Friday, November 01, 2019

A Good Egg

A Good Egg

Ian Miles

“In American cinema, and perhaps in the culture more generally, there is a kind of nostalgia for the frontier. There is a half-memory of a changing borderline place, somewhere where a stranger with no backstory can enter a town and make his mark. In my work, I use outer space, the future, the frontiers of science and technology, of humanity and otherness, as liminal areas. Here, it may be the protagonist, or the new beings or ideas that he [sic] encounters, that come without backstory, as agents of unpredictable change. Unlike the cowboy films, however, I am concerned with the effects of these novelties and uncertainties on people and their mentalities, sometime taming or erasing the frontier, sometimes erecting stronger walls and berries.” (Vernilak, 1985 – published 1995).
“Is Vernilak himself a man with no history? Is he merely [sic] a Bob Dylan, concealing a banal backstory?  Or is the man of mystery a deliberate smokescreen, designed to hide a murkier past?” (Boccho, 1995).

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Hatchlings (1970), a film that was much-lauded in its day, but is little-known to most young cinema fans, even those particularly enthusiastic about  SF and fantasy. This is an opportune moment, then, to take a look at the life and work of its creator, Vernilak. With the announcement that a drama miniseries on his life is being commissioned by Netflix, it is also important to consider the achievements of his work. There is a danger that viewers will be led down a rabbit hole of fantastic speculation about his personal history – which is, by now, unlikely to ever come into full focus- while losing sight of his cinematic achievements.

Vernilak was hailed in his early career as “the Eastern George Pal”, later seen as an amalgam of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg. Sometimes it now seems that cinema is dominated by SF and fantasy films,  or at least their special effects. Leading directors readily work in these fields – this is not completely novel, for example Godard and Truffaut were both known to dabble here. But  in his prime, Vernilak was working almost exclusively in a genre that was regarded as best as of interest mainly to geeky kids and their grown-up equivalents, at worst as just cheap trash. That his work should be valued by connoisseurs of world cinema would itself has been seen as a piece of fantasy or satirical SF. That one of his films – not  Hatchlings but As It Was (1965) - has become a point of reference in contemporary philosophy and physics would be even less credible.
Vernilak is, of course, an assumed name. The artist has assumed a surname, with no first name. He tells us that he adopted this name in tribute to Jules Verne, whose pedagogic and exposition-heavy work had inspired him  as a boy. A more standard localization of the name would have been Vernisci or possibly Vernolic. But the name Vernilak was of particular appeal because, he claims,  it resembled verdilac, a Slavic variety of vampire. (The sense of unease created by this association, and the unusual  word-formation, may have played against him when he was in conflict with the authorities in later years. “Vernilak the maniac” was a label that had a lot of airing in the 1960s crackdown.)  The name Vernilak appeared on the very first of his films, way back in the 1940s. There is even some doubt about the authenticity of his supposedly genuine original name, H. G. Porat,  as recorded in official documents. The initials H.G. possibly hint to this also being a pseudonym. Only two biographical essays show evidence of original research, and one of these (by Zemek) reports persistent rumors that the name of Porat had been assumed during wartime work. The other (by Vis) does not touch on the subject, but is generally terse and superficial as to his early life.  

Porat is, of course, a Hebrew name, which might well be unusual for a gentile to assume, so it is at least likely that Vernilak was himself Jewish. He does not mention this in his interviews, perhaps because of lingering anti-Semitism, though these interviews were some time after the brief postwar suspicion of Jewish plots (inspired by Stalin’s paranoia). There are no hints as to any other birth name, and the double destruction of the National Archives – in the Luftwaffe bombing and subsequent fire, and in the controversial wrecking and looting that took place in the 1989 “events” – means that almost all chances of locating tangible evidence have disappeared. Human nature abhors a vacuum,  and in his part of the world whirlwinds of rumor and speculation are guaranteed to gust in to enflame any smoldering uncertainties.

