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October 18, 2023

Piotr Szulkin’s Visionary Tetralogy Part 1:“Golem” and “War Of The Worlds”

Est. Reading: 14 minutes

Piotr Szulkin (1950-2018) was a Polish director, screenwriter, animator, novelist, theatrical director, and painter. In 1979, he released the first of four films that would become known as his “Apocalyptic Tetralogy”, or his “Science Fiction Tetralogy". Szulkin did not approve of either label. He called his work “asocial fiction". As a non-Polish speaker, I am not in a good position to evaluate this translated phrase, but “asocial” doesn’t seem like a particularly apt description. It might work if “asocial” is seen in contrast to “socialist realism", a form of Stalinist propaganda, but Szulkin’s work is hard to describe. Whatever the specifics may be, it seems fair to say that the “a” in “asocial” denotes opposition. Szulkin’s films are certainly oppositional. They are a theater of dissent. The tetralogy consists of - 

Golem (1979) 

The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981)

O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985)

Ga-ga: Glory to Heroes (1986)

These four films span a volatile period in Polish history. To be fair, most of Poland’s history was volatile. The country was caught between two brutal bullies: Russia and Germany. Poland’s government, culture, language, and borders were subject to a constant multi-faceted tug of war between democracy, fascism, communism, and monarchy.

Two years after Golem was released, the Soviet Union instituted martial law in Poland. Brezhnev wanted to stamp out the Solidarity National Congress and tighten the USSR’s control. It was a time of mass arrests, disappearances, interrogation, and torture. With exception the of Golem, the whole tetralogy was made under these conditions. From what I have read, no one quite understands how Szulkin got most of these highly political films past the censors, but fortunately for us, he did. 

Golem (1979)

Szulkin’s film Golem is based on the 1915 novel written by Gustav Meyrink, a prominent and popular writer from Austria. Szulkin is a keen student of the past, pulling a wide variety of influences from European history, particularly the Middle Ages. To understand Golem, two historical legends need to be understood. First, there is the Golem itself.

The Mythological Golem

Golem is a very old word. It appears in the Bible, but the history of its meaning is not uniform. In modern-day Hebrew, the word means “dumb", “helpless", or “pupa". In Jewish folklore, a Golem is an animate being made from mud or clay. It is created for a specific purpose and controlled by its master. It can be used for good, for evil, mundane chores, or monstrous tasks. As a soulless slave, it could be seen as an object of sympathy or terror, similar to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Both creatures are close to human, but not fully. They strain at their limitations, often longing to become something better. Traditionally, Golems are stoic and cannot speak, but in many legends, it is clear that underneath their hulking facade, they have emotions. They are not meant to have a will of their own, but because they are made of a very simple and malleable material, they have the potential to become almost anything.

In Jewish mythology, the Golem is something a Rabbi can fashion in order to help his community, or to use for darker, more vengeful purposes.

In Szulkin’s film, we meet someone or something like a Golem. It is never fully explained, but Pernat, our main character, was created by scientists in a secret lab. He was part of an experiment intended to produce the perfect citizen. As we watch him on screen, he seems nothing like a lumbering, silent slave. He seems like an ordinary man, if somewhat anxious, trying to find his way through a very confusing world. If Szulkin didn’t find ways to continually remind us, we might easily forget that he is a hollow shell.

He befriends a woman who repairs dolls for a living, and there are two scenes in which dolls are torn apart to reveal the emptiness inside. As the plastic of the dolls is cracked and torn, we are made to speculate on what might be inside Pernat. He looks normal on the outside, but the inside is a mystery.

The Hanged Man Tarot Card

Another prominent symbol in the film comes from the tarot deck. It is an image of a man hanging upside down on a post by one foot. I am unfamiliar with tarot mythology, but like the legend of the Golem, it is very old and has gone through many iterations.

After reading several explanations of what the Hanged Man card means, I settled on the one provided by a website called Biddy Tarot. It seems relatively representative of what most sources say about the card, and the wording has some particularly interesting choices…

“The Hanged Man shows a man suspended from a T-shaped cross made of living wood. He is hanging upside-down, viewing the world from a completely different perspective, and his facial expression is calm and serene, suggesting that he is in this hanging position by his own choice. He has a halo around his head, symbolizing new insight, awareness, and enlightenment… The Hanged Man is the card of ultimate surrender, of being suspended in time and of martyrdom and sacrifice to the greater good.” 

