A text commenting Polish director Piotr Szulkin’s sci-fi movie «The War of the Worlds: Next Century» [«Wojna światów – następne stulecie»] (1981), published on May 18th, 2021 at Culture.pl, the official site of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a state-run cultural institution under the auspices of the Polish Minister of Culture. (Based on a text initially published in greek by the online magazine ‘Monocle’).
Piotr Szulkin’s ‘War of the Worlds: Next Century’ uses the genre of science fiction as a pretext for a deeply philosophical and existential kind of cinema which, far from trying to predict accurately a distant future, rather opts for discussing a tangible, nightmarish human present.
Why aren’t we capable of freeing ourselves from pain and sorrow? Why are we humans so aggressive and cruel to one another? Why hasn’t knowledge and technology, despite its unprecedented progress, managed to deliver a better society? Why are totalitarian regimes still proliferating instead of vanishing overall? How is it possible that a seemingly innocuous invention such as television has come to exert such a devastating influence on the whole of the Earth’s population? And why does humanity seem more powerless than ever to come to terms with such daunting problems? Are we correct in assuming that at the core of all this confusion and chaos lies the incapacity of humans to transcend the severe limitations imposed on them by their egocentric nature?
The Martians are us!
The outrageous indifference of the masses towards the unflagging activity of various forms of power, as well as the total apathy of modern man towards anything that should definitely concern him, is the main subject of Piotr Szulkin’s dystopian movie. The problematic nature of a society completely stupefied by spectacle – more specifically, a spectacle projected onto a television screen – is the other side of the coin of Szulkin’s philosophical considerations in The War of the Worlds: Next Century.
Iron Idem is a popular television broadcaster. Like any other day, Idem comes to the studio, puts his funny wig on, and is about to read the text he has prepared when a supervisor breaks in and passes him another piece of paper along with the order that he is supposed to read. It proves to be a propagandistic panegyric for the supposed friendly intentions of Martians who, for the first time in human history, have just visited Earth. Their civilisation is praised for its superiority compared to ours.
When Idem returns home, he is attacked by security forces. They hit him, completely destroy his house and kidnap his wife. Now Idem passes his lonely nights in cheap and sordid hotels. Out on the streets there lurks the constant danger of an encounter with the omnipresent security forces. On one of these grim nights he finds refuge in a place that resembles a madhouse or a shelter for the homeless but soon proves to be a camouflaged concentration camp where the government gathers unsuspecting citizens and forces them into obligatory ‘blood donations’. What is really happening is that the government, television and military are forcibly taking people’s blood and passing it on to the Martians. At the camp, Idem meets a strange old man who talks to him fervently about his crazy plan to blow up the television station and asks for Idem’s help.
After a while, it is finally announced that the Martians are leaving. As a kind of farewell celebration, the army organises a concert. Everybody is welcomed to participate, depending on the quantity of blood he can contribute. The masses cannot hide their overflowing enthusiasm and literally swarm the stadium where the concert is going to be held.
Idem is now determined. He forcibly enters the stadium, steps onto the stage, grabs the microphone and addresses the audience, which initially gives him tumultuous applause:
You know why I’ve been so likeable to you? The more stupid my show was, the cleverer you thought you were. […] Out of the whole televisual chaos, you select only those truths that you deem comfortable. You only accept what confirms your own convictions […]. Because this is exactly what you want to believe in. You cry, you pity yourselves. And then what? Then, you sit in front of the television, feel absolved of your guilt, more human than the people you’re watching. But the people you’re watching are as human as you. As hypocritical as you, weaklings like you. As obsequious as you. Television is being created in the image of you. Stop being a flock of stupid sheep.
After their initial enthusiasm, the crowd starts booing Idem disdainfully. But he has a few more things to tell them:
They’ve cheated you, you are helpless. They tell you that you have to offer your blood. And you do so. They tell you to crawl on all fours – and you do so. You sell them your dignity, you are going to sell them your honesty just for a bigger TV set. Just to grab a meagre piece of power. Every single one of you wants to rule, and yet, every single one of you is a slave. Every single one of you is being violated, but the only thing you all want is to violate others. In what way do you differ from those you are spitting at? In no way. We are all the same.
Now the crowd is outraged at Idem’s speech. Nobody is disposed to recognise that they have been converted into beasts of burden through television, political authorities and spectacle. The spectacle has substituted reality at all levels. Reality is now perceived as a continuum of entertaining reflections projected onto a TV screen. And men have been brutalised because they have voluntarily ceded their own humanity in exchange for a phantasmagorical virtual reality created by corrupt TV station owners and political chieftains. They have been converted into sleepwalkers as Guy Debord had predicted: ‘Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour.‘[i]
The police kick Idem out of the stadium. He takes a rest for a while at a nearby amusement park. An indignant citizen reproaches him for today’s show. It clearly hadn’t been what his audience was expecting of him. Not at all amusing. Whilst on stage, Idem had yanked off his ear a kind of earring attached obligatorily by the authorities to every ‘friend of the Martians’, obviously for reasons of electronic surveillance. Blood had started pouring profusely from Idem’s ear. Now, the stranger’s son asks him whether he is going to repeat that trick again next time. Idem responds to him: ‘No. Next time it’s going to be another guy instead of me. You!’ He takes his wig off his head and puts it on the child.
The last time Idem meets the old man from the madhouse, he will not even hear of his crazy plan: ‘It’s all wrong! Television will survive. Television is the people!’ Idem tells him.
Szulkin reminds us that all those factors that we tend to accept fatalistically as some exogenously given cause of our suffering are nothing more than ourselves. We are the television establishment, we are the totalitarian regime we are stoically enduring, and finally: we are the bloodthirsty Martians who have invaded Earth. It’s all been our own invention so that we can remorselessly withdraw into our small private spaces and just have as much fun as we can, and it is us who resist any changes to this peculiar self-referential dead-end we have cunningly created for ourselves.
Szulkin based the script of his movie on H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898), and made it into a bitter critique of any form of totalitarianism, as well as of the corruptive nature of its basic propagandistic medium: television. The movie was finished in 1981, when general Jaruzelski ascended to power and imposed martial law in Poland. Needless to say, it was immediately banned and was not released until 1983 when the state of emergency was lifted. After all, Szulkin’s message can be perfectly described by what Vita Fortunati wrote in regards to J. G. Ballard’s novels.
All of his tales are marked by a horrifying admission that humanity essentially yearns for Apocalypse, that it feeds upon disaster, that it actually pursues its own death, its total annihilation. In such a perspective, any argument for regeneration is quite clearly impossible, not least because Ballard’s characters consciously deny the possibility. The Apocalypse is no longer feared; it is desired. It is no longer fought against; it is embraced. It has become a goal, an ambition, a means to fulfilment.[ii]
Idem is finally arrested. During a brief show trial, he is sentenced to death. The prison guards lead him to the place of his execution. The firing squad gets ready and after a few seconds they open fire. An astonished Idem realises that he is still alive. He looks around perplexed. On his right side there is a TV set. Slowly, he stoops down and there, on the screen, he is amazed to see his body lying down, dead from the bullets. It turns out, they never wanted him dead. Why should they? Alive, he is far more useful to them and their sinister purposes.
Written by Lefteris Makedonas, edited by AZ, Apr 2021.
[i] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Bread and Circuses Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2012).
[ii] Fortunati, Vita. “The Metamorphosis of the Apocalyptic Myth: From Utopia to Science Fiction.” In Krishan Kumar and Stephen Bann (eds) Utopias and the Millennium. London: Reaction Books, 1993, p. 88.