Dir:- Piotr Szulkin
Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak
Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem, Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji. Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.
Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star, Mad Max and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population that has colonised this dark place. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.
Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space, laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel that, as a hero, Olbrychski has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were some lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture was haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.
Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen, Jerzy Stuhr (Amator, Seksmisja, Kiler), features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.
The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.
Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizens relationship with authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.
Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original take on the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles.