The Hyper-Real Worlds of Piotr Szulkin

05/18/2015 12:40 PM |
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  Piotr Szulkin’s Apocalypse Quartet
Showtimes throughout May at the Spectacle Theater

Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin, currently the subject of a four-film retrospective at the Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg, is sometimes labeled as an Eastern European Ridley Scott. The parallels between Szulkin’s films and Scott’s, particularly Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner, abound. Both filmmakers elevate the sci-fi genre, and both, watched some twenty years later, are an uncanny mix of futurism and gothic retrograde (old-fashioned fans whirring in Blade Runner, grainy television sets in Szulkin). There are key differences, however. Scott’s film, swathed in purported darkness, still conveys how precious it is to be human. No matter into what ecological or geopolitical decadence our world descends, our memories and innate capacity for love redeem us, enough for the powerful Replicants to want to imitate us. Szulkin’s world, by contrast, contains no mutants aching to rise to our psychological apex. It is the humans, rather, who invent escape routes—distant planets, which promise cleaner air and freedom from corrupt politics, but which, inevitably, are shams, i.e. propaganda invented by governments to control us. In this sense, the Szulkian world is a ruthless matrix, a prefabricated brain-in-a-vat experiment, with no promise of moral vindication.

If Szulkin takes such a stark view of social reality, it is also because it is socialist reality. Szulkin made all four films in the series in Poland at a time of harsh political oppression: Golem (1979) preceded the military crackdown of 1981, The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981) coincided with it, and both O-bi, O-ba: The End of Civilization (1984) and Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes (1985) followed it close enough for internment camps and secret-service hunts to remain fresh in memory. And so, in Golem, a man who undergoes a scientific experiment suspects that an external force manipulates his existence. In The War of the Worlds, a journalist pays a terrible price for confronting the conniving, omnipresent state media. In O-bi, O-ba, a scientist first corroborates the fake story of a cosmic ark that will save post-atomic survivors, and then fails to build one. Meanwhile, in Ga-Ga, an astronaut is sent into space not to discover new planets but rather as a sacrificial lamb, a meager peg to strengthen the regime’s grip. In all of these scenarios, the protagonist’s coming into awareness is thorny, his heroism dubious or tinged with deepest skepticism. Only once, in the most recent Ga-Ga, is there a hint of a happy ending.

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Paradoxically, the pleasure of watching Szulkin comes from his treasuring what is so unlovable about the Earth. Like Scott, Szulkin rejoices in the vision of cities as impenetrable, infested dungeons. The murkiness, the sulfurous odors rising from gutters, the grit and sliminess are as visceral in Szulkin’s films as they are in Blade Runner, particularly in O-bi, O-ba, whose world is so degraded it makes the resource-starved Earth in recent dystopia Interstellar look a Sunday picnic. But while Scott in Blade Runner creates a graveyard Los Angeles, modeled on the glitz of Tokyo but with oversized columns and the greasy sizzle of Chinatown’s food-stands, Szulkin relies on typically Soviet topography: the monotone apartment blocks, at times overshadowed by monumental architecture, expose the sham of the Eastern Bloc’s “economic miracle” and of its space race. The ghastly, outdated space shuttle into which the astronaut Scope (Daniel Olbrychski) climbs in Ga-Ga spells doom. Some of this is surely due to Szulkin’s inventing worlds on a tight budget, yet the image brilliantly telegraphs the message that the Soviet Empire had been a Potemkin village for quite some time.

Szulkin has worked with some of Poland’s most talented actors. Among the highlights in the series are the many faces of Jerzy Stuhr (known to most American viewers from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff). In O-bi, O-ba, Stuhr plays Soft, a steely-eyed, gray-faced fixer/scientist, whose self-interested dealings are offset by sudden bursts of heartfelt empathy. That we can relate to Soft’s helpless struggles, while also questioning his motives, is both a credit to Stuhr’s bravura acting and to Szulkin’s nuanced screenplay (Szulkin wrote the screenplays for all four films, with film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski as co-writer on Golem). Stuhr excels again as manipulator par excellence in Ga-Ga, and the film’s best moments consist of this obsequious, giddy apparatchik exuding realpolitik chill. In the film, Daniel Olbrychski, famous for his roles in such epics as Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land and Jerzy Hoffman’s Colonel Wolodyjowski, is typecast as a sinewy, blond hero. Yet it’s a fortuitous choice: Olbrychski is the perfect antidote to the deformed, degraded ugliness around him, and his coolness is the one thing we can count on in outer space, which frighteningly echoes our own. As convincing is Roman Wilhelmi: his rasp-voiced, nonchalant Iron Idem in The War of the Worlds is not someone we could cozy up to, but his bracing cynicism has a postmodern vibe.

Last but not the least is the universalist cultural commentary of Szulkin’s oeuvre. His worlds may be partly atemporal (communist/futuristic), but he also communes with us in the present. The reality he depicts is hyper-mediated, marked by the constant intrusion of surveillance cameras, of endless communication devices. The very mediality of this world, in which so much is staged or fabricated for the sake of being videotaped and televised, at first appears despicable because it serves blatantly militarist aims, but then emerges, just as frightfully, as akin to our own. Szulkin’s future is our now, a reminder that at the onset of Poland’s video boom in the 1980s, but before cable, it was still possible to think of perverse media manipulation, or of the 24/7 news cycle, as futuristic horror. Like another chronicler of Poland’s transformations, filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze, Szulkin looked to television—or the media at large—as the next frontier, and it’s there that he found the source of his worst nightmares.