O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji

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O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji (1985) remains the most popular and critically acclaimed film of Piotr Szulkin’s cycle of post-apocalyptic science-fiction films. Szulkin paints his Kafka-esque portrait of a nuclear holocaust with broad strokes; finding a correlation between the illusions of Soviet Socialist Realism and the fantastic conventions of science-fiction. Szulkin’s approach, although entirely filmic in its realization, barrows much of its methodology from the works of Orwell and ńĆapek.

Contemporary viewers will no doubt recognize a strong similarity between O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji and Snowpiercer (2013) in so far as how signifiers lifted from the golden age of Soviet cinema have been re-appropriated as a visual short hand for deprivation and oppression. The most profound and important difference between these two films is that O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji is a portrait of existence rather than a fight for freedom, equality, or love. The struggle faced by the main character, Soft (Jerzy Stuhr), is to keep adapting, to keep busy as his world is literally crumbling around him.

Szulkin’s film is as beautiful as it is horrifying. O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji askews the spaces of Stalker (1979) for claustrophobic tunnels and labyrinthian hangars divided by pillars and illuminated by cold streaks of light. O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji presents the urban spaces of a city imploded; a cavernous, underground city that is more bunker than an ecological habitat. It’s a space with no meaning or function other than to house survivors of a nuclear war. As such, it is a space with nothing to do, no jobs, no pastimes other than to wait for a promised liberation that will never come.

O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji presents a distinctly Polish portrait of the Soviet Union. In addition to bread lines, meaningless jobs, inflammatory pamphlets Szulkin takes a shot at Russia’s sanctions against the Polish Catholic Church. Soft, desperate to invent his own miracle of the Ark, seeks out a Bible only to be sold a book cover as “decoration”. Catholic faith, central to Polish culture, is a disposable commodity in the world of the film and within the political economy of the Soviet Union. Catholicism is but a means to exert control for the powers that be.

The promise of the Ark in the film is not unlike the promise of communism under Soviet occupation: an illusion designed to motivate and placate a population. The Ark in O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji is worshipped as a deity by some, and loathed as a lie by others. Its fiction is not as important as the reaction to that fiction. Images, models and statues of the Ark litter the cramped spaces of O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji like portraits and statues of Lenin in Russia and Poland. The men and women in O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji live and die for the lie of the Ark.

As a portrait of Soviet-era censorship, oppression, and control, O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji is a powerful indictment. As such, the film has retained a relevancy since its original release. The thematic concerns and observations within O-bi, o-ba: Koniec cywilizacji are, in large part due to its genre, eternally relatable. Fictionalized images of death, hunger, and hopelessness with always have their counterpart in reality.