In the image on the right, you will notice the ugly, green murkiness of Szulkin’s pallet. All four films in the tetralogy take place either in the shadows or in harsh, uneven light. Even outdoor scenes look as if they are shot under a storm cloud. His colors change from film to film, but the grungy darkness does not. Most of the stills presented here have been color-adjusted for clarity.

There is one other particularly important image in the film. It is not a symbol that keeps reoccurring, it is a brief bit of stock footage that has been used at the beginning of countless films. It is the blossoming mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion. Countless Cold War films begin with this footage. It is a universal image of anxiety, tragedy, and folly.

With the foundational symbol of the bomb in place, the film uses the Golem and the Hanged Man as touchstones in what is best described as a visual poem. I have never seen a movie quite like Golem. Its structure is loose and associative. It often seems to loop back and make reference to itself. Someone will mention the Hanged Man, and then later we will see someone hanging upside down, or someone playing cards.

There are also references to many other books and films. Kafka’s The Trial looms large, so does Orwell’s 1984. Kafka and Orwell are often evoked in art and literature when talking about anything totalitarian, but Szulkin gets pretty specific when it comes to emulating these books. There is that panicked sense that everyone knows something that the protagonist does not. Everyone speaks in circular nonsense, leaving Pernat completely confused. 

He meets a homeless man who is lying at the bottom of an escalator. Pernat is looking for a woman and asks the man for help,

Pernat: “Excuse me. Did you see a woman with red hair?” 

There is no response. 

Pernat: “What is it? You don’t feel right?”

Man: “Do you want to help me?”

Pernat: “I can call a doctor.” 

Man: “No, it’s not this. If you really want to help me, pass me this hat. You see? It’s so far away, I can’t reach it.”

Pernat: “This? Is that all I can do for you?”

Man: “All? There’s nothing more important than that.”

Pernat: “This hat?”

Man: “What would I be without it? Will you give it to me?”

Pernat places the “hat” on the man’s head, but it is not a hat, it’s a motorcycle helmet without a visor.

Man: “You see. I feel better already. And you walk around bald-headed. Sinusitis, baldness…”

Pernat crouches down next to the man, and we can see that with the helmet on, the man looks bald. Pernat is bald.

Pernat: “Who are you?”

Man: “Origin is important, but do we have to start everything with an oven? I’m a leader. A leader of dreams.”

Pernat: “That girl had red hair. Didn’t you see her? Didn’t you see her?”

Man: “You are delirious. Red hair? But you are bald. Protect your head.”

Pernat leaves and the man puts the helmet back on the ground, and then pushes it just out of reach.

The oven is a reference to the oven that Panot, as a Golem, was baked in before he came to life. Later, it will become clear that it is also a reference to the Holocaust. The ovens that begin the Golems’ lives are the same ovens that ended millions of Jewish lives. It is not just a reference to the persistence of Jewish trauma, but also about how visions of utopias like Hitler’s Third Reich, or Stalin’s version of communism, begin by trying to reshape the world through drastic, violent methods.

The conversation may have been symbolically significant for the audience, but it goes nowhere. Pernat does not get any answers. At the end, when the homeless man puts the helmet back out of reach, he loops back to the beginning, as if nothing happened and nothing was accomplished.

  The film is full of moments like these where symbols fall in on themselves and reemerge in different guises. Images reoccur, but each time they are different. It’s as if the film is full of visual rhymes. In this way, Golem is not a linear film. It’s an associative film that wanders into remembered thoughts and then wanders off again.

As a Golem, Pernat is not mindless, but he is hapless. Most of his dialogue is comprised of confused questions which elicit confusing answers. It is reminiscent of Karen Shakhnazarov's Gorod Zero. There are so many films Golem reminds me of. The impersonal and irrational bureaucracy of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is everywhere. Pernat’s timid and earnest demeanor recalls the main character from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and so do the ragged crusty environs Pernat wanders through. There’s the dream logic of David Lynch and the paranoia of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

  Szulkin claims Fellini’s as an important influence. Guido’s restless confusion is certainly present, and there are a few passages where the cinematography is very similar to the wandering movement in. There are also a few times when the film’s artifice seems to fall away as it does in . There is a scene where Pernat wanders into some kind of set where a television show is being filmed. The director looks at him and asks, “What do you want? What film are you from? What tape?” 

