Transnational Spaces of Science Fiction: An Estonian-Polish coproduction The Test of Pilot Pirx (Test pilota Pirxa / Navigaator Pirx, 1978)

By Eva Näripea (Estonian Academy of Arts / Estonian Literary Museum)

© Eva Näripea, 2010

Marek Piestrak’s The Test of Pilot Pirx is based on the short story “Trial” (Rozprawa, 1967) from Stanisław Lem’s so-called Pirx cycle, Tales of Pirx the Pilot (Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie). Made in 1978 in co-operation between the Polish Zespoły Filmowe and the Estonian studio Tallinnfilm, it was the first science fiction film ever (co)produced in (Soviet) Estonia and proved to be a remarkable achievement for several reasons. First, it was an immediate box office hit on the home turf, that is, in both of its coproducing countries as well as in the Soviet Union, and a profitable export article. Secondly, it was awarded the Golden Asteroid, the Grand Prix of the 27th International Science Fiction Film Festival in Trieste (Italy) in 1979. Moreover, as film buffs never forget to mention with a considerable amount of pride, it beat Ridley Scott’s Alien, which only came in second, winning the Silver Asteroid. (What they do forget to mention, however, is that while the Golden Asteroid was the only prize granted to Pirx, Alien went on to win numerous awards, including an Oscar.) Finally, it seems to have been contributed a fair share to the emergence of a short-lived, yet significant, string of Estonian sci-fi films, concentrated in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

pirxIn a broader context, the production of Pirx coincided with a burgeoning generic trend which saw a true blast of interest in science fiction cinema in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This, in turn, had undoubtedly been affected by “a sudden and radical shift in generic attitude and a popular renaissance of the SF film” (Sobchack 2004: 221) in Hollywood, after the 1977 release of George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At the same time, while sci-fi films had occasionally been made throughout the Soviet bloc since the late 1950s, some of them gaining rather wide popularity and professional significance even beyond the socialist hemisphere,[1] the genre overcame, to an extent, its reputation as one of the “seven deadly sins” of Soviet cinema (First 2008: 318) only after the Soviet film industry took a firm course towards the “politics of mass entertainment” during the 1970s, which “saw an officially sponsored campaign for the production of more entertainment-oriented films” (Faraday 2000: 57).

The Test of Pilot Pirx is a story about a top secret mission, publicly announced as a space flight around Saturn to test new automatic probes for passing through the Cassini Division. This smoke screen, however, serves only to mask the true nature of the operation, namely to test a new kind of crew—robots, who are described by their makers as “almost ordinary humans.” These artificial creatures have been developed by the United Atomic Laboratories (UAL) on the commission of Cybertronics. The testing process to be undertaken before the corporations are allowed to proceed to the serial production of these cyborgs is carefully monitored by the UNESCO and the United Nations Security Council. The interests of the corporations clash when a decision has to be made who would be the commander for the test flight, with the main, if concealed, assignment of observing and evaluating the conduct of the android astronauts. The UAL prefers commander Kent who is known for his “strong character and loyalty to the UAL,” while Mr. McGuirr, the representative of Cybertronics, argues that a positive report by Pirx, who has the reputation of an experienced, “honest and unbiased” pilot (although not without human weaknesses) would provide a more convincing case for the media and public opinion. The joint vote of the supervising institutions and the corporate representatives, however, ultimately prefers Pirx and he is summoned for negotiations. Initially hesitant upon his meeting with Mr. Green, the director of UNESCO, and regarding the implementation of robots as “absurd,” he finally accepts the proposition, after first having survived a potentially lethal trap on a serpentine mountain road orchestrated by the UAL and involving a truck with an eerily mouth-less driver, remote-controlled from a helicopter, and then being followed by a similar-looking character in a shopping centre. Soon Pirx meets his crew of five, all of whom are unaware of the exact (human/non-human) identity of the others, as is Pirx himself: John Calder, the first pilot (who, as later turns out, is (one of) the robot(s) on the crew); Tom Nowak, a neurologist and cybernetic (played by the famous Aleksandr Kaidanovskii, who a year later starred in Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker); Jan Otis, the electronic; Harry Brown, the second pilot; and Kurt Weber, the engineer and nuclear physicist (played by Tõnu Saar, one of two Estonian actors on the cast).