The question arises as to what happened to Vernilak’s family during, and in the run-up to, the take-over by Nazis and their local allies. A recent study of Stanislaw Lem (Agnieszka Gajewska’s 2017 Zagłada i gwiazdy: przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema -The Holocaust and the Stars: The Past in Stanisław Lem's Fiction] rather convincingly addresses this element in Lem’s life and work. She unearths how Lem’s writings are run through by memories of the Holocaust. She documents actual events in Lem’s life that are inscribed into his fiction. It is at least arguable that Vernilak’s output is molded in similar ways, but we know so little of his early years that this must remain speculative.
The two biographical essays tell us most of what we know about the man, other than what he chose to reveal in interviews (most of which are superficial or dealing with his appreciation of other directors), and what we can infer from his work, or ,glean from a few anecdotes from contemporaries.
Vernilak’s birthday seems to be established as July 7th, with the year being variously assigned as 1920, 1921, or 1922. Vernilak was notoriously reluctant to discuss his early life. Of course, he offered very little about his personal life in general, but this could easily be a product of political contingencies, or of caution about going public about his sexuality. In the course of the only extensive interview with him to have been published – and that a decade after it was conducted – he refers to both the countryside (wandering though fields of mullein, the scent of roadside fennel)  and the sea (watching fishermen repair nets and gut fish). Boccho (1995, taking issue with Vis’ biographical essay as well as Vernilak’s own account)  claims that these memories were deployed as an act of misdirection. This is hardly convincing, given that the country and the sea would be holiday highlights of the life of a child from (presumably) a bourgeois middle class family in the 1920s and 30s.

Things become more distinct during the Second World War, where Porat is recorded as an airman. He, or someone with the same name, even features in one photograph of a set of pilots, in the air arm of the National Liberation Army (cf. Zemek on the authenticity of the photograph and the inscription on its reverse side). Probably, like other pilots from his part of the world, he had prewar flying experience. Likewise, he is likely to have spent time working with Britain’s Royal Air Force during early years of the war. The liberation struggle was mainly land-based, but the few national aircraft were deployed in aerial combats, and used extensively for surveillance and supporting ground forces. This experience informs Mystery Jet (1949; also known as Ghost Plane and Mystery Plane).
Boccho is not the only commentator to suggest that Porat/Vernilak’s aerial work was mainly a matter of military intelligence, and that this led directly to his becoming an intelligence officer with the revolutionary forces in the Turbulence following the liberation struggle. Wilder commentators have claimed that he may have been a spy, and even a double agent, rather than an active airman, during the war. No evidence other than rumor supports this, but with the national records destroyed, and most contemporaries long dead, there is no way of providing definitive proof. We wait to see how the Netflix dramatization of Vernilak’s life handles this period. The titles of the first two episodes are allegedly The Fog Of War and Underground, which does not raise hopes as to their veracity. 

When it comes to his entry into filmmaking, it is striking that he never discussed this, to our knowledge; nor does he refer to a love of cameras and photography in his childhood. An intelligence officer, of course, might well have been appointed to supervise or even lead, the making of the sort of jingoistic, propaganda-heavy films that started to be produced in the post-revolutionary period. Mystery Jet certainly has some of these attributes,  but also deviates from the mold in various ways. In fact, the biggest mystery is how it was that Vernilak and his co-director, Victor Macceldon, managed to burst upon the film world with such a competent piece of work, without any trace of their having been through any form of professional training in cinema.  It is hard to believe that experience of filming potential targets from an aircraft, and participation in amateur dramatics, would have provided the skills displayed in Mystery Jet. Though unpolished, and clearly made on a shoestring, the film is far more watchable than the routine celebrations of national struggle, endurance, and eventual triumph churned out by the national film companies. The division of responsibility between Macceldon and Vernilak is unknown. It may have been that Vernilak was actually working as an apprentice of a sort to Macceldon (despite the latter not being credited with any known earlier films – was he too using a pseudonym, perhaps because his name was tainted by some prewar associations?).

Whatever the case, Vernilak is on record as disowning Mystery Jet. It may be that he genuinely felt that this was really Macceldon’s work, and that he was merely an assistant whose own ideas and vision counted for little. It may be that Macceldon’s downfall and disgrace later in the 1950s impelled Vernilak to put some distance between himself and the older man. (Incidentally, we know little about Maccledon, not even his ethnicity. Was this surname a modification of a Hebrew name such as Maidson or Maltzman?) The film’s effectively racist portrait of Japanese, or unease about the topic, could have made him want to play safe. Some personal issue of which we are unaware could always been involved.  The film itself seems tamer than most of these speculations. 

