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The Martians are us! Piotr Szulkin's "The War of the Worlds: Next Century" ["Wojna światów – następne stulecie"] (1981)

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Abstract

Why aren’t we capable of freeing ourselves from pain and sorrow? Why are we humans so aggressive and cruel to one another? Why hasn’t knowledge and technology, despite its unprecedented progress, managed to deliver a better society? Why are totalitarian regimes still proliferating instead of vanishing overall? How is it possible that a seemingly innocuous invention such as television has come to exert such a devastating influence on the whole of the Earth’s population? And why does humanity seem more powerless than ever to come to terms with such daunting problems? Are we correct in assuming that at the core of all this confusion and chaos lies the incapacity of humans to transcend the severe limitations imposed on them by their egocentric nature?
The Martians are us! The War of the Worlds: Next Century [Wojna światów – następne
stulecie] (1981) by Piotr Szulkin
Abstract
Why aren’t we capable of freeing ourselves from pain and sorrow? Why are we humans so aggressive
and cruel to one another? Why hasn’t knowledge and technology, despite its unprecedented progress,
managed to deliver a better society? Why are totalitarian regimes still proliferating instead of vanishing
overall? How is it possible that a seemingly innocuous invention such as television has come to exert
such a devastating influence on the whole of the Earth’s population? And why does humanity seem
more powerless than ever to come to terms with such daunting problems? Are we correct in assuming
that at the core of all this confusion and chaos lies the incapacity of humans to transcend the severe
limitations imposed on them by their egocentric nature?
The outrageous indifference of the masses towards the unflagging activity of various forms of power,
as well as the total apathy of modern man towards anything that should definitely concern him, is the
main subject of Igor Szulkin’s dystopian movie. The problematics of a society completely stupefied by
the spectacle – more specifically, a spectacle projected onto a television screen, – is the other side of
the coin of Szulkin’s philosophical considerations in The War of the Worlds: Next Century.
Iron Idem is a popular television broadcaster. Like any other day, Idem comes to the studio, puts his
funny wig on, and he is about to read the text he has prepared, when a supervisor breaks in and passes
him another piece of paper along with the order that he reads this one today. It proves to be a
propagandistic panegyric for the supposed friendly intentions of the Martians who, for the first time in
human history, have just visited Earth. Their civilization is praised for its superiority compared to ours.
When Idem returns home, he is attacked by the security forces. They hit him, they completely destroy
his house, and kidnap his wife. Now Idem passes his lonely nights in cheap and sordid hotels. Out on
the streets there lurks the constant danger of an encounter with the omnipresent security forces. One of
those grim nights he finds refuge in a place that resembles a madhouse or a shelter for the homeless but
soon proves to be a camouflaged concentration camp where the government gather unsuspecting
citizens and force them to obligatory ‘blood donations’. What is really happening, is that government,
television and the military take people’s blood forcibly and pass it to the Martians. There, Idem meets a
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weird old man who talks to him fervently about his crazy plan to blow off the television station and
asks for his help.
After a while, it is finally announced that the Martians are about to leave. As a kind of farewell
celebration, the army is organizing a big rock party. Everybody is welcomed to participate, depending
on the quantity of blood he can contribute. The masses cannot hide their overflowing enthusiasm and
literally swarm the stadium where the concert is going to be held.
Idem is now determined. He enters forcibly into the stadium, steps onto the stage, grabs the
microphone and addresses himself to the audience, who initially give him a tumultuous applause:
You know why I’ve been so likeable to you? The more stupid my show was, the
cleverer you thought you were... Out of the whole televisual chaos, you select only
those truths that you deem the more comfortable ones. You only accept what confirms
your own conviction... Because this is exactly what you need to believe in. You are
crying, you are pitting yourselves. And then, what? Then, you sit in front of the
television, and feel so empty inside. Probably, even more human than the ones you are
watching. And those ones you are watching are people like you. As hypocrites as you,
weaklings like you. As obsequious as you. Television is being created in the image of
you. Stop being a flock of stupid sheep... They’ve cheated you, you are helpless. They
tell you that you have to offer your blood. And you do so. They tell you to crawl on all
fours... And you do so. You sell them your dignity, you are going to sell them your
honesty... just for a bigger TV set. Only to be able to grab a however meager piece of
power. Every single one of you wants to rule, and yet, every single one of you is a slave.
Every single one of you is being violated, but the only thing you all want is... to violate
the others. In what way do you differ from those you are spitting at? In no way. We are
all the same.
After their initial enthusiasm, now the crowd have started booing Idem disdainfully. But he has a few
more things to tell them:
They’ve cheated you, you are helpless. They tell you that you have to offer your blood.
And you do so. They tell you to crawl on all fours... And you do so. You sell them your
dignity, you are going to sell them your honesty... just for a bigger TV set. Only to be
able to grab a however meager piece of power. Every single one of you wants to rule,
and yet, every single one of you is a slave. Every single one of you is being violated,
but the only thing you all want is... to violate the others. In what way do you differ from
those you are spitting at? In no way at all. We are all the same.
Now the crowd are outraged at Idem’s speech. Nobody is disposed to recognize that they have been
converted into the beasts of burden of a consortium comprising television, political authorities and
spectacle. The spectacle has substituted for reality at all levels. Reality is now perceived as a
continuum of entertaining reflections projected onto a TV screen. And men have been brutalized
because they have voluntarily ceded their own humanity in exchange of a phantasmagorical virtual
reality created by corrupted TV station owners and political chieftains. They have been converted into
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sleepwalkers as Guy Debord had predicted: “Where the real world changes into simple images, the
simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior.”1
The police kick Idem out of the stadium. He takes a rest for a while at a nearby amusement park. An
indignant citizen reproaches him for today’s show. It clearly hasn’t been what his audience were
expecting of him. Not at all amusing. While on stage, Idem had yanked off his ear a kind of earring
attached obligatorily by the authorities to every ‘blood donor’, obviously for reasons of electronic
surveillance. Blood had started pouring profusely from Idem’s ear. Now, the stranger man’s son asks
him whether he is going to repeat that trick again next time. Idem responds to him: “No. Next time it’s
going to be another guy instead of me. You”! He takes his wig off his head and puts it onto the child’s
head.
The last time Idem meets the old man from the madhouse, he will not even hear of his crazy plan: “It’s
all wrong! Television will survive. Television is the people!” Idem tells him.
Szulkin reminds us that all those factors which we tend to accept fatalistically as some exogenously
given causes of our suffering are nothing more than ourselves. We are the television establishment, we
are the totalitarian regime we are stoically enduring, and finally: we are the bloodthirsty Martians who
have invaded Earth. It’s all been our own invention so that we can remorselessly withdraw into our
small private spaces and just have as much fun as we can; and it is us those who resist any change of
this peculiar self-referential dead-end we have cunningly created for ourselves. Szulkin based the script
of his movie on H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898), and made out of it a bitter critique
of any form of totalitarianism, as well as of the corruptive nature of its basic propagandistic medium:
television. The movie was finished in 1981, when general Jaruzelski accessed to power and imposed a
martial law in Poland. Needless to say, it was immediately banned and was not released until 1983
when the state of emergency was lifted. After all, Szulkin’s message can be perfectly described by
what Vita Fortunati has written with regard to J. G. Ballard’s novels: “All of his tales are marked by a
horrifying admission that humanity essentially yearns for Apocalypse, that it feeds upon disaster, that it
actually pursues its own death, its total annihilation. In such a perspective, any argument for
regeneration is quite clearly impossible, not least because Ballard's characters consciously deny the
possibility. The Apocalypse is no longer feared; it is desired. It is no longer fought against; it is
embraced. It has become a goal, an ambition, a means to fulfilment.”2
Idem is finally arrested. During a brief show trial, he is sentenced to death. He is now being led by the
prison guards to the place of his execution. The firing squad get ready and after a few seconds they
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open fire. An astonished Idem realizes that he is still alive. He looks around perplexed. On his right
side there is a TV set. Slowly, he stoops down and there, on the screen, he is amazed to see himself
lying down dead by the shots. After all, they never wanted him dead. Why should they? Alive, he is far
more useful to them and their sinister purposes.
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Notes
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1 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Bread and Circuses Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2012).
2 Fortunati, Vita. “The Metamorphosis of the Apocalyptic Myth: From Utopia to Science Fiction.” In Krishan Kumar
and Stephen Bann (eds) Utopias and the Millennium. London: Reaction Books, 1993, p. 88.
https://openjournals.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/kinema/article/download/1059/1208?inline=1
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