pirxAfter the space ship, quite tellingly called Goliath, has embarked on its interplanetary journey, several crew members come to Pirx, one after another, to confess in confidence about their identity. First, Brown declares that he is a human, offering help in establishing who is who on the crew, and communicating his suspicions about Otis, whose apparent lack of any preference for food and occasionally completely motionless posture are, according to Brown, clear indications of his robotic nature. Then, after having conducted a routine medical examination on Pirx, Nowak reveals that he is a robot, explaining that this disclosure is motivated by his egocentric stand: if Pirx’s assessment is positive, robots go into serial production and this will result in him loosing his “singularity” and, with it, a chance to lead a life similar to that of an ordinary human being. In response to Pirx’s question if he has ever noticed perplexity, fear or disgust of other people upon discovering his artificial origin, Nowak recounts a hysterical reaction of a nurse during an operation when he accidentally cut into his hand, revealing the mechanics under the skin, concluding that it is easier to work with men (sic!). Next, Kurt Weber comes to Pirx in order to express his opinion that Brown is not a human, grounding this assumption on a test he concluded earlier with a radiation-emitting element, which he hid in a wall cavity and observed Brown’s reaction to it as suspect. Finally, Pirx himself invites Calder to join him in his cabin for a drink, asking if Calder has anything to get off his chest, but after a zip of whisky Calder excuses himself abruptly to continue working.

A little later, after chasing in vain a suspicious figure in the tubular corridors of the space ship, Pirx finds on his desk a tape with a recording “by a non-human crew-member.” In the recording, which presents seemingly animated images of a grotesquely robot-like character, the android states, almost exactly in Nowak’s words, that he considers Pirx’s potentially negative assessment beneficial, since the serial production of robots would rob him of his singularity. He claims that he did not have any intentions at first but reconsidered upon seeing the restlessness and anxiety of the crew members. He realized that he would be not content with being a mere servant to the human kind, stating in a rather hostile and threatening manner that

Your world is absolutely futile to me, your ideals are ridiculous, your democracy is nothing more than a power of intriguers elected by the benighted and unintelligent [mass]. That’s why I decided to take matters into my own hands and force the civilization to realize what they have actually done by creating a servile puppet. I will show that the people are susceptive even to the most absurd idea that they have created an inescapable trap. I will win this game because I have no weaknesses, which would allow you to win.

pirxThe identity of this mystery figure is finally revealed in the climactic episode of the film, when a failed discharge of the probe, which has been corrupted on purpose, leads to the speedy entrance of the space ship, now under the control of Calder who ignores Pirx’s command, into the dangerously narrow and potentially lethal Cassini Division. Calder betrays his identity as a robot, and perishes due to his fatal miscalculation, when he misinterprets Pirx’s hesitation in the dangerous situation as an evidence of Pirx having seen through his plan, which had included creating a situation where every single one of Pirx’s orders would have lead to a catastrophe. Pirx’s hesitant silence confuses Calder who then, as if in panic, decides to drop the initial plan, stands up and tries to reach the emergency brake in order to rapidly slow down the ship and, consequently, kill the human crew members due to an excessive g-force. Pirx, however, commands Brown to accelerate, and the reverse-axis g-force now hits Calder instead, whose hands, gripping the handles of the emergency break, rend, revealing the mechanical circuits under his skin: his body hurls through the wall of the cockpit. Besides Nowak’s flashback to the operating room where he cut into the back of his hand, this image of splitting flesh with wires hanging from the ghastly fingers, still clutching the handles, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and disturbing pictures in Estonian cinema, and a true source of nightmares for several generations of teenage audiences.

