Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi (Part One)
Hospital of the Transfiguration
The first mention of “invaders” in Edward Zebrowski’s Hospital of the Transfiguration (79) comes nearly 20 minutes into the film. In the scene in question, the director of an isolated Polish mental hospital is introducing what turns out to be a brief, bizarre talk from the institution’s eccentric philosopher-in-residence. “I am confident that this will be a memorable event,” he tells the assembled crowd, “at a time when intellectual life has been suppressed by the invaders of our country.”
That time is 1942. The okupantów in question are the Nazis, and the hospital’s honored intellectual guest is, in fact, closer to a political refugee. At any moment, the center could be liquidated by the SS on charges of harboring “degenerates,” its patients and doctors murdered in a matter of hours. These facts are never far from mind in Zebrowski’s film, one of a number of rare and valuable movies screening this month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of a weeklong retrospective of postwar European science fiction. But that they are sometimes out of sight at all—hinted at, briefly faced down, and thinly papered over before returning with awful urgency in the movie’s last 10 minutes—is worth considering.
Much of the scene-by-scene drama in Hospital of the Transfiguration is generated by ideological rifts within the hospital’s staff. Stefan (Piotr Dejmek), the idealistic new recruit, has a stiff sense of integrity that sets him at odds with his more cynical superiors on matters of hospital management and, above all, medical ethics. The conflict between young, principled humanitarians, older compromisers, and savage men of power was perhaps the great theme of Polish cinema in the handful of years leading up to the first stirrings of Solidarity—for further evidence, see Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage and Andrzej Wadja’s Man of Iron—and in this respect, Hospital of the Transfiguration arguably spends much of its runtime more rooted in the politics of 1979 than in those of 1942. The movie’s profoundly upsetting last act, in which the presence of the Nazi genocide catastrophically re-asserts itself into the hospital’s world, shifts the balance, reducing all the movie's Cold War-era concerns to distraction and, ultimately, irrelevance.
Hospital of the Transfiguration
Hospital of the Transfiguration was included in the Film Society’s science fiction series because of its source: the famed Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s second novel, a grim realist story written only five years after it was set. Lem’s first book, The Man of Mars, has often been dismissed as juvenilia; it wasn’t until his next work of fiction, 1951’s The Astronauts, that Lem would settle into science fiction, the genre for which he is now best known. For Lem—as for many European writers and filmmakers of his generation—it was sci-fi that ultimately presented itself as the genre best equipped to make sense of the wreckage of the first half of the twentieth century, in part because of its tense, ambiguous relationship to technological progress.
In midcentury America, the typical sci-fi film would be advertised as a model product of the newest and most advanced technologies. “Amazing sights the human eye has never before seen!” boasted one poster for 1953’s It Came From Outer Space. “Fantastic sights leap[ing] out at you,” promised another. “NOTHING LIKE THIS,” a third humbly announced, “HAS EVER HAPPENED BEFORE.” The lesson conveyed by the movies themselves, however, was inevitably that nothing “like this” ever should have happened. The film’s crisis, whatever it was, would again and again be attributed to a scientist’s efforts to understand too much, overstepping his or her bounds in the process. They created a monster. They were too curious. They went too far. “The science fiction films,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1965, “are strongly moralistic. The standard message is the one about the proper, or humane, use of science, versus the mad, obsessional use of science.” That the science-fiction films themselves nearly always came off as products of “the mad, obsessional use of science”—albeit the science of cinematic illusion-making—neither Sontag nor the science fiction filmmakers explicitly acknowledged.
In America, questions surrounding the moral, political, and spiritual consequences of technological progress ended up being posed most often, and arguably most successfully, in the language of mass spectacle. In countries struck closer and deeper by the atrocities of the war, the same questions likewise found their fullest expression in the sci-fi film. But it was a changed sort of expression: more agonized, more private, and more willing to run up against philosophical dead ends. The nightmare of the American sci-fi moviegoer is that science has delved too deep into nature, awoken something in nature, and that nature is now preparing to take its revenge. The nightmare of the Polish or Czech moviegoer in the wake of the Second World War is that science has simply done away with nature, that moral laws, human lives, and natural ecosystems have been reduced to putty in the hands of technological progress—in other words, placed under the dominion of a distinctly fascist kind of rationality.
