I recently purchased a Polish boxset of four works by director Piotr Szulkin, of whom I had never heard until reading a review by Michael Brooke (always an excellent source of info about Central/Eastern European cinema) of said set in this month’s Sight and Sound. I pounced upon it immediately. The stand out film, for me, was this one, presented chronologically as the third in the group.
The story takes place some time after a nuclear armageddon. The suriviving populace of some unnamed country are housed in a vast underground bunker, unable to leave because of the nuclear winter raging outside. Everyone is waiting for the arrival of “The Ark”, a craft that is going to swoop down and take them all away to a better land. ‘Everyone’ includes the lead character, named Soft, is a kind of fixer for the remaining powers that be (including a crazed general obsessed with the country’s defeat by their enemies, known only as “The Boers”). Soft is a cynical type, though, and has some doubts about the myth of the Ark. However, going about his business, he discovers that nearly everyone is a true believer, whatever attitude they present to him on the surface.
There are loads of fascinating ideas and situations in the film: the lower class of refugees endlessly shuffling around on a guarded lower level, as a loudspeaker relentlessly tells them “There is no ark, there is no ark” (I don’t think the origins of this transmission are ever discussed); the people who simply lie down to die, the dead ones getting official stickers; the currency that is little replicas of the Ark…
Now, believe it or not-and I know that you won’t- I once had a dream in which a large group of people (and myself) were refugees in some kind of vast shelter, filled with all kinds of supplies and equipment, hiding from a never-named catastrophe. This was a long, long time before I was in any way aware of the existence of this film. It didn’t look anything like the film, either (I frequently dream about places that I have never been to, and are, as far as I am aware, completely fictional and made up by my subconscious. It’s nice). Anyway, the design of O-Bi, O-Ba (don’t know why this is the title, TBH) is the way I dream of films looking, regardless of whatever has happened when I sleep. The whole takes place in a very convincing series of crumbling, man-made underground caverns, vaults and chambers, the origins of which are a mystery to me. It is a nuclear bunker constructed by the communists, for all I know. Filled with shuffling extras, and lit with plenty of neon strip lighting, a blue caste over the whole movie, couple with a harsh white light, which accentuates characters and environments beautifully. These dour yet stunning visuals are amazingly reminiscent of the work of European comics creator Enki Bilal (whose Bunker Palace Hotel I review elsewhere), and I am determined that this and other Szulkin films must have had some kind of influence upon him.