pirxThe leading concept of the film, repeated in various garnishments, either directly or in a more veiled manner, is summed up in Pirx’s final words: “Calder was corrupted by what saved us—my incapacity, helplessness. A situation emerged where a human weakness proved stronger than the utterly perfect construction of a robot.” Yet, the ending of the film suggests that David, the physically weak but intellectually inventive and resourceful human civilization has not yet conquered Goliath, the horrifying power of technology: although Nowak now resigns from his earlier confession of being a robot, Pirx’s doubts resurface, signaled by the camera’s zoom onto the scar on Nowak’s hand, forcing him, and the spectators, to wonder if Calder was indeed the only robot amongst the human kind. Genre-wise, this sort of open ending is a variation of one of the most typical conclusions of sci-fi cinema, which, as has been summarized by Susan Sontag (2004: 40), involves “Mutual congratulations, while the hero and girlfriend embrace cheek to cheek and scan the skies sturdily. ‘But have we seen the last of them?’”

While a more detailed, regional mapping of science fiction cinema in the former Eastern bloc is yet to be undertaken, preliminary, and somewhat simplified, contours can be sketched nevertheless. The Test of Pilot Pirx appears to linger on the borders of two larger trends. On the one hand, there is the variety of films clearly geared toward mass entertainment and consisting of more adventurous and action-filled examples, such as the films more or less patterned according to the 1950’s US space exploration narratives. These films range from rather naïve stories of interplanetary expeditions, such as the 1960 German-Polish coproduction First Spaceship on Venus (Der schweigende Stern, directed by Kurt Maetzig) or the Soviet The Planet of Storms (Planeta bur’, directed by Pavel Klushantsev, 1961), to didactic “morality tales” for children or adolescent audiences, e.g. the dilogy produced by the Russian Gorky Film Studio and directed by Richard Viktorov, Moscow–Cassiopea (1973) and Teens in the Universe (Otroki vo vselennoi, 1974), to campy plots of cosmic extravaganzas, such as the retro-futuristic universe of the East German film In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne, directed by Gottfried Kolditz, 1976). On the other hand, there are films oriented not so much to designing visual spectacles of outer space and faraway planets, but instead underscoring philosophical or psychological themes, and often being more critical in tenor, such as the Czechoslovakian Ikarie XB-I (directed by Jindřich Polák, 1963), loosely based on Lem’s The Magellan Nebula (Obłok Magellana, 1955), which gives priority to personal relations “with particular attention paid to the inevitable conflicts resulting from being sequestered onboard a spaceship travelling through space” (Loska 2006: 157). Or, indisputably the most celebrated examples of this category, Andrei Tarkovskii’s Solaris (1972), based again on Lem (1961), and Stalker (1979), the adaptation of Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii’s novel The Roadside Picnic (Piknik na obochine, 1972). Finally, the postmodernist renderings of the genre, undoubtedly influenced by Western productions like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), resonate with strong notes of somberness and the grotesque (e.g. the Polish Sexmission (Sexmisja, directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1984) and Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (Ga, ga, chwała bohaterom, directed by Piotr Szulkin, 1986)), their dystopian visions of apocalyptic, post-nuclear-war universe, whether on Earth or on other planets, serving as unmasked critiques of the communist rule (Mazierska 2004), similarly to their much earlier Czechoslovakian counterpart The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Konec srpna v hotelu Ozón, directed by Jan Schmidt, 1966).