In 1971, 13 years after writing The Hospital of the Transfiguration, Lem published The Perfect Vacuum, his first collection of “reviews” of nonexistent books. In the long concluding essay, billed as the acceptance speech of a fictional Nobel laureate, we are introduced to a 20th-century cosmologist who “does away with the distinction between “natural” (the work of Nature) and “artificial” (the work of technology) by re-casting the laws of physics as rules in a game whose stakes are still in the process of being re-written. Each human civilization slowly revises the rules, which is to say, re-writes the laws of nature. “The assertion that a civilization must become more perfect ethically the more developed it is instrumentally and scientifically,” we’re told, has no place in the theory of the “Cosmogonic Game”:
One can control atoms, and then one can alter the properties of atoms as well. In this, one ought not to ask oneself whether the thing that will be the “artificial” product of such operations will not prove “more perfect” than the thing that was, hitherto, “natural.” It will be simply different, according to the design and intention of the Operating Parties.
In his winkingly evasive introduction to the book, Lem—writing about himself in the third person—hints that “neither I nor anyone else will be able to prove to him [Lem] that he has taken seriously the model of the Universe as a game.” Still, the narrator confesses, “I suspect that there was [such] an idea, an idea that burst upon the author—and from which he shrank.”
The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
Karel Zeman, one of a handful of filmmakers included in the Film Society series to indirectly confront the “idea” from which Lem shrank, was born in 1910 in Ostroměř, a small town to the north of what is now the Czech Republic. In his twenties, he worked in advertising design and traveled extensively. Aside from forcing him to forgo a planned stay in Morocco in 1939, the German invasion seems to have little effect on his working life; by 1943, after getting the attention of an influential director, he had transitioned from designing store-window displays to a job at Kudlov’s Bata Film Studios. He began his film career as a puppeteer and animator, and soon showed a genius—visible in work as early as his beguiling, delicate 1949 short Inspiration—for finding new and imaginative ways to integrate animation with live-action photography.
Zeman turned to directing features in the mid-Fifties. The two densely plotted and incredibly elaborate fairy tales he made in, respectively, 1958 and 1961 might seem odd to mention in the same breath as “the wreckage of the first half of the 20th century.” Zeman’s best films have a strong romantic streak, an icing of melancholy, a preference for sublime and grandiose imagery—cavernous palace halls, shoreless oceans, rotund tropical suns—a certain degree of naïve innocence and a somewhat thin sense of tragedy.
In Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (the film of the director’s chosen for the series) and Baron Munchausen—both live-action films staged against stunning two-dimensional hand-painted sets—dirigibles and submarines play dangerous games of cat-and-mouse, moustache-twirling barons ride horses off cliffs, sea monsters threaten divers, sailors and pirates, princesses manage to maintain their towering coiffed hairdos even in the bellies of whales, and dashing young men escape in hot-air balloons with the damsels they love. These movies have a number of elements that keep them from caving in under their own sense of wonder: their manic bursts of bustling activity, their dense, sometimes jarring compositions, their reckless narrative speed. Still, it’s striking that their artistic models are all either somehow naïve in their deceptions—the hand-tinted fixed-camera trick films of George Méliès and Segundo de Chomón—or so stiffly formalized as to be totally transparent about their own illusion-making: Gustave Dore woodcuts, 19th-century adventure story illustrations, silent-era cut-out animation.
The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
Both films, like their American contemporaries, have a love-hate relationship with technological progress, which they position as both an object of wonder and a source of extreme danger and risk. In The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, the earliest of Zeman’s three Jules Verne adaptations, an aging scientist convinces himself that his unscrupulous kidnappers want him to design a powerful explosive as an alternate energy source, not, as it of course turns out, as a bomb. But unlike its American counterparts, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne never falls into the bind of relying for its effects on the same cult of technological progress it criticizes. Its “special effects” are pointedly, refreshingly hand-generated, its narrative logic essentially that of the imagination’s free play. It’s remarkable to consider that a pair of Czech films made barely a decade after the end of the occupation could still believe so firmly in the imagination’s ability to make space for itself to move.
