oft-quotable part of Polish pop culture, while Kingsajz, though less popular, is still remembered as an inventive and successfully-comic political allegory. Both films feature Jerzy Stuhr, the instantly-recognizable Polish actor famous in the West for his collaborations with Krzysztof Kieslowski (Camera Buff, The Decalogue, Three Colours: White) and famous in Poland for a long and ongoing career that has also evolved into directing. In Sexmission, Stuhr plays a man who undergoes a hibernation experiment and wakes up with his buddy in an underground land populated solely by women. In Kingsajz, he plays the despotic ruler of Szuflandia, a wretched world-within-our-world populated by dwarves and other small things—from which, naturally, the story’s Lilliputian heroes want to escape! The films’ director, Juliusz Machulski, continues to make comedies to this day (but none, sadly, as good as these.)
O-Bi, O-Ba – The End of Civilization (1985) / and others!
d. Piotr Szulkin
If there is one Polish filmmaker associated with science fiction, it’s Piotr Szulkin. I chose O-Bi, O-Ba as the best example of a Szulkin sci-fi, but there is also: The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981), Golem (1979), and Ga, ga. Glory to the Heroes (1986)—of which the last two and O-Bi, O-Ba form a loose trilogy. Szulkin’s films have good casts, good ideas and are well-developed and imaginative visually. You’ll never look at a forzen woman the same way again! O-Bi, O-Ba takes place in a post-apocalyptic underground society (as you can tell, there’s political allegory here, too) whose sole protection from the after-effects of the nuclear apocalypse is the decaying bunker in which they live. They have hope, however, for there is a legend of a vessel known as the Ark; but is it truth or merely propaganda? Our tour of Polish screen stars continues, as well: joining Stuhr is Krystyna Janda (known for her starring roles in Ryszard Bugajski’s The Interrogation and Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble), Leon Niemczyk and Adam Ferency (both Polish staples.)
On the Silver Globe (1988)
d. Andrzej Zulawski
Most filmgoers, if they know Andrzej Zulawski, know him from his [often erotic] French films, like The Important Thing is to Love, Posessession and The Blue Note. Sometimes they play on TV at night. However, Zulawski started his career in Poland in 1971 with a stunning art film, The Third Part of Night, before leaving the country due to censorship pressures. He returned in 1976 after the Polish authorities changed their minds on him and began work on On the Silver Globe, which is also quite stunning and artsy—but whose production was interrupted when the authorities then changed their minds again (as often in Poland, the issue was one of political allegories.) Zulawski flew back to France; the film lay dormant. In 1988, it was completed, to a degree, and premiered at Cannes. Even interrupted, it’s still an ambitious, beautiful and ponderous film.
As any astute viewer will tell you, science fiction is often as much about today (and its fears) as it is about a make-believe future. In Poland and other Soviet Bloc countries, science fiction was also very much about politics and criticizing the society of the present in a way that spoke to the viewer without engaging the attention of the censor. The result: Cold War-era science fiction from countries east-of-Germany tend to be sharper reflections of life in those countries than so-called realist cinema. And, of course, some of films aren’t too bad in and of themselves, either. With the possible exception of The Silent Star, they’re simply good pictures.