The hell is the one who watches: Andrzej Żuławski’s «On the Silver Globe»

An article published on 21.7.2021 at Contemporary Lynx, a magazine based in London, dealing with contemporary Polish art in all its apects.

Why aren’t we capable of freeing ourselves from pain and sorrow? Why are we humans so aggressive and cruel against one another? Why are we so fatalistically and irremediably subjected to the same small set of psychological ailments eternally reproducing and intensifying themselves with no prospect of change at all? Why should obscurantism, religious fundamentalism, superstition, totalitarian social structures, sectarianism, war, violence, hatred be the only bitter constants of human beings – euphemistically deemed to be the only rational ones on earth – throughout their millennial history? Why does humanity seem today more powerless than ever to come to terms with the same old devastating problems? Would it be that at the core of all this confusion and chaos lies in fact the incapacity of the humans to transcend the severe limitations created by their very egocentric nature? We think we find many potential answers to these questions in a supposedly sci-fi Polish movie – Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe [Na srebrnym globie] (1988), – where ‘sci-fi,’ in this case, is rather a pretext for a deeply philosophical and existential kind of cinema which, far from trying to simply predict a distant future as much accurately as possible, it rather opts for trying to understand, and probably transcend our absolutely tangible, as much as nightmarish human present.

In Search of a New Dawn for Humanity Far Away from Earth

Based on the first two volumes of The Lunar Trilogy written by Andrzej Żuławski’s uncle Jerzy Żuławski, On the Silver Globe recounts the failed attempt of a space expedition consisted of four astronauts to create a new civilization on a new planet. Only three of the astronauts survive – Marta, Piotr and Jerzy – after their spacecraft crashes on the surface of the strange planet. Years after, a new tribal civilization has been created through incestuous reproduction, characterized by religious superstition and violence. Paradoxically, Jerzy ages significantly more slowly than the other astronauts and their descendants and is treated by the latter as a kind of sage. They call him ‘The Old Man’. Before he dies, he retreats to the site of the spaceship crash and sends back to Earth a video diary he has kept since his arrival. In the second part of the movie Jerzy’s recording has reached Marek, a space researcher, who also travels to the Silver Globe and is received by the natives as their savior. Marek organizes a military operation against the native telepathic flying monsters Sherns, but in the meantime religious dogmatism and political totalitarianism explode back in the ranks of the primitive society of the Globe people.

Desiring Glands Suffering in Fragmentariness

 A simple change of planet cannot really change human nature. Human figures vibrating and oscillating, lost in the vast, solitary desertic expanses, the impetuous rivers and the seas of an unknown planet, uttering the same human agony of ever: the ferocious battle between a perishable body and something that has not fully defined itself, and yet claims to be a spirit, a soul; a deeply fragmented one, though: “I am a body, sir! Splitting. The idea of splittingSelf-consciousness in splitting. There is duality of nature here and duality of life. The thought of duality is part of my nature. It’s the contradiction between form and desire…” (Marek and Ihezal).

Profoundly split inside, dualistic by nature, in every single one of its thoughts, desires, utterances, the human animal suffers, quivering with that genetically inscribed craving it has been condemned to live with: “The submission to the narrow labyrinths of one’s own sensual passion… transforming oneself into a killer gland which believes that everything is its property” (Marek to the priest).

Transcend Duality, Be One With Cosmic Consciousness

Solitary moving glands suppurating desire, fear, anxiety, self-love, and violence, trapped in this irrational, indecipherable, implacably indifferent universe. People start by talking dubitatively, tentatively, uttering fragmentary thoughts, excerpts from diverse Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, and other religious and philosophical references; gradually their bodies begin to pulsate fiercely, gasping in anguish, eager to reach the long-yearned for climax of the ecstasy; to transcend their own fragmented human consciousness; to melt into the indifferent ocean of cosmic consciousness instead: “I will feel melted in you, oh rock, oh grass… I will feel. I will feel in me your non-human translucence. Complete cool. I am nobody.” (Jerzy).

Being a human means being apart; at a state of constant transition: from the form to a never-realized content, from the matter to a never-attained spirit, from the fragmentary to the unlocalizable and probably utopian One: “What is the answer? Where is the place where everything unites and becomes one? Does it become?” (Marek to the Shern).

Eradicate the ‘One Who is Watching’ if you Are to Wipe Out Evil

It is fragmentariness that manifests itself as craving, fear, and violence; fragmentariness equals Evil: “The tangibility of evil which we see around” (Marek to the priest); and, those are the fruits of the entity inside which is watching vigilantly the world as if it were something apart from the world: “I am in the prison of my own freedom, in the hell of the one who is watching” (Marek with Ihezal); instead of being the world itself that is just watching: “I was taught that the eye of the world which is watching me is the same eye with which I am watching the world. This eye is neither cheerful nor evil… neither feeling nor expectant. It is indifferent like water” (Jerzy). 

