On Both Page and Screen, Polish Master Stanislaw Lem Makes You Question Reality


Like a lot of kids, I was hipped to Stanislaw Lem, the Polish master of genre fiction, by a bespectacled, pony-tailed fellow-traveler among the self-segregated literary geeks who congregated at one end of my high school’s third floor By then, I was already heavy into Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Dune, but reading Stanislaw Lem for the first time was like discovering a secret treasure chest hoarding everything I loved. Here was where Terry Gilliam got the mixture of laughter and terror that makes Brazil so vital; here was Philip K. Dick’s paranoia stripped of its psychedelic wallpaper and painted over with a droll half-smile. Whether reading about The Cyberiad’s Trurl and Klapaucius, hapless robot inventors traveling the universe solving problems that they usually had caused in the first place, or Eden, in which a Star Trek–like interstellar mission discovers a planet with a domineering and invisible totalitarian government, each successive Lem work felt like it was expanding the idea of the possible.

Lem is probably best known in the United States for his novel Solaris, which inspired films of the same name by directors on the order of Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. Had he only done that, dayenu, but Lem’s dozens of novels and short stories have proven massively influential — an influence that’s now on full view at “Stanisław Lem on Film,” a series of screen adaptations of the author’s work running through November 11 at Anthology.

Although known first and foremost as a science-fiction writer, Lem dabbled in a variety of modes: horror, detective procedurals, semi-autobiographical realism. But there are certain hallmarks that recur throughout his novels and the films inspired by them. In a typical Lem story, an everyman confronts the limits of rationality and empiricism, whether he’s butting heads with a scheming artificial intelligence, a faceless bureaucracy, or a truly alien being. Through these close encounters, Lem asks confounding — and often hilarious — questions about the nature of intelligence, humanity, and the self.

The premise of Solaris, for instance, is explosively personal: The characters, scientists seeking — and failing — to understand a planet covered in a mysterious sentient ocean of goo, are visited by avatars of people they’ve wronged in the past. The visitations appear to be the planet’s method of communicating with the scientists, but what is being communicated, and why, is never determined. The avatars, formed out of the memories of the scientists, don’t know they aren’t real, and don’t understand the hostility and fear they’ve provoked. Just as Solaris the planet presents each of the visitors with a different companion, Solaris the novel presents each reader with a different facet of itself. Is it a horror novel? A philosophical treatise? An autopsy of grief, regret, and obsession? A slamming-door farce of scientific bumbling? It’s somehow all of these, and more.

It’s no surprise, then, that the three feature-length adaptations of Solaris presented in “Stanisław Lem on Film” are so thoroughly distinct from one another. If you’re a Solaris completist, you’ll want to check out the earliest and most faithful of the trio, Lidiya Ishimbaeva and Boris Nirenburg’s Solyaris (1968), which is rarely screened in the United States. A television movie originally produced by Soviet Central Television, Solyaris adapts the novel like a filmed play, giving us a series of extended two- and three-person scenes as the crew of the Prometheus tries to understand what is happening to them. Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary 1972 version takes the opposite strategy, using nonlinear storytelling, inventive visuals, and mysterious longueurs that ache with meaning (or, if you’re one of its detractors, lull you to sleep). Either way, on the big screen it is an experience one submits to, rather than a film one watches. Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), the best of the three, balances the sense of sci-fi mystery with a humane and affecting examination of survivor’s guilt. Despite its outerspace setting, Solaris feels like one of Soderbergh’s most personal films. Anchored by one of George Clooney’s best performances, it also features a then-underappreciated Viola Davis and a manic Jeremy Davies, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings.

A sense of humor is what’s missing from the series’ biggest disappointment, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013), an adaptation of Lem’s greatest novel, The Futurological Congress (1971). The novel is Lem’s take on Candide, a wild, mordantly satiric romp through a fauxtopian future where every problem has been solved by psychopharmacology and the government drops “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs that disperse mind-altering, romance-inspiring chemicals on dissidents. Folman’s film takes some of the basic world-building of Lem’s novel and bogs it down with meditations on the nature of celebrity and a nearly incoherent tragic plotline starring Robin Wright as a fictionalized — and eventually animated — version of herself. Despite a recurring visual motif showing a box kite hovering in the air, The Congress remains resolutely earthbound. As an adaptation, it’s the worst of both worlds: incomprehensible if you haven’t read the book, but deeply unsatisfying if you have.

Humor, after all, is Lem’s secret weapon. There’s a delightful haplessness to his characters: They’re often very normal people trying to make sense out of the absurd and menacing worlds into which they’ve been thrust, and through them, Lem slyly suggests all the ways we’ve made unquestioning peace with our own absurd and menacing lives. Take Andrzej Wajda’s daffy short film Roly Poly (1968), for which Lem wrote the screenplay. Roly Poly explores the basic philosophical question of what makes us who we are through a set-up straight out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In it, brothers Richard and Thomas Fox are rally car drivers, but when an accident leaves Thomas dead and Richard in possession of nearly half of his brother’s organs, their family lawyer finds himself in a madcap world of piecemeal people and soul transference. The brothers’ life insurance company refuses to pay out, ruling that Thomas is 48 percent alive. Richard, hard up for cash, keeps entering races, crashing into crowds of people, and receiving the organs of his victims until he becomes equal parts man, woman, and dog, with the personalities of all three.

Anchored by a delightful comic turn from Bogumil Kobiela as Richard, and propelled by a jaunty space-jazz score, Roly Poly is reason enough to check out the “Shorts Program” (on November 11). It’s paired with two films by Marek Nowicki and Jerzy Stawicki featuring Piotr Kurowski as Ijon Tichy. Ijon, who narrates many of Lem’s stories and novels, is a Lem hero in a nutshell: a straightforward, optimistic, accident-prone scientist who can’t help but find himself in situations as bemusing as they are dangerous. You can watch him run afoul of a mad scientist in Professor Zazul (1962), and a malevolent artificial intelligence in The Friend (1965). The somewhat-dated look of midcentury black-and-white sci-fi in those films is a perfect match for Lem, who didn’t transcend genre so much as revel in it. At its best, Lem’s fiction, and the films in this series, use the familiar mechanics and disarming goofiness of genre storytelling to leave us feeling like his protagonists: seeing the world, and the limits of our understanding of it, in a whole new way.

“Stanisław Lem on Film”
Anthology Film Archives
Through November 11