Cinema’s juiciest secret explored in fascinating new documentary
Often dubbed “the greatest science-fiction film never made”, a new documentary charting the story of an aborted movie called On The Silver Globe (Ucieczka na Srebrny Glob) has wowed audiences at the 18th edition of the Millennium Docs Against Gravity festival.
Based on a ‘lunar trilogy’ written by his grandfather, Jerzy Żuławski, it was to be not just the magnum opus of director Andrzej Żuławski, but a watershed moment for Polish and even international cinema.
Having received widespread acclaim for his French-language film L’important c’est d’aimer (for which screen siren Romy Schneider received a César award), Żuławski had returned from Paris to his native Poland in 1975 riding on a wave of adulation.
Buoyed by his cresting popularity, he embarked on his most ambitious project to date, persuading authorities to fund a sci-fi film that would be every bit as revolutionary as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Having crash-landed their spaceship on the moon, the story follows a group of astronauts who set about repopulating the new planet they call home.
To their surprise, however, their children grow far faster than normal humans on earth, and these new generations soon turn on their forefathers and develop their own primitive culture.
In a desperate act the last surviving pioneer sends a message back to earth that falls into the hands of a scientist, Marek.
Disillusioned by life, Marek in turns travels to the moon where he finds himself awarded Messianic status by its habitants.
Filming began in 1976 and little expense was spared – a star cast was assembled featuring household names such as Andrzej Seweryn, while permission was granted to film in nations such as Mongolia.
A year later, though, production was halted following the intervention of the Deputy Minister of Culture Janusz Wilhelmi.
Quite why has remained open to debate, but is an issue broached by Kuba Mikurda, the director of the new documentary, Escape from the Silver Globe:
“Everyone had a theory,” he says. “Some said it was just too subversive, others blamed its religious content. To me, it was a display of power by the new minister. He knew that if he would ‘hit’ this film, everyone would take notice.
“Interestingly enough, there are those who claim that Żuławski was relieved by it.”
For certain, the film had taken on an almost punishing toll and a momentum of its own.
Much like Kubrick, Żuławski had a reputation for pushing his charges to beyond their normal limits.
“You could compare it to what happened on the set of Apocalypse Now,” Mikurda told Variety magazine. “They created their own isolated universe, ready to do anything for their leader, and life on set started to mimic the movie.”
Such was the intensity of the project, one crew member recalled that “nothing was interesting anymore” following its cancellation.
Though budgetary concerns have been cited by some as a reason for the sudden move by the minister, yet others have speculated that it was more rooted in concerns that the film’s allegorical meanings were too heavily laced with anti-Communist sentiment.
Whatever the case, the film was shelved and Żuławski emigrated to France. Returning in 1987, the director meshed surviving footage with shots of contemporary Polish society, gluing the film together with a commentary explaining the scenes that were never shot.
In this mutilated and rehashed format, the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, accompanied by Żuławski’s embittered observations about a potential masterpiece that had been left devastated by the politics of his homeland.
Passing away in 2016 in Warsaw, he was buried in Góra Kalwaria cemetery at a ceremony attended by the film’s star, Andrzej Seweryn.
The film’s legacy, however, has refused to die, and today Mikurda’s documentary has cast an reinvigorated spotlight on what should have been the finest moment in the history of Polish cinema.
“To any cinephile, there is nothing more exciting than an unfinished or unmade film,” added Mikurda – the explosion of both domestic and international interest in this documentary has served to underline that point.