The human eye is expectant; it is thinkingseekinghoping; it can never satisfy itself with just being, just watching: “Be. Don’t think!” (Ihezal to Marek). That convergent point of coherence, where everything unites and becomes one, where every single movement of this hectic consciousness ceases forever, is to be found in the unimpassioned eye of the world, not in the ever expectant human eye. Then, one simply is: “I am. For it is not us that are lost in contemplation of the world. It is the world that is lost in our contemplation” (Jerzy). 

How Many More Failed Utopias of Love?

And that must be the so much longed-for state of love. But the humans are incapable of knowing what love is: “To love is to feel entirely responsible for somebody. You can also take lasciviously, without love. In that case, this word carries no meaning. It turns into evil and hateBut we have arrived here in order not to hate anybody” (Piotr talking to Jerzy). But when Piotr asks Jerzy “How can you be so happy here, – you who have nothing here?”, and Jerzy replies “I have you”, an enraged Piotr starts hitting him brutally until he lies blood-soaked on the ground.

Love means the annihilation of all separation; the identification of the human gaze with the impersonal gaze of the universe: “There is suffering, but there is no subject of suffering. There is action, but there is no subject of action. There is solace, but there is no man to reach it. There is a road, but there is no one to follow it” (Jerzy).

How many arrivals, how many beginnings, how many manifestos, how many new dawns, how many ‘never again’? A few astronauts left the Earth and searched for a new place, far in the universe, seeking to create a new humanity. But they ended up replicating just the same old human animality. Time and again we’ve been perpetuating the same chaos we carry congenitally within: “Here, everything is as on Earth. The same chaos, the same absence of truth. The same lie” (Piotr to Jerzy).

First Off, Recognize the Beast Inside, or: We are the Sherns!

The Silver Globe is the Earth; the new ‘humanity’ created by the three astronauts is the same old humanity; and the Sherns are the humans themselves: “There is a sect of scientists who claim that they are not there, that they are only a reflection of ourselves called out from the dark” (a guard to Marek). It’s no accident at all that everything on this planet resembles so much Earth, as Piotr notices early on. In one of those interferences of the narrator substituting the lost pieces of the initial footage of the movie, we are informed about some of the impressive similarities between the Shern civilization and our own: “Marek looks at the murals on the temple walls. They are rotten and time-mellowed, but readable, they depict Sherns in thrones, posing, pompous, holy Sherns gazing up at the highest, supreme Shern and still higher into the clouds, with adoration. Mark’s lips silently articulate the words: “Home.” “Home.” ”

Yes, indeed, it is home. With a crucial difference, though: we, the humans, are far inferior even compared to the really harrowing beastly-looking Sherns. In them the descendants of the astronauts see what they have been turning a blind eye to: their brutality, their violence, their overflowing sexuality; and this is the reason why they are also so much envious of them.

Spinning Around in the Concentric Cycles of Human Nature

The Shern is an animal, but one in the purest sense of the term: “I am consistent. You are not” says the captive Shern to Marek. “Everything – pain. Sleep – pain. Day – pain. Fear. Quiet, Shern. I – Shern. When the Shern sings. I – animal. You – less. You – death. I – the bow. Trees. Grass. I – see – Morque. You – fear. I – the run. Alone. I go. I far. You near. You fear – pain. Weight. You – voice. I – silence. We – go away, perish, float. You – Shern,” chant in chorus the Morques – the harrowing cross-breeds of humans and Sherns – circling threateningly Marek. The descendants of the astronauts have merely reproduced the same human psychological structure of ever – a structure abounding in pain, fear, empty words, and death; the animal Shern – or Morque – on the other hand, still resides in that ecstatic region of unsoiled Nature, – being one with the trees and the grass, – immersed in the blissful kingdom of silence and beauty; with good reason then, the Morques shout at Marek’s face: “You – Shern”!

With On the Silver Globe, Żuławski is not making just another sci-fi movie but a cinematic philosophical treatise on human nature in which “the history of civilisation on a foreign planet becomes a distorted reflection on the history of humanity on Earth.”1 At the same time, he fully recomposes the long and bloodstained history of religion, the one that has perpetrated ritual, hatred, and violence instead of the much-preached love and compassion; and thus, he is able to contrapose it to the true Religion, the one whose aim is the transcendence of the Self, or else, love. 

The Never-Ending Agony of Human Entrapment

Even more striking, though, is Żuławski’s alluring cinematic language itself. The ample use of dirty-blue colors, wide-angle lenses that distort the image, a camera which is moving as if possessed, all create an impressively convincing atmosphere of a gloomy otherworldliness where violence, horror, and existential agony reign, rarely achieved in the history of sci-fi cinema and cinema in general.2 The plot is only a pretext here. What is really important is to reveal the eternal existential dead-end of the human beings; their ineluctable entrapment into the prison of the Self with all its animality, violence, and pettiness; the contradictions of their battle to transcend it; and the bitter desolation their invariable failure to attain brings.

Notes:

1. https://culture.pl/en/work/on-the-silver-globe-andrzej-zulawski

2. http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2015/01/13/the-edge-of-coherence-on-the-silver-globe/ and https://culture.pl/en/work/on-the-silver-globe-andrzej-zulawski

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