Mystery Jet is plausibly inspired by the notions of “foo fighters” and the like, reported by many airmen during the war in the air. Officially a taboo topic, aviators of all forces were aware of stories that odd entities (lights, globes, discs, and other peculiar objects with peculiar ways of flying) were encountered unpredictably while on mission. In the film, a mysterious aircraft is repeatedly spotted by national pilots; this turns out to be a top-secret Japanese autogiro. Much excitement has been stoked up around the way that its semi-circular wings resemble the “flying saucer” of Western UFOlogy. This has been taken as hinting at knowledge of secret Nazi UFO programs, on the one hand, or as evidence of the global reach of alien visitations, on the other. The film makers’ choice of design of the autogiro may well actually have simply been a desire to create an unusual phenomenon. Foo fighters were most often seen as amorphous lights, and it would take some years before flying saucers became dominant in UFO reports.

Another anomaly is that Japanese forces were never active anywhere close to this part of the world. Their insertion onto this film serves to portray an alien enemy – albeit of a terrestrial kind. The few segments of film actually portraying Japanese forces has them either as white-coated, bespectacled scientists, or as vicious but ultimately cowardly, fighters. There has been much consternation about this portrayal of the enemy, though it is no more extreme as the portraits of Japanese featured in American comics of the period. The portrayal of Germans (or local Nazi supporters) in this fashion would not attract the same opprobrium. But why were Japanese selected as the villains? Was this simply an attempt to render the enemy more alien, a reflection of early recognition of East Germany’s appetite for ideologically sound foreign films – or unwillingness on the part of the directors to render the hated Nazi presence more material? (On this point, I have myself seen passengers on a commercial flight in the 1980s traumatized by the appearance of Nazi parades and insignia in an Indiana Jones film that was being shown as in-flight entertainment). 

Being a very maneuverable device, this mystery plane (not a jet, though capable of spectacularly rapid flight) proves to be an effective weapon for sabotage missions, and causes some spectacular damage by dropping both explosives and some sort of incendiary bombs. Our hero – who is shot down in combat with the autogiro, near the enemy base – manages to capture it (killing the scientist and numerous Japanese troops in the process, and leaving the base in flames). Shot down again himself by his own side on the way home, he manages to crash and escape, but the enemy plane is destroyed. The national struggle surges on toward ultimate victory. The film was a minor success, appealing particularly to newly demobilized forces (who were given reduced admission prices).

Vernilak’s name does not appear on any films for almost five years. We can imagine him honing his craft and building strong relationships with the film-making community, especially that centered on the National School of Photographic, Cinematographic and Televisual Arts.  (He spoke warmly of the School in his interviews.) He will no doubt be among the numerous uncredited contributors to TV public information messages and documentaries. Some informed commentators find it surprising that he is not listed in the extensive credits that normally followed the films of the era. He rose to prominence as if from nowhere, with the three films that constitute what came to be known (inaccurately) as the interplanetary trilogy. All of these films envisaged a national space program that was never to be; the national science and technology infrastructure never developed capacities for space flight (nor even for missile rocketry, let alone building aircraft for serious use).

Ad Astra (1954) was a great success, even in other Eastern Bloc markets, which opened the door to funding for the subsequent and more truly interplanetary films.  Like Pal’s somewhat earlier Destination Moon (1950), there was a serious effort to represent the technology and challenges of space flight in as faithful and plausible war as possible at the time. It has been suggested that an imprisoned German rocket engineer was employed to provide technical consultancy for the film, much as German expertise was used in the USA.  Unlike the American film, however, there is added Cold War drama. A spy of unknown origin, but who smokes cigarettes from suspiciously American-looking packets, tries to sabotage the mission, at first by tampering with some of the rocket components, then by tampering with the fuel system. He is discovered while trying to accomplish this, and dies from a fall after an exciting chase round and up a gantry.  This melodramatic episode almost seems to have come from another film. Critics see Vernilak as here continuing the type of action adventure featured in Mystery Plane, and have argued that insertion of such a drama would have been a prerequisite for obtaining funding for such an ambitious film.

