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Todo Modo

domenica 3 aprile 2011

Political Science Fiction for the thinking man: three films of Piotr Szulkin.

Wojna światów - Następne stulecie
(The war of the worlds: next century, 1981)

Iron Idem is a successful presenter of a TV program dedicated to independent news. It’s new year’s eve 1999, and twelve days before, a spaceship from Mars has landed in Poland.
The government encourages the people to greet the Martians, small fat little men with silver raincoats, and to celebrate them.
But there’s something wrong: Idem is forced to change his program, reading news that he didn’t write by himself, while the government has started to promote a volunteer donation of blood that sounds like an imposition every hour more.
Gigantic TV sets are placed in the streets, and one night Idem is arrested, and his wife beaten to death is carried away by the police under the meticulous observation of a Martian.
Idem is required to follow orders and the whole TV station is transformed in a huge propaganda machine supporting the friendship with the Martians, that nothing less are then bloodthirsty little parasites.
Idem is expelled from his own apartment, devastated by the guards, and left with nothing. He’s alone, surrounded and regularly looked after. The new conniving regime wants him to deliver good news every day, as the TV station has became the only source of information and inspiration for the citizens who are constantly requested to behave properly.
Only an old man wants to rise up, blasting the TV station off; and Idem makes it clear with him: he’ll come along.
Idem rebels in the end, delivering a speech during a live show, set up to salute the departing aliens, to let the people open their eyes, with any result since everybody has been completely brainwashed.
While the aliens are leaving, the old man tells Idem he’s going on with his plan, only then Idem realizes that the old fella has been manipulated and he’s always followed by cameras that records his actions. Trying to save him, Idem is arrested and showed a crew filming fake dead men and mourning mothers that are nothing less than extras paid for the job.
The government is already changing his strategy: the aliens were like a plague and left many dead after their departure.
The old man exploding before to reach the TV station, is sold on air as an hero trying to stop the space invaders.
Idem is again part of the misinformation conspiracy. He was the one who was inciting the mass to love the strangers and for this he must be punished as a traitor with a death sentence.
Idem is in front of the execution platoon, the event is aired live. When the soldiers fire, he dies. But only in the live show, in reality he frees himself and walks away. There’s not even the need to kill him anymore, since the audience saw him die, and it’s enough.
Idem opens the gates of a stage and goes away disappearing in the mist.
The most unusual of Invasion films, Wojna światów - Następne stulecie, is an allegory of media power and influence. The invasion is taking place more in the mind of the viewers, than for real. They are forced to believe what they watch at the TV and what is told them to be the truth. We don’t even know if the aliens truly came or everything was just a set up, an excuse to take control over the lives of the citizens, domesticated with fear and impositions. The aliens are a metaphor for the Russians' invasion, the supposed to happen one, and that Colonel Jaruzelski used as an excuse to impose martial law over the country in December 1981, becoming really a dictator. The allusion to the Communist regime and propaganda is evident, in this Orwellian tale, told with a dark sarcastic tone, sometimes almost flowing to comedy. An aspect that probably helped to make it away with the censorship.
The ending is one of the most potent scene of the film and it’s shot with master timing and visual strength; its message is as enigmatic as  disconcerting. The whole movie is about the perception of the reality as filtered through the   media, whose power is so strong to overcome it. In 1981 this was a sort of premonition of an “invasion” that would became real two decades later. Every day the media are showing images out of context, edited together, and commented  by journalists that promote each one his own agenda. There’s no objectivity anymore, a gossip spread even on line could became a lasting weeks truth.
All this manipulation is used by the governments to sedate the minds of the people, or to exploit some aroused fears, to get approval from her. A weak,  timorous brain is easier to control.

 The war of the worlds: next century

O-bi, O-ba - Koniec cywilizacji
(O-bi, O-ba: the end of civilization, 1984)

