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Polish science fiction

New Worlds, Old Worlds

by Mina

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away… I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and found an intriguing series of “shorts” directed by Tomasz Bagiński called “Legendy Polskie” (“Polish Legends” – this is the translation used by the director himself, since you could also translate “legends” as “fables” or “(fairy) tales”), which transplants old Polish tales into a sci-fi/fantasy context. They have decent English subtitles and the images are of good quality. I loved them but that is not reason enough to wax lyrical: I am writing about them because, in my opinion, good sci-phi is not really about other worlds, it is about this one. In this case, the films are unapologetically set in a Slavic-Polish universe. They are also a good example of the archetypes found in our collective unconscious and what a friend of mine called “folk theology”.

Before going any further, for those that have not watched these shorts (yet!), here is a summary of the five tales. The first “Smok” (“Dragon”) takes a local legend about a dragon terrorising the city of Krakow. In the original, the king offers his daughter in marriage to whoever rids him of the troublesome dragon. A poor shoemaker tricks the dragon into eating a sheep filled with sulphur, which makes it so thirsty it drinks from the Vistula river until it explodes. The clever guy gets the passive princess – the usual stereotypical solution, which is not particularly interesting in itself. In Bagiński’s version, the focus is more on the David and Goliath premise behind it. This is a much richer trope in the collective unconscious – the little guy beating the giant with nothing but intelligence.

In the modernised version, the hero is a computer nerd and science geek; the princess is a sporty, spunky girl the hero has a crush on; the dragon is a sexual predator with a spaceship. This short is the one most influenced by US teenage culture, social media and computer games. The dragon is a mercenary, feared but also idolised on social media (the film seamlessly incorporates his media presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc. – he even has a signature song – and fake news clips). When the heroine is captured by the dragon in his ship, the hero cannot hope to win in face-to-face combat, so he fights back by creating a cross between a high-tech K9 and a female android (as well as the nod to Doctor Who, there is another to the manga “Ghost in the Shell” in the background of one scene). His bedroom is full of the gadgets he has created, but he steers the android using an ordinary mobile telephone. On the surface, it is all very formulaic: good wins against evil, guy gets girl. Under the surface, you could argue that it’s a great plaidoyer for hard work and brains being more important than muscles and arrogance, a critique of the power of social media and fake news and a comment on political corruption. Particularly in Poland today, this is all much easier to say in a parallel universe.

Going in chronological order, we then move on to chapters one and two of the same tale: “Twardowsky” (incidentally, a chapter three is on the way as a full-length movie). The original legend is a Faustian pact with the devil, so it is an ideal example of folk theology or urban legends. The black, if not subtle, humour is very apparent in Bagiński’s take on this age-old story. He has us reluctantly rooting for the foul-mouthed, sexist and arrogant (anti)hero (reminiscent of the heroes of the wonderfully outdated “Seksmisja”). Part one shows Twardowsky’s confrontation with the female demon Lucy on the moon and his escape by stealing her ship. The plot itself is very simple but behind it is an adoption of the sci-fi genre into Polish culture, with the US tropes being replaced by Polish ones: the successful Polish millionaire on the cover of Newsweek (although the fact that he got there through a deal with the devil makes this particularly subversive); the first man living on the moon is Polish (in the original, Twardowsky does flee to the moon) and he is living in a sleek moon station; the soundtrack is full of Polish golden oldies and the hero is played by a Polish actor who is to the Poles what Depardieu is to the French (Robert Więckiewicz). My favourite line is Lucy commenting that the holy water the hero initially tries to poison her with cannot work because the bishop who blessed it is already in hell. In today’s ultra-conservative Catholic Poland, it is a daring joke.

Part two shows Twardowsky outwitting hell again. It is full of very imaginative details about hell and its inner workings. The ship the hero has stolen is powered by sin and he gets stuck in the rings around Saturn because it runs out of fuel. He tries to power it by swearing and is about to attempt masturbation when he is interrupted by a conference call with the demon Boruta (in Polish mythology, he corrupted noblemen). Hell is painted just like a large corporation with many ranks of demon and a bureaucracy underpinned by a massive computer system. We even see Boruta’s assistant, Rokita, sorting out a computer bug for his boss (and he demonstrates Smok’s soul being downloaded into hell, a nice detail). This of course leads to Boruta being careless with his password, which allows Twardowsky to use it to hack into hell’s mainframe from his demonic ship. Our hero is able to power the ship by committing suicide, but he also interrupts and reverses the download of his soul to hell, thus escaping into outer space. The happy ending is mitigated by showing us the demon Lucy clinging to the outside of the ship, letting us know that there will be another battle to come, and the fact that Twardowsky is fleeing again when all he really wants to do is to return to earth. A coda at the end shows Rokita trying to explain to Boruta that Twardowsky’s hacking led to the wholesale collapse of hell’s mainframe and to many complications.

All of this cheerful irreverence towards religion may not seem like much but it is very risqué if you take into account the political and cultural climate in Poland right now. It is not the first and will not be the last sci-phi film to critique religion and society. Another underlying message can be found in the lyrics to the song at the end of part one. Being human means not knowing what happens next in life (the people you have not yet met, the moments you have not yet lived, croons the song) and this is what Twardowsky lost when he sold his soul. He does not just get his soul back at the end of part two, he gets back the uncertain future he lost (and thereby, hope); just like Poland got back an uncertain future at the end of the Communist regime. Freedom is painful and comes with no guarantees (hell may still catch our hero; Poland still has a lot of problems).