The real heart of the film is the hazardous flight to the Moon. The voyage is rendered more dangerous by the sabotage of key instruments. The crew of three manage to compensate for the breakdown of the system that was supposed to perform navigational calculations, using slide rules and mental arithmetic. Eventually a guess has to be made which, luckily, proves correct, and the Moon landing is made safely. The film culminates with a shot of the space craft blasting off on its return to Earth, leaving the national flag planted by the cosmonauts in the rocky and barren foreground of the scene. The special effects were rough but fairly effective in the main. This was one of the first color films to have come from the national studios, which may have contributed to its success. There is little characterization of the cosmonauts, but their captain, Prosper Herge, was played by Gyorg Drabbon, who went on to star in the rest of Vernilak’s trilogy. His outstanding scene involves a spacewalk, where his sweat-drenched face is visible through his helmet’s visor, as Earth swims in the void – at first apparently above him, then below as his orientation changes. His desperation to retrieve a wrench that has slipped out of his grip, and is drifting away out of reach, is captured intensely.

In Mars: Red Republic (1958), Herge is now chief pilot of an expedition to Mars. The space craft is more futuristic. The film begins when we are already en route to the red planet. We are provided brief shots of events back on Earth, when it is vital for scientists there to provide solutions for a problem that emerges as spacecraft components misfunction under conditions of high vacuum and a micrometeor bombardment. There is no sabotage this time – there are some brief incidents of peril and courage during the journey, but the main drama comes from another source, as Mars turns out to be populated by an intelligent species, the Vrilli. After some initial shocks and tension, it transpires that these creatures are not hostile. This is particularly fortunate, since the cosmonauts need to remain on Mars for some months, before (unspecified) alignments will be optimal for their returning to Earth. This contingency means that the voyagers have come in a large craft, and are carrying plenty of food of various kinds and even some hydroponic equipment.

Mars is portrayed as an ageing planet whose civilisation has had to retreat underground and abandon heavy industry. Delany and others have seen the Vrilli as inspiration for Star Wars’ Ewoks. As well as their love of exuberant music, both creations are diminutive, furry beings. But it is more likely that both derive from the popularity of teddy bears and monkeys – and of course the small brown bear is Vernilak’s national animal. Though agrarian cave dwellers, the Vrilli society is portrayed as in many ways a socialist  utopia, albeit one labouring under resource constraints. Labor is indeed portrayed in the film, as hordes of Vrilli emerge from their tunnels to plant, tend and harvest their crops, singing lustily. (The alien singing was created by manipulating recordings of children singing patriotic work songs, with some speeding up and slowing down, and elements played backwards, and then adding unusual instrumental accompaniments using specially made glass flutes and steel drums. This was quite a feat given the primitive tape recorders available at the time.)

Earth food is a source of great pleasure to Vrilli (more singing!) and joy abounds when the pips of an apple are made to sprout. A range of grains from Earth is left for the Martians to rejuvenate their agriculture, while some of the interesting red plants from Mars are to be transported back to Earth. In contrast to the meticulous depictions of the space flight and Martian surface, the underground cities of the Vrilli are rather obviously mainly represented by background paintings; though imaginative, these are far too static and two-dimensional to be convincing. The Vrilli political system is shown in segments of the film illustrating two sessions of the communal decision-making forum, where hundreds of Vrillli gather together in a council to decide upon important issues. Consensus is reached through debate and voting. In the first of these they determine how the visitors are to be treated – expelled or welcomed.  In the second they discuss a treaty to govern future relationships with the Earthlings. It is here that what became the most controversial scene in the film appears.  Captain Herge displays the national flag, and a portrait of the glorious leader, to the aliens. They burst into spontaneous applause and cries of happiness – or praise - culminating in a dance which Herge is pressed to lead (carrying the flag and picture).  The ecstasies of the Vrilli are so over the top that it is tempting to view them as satirical, but we should remember that films that Vernilak will have grown up with would frequently feature scenes of this sort where “savages” (and even freed slaves) are concerned.