Szulkin referred to Fellini in an interview, “All filmmakers end up channeling their fears. certainly contains Fellini's personal anxieties. So does Godard's Pierrot le Fou, which poses an important question: To what extent we are all insane?”

Golem begins with Pernat being interrogated in a dark room. Everything his interrogator says is a nonsensical trap meant to incriminate Pernat, but Pernat is so clueless, the interrogator is unable to trap him. Eventually, he lets Pernat go. Once Pernat is out in the world, he is still unable to understand anyone. Everyone is so busily engrossed in their own myopic worlds that they are unable to connect with him. 

The symbolism wanders in and out of the narrative. There are several references to art and cinema and their role in society. Pernat is an engraver, working on an image of the upside-down Hanged Man. When the interrogator accuses Pernat of murdering someone, he claims that the murder weapon was Pernat’s engraving burin. Artists are seen as dangerous purveyors of suspicious information.

At one point, Pernat goes to see a movie, and on screen, there is a commercial for a drug. The smarmy authoritarian voiceover says, “Remember, happiness is your duty. If you are tired of your current face, modern medical techniques will help you solve fundamental problems. We are waiting for you. Remember: Happiness is your duty.” Again, the malleability of the Golem is referenced. As Pernat listens, the screen shows surgical hands peeling off layers of skin and bandages to reveal a human face.

There is no true resolution in the film. There can’t be. Pernat cannot be saved or rewarded, or enlightened, because, despite appearances, he is an empty husk. Near the end of the film, he finds an oven in the wall of a neighboring apartment. Curious, he opens the door and pulls out a mortuary-style rolling metal shelf. On the shelf is a completely black and charred corpse. It’s a chilling image. It’s both a Golem and a corporal ghost from the Holocaust. It’s a specter from the past. The roots of the Golem’s origin.

Similarly, the upside-down Hanged Man is an image of punishment and sacrifice as well. He resembles Jesus on the cross, but he is also an enlightened outcast given perspective by his marginalization. It is his upside-down torture that allows him to see things differently. 

Periodically, the film cuts to a very dark room where the scientists who created Pernat discuss his fate. Some want to destroy him, some want to arrest him, and others want to set him free. One of them explains, “We were supposed to create a new, better, more resilient humankind. Pernat is close to this. Let him live normally.” In the end, Pernat’s fate is left unsealed. He is left to wander aimlessly in the absurd world left behind after the nuclear apocalypse.

War Of The Worlds: Next Century

War Of The Worlds: Next Century is not as good as Golem. The poetry is gone, replaced by an angry, often preachy melodrama. It is possible that Szulkin was so distressed by the Soviet crackdown, his anger overwhelmed his ability to coax out nuance and render subtle imagery. Golem was made just before martial law was declared. War Of The Worlds: Next Century was made a year and a half later. As soon as it was released, it was immediately banned. It couldn’t have come as a surprise to Szulkin. The film is a direct attack on both the Soviet invaders and the collaboration of the Polish people with the Soviet regime. It’s a bitter protest film.

The opening credits pay homage to H.G. Wells’ 1889 book The War of The Worlds. In Szulkin’s film, just as in the book, the Earth is invaded by Martians, but in Szulkin’s version, the Martians are little people with gray faces wearing silver, puffy coats. They have come to our planet to gather large quantities of human blood. It is never revealed why they want the blood, but they want to bring it back to Mars. It’s obvious that the Martians are a stand-in for the Soviets. Both invaders institute a totalitarian regime that treats humans like cattle. 

Both wrest complete control over all aspects of culture and society, leaving an inhuman and lifeless world of propaganda and surveillance. There are televisions and loudspeakers everywhere, spouting messages like, “The important action of blood typing goes on very well. Registration centers efficiently make appropriate entries on identity cards. Remember: To be a good citizen means to have no problems, and you won’t have any, if you’re not a problem for others.”

The protagonist of the film is Iron Idem, a television host for a “soft” news program akin to Fox and Friends or Good Morning America. Idem is approached by officials who want to make him into a propaganda asset. The film traces an arc through his initial begrudging compliance into a gradual build toward his rebellion. 

