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Piotr Szulkin

In Memoriam

The Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin passed away last year. At the time no words were shared on the pages of this blog. When the news hit I was taking a break from criticism; busy trying to write a play, which turned into a novel, which turned into nothing. I hoped others might pick up the baton and share some condolences in the name of this singular and distinctive talent, but little, if anything, was said.

Szulkin was a filmmaker I first encountered in 2012. From a UK perspective his work is incredibly obscure. None of his films, as far as I'm aware, have been made commercially available with English subtitles. Of his six feature-length films I've seen only three; but I could recognise in each of them a unique approach to visual storytelling; an unconventional appropriation of populist genre tropes (specifically science-fiction) alongside more recognisable art-house conventions; as well as a strong political subtext, which gave the work a lasting relevance. On one level Szulkin's films were essentially post-modernist B-movies preoccupied with pulp fiction-level subject-matter, such as doppelgängers, Martian hordes, interplanetary prison-ships and post-apocalyptic survival. His imagery was steeped in the neon-futurism of his most prolific decade, the 1980s, defined as it was by the film Blade Runner (1982), and finding an obvious affinity with other works from the same period, such as The Bunker of the Last Gunshots (1981), Liquid Sky (1982), The Hunger (1983), The Last Battle (also 1983), Brazil (1985) and Diesel (also 1985); that aesthetic fetish for dramatic back-lighting, smoky interiors and saturated colour. However his films were also deeply esoteric, blackly funny and charged with an atmosphere of the grotesque.

Piotr Szulkin on the set of his final film, King Ubu (2003), photographed by Rafał Guz:

The first film of Szulkin's I ever saw was also his best; O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985). At the time I wanted to include the film on my list of the year's greatest discoveries, but I couldn't find the words to express how powerful, eccentric and thought-provoking the film was without straining for the usual superlatives. I still can't. O-Bi, O-Ba is a work as strange and enigmatic as its title suggests; a stark, claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic allegory that has shades of fellow Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski's similarly blue-tinted science-fiction psychodrama On the Silver Globe (1989), but with a subterranean survival narrative that predicts later efforts, such as Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Island (2005). In many ways Terry Gilliam in particular seems a close point of reference here, with both Twelve Monkeys and the aforementioned Brazil feeling like first-cousins to Szulkin's films, with the same emphasis on characters struggling against a dystopian/Orwellian system, and the same retro-futurist aesthetic of old cars, crumbling buildings, filing cabinets and video monitors. Gilliam's more recent film, the flawed but visually interesting The Zero Theorem (2013), is especially redolent of Szulkin, with the shaven-headed Christoph Waltz bringing to mind the look of actor Marek Walczewski as he appeared in both Golem (1980) and O-Bi, O-Ba.

Following my initial viewing of O-Bi, O-Ba, I saw Szulkin's first two theatrical features, the just-mentioned Golem and The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981). The first film uses the myth of the golem as defined by Jewish legend as a metaphor for persecution, both personal and political. The central character, Pernat, stumbles through a "Kafkaesque" nightmare of mistaken identities, police interrogations and the constant threat of suspicion. In the process, he becomes a kind of on-screen personification of individualism; struggling to maintain a sense of personal identity against an environment of conformity, suppression and assimilation. The world of the film is one of ruin and decay, poverty and desperation, where the sickly sepia-tinted photography, hypnotic tone and sleepwalking performances set a visual precedent for Lars von Trier's first theatrical feature, The Element of Crime (1984), as well as Aleksandr Sokurov's similarly allegorical The Second Circle (1990).

In his next work, Szulkin created a film that felt like a precursor to the pulp sci-fi of John Carpenter's similarly political, similarly post-modernist action movie, They Live (1988). In The War of the Worlds: Next Century, a Martian invasion occurs against an Orwellian backdrop of government control, conformity and the loss of personal freedom. The film contains a strong subtext about surveillance culture and how the television can be used as a tool for propaganda, social distraction and manipulation, which plays beautifully to the final sequences, in which the manipulation of the image, and its ability to present a false perception of events, is powerfully revealed. It's a strange and often cynical film with a message that seems to suggest that rebellion is futile; our role in life - as far as the government is able to control and distort the narrative - has already been cast.

Golem [Piotr Szulkin, 1980]

The War of the Worlds: Next Century [Piotr Szulkin, 1981]:

O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization [Piotr Szulkin, 1985]:

Screenshots courtesy of FilmGrab []

Unfortunately I'm less familiar with the subsequent films, Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (1986), Femina (1991) and his final credit, King Ubu (2003). Nonetheless, on the strength and originality of the three films listed here, I think it's a shame, if not a tragedy, that the work of Piotr Szulkin isn't better known or more widely available. At a time when most films appear to have been produced by committee, modelled on a pre-existing template and manufactured to satisfy the expectations of genre classification or the USP of a respective "brand", the singularly strange and defiantly eccentric expressions of films like Golem and O-Bi, O-Ba in particular - with their stylised imagery, bizarre characters and heightened atmospherics - feel all the more remarkable.

Attempting to research more about Szulkin for the purpose of this post, I came across the following quote attributed to him on IMDb. It made me respect the filmmaker all the more. The quote states: "You can divide directors into three essential categories: Those who whisper to their actors, those who talk to them, and those who scream at them. You can tell which method a director uses from the results he gets. Those who scream should not make films, period. I'm one of those who whisper." The legacy of the Szulkin's work is just that, a whisper, but a whisper that speaks with more truth, more poetry and more personality than the loudest scream.


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