Ga, Ga – Chwala bohaterom [Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes] (1986)

A few words about Piotr Szulkin are in order:

Piotr made four blackly comic political satires disguised as Science Fiction comedies in Poland during the 1980s, at a time when the Polish government was one of the most oppressive on Earth.  You don’t have to squint too hard to recognize that, whether he’s talking about a man who’s been replaced by an artificial duplicate (Golem, 1980) or a Martian Invasion (The War of the Worlds: Next Century [Wojna swiatów: nastepne stulecie],1981), his films are really about the times he’s living in.

Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes was the last of these films, and perhaps the blackest.  Certainly it’s far darker than his first two films, even though it would be hard to find anything quite as dark as either of those showing in the cinemas in the U.S.

The future is perfect.

So perfect, in fact that no one wants to go out and explore new worlds.

Fortunately, though, they’ve got lots of convicts — and they can choose to go to space as explorers instead of serving out their terms on Earth.

After all, they’re too kind and gentle these days for the death penalty.  And who cares if a bunch of convicts get killed exploring space?

Scope is the latest convict sent out on an explorer mission, with a huge — but decidedly unpleasant hero’s sendoff.  His capsule is sent to a distant planet and won’t return for a month.

But when he gets there, he finds he’s on Australia 458, a suspiciously Earth-like planet.  He’s hailed as a hero and given every luxury the planet has to offer (which are actually pretty crappy, if we’re going to be honest about it).

Only the deal is worse than he even imagines, and they expect him to go out and commit horrible crimes so he can be set up as an example to the rest of the community when he receives an absolutely horrendous punishment…

The future, apparently, looks like the worst, rundown slum in town.  It is run by corrupt cops and all the girls are controlled by a single powerful crime lord (at least, that’s his version of it).  Scope is greeted by a far too eager, if somewhat sleazy bureaucrat played by legendary Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr (who also appeared in War of the Worlds: Next Century, the absurd science fiction comedy, Seksmisja [Sexmission], and the fantasy comedy, Kingsize) who cheerfully offers him girls, money, and anything else he wants, while preparing him for his gruesome demise (all the while regretting that he himself doesn’t have what it takes to be a “hero”).

And the frightening glee with which the other “hero” on the planet accepts his role, slaughtering people and surrounding himself with young women, is deeply disturbing.

It’s never stated directly, but Scope is clearly a political prisoner, in jail because he couldn’t fit in.  He’s played by Daniel Olbrychski, another highly respected Polish actor, with quiet intensity.  Szulkin never gives him much dialog, leaving most of it to Jerzy and to the other equally horrible people he encounters.

It all comes to a surprisingly happy ending.  There isn’t even an ironic twist at the very end (as in Golem).  It’s a funny ending, and quite welcome after such a dark film, but somehow it reminds me a little too much of Sid Sheinberg’s “Love Conquers All” ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  It just seems as if it should all have ended badly — if not necessarily as badly as what was planned for him on Australia 458.

Perhaps the reference to it leading to a “new civilization” is meant to be that dark ending, a suggestion that things will just start all over again.

But, as we’re told that they live “happily ever after,” that seems fairly minor.

Sadly, while Piotr Szulkin could navigate the tricky political currents of Communist Poland and make such stunning and dark satires, somehow his career fell apart as the Wall did.  For whatever reasons, he never made another Science Fiction film.

Golem is by far the best of his films that I’ve seen so far (I still need to catch up with his third, the post-Apocalyptic film, O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization), perhaps because, even though it is a very dark film, it has a lighter and more comic touch.  However, Ga-Ga — Glory to the Heroes, as dark and occasionally gruesome as it is, is still funny and inventive.  It has an impressive, grungy look, with a very industrial looking prison ship, a battered and junky space pod, and, on the planet, a mixture of neon, rundown buildings, and fragments of something more glorious.

This is not a movie for everyone.  If you really want to try one of Szulkin’s films, I’d recommend starting with Golem.  But Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes is definitely worth a look.

You just need to remember that it is a very dark comedy.

Even if it does have a happy ending…

(English subtitles can be found here)

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