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© Barbican
© Barbican

Before Bladerunner and the Philip K Dick story that inspired it, Polish author Stanislaw Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot sci-fi story collection explored the potential pitfalls of a future society where cyborgs, indistinguishable from humans, roam in the streets.

The recent Beyond Human film season at the Barbican explored what it means to be human in the age of technological augmentation. The film segment of the season featured three Polish-made films from the Soviet era based on the fiction of Lem: The Interrogation of Pilot Pirx, Silent Star, and Solyaris - the original TV movie rather than the Tarkovsky masterpiece.

Each of them shines a light on the social, ethical and political questions that emerge alongside advances in science and technology. The films are not cinematic classics from a narrative or technical point of view, but nevertheless these curious historical artefacts speak to a lost past when the notion that humans would conquer the majesty of space together was almost taken for a given - quite in contrast to Pepsi's plans to project advertising billboards into space today.

Lem's books exhibit some cultural firsts, echoing the many real-world firsts the Soviet Union achieved - growing from a largely agrarian economy into a spacefaring collection of nations in a matter of decades, in spite of extreme hardship, protracted wars, and a world that railed against the rise of a socialist nation.

Be warned: There are mild spoilers in these reviews.

Silent Star

Silent Star opens with the discovery of a crystalline data tape at the centre of a mysterious explosion. It transmits a voice message, speaking a language, but one that is unintelligible and otherworldly. Some of the world's foremost minds in science and linguistics are brought together to solve the mystery, with this international grouping embarking on an interplanetary journey to Venus - where the tape is thought to have originated from - on a fact-finding mission.

Upon landing on the 462-degree-Celsius planet where much of the atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide, they discover a surprise - that the planet is abandoned, save for flying mechanical insects, the sole inhabitants of an underground cavern. These are, in fact, archives created by the Venusians - archives that reveal the abandoned planet was of the Venusians' own doing.

The film is set in the apparently not-so-distant future of 1985, and takes for granted that humanity has learned the errors of its ways following the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima towards the end of the second world war. In fact, our heroines' parents were killed in these blasts, which drives her to action for the betterment of humankind.

There are "socialist moon bases" - like 'Luna 3' - and as the Barbican notes, the multi-racial cast pipped Star Trek to the punch by half a decade.

Directed by Kurt Maetzig, Silent Star (also known as First Spaceship on Venus) is a 1960 colour film based on the 1951 Stanislaw Lem sci-fi novel the Astronauts. It was a joint production between the German Democratic Republic and the Polish People's Republic, and was first released by the GDR's Progress Film. https://www.defa-stiftung.de/filme/filmsuche/der-schweigende-stern/

Yoko Tani plays the Japanese astronaut Sumiko Ogimura, a hero, we hear, to young girls and women everywhere. She takes a leading role during the mission, and her character refuses to be merely a prop for the romantic obsessions of one of the men among the cohort - certainly a progressive take on gender for those times, despite her character also being told that her job as a woman is to nurture and mother. Silent Star also features East German actor Günther Simon, and Julius Ongewe as Talua, the communications officer from an unspecified country in Africa.

The film is cheesy by today's standards, but it is also a lot of fun - and the set designs really convey a sense of the extraterrestrial unknowns, not least when we journey through abandoned alien cityscapes before an unfortunate attack on our cast by a sentient glob of goo.

There's a case that Silent Star is naive techno-optimism, on-the-nose socialist propaganda, or a heady mixture of the two. While those are undeniable elements of the film, it should also be said that it speaks to a real political position advanced by the USSR and the GDR - that people around the world should unite peaceably to explore and understand the cosmos.

It is especially worth noting that the first colour image of Venus was taken by a Soviet space probe, with scientists successfully launching Venera 9 into the planet's orbit. The artificial satellite's descent vehicle landed on the planet, where it took images as well as surface crust readings, beaming these back to Earth and forming much of the basis for our understanding of the planet.

TM

The Interrogation of Pilot Pirx

Capitalism still seems to exist on planet Earth, or at least in the McDonald's where our titular pilot dines, while under pressure to take on an experimental mission

Pilot Pirx must travel to Saturn with a crew that includes 'nonlinear finites' - cyborgs that are indistinguishable from human beings - mixed in with plain-old people. There he must launch a probe through the Cassini Division gap between Saturn's rings, but all does not go according to plan.

A 1979 joint production between Estonia and Poland during the time of the Soviet Union, the Interrogation of Pilot Pirx is based on the character from Stanislaw Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot collection of sci-fi stories.

Directed by Marek Piestrak and starring Aleksandr Kaidanovsky as Pirx, the Barbican highlights that it is filmed in newly built modernist locations like Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, lending it a futuristic sheen with the dramatic edge of 70s conspiracy films.

These 'interrogations' come in three waves: first as Pirx questions his new crew to glean whether these cyborgs are trustworthy or not. Then, during the voyage to Saturn, Pirx must question himself: what way can he possibly fight back against a machine gone rogue that is stronger and smarter than him in every way? The final act is back on Earth, where Pirx is interrogated by UNESCO and its allies (UNESCO the agency apparently responsible for interplanetary colonisation) about what it was that went disastrously wrong.

Legendary Estonian composer Arvo Part provides the soundtrack, which flits from a foreboding and sparse martial drumming during the opening sequences - where it accompanies the beating of artificial hearts from the 'nonlinears' - to loud and bold with sweeping orchestral sounds.

As for the camerawork? As one Letterboxd reviewer notes, you could play a drinking game based on every time the camera zooms dramatically in or out, but it would likely end in death.

The Interrogation of Pilot Pirx dissects our anxieties about robotics and automation and the disasters that these could bring - something that we are still very much coming to terms with today. There is an eerie prescience in the proponents of robotics in the film, who seem more worried about losing profits than they do about any other consequences.

And it examines, before the replicants of Bladerunner and Philip K Dick, what it means to be human at all. Ultimately Pirx defeats the mysterious plotter aboard the starship with what the cyborg deems to be weakness - his humanity.

TM

Solyaris

The first on-screen adaptation of Lem’s Solyaris (preceding both the 1971 Tarkovsky and 2002 Soderbergh versions), debuted in 1968 on Polish television. This early version sheds both the introspection and striking cinematography of the former, and the sentimental tug of the latter, to leave a strangely neutered and clinical creation.

Its clunky performances (hampered further by the hammy acting style of the period) and gaping lack of any emotional resonance or depth - when Kelvin’s long dead wife materialises in his room he dispatches her matter-of-factly without the bat of an eyelid - severs any ties we might have felt to the characters and the mysterious happenings on the spaceship, as well as the impetus to conduct a deeper analysis of the philosophical and metaphysical questions raised by the work.

It’s clear why Tarkovsky chose to remake the film a mere three years later, producing a masterpiece that is still hailed as one of the best science fiction films ever made. Interestingly, Lem never appreciated Tarkovsky’s work, believing that it was overly preoccupied by the inner lives of the scientists and strayed too far from the original novel. Perhaps he was more appeased by this more faithful, but ultimately superficial interpretation.

LC