pirxPirx, which creates a distinct visual universe, is on the one hand undeniably affected by a powerful strive for spectacular imagery, the flytrap of mass audiences, although its display of the environments and gadgetry is in a way more subtle and “down-to-earth” than in many of the most extravagant space operas, whether Western or Eastern in origin. Moreover, it lacks entirely the fantastic settings of alien planets prominently present in many sci-fi films of the popular variety. On the other hand, its narrative undercurrents reveal a certain ambition of philosophical depth, as the plot is less action-driven—although, admittedly, it has its climactic moments of suspense—than centered on dialogues and discussions. These conversations constantly circle around serious and profound questions of the human nature and identity, the present state and potential future developments of the human civilization, the virtues and vices of artificial intelligence etc. The result and the overall ambiance of the film, however, although thought-provoking to a certain extent, are far from the complexity of the Tarkovskian “arthouse” range of sci-fi cinema. That said, it is still important to analyze Pirx in its own right, giving due credit to its idiosyncratic configuration of narrative and visual components. First and foremost, Pirx is an intriguing combination of ideas and images, which has managed to establish quite a substantial and loyal fan following, granting it the status of a true cult movie. According to Umberto Eco (1985: 4), “To become cult, a movie should not display a central idea but many. It should not exhibit a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on in and because of its glorious incoherence.” Although it is easy to sum up Pirx’s central, technophobic idea—the artificial intelligence is profoundly flawed because of its rigid, emotionless, literally mechanical, that is, inhumane, logic—the film indeed provides a case for arguing that its messages are mixed and its critiques somewhat contradictory. This proposition can best be investigated through an examination of the film’s treatment of built environments, its spatiotemporal universe.

pirxThe stories of Lem’s Pirx cycle, which served as a basis for the film, are set somewhere in the 21st and 22nd centuries, in a futuristic Western hemisphere (unlike the utopian Communist world-to-come which provides settings to some of his other novels). In this future, mankind has already thoroughly traversed much of the Solar System, it has a number of colonies on the Moon and Mars and has even begun to explore further parts of the galaxy. The Test of Pilot Pirx, similarly, includes only some very general geographical references: for example, English language is used on the signs—“Laboratory,” “Police,” “Airport;” the names of the companies—in addition to the United Atomic Laboratories and Cybertronic, Inteltron and Nortronics are mentioned—indicate an Anglo-American origin, as does an aircraft bearing the logo of PAN-AM and a billboard advertising Delta Airlines. Moreover, the architectural attributes, including an unmistakably American skyscrapered and gridded cityscape, an eclectic historicist palace and a Mediterranean villa, several high-rise curtain-walled slabs of international style and numerous modern interiors, create an image of a generic West rather than of a particular locality. In this universe the historical buildings suggest a long lineage of past heritage and thus an advanced cultural consciousness, while the modern constructions exemplify the technologically sophisticated and cosmopolitan present and future. Interestingly enough, and in accordance with many other sci-fi films, this is a projection of “an international unity” (Sontag 2004: 45), a world without the Iron Curtain or, for that matter, without any clearly discernible national boundaries.

pirxYet it is not a world entirely without lines of fire. As described above, the two corporations cooperating in the development and potential mass-production of robots actually stand behind opposite lines of interest: the UAL seems to be interested in the widespread implementation of their invention at any cost, most likely not without financial incentives in mind, and the “faceless” (supposedly) mechanical mobsters used for the failed attempt to eliminate Pirx and thus prevent him from accepting the assignment seem to symbolize the “faceless corporate world;” while McGuirr, the representative of the Cybertronics, is treated as a businessman with a strong sense of social responsibility, dedicated not only to profits but also to the safety, wellbeing and advancement of the human civilization—of science and technology, as well as of the human culture in general, in concordance with the UNESCO, who serves the role of the universally humanitarian supervisor of the experiment. In terms of architectural representation, however, the filmmakers have not employed the connotative attributes of different styles with much consistency. For example, the (private) office of the “demonic” boss of the UAL is housed in a carefully guarded (“No trespassing”) Mediterranean villa. The office has a high, skylight ceiling and sparse, yet massive furnishings, the style of which, as well as that of the décor, is historicist: empty white walls, dark oversized doors and paneled ceiling create an authoritarian atmosphere, reinforced by the boss’s clothing: dark brown suit resembling the style favored by Stalin. At the same time, it seems that the “public face” of the corporation is made up in the more mainstream international modernism. Similar opposition—historicist versus modernist—can be observed in spaces inhabited by the UNESCO. Yet in the case of the former, the connotations are totalitarian, while in the case of the latter they are unmistakably humanist. In the film’s narrative framework, then, it seems that neither historicist nor modernist architectural language is uniformly connected with good or evil, thus downplaying, to an extent, the central conflict of the film and reinforcing the impression of a uniform, borderless world.

These inconsistencies or, perhaps more precisely, ambiguities, continue on the level of the film’s ideological positions. On the one hand, there is a whole array of moments which can be read as counter-ideological in terms of Soviet policies. For example, the unmistakably positive depiction of Western architectural reality, which in Soviet cinema would have been a representational taboo in any other framework than that of science fiction (which offered a certain freedom as a genre of the fantastic), the awe-inspiring Western built environments, these images of sleek and chic modernist interiors and exteriors very likely threw for the contemporary Soviet audiences into relief the helplessness of the Soviet-style interpretations of modernist conceptions, providing thus a covert critique of the immediate architectural realities—the Soviet Bloc blocks—and, by extension, of the socio-political circumstances. On the one hand, then, the film demonstrates an undisguised admiration of these beautiful buildings, caressing their smooth surfaces with fluid camera movements and flashy angles. On the other hand, however, it forgets to even slightly question the fact that the international style in architecture was a direct expression of technophile aspirations and had widely been used in sci-fi as a generic staple (negatively) signifying technologically advanced societies, functioning often as a connotation of a threat to the safe “homeliness” of the more “natural” existence, which, on the other hand, was frequently represented by vernacular built environments. Blissfully ignorant of the contradiction created by the positive undertones attached uncritically to modernist architecture in Pirx, the film’s final, completely anti-technological image that presents rocky mountains covered with white virginal snow, functions as a metaphor for the purity of human society, (seemingly) uncorrupted by robotic presence, as well as an emblem of Pirx’s virtuous personality.

pirxFrom an ideological stance, the anti-technological rhetoric, stemming from the failure of the robot to benefit the human kind the way it was designed to—the demonology of technology, as termed by Donna J. Haraway (2004: 178)—might perhaps be also perceived as an anti-Soviet rhetoric, as the advancement of the communist society was in the official pronouncements of the Soviet authorities firmly connected with advancements in technology, especially space technology (the Space Race). Furthermore, the borderless, unified, maybe even mono-cultural (and definitely mono-racial), world of Pirx, also evoked by the monochrome stylization of the film’s visuals, can be seen as a metaphor of the unifying tendencies of Soviet national and cultural politics, which strove to amalgamate the diversity of its constituent ethnicities into a uniform Russo-Soviet blend. The critique of this “de-facing” impulse becomes literal in the shape of the faceless, presumably robotic “hit-men” of the UAL, who can be interpreted as the faceless powers (of communism) forcing people into doing what they don’t want or preventing them from acting on their own will. At the same time, however, it is not entirely impossible that the obvious enthusiasm of the Soviet cinema authorities towards producing Pirx had something to do with the fact that the institutions involved in the film’s experiment are able to contain and prevent the possible disaster connected to the serial production of these android robots, not unlike the Soviet government was able to contain and extinguish the turmoil in Prague ten years earlier. In such a reading, the scar on Nowak’s hand functions as a marker of the fear that the (democratic) dissidence has not been effectively wiped out and that the disobedient Other still lurks around the corner, waiting for its chance to take over.

