My notes on the Polish science fiction satire.
Dedicated to H.G. Wells and Orson Welles, this 1981 science fiction satire from Solidarity-era Poland is less a sequel to the key invasion text than the title suggests – though it does follow Wells in having its Martians drink human blood. A possible reading of the film is that it’s not even about aliens, but a conspiracy of vampires who fake an alien visit for their own purposes.
Set near the end of the 20th Century and presumably in Britain – to go from the English language signage and some cultural elements like the TV license – it follows Iron Idem (Roman Wilhelmi), a balding, gloomy TV presenter who offers the ironically-titled Independent News while wearing a mop-top wig and grinning like a fool. In the run up to the millennium, Martians have come for a visit (though all we see of their space-ship is stock footage of Earth rockets) and Idem is forced to push a line of friendship with the odd, seldom-seen little creatures. The tubby, silver-faced, child-sized beings could be a crossbreed of the Martian kids from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and the id manifestations of The Brood – equally, they could be painted midgets in puffy jackets and balaclavas. Idem’s posh mansion flat is invaded Brazil-style by black-clad, crash-helmeted, neck-braced security goons who chainsaw through the doors, body-bag his seemingly living wife, smash up his furnishings and affix a ‘friendship badge’ to his ear like a cattle tag. Though he follows instructions and keeps pushing the friendship drive and a program whereby people need to become blood donors to retain their ID cards, Idem is kicked out of his home and repeatedly abused by apparent quislings. He snaps and batters a Martian to death in the toilet, and indulges in other defiant activity – sudden sex in a lift with a pouting colleague – but never gets to the bottom of the story. We glimpse a couple of Martians clutching a beaker of freshly-donated blood as people try to swap sick old people for tickets to a TV spectacular, but in a creepy little sequence Idem runs into a well-dressed, pale-faced human woman who licks her lips distinctively and might be a proper vampire.
In a riff on Year of the Sex Olympics, Privilege or Network, Idem interrupts the big Farewell to the Martians concert by horrible glam rock sellouts The Instant Glue with a speech indicting the TV audience for their passivity. With horrible irony, this is selectively quoted by his replacement ‘The Better News Show’ after a staged Martian withdrawal (actresses play grieving mothers standing over drained corpses and shaking their fists at the supposedly departing rocket). Idem is put on trial for collaboration with the enemy and all the higher-ups who forced him to sell the Martian line in the first place turn round and condemn the aliens as vile invaders. Idem asks to see his wife, and her bloodless corpse is dropped in his cell, then he is taken out and seemingly shot: while his image slumps on the television coverage, he walks away from the firing squad into an uncertain glare outside the TV studio. Aside from genre elements, it’s clearly attempting multiple meanings: it could just conceivably be an attack on the non-communist West, with its mass media and overconsumption and ruthless status-seeking, but the Polish cast, many recognisable local character types (a venal concierge, a bearded dissident framed as a suicide bomber, apparatchiks, security goons, long queues of folks waiting to have their papers checked) and insanity-of-the-bureaucracy touches (the forces who kidnap and murder the hero’s wife also want him to pay alimony) unmistakably have a specific meaning for Poland in 1981; one of the most-often-invaded countries in Europe obviously had an axe to grind about alien invasion narratives. It’s more bitter than funny, with downbeat grim tones which foreshadow The Pianist – hinting at one of the historical inspirations for this dystopian vision. Written and directed by Piotr Szulkin.
Michael Brooke Coincidentally, I’m reviewing a box set of Szulkin’s output for the next Sight & Sound – four features (1978-87), two shorts, all in a very similar end-of-civilisation vein and with English subtitles on everything. It was released in Poland a couple of months ago.
I say at the start of my piece that it’s very strange that dystopian sci-fi seems to be almost a one-man genre in Polish cinema (aside from very occasional one-offs like ‘Sex Mission’), as you’d have thought that that country’s history and a distinct national fondness for quizzical pessimism would have produced far more.