The Polish film industry is not exactly famous for its contributions to the science fiction genre but there have been a few novel exceptions over the years. Piotr Szulkin’s O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985) and Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe (1988) are among the more renowned titles although they are much closer to art house/avant-garde cinema than accessible commercial entertainments for the movie-going public. Much more audience friendly but even more obscure is Medium, a fascinating blend of science fiction, murder mystery and the occult, which has slowly developed a cult following since its original release in 1985 (It can be streamed on Youtube with English subtitles).
Medium is the sort of film that immediately immerses the viewer in a series of mysterious incidents that eventually achieve clarity as the pieces come together like a puzzle. Set in Sopot, a seaside Polish resort on the Baltic Sea, the movie takes place during 1933 during Hitler’s rise to power in Europe. Ernst Wagner (Jerzy Nowak) and his sister Greta (Ewa Dalkowska) are psychic and begin receiving strange visions from strangers who are being controlled by a powerful medium.
The four people who fall in and out of a trance state are unrelated to each other and are being compelled to repeat past behaviors that they do not remember. One is Selin (Wladyslw Kowalski), a police inspector who keeps waking up in a chair on the beach with a vague sense of déjà vu. Another is Luiza (Grazyna Szapolowska), a schoolteacher who occasionally abandons her class to visit a museum and steal a historic dress she has stolen before but always returns. The other two people under the medium’s influence are Andrzej (Jerzy Zelnik), a darkly handsome gentleman who arrives in Sopot by train, and Netz (Jerzy Stuhr), a banker from Berlin who takes a room at a hotel.
A massive villa in the town appears to hold the key to the mystery since all four people are drawn there at one time or another. Does it have something to do with the fact that the residence was the site of three murders and a suicide back in 1897? Is the impending solar eclipse related to the four strangers? And who is the current resident of the villa who is found in a diabetic coma? He is none other than Orwicz, the owner of an aquarium, who, according to official records, died thirty years earlier.
Most of Medium proceeds like a police procedural once the main protagonists are introduced but the motives behind the strange psychic activity being generated by a sinister mind controller doesn’t become clear until the midway point. Along the way we are teased with various sci-fi tropes like time travel, telekinesis, ESP warnings and immortality plus a subplot is introduced in which Selin’s assistant Krank (Michal Bajor) is revealed as a Nazi informant who has designs on his boss’s job.
Medium introduces enough intriguing ideas and concepts for several movies but is more interested in an intellectual and psychological approach to the central dilemma than a gimmicky special effects treatment and is far richer for it. Some character arcs are never completed or resolved while other predictable situations are completely ignored. For example, once the brother-sister psychic team determine the true identity of the evil medium there is no major mind control battle between them as there was in David Cronenberg’s influential Scanners (1981). The ending, in fact, raises questions about the medium’s overarching plan that is ambiguous at best but sets the stage for a possible sequel that could indeed have something to do with Hitler’s plan for world domination.
Overall, this is a very engrossing genre thriller that was highly influential in Poland and some of the plot elements were allegedly stolen by filmmakers of other sci-fi and horror films after its release. Medium was the second movie for Polish director Jacek Koprowicz but it was released before his debut feature, Przeznaczenie (Predestination, 1984), a biopic about the poet Kazimierz Przer-Tetmajer that was temporarily suppressed by the subject’s family for its troubling depiction.
Stylish and briskly paced, Medium has a hypnotic visual quality (the cinematography is by Jerzy Zielinski) that conjures up the sort of mystical ambiance experienced in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky such as Solaris (1972) or Stalker (1979). The ensemble cast also features some of Poland’s most distinguished and award-winning actors. Among them are Jerzy Stuhr, a popular stage and screen star who is justly famous for his work in the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Scar, 1976; Camera Buff, 1979; Blind Chance,1987; Three Colors: White, 1994). Wladyslw Kowalski in the role of the puzzled inspector Selin is also associated with Kieslowski’s films and has appeared in his 1989 TV series Dekalog as well as the critically acclaimed The Double Life of Veronique (1991).
One last thing to add is Koprowicz’s fondness for the odd detail which gives Medium such a quirky but distinctive quality. Probably the best way to approach this is to adapt the famous Joe Bob Briggs rating system for movies (usually of the exploitation variety): “Flaming woman in wheelchair,” “hen cuddling,” “intense sea turtle gazing,” “gratuitous Nazi youth march,” “close-up needle-in-arm injections,” “axe murders during the sex act,” “Posterior female and male nudity,” “suicide by hanging,” “car plunges off a pier into the sea,” and “unexplained behavior during an eclipse.” Ok, you get the idea.
Currently you can stream Medium on Youtube with English subtitles although the presentation isn’t ideal. The center of the frame often looks soft and any action or fast movement tends to blur or go out of focus. Still, it is great that you can even see it and maybe the movie will get a DVD/Blu-ray release some day from an adventurous distributor like Severin Films.
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