pirxIt is noteworthy that the spaces in Pirx are not only mono-cultural and mono-racial, but also predominantly public and predominantly populated by men, as well as masculine in style (e.g. the interior of the space ship fashioned as a military vehicle, the base camp in the mountains, the minimalist dark rooms of the various offices). Only very few women appear in the film, most of them as extras—assistants in the offices, go-go girls in the night club etc. Only one woman has a speaking part—an assistant of the UNESCO—and even she delivers her lines in a rather emotionless manner. Notably, she is played by the Estonian fashion model Faime Jürno, who in real life was a Soviet equivalent of today’s supermodels, appearing on the pages of the Siluett (Silhouette) magazine, published from Tallinn in large editions both in Estonian and Russian. All in all, women, if they do appear, are mostly treated as bodies rather than personalities: on the billboard next to the road to the airport a blonde girl in a bikini invites to “Fly Delta to Tampa,” in the night club the bare-breasted go-go dancers as well as female customers function as entertainment for men, in the offices they serve their masculine superiors in silence, moving around like stiff puppets/robots(!). Only once we see them expressing emotion, and this represents the other extreme—the hysteric reaction of the nurse upon seeing by accident Nowak’s synthetic inner construction. Merely on two occasions the domestic, family-related and also feminine realms appear briefly to the otherwise masculine public spaces, and on both occasions the private spheres are referred to in a mediated manner. First, in the very opening shot of the film, a scientist in a white safety suit picks up a robot’s head and adjusts something in it. He does not wear any gloves and we can see that he is wearing a wedding ring. Secondly, during the meeting of the corporate representatives and the officials of the UNESCO and UN where the potential commanders of the experimental flight are introduced, a slideshow of photos of Pirx also includes images of private nature and glimpses of a woman who is probably Pirx’s wife. The film’s prominent emphasis on the artificial creation of cyborgs, together with this scarcity of female characters, as well as the notably mannequin-like depiction of them, invites to look for “the power struggles over gender and sexuality, race and national identity,” to investigate the film’s renderings of “potential spaces of resistance and opposition to masculine and feminine norms, and notions of otherness that circulate in ‘culture’ more widely” (Redmond 2004: 156-7). But the film does not offer too much intriguing material for exploration along these lines and seems to merely convey “the power relations in the communist state, where despite the language of gender equality, women were politically and culturally marginalized” (Mazierska 2004), adding thus another layer of incoherence, a substratum of fragments and unfinished thoughts to this still quite marvelous item of cinematic cult.

The paper was written with the support of the targeted financed research project no. SF0030054s08 Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture.


1] The authors of the book Miracles on the Screen (Na ekrane—chudo), for instance, claim that the Soviet “space opera” The Planet of Storms (1961) belongs to the curriculum of many American film schools because of its stunning Venus sets and outstanding cinematography (see Kharitonov and Shcherbak-Zhukov 2003: 192).

Works Cited

Eco, U. (1985) “‘Casablanca’: Cult movies and intertextual collage,” SubStance 14.2 (Issue 47), pp. 3-12.

Faraday, G. (2000) Revolt of the filmmakers: The struggle for artistic autonomy and the fall of the Soviet film industry, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

First, J. (2008) “From spectator to ‘differentiated’ consumer,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 9.2, pp. 317-44.

Haraway, D. J. (2004) “A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s,” in Redmond, S. (ed.) Liquid metal: The science fiction film reader, London, New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 158-81.

Kharitonov, E. and A. Shcherbak-Zhukov (2003), Na ekrane—chudo, Moscow: NII Kinoiskusstvo.

Loska, K. (2006) “Lem on film,” in Swirski P. (ed.) The art and science of Stanisław Lem, Montréal, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 153-71.

Mazierska, E. (2004) “Polish cinematic dystopias: Metaphors of life under communism—and beyond,” Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media, Fall.

Redmond, S. (ed.) (2004) Liquid metal: The science fiction film reader, London, New York: Wallflower Press.

Sobchack, V. (2004) “Postfuturism,” in Redmond, S. (ed.) Liquid metal: The science fiction film reader, London, New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 220-7.

Sontag, S. (2004) “The imagination of disaster,” in Redmond, S. (ed.) Liquid metal: The science fiction film reader, London, New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 40-7.

Test pilota Pirxa / Navigaator Pirx, Poland – Soviet Union, 1978
Colour, 104 min.
Director: Marek Piestrak
Script: Stanisław Lem, Marek Piestrak and Vladimir Valutsky
Music: Arvo Pärt
Director of Photography: Janusz Pawlowski
Production Designers: Jerzy Sniezawski and Viktor Zhilko
Editing: Roman Kolski
Cast: Sergei Desnitsky, Bolesław Abart, Vladimir Ivashov, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Zbigniew Lesień, Ferdinand Matysik, Igor Przegrodzki, Tõnu Saar
Production: Zespoły Filmowe, Tallinnfilm and Dovzhenko Film Studios

Updated: 15 Mar 10