After a disastrous atomic war with the Booroons, that left earth a desolated nuclear wasteland,  a group of one thousand survivors are living in a dome on the peak of a mountain.
Soft, one of their leaders, is daily dealing with problems, contaminated people and an impending settling of the whole structure.
Soft has been able to convince the survivors to reach this shelter before the catastrophe, because he has proclaimed that one day an Ark would come to rescue.
Using the Bible’s myth of Noah’s Ark, Soft has been able to soften the fearful shocked minds and give them something to hope for, when he was only buying time.
In the falling apart structure, the caravansary of different types are acting like a scaled down model of a contemporary society. The rich still can afford to buy some goods and live decently, the poor are wandering around trying to warm their bodies up, the military are still following standard operating procedure, obeying to a line of command that doesn’t exist anymore.
Trading is the common way to survive: some trade goods, some other useless objects from the past, some women trade their body in the world’s ancient profession.
Gea, one of these prostitutes, has an affair with Soft but can’t live with him, until the Ark will come and everything will change.
Trying to convince a poisoned engineer, to fix the structure, Soft is informed that the dome has been built to last one year only and there’s nothing he could do.
While the place starts to fall apart, so does the people living in it, hysteria and madness are prevailing.
Gea dies in an accident, practising some acrobatics that should help her once in space.
Soft only hope is a plane, he discovers to exist somewhere in the place, but when he reaches it, the vehicle is severely damaged having been tore down to pieces, to coin money for the trades in the dome.
Part of the structure falls down, revealing the icy external temperatures. Believing the Ark has come to rescue, the people moves on towards it and disappears in the frozen mist.
Soft is outside, when he realizes a balloon came for him. Gea is guiding it and waits for the man, who jumps on it with his bag. Looking down, Soft sees himself in the snow. He launches the bag to the very same self who starts walking in the radioactive storm.
It’s obviously a dream. To be rescued it’s impossible, everybody is doomed to a certain death.
With a bigger budget, than his previous work, Szulkin delivers an amazing piece of filmmaking. Desperate and bleak, the future depicted in this hopeless tale of survival, reserves zero to the humanity’s microcosm crawling in the collapsing place. They learned nothing from the disaster occurred and they are living the very same way the were doing before, with all their greed, desperation and selfishness. As Wells inspired his previous film, Szulkin here proposes a retelling of the Bible’s myth of the Ark, only this time the Ark will metaphorically sink, with  redemption and salvation for anybody.
The fall of the dome is a symbol of the fall of the Communism; the poor society living in it, and had nothing, is left now with a even more mysterious and unknown fate.
Soft, is very much alike Colonel Jaruzelski trying to keep together a regime that was undergoing the many inexorable changes in the country, without succeeding to stop the inevitable and historical fail of the Communism.
The whole story takes places in an underground facility and the use of an abandoned factory is a saving costs and very effective choice. This set, once lighted, gives Szulkin the possibility to shoot long sequences with a Steadycam following his actors, moving along with a crowd of extras.
The result from a technical point of view is outstanding, and gives a movie a feel of richness and grandeur. But it’s the whole script that works so well, supported by the performances of Jerzy Stuhr and Krystyna Janda, some of the same stars of Wojna światów - Następne stulecie. A special mention for the set designers and decorators for the use of simple means with the most effective results. With less funny tones than his previous film, the belonging to a genre like Science Fiction, I believe helped Szulkin again to avoid troubles with the censors.
 Obi, Oba: the end of civilization

Ga, Ga,- Chwala bohaterom
(Ga, Ga: glory to the heroes, 1985)

In the future people convicted for crimes are sent in space aboard of giant cargos. Frome there, they have the chance to reform, volunteering (not really) for a discovery program of the galaxy. Each one of them is dispatched into the unknown on a rocket, with the mission to explore and conquer unidentified planets.
The mission consists primary to hoist a flag on the foreign soil and declare its Earthly possession, then collect few samples and wait for the shuttle to come back to rescue, if it’s ever going to do that. Prisoner 287138, lands on planet Australia 458, and to his most surprise is welcome by a slimy officer in charge of greetings the “heroes”.
The place is a damp, and looks very much alike Poland in the 70’s. In the old car, sent for him the Hero meets a beautiful underage prostitute, called Once, sent to greeting him even more with a quick lay.
Life on the planet is very much miserable, people is starving and probably turned to cannibalism, crime, gambling and pimping the most notable professions.
Suddenly our Hero discovers what the natives are expecting him to do: to commit a crime, if gruesome the better,  so that he can be punished with a solemn ceremony aired live on TV, in which he’ll be impaled.
This occurred to all the previous men from space and the ones who will come in the future.
Hero is not very happy about this, and he’ll try to escape with Once to save both their lives.
A dark comedy, with the typical Eastern European taste for sarcasm, making fun out of extreme and political incorrect situations. Ga,Ga shows the corruption and fall of the government institutions, as the Polish society experienced, like many ex Communist countries, after the collapse of the regime.
Australia 458 looks and feels like Poland and Eastern Europe in the late 80’s when people set free from the severe control of the oppression, started to get use to bad Western behaviours.
Organized crime, strictly repressed before, took over and in some cases penetrated in the state institutions of entire regions, laundering the dirty money in safe business and acquiring immense fortunes and power.
Szulkin is aware of this circumstance of moral decay, and turned once more to his favourite genre sci-fi, to deliver his act of accusation, yet again with a sarcastic and corrosive black humour.
The movie is interesting and worth a watch, even if a step back from his previous works. There’s a feel that a bigger budget, would have been useful and the construction of the story lacks the rhythm of his early films, and most of all, their visionary authority. Not with this standing, Ga, Ga remains an enjoyable trip to a distant planet in space that echoes our very own. 

Ga, Ga: glory to the heroes
Szulkin’s movies are not well known in Western countries even if they had circulation in many festivals around the world. Maybe because Szulkin was working within a genre that in the 80’s was still considered a minor one.
His films are impressive as for the themes confronted as for their visual strength, often reached with few means.
Even if we didn’t examine his first film Golem that I intend to dissect in a later post, Obi-Oba is the best of them all because: the synthesis of themes, visuals and storytelling is perfectly achieved.
Szulkin used science fiction as it should be used, in an allegorical way, to depict the misery of Polish society and world’s ones in general. Someone expecting gigantic, brainless, robots beating the hell out of each other with dazzling spfx, should turn somewhere else. But on the contrary, the ones looking for an entertainment that could make them think, about so many important political and social issues, will be perfectly comfortable here.
The movies are available on DVDs Region 0 Pal in re-mastered editions (1.85:1, 1.78:1 16X9 enhanced), with few dirts here and there, the original film materials in good shape  were transferred with a good picture quality.  There are English subtitles on all the features, but not for the extras that consist of trailers and interviews to Szulkin. They can be purchased on line at Polish retailers.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

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