In viewings of the film in other countries, this scene, which is followed by brief shots of the spaceship’s departure and the cosmonauts’ journey homewards, was the source of some hilarity, some anger about propaganda. It was actually excised from many Western showings of the work. The general consensus is that Vernilak needed to play it very safely in the oppressive political situation in the late 1950s, when artists of all kinds were having to watch their step.  A display of fealty to the state and its leader was commonplace in movies, works of fiction in general, and even in supposedly academic studies. In retrospect, we could interpret the scenes of political debate among the Vrilli, however tame, as an implicit criticism of the authoritarian system that Vernilak worked in. Toeing the party line was the only acceptable form of public discourse, and the airing of various opinions among the Vrilli may have been a breath of fresh air.
The great leader himself is reputed to have loved the film, evidently seeing no satirical intent. He is believed to have arranged a private viewing and a lengthy tete-a-tete with the director. We can only imagine the conduct and substance of this meeting: it is quite possible that the filmmaker retained awe and respect for the man who had led the national liberation struggle against the Nazi invaders and their collaborators. The endorsement of the film from the highest level explains the effective disappearance from the records of a highly critical early review that denounced the portrayal of socialism as a form of managed decline (“no true socialist state would have allowed its planet’s resources to be depleted in this way!  the capitalists who must bear responsibility should have been condemned!”); we only know of it through the newspaper cuttings assembled by a young fan of local SF.

The hagiography of Mars – and its portrayal of benign socialism – is a recurrent element of the current denigration of Vernilak in his own country, on the few occasions when he is mentioned at all. He is portrayed as a propagandist lackey of an oppressive system. This assertion has never been so effective a means of dismissal as it is at the present moment, when the right, and the far right that is now at its core, is again resurgent in national politics. Those who minimize or discount the well-attested Nazi atrocities are ready to write off practically all of the achievements of the postwar period. Yes, there were grey housing blocks, orchestrated political denunciations, numerous  imprisonments, and not a few executions even into the late 1950s. But there was also a massive expansion of education and higher education, near-abolition of extreme rural poverty, and considerable progress in the role of women. The ethnic tensions that have bubbled up so viciously were barely visible.

Not all his compatriots dismiss Vernilak’s work completely – there is some grudging respect for the scientific visionary of his earlier work, and for the ambiguous humanism of his later films. Hints of subversion and critique in his early studies are unearthed, and the hagiography is interpreted as ironic (“the portrait is carried upside-down!”, “the Vrilli are treated as laughing stocks!”).  But these points of view are rarely expressed in the popular press, and are confined to intellectual journals and the few film scholars who still practice freely in the Universities.

While Mars was less successful commercially than Ad Astra, at least on international markets, the blessing from utmost levels meant that Vernilak was now given much more substantial resources to pursue his next projects. The last member of the interplanetary trilogy shows the technical benefits of an increased budget, with even more impressive special effects and crowd scenes. But, while the first two films are well-grounded in contemporary scientific knowledge and a grasp of technological possibilities, this was to be a far less plausible and serious piece of work.  Prisoners of Perelandra (1962, known internationally as Voyagers to Venus, The Green Planet, and Escape from Perelandra) is aesthetically a very different beast from the two earlier films. Though the borrowing of Perelandra as a name for Venus (from C.S. Lewis) might lead us to expect a spiritual or even theological flavor – which was to characterize several of Vernilak’s later films – Prisoners is by far the most melodramatic and action-oriented of the interplanetary trilogy. It is generally regarded as the weakest, and most dated, of the three. Speculations abound that Vernilak was trying to write to suit the great leader’s tastes , wishes, or instructions, expressed in their private meeting(s). Evidence of these tastes is seen as attested by the apparently arbitrary operation of censorship of foreign films, as well as in the recollections of several members of top government circles. He favored, for example, US Westerns, British historical dramas (but not romances), and action adventures that steered clear of Cold War politics. The romantic subplot is also arguably attributed to Vernilak being in the middle of a deep heterosexual relationship with the leading lady, Alexi Elvira. All evidence is that this was a sincere and passionate relationship. His detractors in the 1970s denounced this as a cover for a mainly homosexual orientation, though others point to a considerable bisexual appetite. Another explanation is that a leading lady and romantic subplot marked an effort to reach a wider audience beyond those to whom the earlier films mainly appealed - veterans and young would-be technocrats and engineers. A new generation of well-educated young women was now packing the cinemas, which faced little competition from the monotonies of national TV.

Three spacecraft are sent on the first expedition to Perelandra/Venus, one piloted by Herge (played again by Drabbon) and one by Elvira’s character (Astra Radice), the third by a character known only as Brodsky (played by Igor Spitzer, who had featured in minor roles in earlier films in the trilogy) These craft are much less realistic than the ships of the earlier films – they are “flying wing” types of vehicle, carrying only the pilot, and with only just enough  internal space beyond the cockpit to carry a passenger if necessary. Such a design is hardly suitable for a voyage that must have taken weeks, if not longer; but the space travel is not really the subject of the film.  The true focus is the adventures that take place on a fantastic Venus.

