Bloody Satire From Beyond the Stars

The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981)

Zespół Filmowy “Perspektywa”

It begins with a married couple walking through the streets of a largely deserted city. It could be any time, right up to the point when two children emerge in bizarre fashion: one walking on all fours wearing a leash under the other child’s control. The married couple, bewildered, ask why the children are behaving this way. “Because he is a human and I am a Martian,” says the one holding the leash—and they continue on their way.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin made four films collectively known as the Apocalypse Tetralogy; 1981’s The War of the Worlds: Next Century is the second installment after 1979’s Golem. The series lacks any narrative cohesion, but retains plenty of thematic ties, from cynical perspectives on the corrupting effects of power to visceral depictions of alienation. Decades later, these films’ themes still feel searing; miraculously, Szulkin made three of them (The War of the Worlds: Next Century; O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization [1984]; and Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes [1985]) during a period of extreme political tumult in Poland following the growth of the Solidarity movement in 1980-1981 and the government’s subsequent declaration of martial law.

There’s also the matter of the Martians in The War of the Worlds: Next Century, who are eager to harvest human blood—and who have the assistance of influential forces in politics and the media. Though Next Century shares a title with H.G. Wells’s seminal novel, the film is unlike any other adaptation. For that matter, it stands apart from most onscreen stories of alien invasions. 

A telling moment in Szulkin’s film occurs during the opening titles, which include a dedication to H.G Wells and Orson Welles. Before long, it becomes clear that Szulkin is less concerned with the specifics of the latter’s adaptation and more with the metatextual implications of Welles’s fateful broadcast. Here, Szulkin goes one step further than Welles. If the lesson of Welles’s radio adaptation of War of the Worlds is that the right broadcaster can convince you that a Martian invasion is actually happening, Szulkin’s film is even more pernicious: the right broadcaster can convince you that a Martian invasion is all for the best.

Alternately, the most succinct description of Szulkin’s film would go something like this: imagine if Network and Brazil, released four years after Next Century, merged into one movie—and that movie also featured Martians thirsting for human blood. Szulkin’s work anticipates a host of sociopolitically charged, often transgressive films released in the decades that followed.

***

The War of the Worlds: Next Century follows Iron Idem (Roman Wilhelmi), a news presenter and one half of the couple we meet in the film’s opening scene. Idem is on his way to work, where he hosts a popular news program, Iron Idem’s Independent News. It’s late in 1999, and Martians have recently landed on Earth. It hasn’t taken long for the aliens to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be; before broadcasting, Idem is handed what’s described as “a new version of your commentary” to deliver. 

That he does so in front of a sign declaring “Independent News” is one of several none-too-subtle gestures dramatizing the gulf between reality and reality as Idem’s superiors would like to present it. Another less-than-subtle moment comes shortly thereafter, as Idem and his wife, Gea (Krystyna Janda), are woken up by leather-clad troops chainsawing the door to their apartment. These men, who look every bit the authoritarian foot soldiers they are, trash the place and kidnap Gea. Unfortunately, she never really emerges as a character in her own right; she remains simply an object for Idem to pursue. 

The fascist shock troops aren’t alone when they enter Idem’s apartment. There’s also a Martian: short, humanoid, with a silver face and clad in a puffy coat. The effect is somewhere between the baby-mask-wearing torturers in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the sinister psychic Quimper in Grant Morrison’s comic book The Invisibles—an unnerving combination of the ubiquitous and the terrifying.

Much of what follows proceeds from Idem’s steady alienation—both from the enthusiastic participants in an increasingly authoritarian society around him, and from his colleagues in the media, all of whom seem to want something from him. These include the higher-ups in the broadcast hierarchy, who seek to use his “Independent News” as a means of spreading pro-Martian propaganda, and a female employee, whose obvious lust for Idem is palpable even before the two of them eventually consummate their attraction in an elevator. (For a man searching for his lost wife, Idem is not exactly a model of fidelity.)

As Idem makes his way through the city, Szulkin teases out details about the effect the Martian invasion has had on society. In particular, we see the dehumanizing practices the Martians enforce: Idem is given a metal tag in his ear that resembles the same kind given to livestock. Signs declare the Martians’s intentions in the bluntest of terms: MARTIANS LOVE LAW; YOUR BLOOD IS WANTED.