Zeman’s next feature, by all accounts a darker and more explicitly antiwar affair, was co-written with the great Czech fantasist and social critic Pavel Jurácek, now perhaps most famous in the English-speaking world for having written Vera Chytilová’s Daisies. When Zeman was trading his window-display job for an entry-level position at Bata, Jurácek—over twenty years Zeman’s junior—was growing up under the roof of a father who also, it seems, designed shop windows. Six years after his 1957 graduation from FAMU, then a breeding ground for New Wave filmmakers, he wrote Jindrich Polak’s Ikarie XB-1, a film now regarded as one of the high points of Eastern bloc sci-fi. The same year, he co-directed a half-hour-long short, his first, with Jan Schmidt. Their next collaboration—Schmidt directing, Jurácek writing—would inherit Zeman’s refusal to make use of the technological arsenal available at the time to sci-fi filmmakers, but none of the older director’s faith in the liberating power of the imagination.
The six young women who, with two key exceptions, make up the entire cast of The End of August at the Hotel Ozone have, in fact, nearly no imaginative inner lives. Among the last survivors of an unspecified but presumably nuclear holocaust—the film opens with a multi-lingual chorus of countdowns layered over static shots of churches, factories and fields—they respond to unfamiliar stimuli with a mixture of childlike astonishment and desperate, knee-jerk violence. It’s not exactly the “savage,” animalistic state we have come to expect from pilgrims in post-apocalyptic fiction—C.F. Ramuz’s The End of All Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in literature; or films like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Louis Malle’s Black Moon—although the movie, like those works, is deeply concerned with the capacity of people to maintain a kind of civilized core in the absence of civilization. If anything, it’s by capriciously and randomly dominating nonhuman animals that the survivors in Schmidt’s film remind themselves of their privileged status as humans. One picks up a snake, inspects it, and methodically crushes its head with her fingers. Another wounds a wild dog with a bullet, then, standing above it, dashes its skull in with the butt of her rifle. Together, the group kill and graphically disembowel a cow.
The End of August at the Hotel Ozone
The world of these women, children when the bombs fell, is one without history, memory, or, therefore, tragedy. The job of investing the present with a sense of tragedy, an awareness of what has been lost and what is being lost, falls on the movie’s two older characters: the gaunt, aging woman who acts as the group’s guide and maternal protector, and the greying survivor they encounter who may be the last man on earth. She, showing them the rings of a tree, gives them access to a history from which we, the viewers, are barred. “Then the dogs tore apart the last boy.” “Helen drowned around here.” “This is where Marie died.” When, in a particularly haunting close-up midway through the film, she’s left sitting alone by the side of a fire, her eyes lose their practical resolve, her face softens into a pieta-like expression of serene, bottomless grief, and her mouth curves into a slight smile. It’s one of the great moments of total introspection in modern cinema.
When she meets the innkeeper, it’s as if they had fallen out of touch years before. But the moment of recognition between them—they’ve never met—is more primal than that. After years of forced isolation, he is an overzealous child with her, inviting the group into his well-kept home with quivering lips and evident pride, delighting in the relic-like significance they find in his crumbling old newspapers and his crackling phonograph, for which he only owns a single, worn-out record. One senses that Schmidt, like Zeman, shares this man’s deep love of the analog man-made object, hand-crafted, irregularly and organically textured. Indeed, for all its profound grief at the uses to which modern science has been put, the Eastern European sci-fi film is always suggesting what a utopian alternate history of technology might look like: a history in which technology functions as an extension of nature rather than a way of controlling or supplanting it. In the work of more optimistic filmmakers like Zeman, this story is indulged in indefinitely; in the work of tougher, less idealistic ones like Jurácek and Schmidt, whose film ends with an eruption of tragically unnecessary violence, it is exposed for what, in the end, it is: science fiction.
The End of August at the Hotel Ozone
Most of the Film Society’s series draws on sci-fi from the Warsaw Pact states, and the common impression one gets from watching the Eastern bloc titles included—two films apiece from Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the USSR—is that sci-fi thrives in colder, more politically repressive climates. For one, it has always had a high, inbuilt aptitude for allegory, which has made it attractive to filmmakers working under stricter censorship codes. But there is, I think, also a degree to which the dystopian imagination flourishes in environments where reality is already perilously close to a dystopia. In some measure, an artist’s relative talent for sci-fi is a mark of her ability to conceive of destruction: in some cases, the destruction of cities, political institutions, and individual rights; in others, the dismantling of basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the self and the structure of reality. The genre’s most effective practitioners are often those who have learned to take nothing for granted, to expect the upheaval of their assumptions and routines, to doubt.