The evening star is largely a lush jungle planet, with many monstrous dinosaur-like creatures posing threats to anyone who ventures into the wilds. Improbably, it also hosts an advanced civilisation, whose futuristic cities occupy extensive high plateaux that tower above the wild green rainforests. The Venusians – called Perelandrans in the film (we do not know what they call themselves), are bald, green humanoids, wearing uniforms of some rubber-like material, and almost all sporting a metallic headband. These headbands come in different colors, and it emerges that these correspond to the social role of the individuals – and that they are instruments of mind control. The society is a totalitarian system, where rule is enforced through a system of radio communications that shape loyalty and suppress subversive thoughts and practices.
The idea here resembles that in the Strugatsky Brothers’ Prisoners of Power, but that book did not see publication until the early 1970s (a magazine version appeared in the late 1960s, but there is no records of drafts circulating clandestinely before then). Mind control by an alien invader does feature in earlier books and films, however, including a 1956 Roger Corman move, It Conquered the World, and the 1957 Quatermass II, though there is no sign that Vernilak has seen these. A more plausible influence is from the Dan Dare series in The Eagle comic, which in the 1950s and 60s featured bald green Venusians (the Treens) whose ruler (the Mekon) was sometimes able to exert mind control methods, notably in the course of an invasion of Earth. The notion of mind control through radio or other means is one that has emerged frequently, not least among sufferers from paranoid delusions – and it is in some ways a simple extrapolation from the use of radio for propaganda purposes, and the broadcasting of patriotic slogans and messages through loudspeakers in public places. The advanced technology featured in Prisoners can easily be read as a critique of such totalitarian trends.

There is a ruling council of Perelandrians, led by the Empress, a heavily-muscled green female of enormous proportions (quite unlike the Mekon!), green and bald like the others. The aliens must be mammalian, because her gender is evident not just from her voice, but also from her clearly possessing breasts (unlike some of the other council members). The council members themselves do not wear the otherwise omnipresent headbands. When our heroes are captured, they are brought before this council by armed guards, who are shown responding both to verbal orders and instructions communicated to their headbands.  While Radice remains in orbit, Herge and Brodsky have landed on the planet – they first touchdown in a jungle clearing, where they soon find themselves attracting attention from fierce reptiles. Fortunately, the monsters are as preoccupied with fighting among themselves as they are in pursuing the humans. Brodsky is rescued from danger by Herge, but his craft is destroyed in the course of a battle between two tyrannosaur-like creatures. they both manage to escape using the remaining spacecraft, which is as maneuverable as an airplane (and apparently never requires refueling). As they fly over a nearby plateau, they are pulled down by a pair of rays, that catch the spaceship in a pincer motion. Forced to land in a city square, they are captured by the Venusians.

While there are several twists and turns in the plot, the essentials can be summarized briefly. Brodsky and Herge are fitted with headbands but Herge is able to resist the mind control and tear his off after some rather well-acted mental strife. He frees his companion; the two fight their way back to the spaceship; Brodsky is killed by a ray weapon and Herge recaptured. Radice comes to the rescue, subverting the standard trope in the films of the period (that of a male hero rescuing the love interest). Through a mixture of skill and guile she defeats the Empress in one-to-one combat and the two escape in their ships. Herge crashes in the jungle, due to damage occasioned by his ship, there is yet more dinosaur action, Radice again comes to the rescue, and the two finally escape Venus in her craft.  In the final scenes of the film, as their voyage back to Earth begins, a voice-over asks if we should return to Perelandra – and there is an image of dinosaurs storming the Venusian city. Though this scene is not properly explained, nor integral to the story, Vernilak was reluctant to drop what looks like a vestige of an alternative plot, or uncompleted appendage to the plot. Perhaps it was deemed unacceptable to show a totalitarian regime continuing to flourish.