The government kidnaps his wife in a comical scene where they tear through his apartment door with chainsaws. When Idem goes to inquire about why she was taken away, an official/bureaucrat answers, “Mr. Idem, you seem to be a reasonable man. I have responsible work. You yourself don’t believe what you’ve just said. Why do you yield to rumors and hysteria?” This is what psychologist Gregory Bateson called a “double bind". It’s a situation where the victim is cornered by an impossible binary choice. Your mother says, “You’re tired, go to sleep", but you don’t feel tired. It’s a dissonant disconnect where you have to substitute someone else’s judgment for your own. Otherwise, the situation is insoluble. 

Part of Soviet-style totalitarianism is forcing citizens to accept what they fully know to be false. It is a kind of psychological warfare. The government makes little to no effort to conceal its deceptions, but you must submit to them anyway. It’s like when a bully grabs your hand, hits you with it, and asks “Why are you hitting yourself?” It’s a brutal lesson in the subjugation of your will. 

Sometimes, propaganda is not meant to be believed. It is meant to be a bald assertion of power. In the end, the true goal is confusion, and through confusion, passivity. The main source of news in Russia, then and now, is the newspaper Pravda, which means Truth. It can be seen as an earnest label meant to underline the veracity of the information contained within, or it can be an ironic provocation.

There are parts of War Of The Worlds: Next Century that closely resemble Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s film Network, which came out 5 years priorin 1976. Iron Idem and Howard Beale are both being manipulated, but are unsure of the precise nature or extent of the manipulation. Beale thinks he is subverting the system by preaching “The Truth”, but the network is using his anger as a product they can sell. The most interesting part of the parallel is how Idem and Beale are both given a certain amount of freedom to say what they want on air. Their higher-ups recognize the need for an appearance of sincerity. It is not enough to blithely present propaganda. You have to infuse it with enthusiasm and emotion. Idem’s handler explains it this way, “Do you think I’ll stick a finger in your ass and I will shake you like a hand puppet and then give you a cookie? I have tons of such puppets. You must be different, you must know yourself what to do. I want spontaneity from you. Zeal, faith.”

Beale is given a lot more leeway than Idem, but both men eventually run afoul of their bosses. When Idem finally breaks ranks on live television, he delivers an unfortunately preachy and condescending sermon to the masses…

 “Do you know why you like me? The more stupid my program became, the wiser you felt. And this was what it was all about. From the TV chaos, you choose the truths you find convenient. You accept only what confirms your conviction that passivity is a virtue and a necessity. Because this is exactly what you want to believe. You cry, you feel sorry for yourselves. And then what? You sit in front of the TV set. You feel absolved. More human than those you look at. And you look at people who are just like yourselves. Just as hypocritical, just as weak. Just as submissive. The TV is created in your image. Stop being a flock of stupid sheep..”

Later, when the government is running damage control, they label Idem as a sick criminal and quote a small piece of this screed taken out of context, “Passivity is a virtue and a necessity.” 

Beale delivers a very similar speech near the end of Network

 “What is finished -- is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods.”

In Network, everything that is said becomes a text to examine. Nothing can be taken at face value. In War Of The Worlds: Next Century, Idem’s speech seems like the sincere words of Szulkin speaking. There is nothing wrong with sincerity, but Idem’s words are too simplistic. They lack the layers of Chayefsky’s writing.

Both films are concerned with how the populace is mollified and hypnotized into passive acceptance. For Szulkin in Soviet Poland, it is through lies and brute force. For Chayefksy in capitalist America, it is through dazzling and distracting consumerism and vapid entertainment. Both seek to create a passive populace.

Both systems attack language. Words become emotional cues devoid of content. In Network, communication is replaced with stimulation. In War Of The Worlds: Next Century, communication is simply nullified, as in these instructions given to Idem and a group of men in a shelter: “You donate your blood voluntarily. Whoever doesn’t, won't get breakfast. Who doesn’t eat, can’t donate blood. Those who can’t donate blood lose their place in our shelter. You donate your blood voluntarily.”

War Of The Worlds: Next Century has some compelling depictions of oppression and some disturbing images, but even with a good measure of surrealism that gradually takes hold of the film it remains relatively straight forward and predictable.

The last two films in the tetralogy will be covered in a separate article to follow.

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