The key factor in the development of the Warsaw Pact sci-fi film might, then, have been that postwar Eastern European filmmakers were in a position to address the crises of the Forties—the war, the bomb, the systematized mass murder of European Jews—using a vocabulary drawn from the paranoid, stifling atmosphere of life under Soviet-influenced communist rule. (Before its explicit last-act reckoning with the Nazi occupation, Hotel of the Transformation, for instance, is essentially a gritty denunciation of institutional bureaucracy.)
The opening shots of the prolific Polish director Piotr Szulkin’s grim urban nightmare Golem, which shows this trend at an especially advanced stage of development, are of mushrooming atom bombs. Somewhere in a rubbish-strewn, puddle-ridden, generally run-down Polish city, the premise goes, a scientific initiative has been launched to create synthetic human beings capable of re-populating the earth in the event of a full-scale atomic war. The prototype is a handsome, quiet, gentle-hearted man with a single name—Pernat—who somehow winds up, after the liquidation of the project, living alone in a squalid apartment building and coming into contact with a cast of characters that could have been lifted more or less straight from a Dostoevsky novel: a strong-willed prostitute, a doomed teenage girl and her dotty, mystically inclined father, a raving madman, a belligerent police interrogator, a cruel landlord with a mysterious past.
Pernat himself is a kind of Myshkin figure, a placid innocent who appears to the worldlier people around him as both a subject of fascination and a sap to exploit. But he is also the befuddled sort of hero prevalent in twentieth-century Czech and Polish fiction, knocked haplessly around an institutional pinball machine whose operations and motives he never comes to understand. Released—twice—from prison after being grilled over crimes with which he has nothing to do, he is given back the wrong hat and coat (“the name and ticket match”); asked for his name by the police, he’s told that the name he gives is not his real one; drawn up an escalator in one of the movie’s most overtly surreal passages by the sound of a rock concert, he finds a lone guitarist playing to an enormous empty stadium as a TV crew debates which clip of crowd footage to stick in the background.
It’s tempting on this account to take Golem as a direct response to the especially tense atmosphere in Poland at the time of its production: months before the first outbreak of Solidarity and several years after the end of the country’s short-lived economic upsurge. To my mind, however, it’s the legacy of fascism, rather than the opacities and injustices of communism, for which the movie reserves the biggest store of its anxiety. The thought of what would happen if technology were capable of doing nature’s work is at the heart of every artificial-intelligence story, but it takes on special relevance in the context of the postwar sci-fi film. One of the most potent nightmare scenarios at play in Szulkin’s film is that a fascist state equipped with cutting-edge technologies and motivated by a ruthless brand of instrumentalism has somehow managed to extend its jurisdiction beyond the bodies of its subjects and lay claim instead to the whole person, body, mind and soul.
Here Szulkin is cutting very deep. If there is a single redemptive idea running through much of even the bleakest dystopian fiction and film, it is that there is something about the ontological status of human beings that the state, however advanced its technologies, cannot touch. It’s striking how often this idea comes under fire in international sci-fi throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Blade Runner, a sort of cross between Eastern bloc sci-fi and American noir, shares with Golem a basic narrative premise, a dour color palette of oranges, yellows, browns and greys, a tone of nervous paranoia—in both movies, the hero comes across Cassandra-like figures who seem to know more about his origins than he does himself—and even the murder of an oculist as a key plot element. In Morel’s Invention, a drugged, ritualized staging by the Italian filmmaker Emilio Greco of the great Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares’ most famous novella, an inventor develops a machine that creates physical-seeming, looped “projections” of its test subjects, who then, struck with a terrible disease, die.
Eastern bloc sci-fi filmmakers were, in short, not alone in using sci-fi as a venue for the staging of threats, the rehearsing of worst-case scenarios, or the imagination of destruction. But it’s difficult not to think, watching a film like Golem, of the threat Lem was hinting at in his “new cosmology” (“one can control atoms, and then one can alter the properties of atoms”), its implications for human freedom (“according to the design and intention of the Operating Parties”), and the dismaying frequency with which, in the history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century, the staging of this threat in fantasy coincided with its execution in fact.