In a comment several years later, Vernilak demonstrates his strong attachment to the monster elements of the film. This was in the face of many of his fans seeing this as an excursion into rather overdramatic and sensationalistic territory, distracting from the more serious efforts of his earlier film. He also stated that he wanted Harry Harryhausen to work on the animation of the models which provided the monsters for the film, but was blocked in this, more on financial than political grounds. Fortunately, rather good teams working with stop-motion modelling (as well as conventional puppetry and cartooning) had been established to feed children’s TV programs with both humorous and more naturalistic animal models. (A few of these programs gained international success – older readers may remember Scorchy, the Electric Dragon  being shown on Australian, British and Canadian television, and of course these shows were pervasive in the Eastern bloc.)  The team was delighted to have the opportunity to work on material that was less cuddly and anodyne, and gave them an opportunity to be edgy and to portray realistic violence. They far excelled expectations, and went on to develop more adult-oriented TV programs in subsequent work, including a satirical program that is said to have inspired the viciously satirical puppetry of Spitting Image in the UK in the 1980s. The monster elements of the film were well-received in both national and international audiences, and the film has retained something of an ironic cult status in the West.  But this was not a great commercial success, with the monster and alien adventure aspects of the film being regarded as poorly integrated. The general tone is widely dismissed as somewhat juvenile and outdated. The emerging romance between the two lead actors is well-handled. We are left to speculate about what they could have been able to get up to in their cramped quarters on the journey home.  Perhaps this is fortunate, given the accounts of tensions between the actors, and between them and their director.

As for the serious questions in Vernilak’s work, Prisoners may not have been as scientifically accurate as the earlier films, but it still manages to address issues of social and political organization. Who actually are the prisoners? Is it the space pilots who are captured and, in the case of Herge, rescued – or the Perelandrians, imprisoned in ideology and a repressive state, with its instruments of mind control? The scope for the latter interpretation, as a veiled critique of the state socialism of the Eastern bloc, seems to have only slowly dawned on the authorities. When Vernilak was subject to frequent official condemnation in the later 1960s and 1970s, his earlier work was subject to intense critical analysis, and this film was often selected for such scrutiny.  The gender politics of the film – featuring both a female villain and a heroine who twice comes to the hero’s rescue, and is always depicted as brave and resourceful – would sometimes be sneered at as another sign of subversive intent or deviant sexuality. (“He has reversed the national crest, with Andromeda rescuing Perseus rather than vice versa.”)

 Perhaps Vernilak was wounded by the poor critical reception of Prisoners. Perhaps he felt that he had served his time producing films catering to aesthetic sensibilities inferior to his own. Perhaps the serious illness that afflicted the leader in the mid-1960s gave him a sense of greater freedom, perhaps the souring of his affair with Alexi Elvira put him into a less heroic and more pessimistic state of mind. Whatever the case, As It Was (1965; also known as Kill Hitler! and Time and Again) represented a major break in style, tone and substance from the films of the interplanetary trilogy, and is unique among his oeuvre.  It is entirely located in a foreign country – Germany, no less – and features many historical elements.

His new leading man is now Josip Circassian, playing Jakob Streek, head of a research laboratory in present-day Germany (whether East or West is not specified, which gave rise to some dispute: the film’s reception in West Germany was mixed, and it was never publicly shown in the DDR). Circassian was chosen for the role because, after dying his hair, he was seen to have stereotypically Aryan features.  Or such is Vernilak’s account – the story that Vernilak and Circassian began an affair during the making of the film, and it was this that had destroyed his relationship with Elvira, was apparently well-known at one time. If this was indeed the case, the two actors were professional enough to have continued to each play a role in As It Was. 

Streek’s laboratory is working on “triple resublimated” thiotimaline, an Asimovian material that, when placed in extremely intense rotating magnetic fields permits movement backwards in time. (Remarkably, there are a few mentions of this material online.) Time travel (backward or forward) is not unknown in movies, though generally it has been achieved by magic or hypnosis, or sometimes by accident; only rarely by deliberate use of  equipment. The great exception is George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). While Vernilak’s film came some years after this, there is little sign of this having been an influence. The two could hardly be more different in terms of characterization and content, only being linked by the Wellsian notion of time travel – and this too is handled very differently. In As It Was,  small shifts (of seconds) are easy to achieve, but the technology is nothing like Pal’s rather quaint – or as we would now say, steampunk - apparatus. There is no “flying” chair, rather a complex grid of metallic and ceramic materials.  The problems of displacement of past matter by the object moved from the present being overcome by transporting  the displaced matter forward.