The last two shorts show the escape of two Slavic demonic beings from hell as a result of the complete rebooting of the computer system – a basilisk and a witch. “Operacja Bazyliszek” (“Operation Basilisk”) begins with a flash-forward to the hero trying to save the “princess” (a female soldier) from a “giant chicken” (the basilisk, with its deliciously creepy voice), then goes back to two policemen on a fishing trip somewhere near Warsaw. This short really enjoys turning the whole fairy-tale trope on its head and it is the funniest in my opinion (although it is perhaps more superficial). Unlike Twardowsky, the hero Boguś (short for Bogusław, pronounced Bogusz) is a completely lovable if crass “typical” Polish male. He has premonitions and he saves the day with his mobile phone and his “Slavic anger”, that indomitable Polish spirit. I do not think you could go as far as accusing the film of rampant nationalism, but it is full of blatant national pride. Boguś’ hard-drinking uncle also helps, although more by accident than design. He is a wonderfully comic element with his terrible puns, but it also feels as if the director is taking the stereotype of the “drunken, macho Slav” and lending it more depth and weight than usual.

“Jaga” (“Witch”) shows the battle between a very powerful witch who has just escaped hell and the demonic military swat team sent to collect her. It is my least favourite episode, as it is built on a trope that is over-used in sci-fi/fantasy films: the slo-mo fight reminiscent of a computer game with one against many, underscored by the music. Jaga is, however, a strong female character and not a passive princess or repulsive crone (the main female stereotypes in fairy tales). Boruta freezes time to ostensibly persuade Jaga to come back to hell but actually to help her escape. Jaga goes on to wreak chaos on the humans that have polluted the air and ravaged the land of her world and killed her sacred trees. Boruta hopes to become king of the chaos that ensues when humans lose comfort and order. However, Jaga’s actions lead to the escape of a very powerful demon Perun (god of thunder and lightning in Slavic mythology), so Boruta will have competition in his plans for world domination. Jaga is not portrayed as good or bad, simply as dangerously single-minded in her defence of Gaia. Boruta comments that she was only in hell until she chose to leave it, again stressing the silent strength of this female figure.

The shorts are all produced by Allegro (the biggest online e-commerce platform in Poland) and their site for these films offers free extra material. All the music can be downloaded for free, there is an interview with the demon Boruta in text and audio form and there are some wonderful videos to go with the music. For example, the song “Aleja Gwiazd” (“Star Road”) shows how a demon (Lucy) is born; “Jaskółka Uwięziona” (“Trapped Swallow”) shows us Jaga being tortured and escaping from hell, as well as Boruta’s fascination with her; “Kocham Wolność” (“I love freedom”) shows us the mundane lives of demons. It is a great use of cross-media platforms, which feels appropriate for sci-fi/fantasy shorts. However, although the music videos can be enjoyed without knowing a word of Polish, the other extras are only available in Polish, which does make most of the content “hermetic” to the non-Polish speaker (to quote THEfirstNEWS, a Polish internet magazine which publishes in English).

The director Bagiński studied originally to become an architect and began in computer-aided animation, and these origins are clear in how important the aesthetic aspect is to him. He is also very rooted in his Polish culture – his first animated short “Katedra” (“The Cathedral”) won many awards: it is based on a short story by a Polish author Jacek Dukaj and the images are inspired by the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński. The mix of imagination and social critique are already present in this early work – are we seeing a man sacrificed to a construct or gaining immortality? Bagiński is now working on a series for Netflix “The Witcher”, based on the works of the Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. In an interview with THEfirstNEWS, however, Bagiński states that his favourite project is still “Polish Legends”, “a collection of reinvented Polish narratives”.

In an internet article on the entertainment blog (rozrywka.blog) of Spider’s Web (a Polish technology and lifestyle blog), Bagiński discusses in depth what he means by “narratives”. For him, they exist at all levels of life and in all domains. In business, companies rise and fall based on their “stories” (which seem to equal well-placed lies in some cases). In politics, parties that have a coherent, simple story or narrative do well (which can equal propaganda). A story is much more than entertainment, it is when we suspend disbelief and let ourselves be carried by the narrative. In the same interview, he is asked why he has been involved in so many projects focused on Polish culture. He answers simply that, when his career took off the ground, he decided to stay in Poland and it felt natural to use the “cultural instrument given to me by my native country”. And not just use it, but reflect and comment on it in a world context. It is his biggest influence, along with US action movies from the 1980s.

The visuals in these shorts are stunning and it must not be forgotten that they have brought Allegro a lot of money, despite being made available for free. Allegro itself considers “Polish Legends” to be a marriage of culture and marketing. Not surprisingly, the films have won awards for branded content, brand awareness and positioning, and online videos. They are an attractive package aimed at a generation that has grown up with the internet and media platforms. Moreover, they are a shining example of Polish creativity and innovation. But beyond their glittering surface, they have a deeper resonance lent to them by their use of stories and ideas taken from the collective unconscious and folk theology, skilfully harnessed by Bagiński. These films may postulate future or alternative worlds, peopled with demons and other fantastical creatures, but what they do best is tell us a lot about the Polish psyche.

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Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.