It’s never stated outright, but the Martians’s need for human blood seems to be the chief reason for their presence on Earth. At one point, a despondent Idem spends the night in a shelter; admission is free, as long as you’re willing to donate blood. Bad behavior is penalized by the extraction of blood. Late in the film, Idem walks through a hotel that’s been vandalized with the phrase “ALL WE NEED IS LOVE AND BLOOD” written on a mirror in lipstick.

Through sequences like the one at the shelter and official messages from the powers that be, which illustrate the importance of a “life permit” to move about the city, Szulkin illustrates an increasingly unsettling portrait of the perniciousness of living in an authoritarian system. The Martians take human blood and prevent them from living normal lives. “I want to sleep, just sleep” an exhausted Idem declares at one point. And yet he continues on, simultaneously a celebrity recognized everywhere he goes and an everyman at the mercy of everyone he encounters—from the executives controlling his news broadcasts to the doorman of his apartment building, who verbally abuses Idem in the wake of his wife’s abduction.

During one of his broadcasts, Idem advises viewers not to be concerned about a potential language barrier between species. “You can reveal your deepest thoughts to Martians in English,” he says—leaving the rationale for why anyone would want to do that both vague and ominous. Roman Wilhelmi’s performance is compelling, whether he’s declaring platitudes about human-Martian friendship while wearing an absurd wig, or trudging through the city, looking every bit the dapper existential hero. There’s a sense of bottled-up impotent rage that he ably conveys, which adds tension to the proceedings, as it’s never clear whether his temper will rise up at the worst possible moment.

***

In a 2015 interview with Ela Bittencourt for Film Comment, Szulkin offered an interesting genre analysis of The War of the Worlds: Next Century. Much of his approach to the film, he explained, came from film noir. “I was thinking of films like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon,” he told Bittencourt. Later, in the interview, he addressed his broader relationship to science fiction. “I do not make sci-fi, but rather borrow from its aesthetic.”

It’s not an immediately obvious comparison, but viewing The War of the Worlds: Next Century as a work of film noir makes sense. Morally compromised hero: check. An increasingly fatalistic conflict with powerful forces: check. The protagonist committing a shocking act of violence after being passive for much of the film: check.

The last of these occurs between Idem and a Martian in a bathroom. Specifically, Idem brutally beats a Martian using a piece of metal broken off from a bathroom sink, apparently killing him. It’s here that the film’s relatively low-tech approach to visual effects pays off. Idem prods the side of the Martian, resulting in a squishing sound, which suggests that the silver puffy coats may actually be a kind of exoskeleton. 

As Idem reaches his own moment of moral clarity, the world around him is changing—the Martians are leaving the planet, with a grand farewell event to take place. The relative speed with which the Martians come and go, transforming the world in their wake, adds a sense of unreality to the film. Who benefits from their presence and their absence looms over Next Century’s final scenes, when Idem becomes a scapegoat for his role as a collaborator.

For all the propaganda within the film that hails superior alien intelligence and technology, the Martians we see are much more crude, lurking around the fringes of violent acts. It’s hinted that they’ve been joyriding, causing chaos on the roadways in their wake. Far from sinister interstellar invaders or wise sages of the cosmos, the Martians feel more like petulant, entitled children given limitless power.

It’s these contradictions that infuse Szulkin’s film with an unsettling tension. The alien invasion doesn’t play out in the expected manner. Here, moral compromise abounds and a fickle public is easily manipulated. Late in the film, Idem encounters an apparently dedicated revolutionary, who dies during an attack on the authoritarian power structure. But a subsequent scene suggests that the revolutionary may have been working with the authorities all along—or, at least, that his death will be co-opted by them. In the end, Szulkin suggests, the difference is negligible. 

In the Film Comment interview, Szulkin addressed the origin of Next Century, and the ways he did and did not draw on actual history:

I tore up my first draft for The War of the Worlds, some 12 pages, because I realized that I had gone in the wrong direction—it was a straightforward allegory of the Soviet invasion. I think it is much better if we are not clear about who invades, Martians, doll-like figures, who knows.

In an article about a different film reckoning with authoritarianism, power struggles, and otherworldly beings—the Denis Villeneuve-directed Enemy (2013)—Forrest Wickman muses about the way the film acts as “a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it.” But Szulkin opts to go a step further, suggesting that the inhuman invaders aren’t the ones we should be most worried about.