There is an amusing early scene where it is first understood that the mouse that has been transported (together with its cage) is not the mouse that was sent back a few moments in time. This is about the only moment of lightness in the film, whose general atmosphere is tense and ominous.  A “time machine” is constructed, large enough to accommodate a human being, small enough to be carried around Berlin. Exponentially large amounts of energy are required to send a human being back further in time – the mid-1940s is the earliest that can be managed with the laboratory’s power resources. Equivalent energy also has to be consumed in recovering the time traveler from, and substituting a volume of air to, the past. The main problem is getting the time traveler to be in the right location at the right time. This becomes a major source of dramatic tension. The physics of time travel are not addressed in more detail than needed to give a sense of plausibility, so the matter of the Earth’s rotation and its movement around the Sun – itself moving in the Galaxy, itself moving in relation to other galaxies and the possible origin of the Big Bang – is elided. (This is a theme taken up by philosophers and physicists as well as film critics, though Hy and his colleagues claim that there is solutions to this problem in the theories of special relativity and quantum entanglement.)

Streek secures funding for his project by stressing the prospects for repairing faults in materials before they cause catastrophes such as the bridge collapse with which the film begins. But it becomes apparent that he has a hidden agenda. His parents were victims of Nazi persecution, and he is determined to stop Hitler. (The reasons for the persecution are political, not racist – and the name Streek may have been deliberately chosen to make this clear.) An early scene sees Streek being led by an eminent historian, Professor Arianne Hulmer, played by Elvira, to archives where he is able to locate his parents’ names in a list of executed political subversives.

Since the scope for going back in time is limited, a mission to prevent Hitler’s birth or terminate his childhood is impracticable. After consultations with Hulmer, with whom there are hints of a romantic spark, Streek reluctantly decides that it is most feasible to achieve Hitler’s death by a slight nudge to history. While there had been earlier assassination plots (back into the 1930s) it was in 1943 (Operation Spark ) and 1944 (the better-known Operation Valkyrie) that bombs nearly ended Hitler and his reign. In both cases the plotters had hoped to bring the war to an earlier end, and at least some of them had wanted to limit the Holocaust and other atrocities that they saw as tainting the German people. Streek also mentions that their success might also have limited the mass suicide of Germans following the fall of the Nazis (a circumstance that was little known to Vernilak’s contemporaries, and we wonder how he gained knowledge of this).
The plot is convoluted and tense, but the core is simple enough. Streek voyages back in time twice, once to assist Operation Valkyrie, once Operation Spark. In each case, his presence leads to the failure of the plot. It is heavily implied that Hitler might have been killed had not the attempts been made to influence history. The July 1944 effort is undermined by the conspirators’ panic after one of them claims to recognize Streek as an SS agent sent to spy on them. Streek escapes and just makes it back to what we would now call a “portal” in time to be transported back to the present. But von Stauffenberg’s ability to set both of the bombs he had intended to use is impaired. The one bomb that he does activate is hastily planted in an inadequate location, so Hitler survives.  On his next mission, to 1943, Streek encounters the conspirator who denounced/was to denounce him in 1944. Streek realizes that it is his presence now that led to his being recognized in 1944. It is his turn to panic, and he slips up in maintaining the identity he was trying to assume. Under suspicion, and fearing that he might inadvertently subvert Operation Spark, he tries not to intervene in events. But he is nonetheless seen as responsible for the failure of the bomb to detonate. Whether this is the case is ambiguous: there are hints that his presence was enough distraction to lead to fumbling among the plotters.

In any case, Streek is again suspected of being an agent of Hitler’s loyal supporters, and pursued back to the portal point, which he manages to make with seconds to spare. Wounded, he decides nevertheless to embark on a mission to a yet earlier period: the city’s power supplies are hacked into, and there is a striking scene where the lights go out all over town as the thiotimaline chamber is operated. The film does not follow Streek into the past: he fails to return. The historian Hulmer is left to speculate on what might have happened to him. It is concluded that he died of his wounds or through misadventure. But there is a strong hints that he changed his mission and managed to save his parents; their names have disappeared from the list of victims that Hulmer is shown inspecting in the final scene. A heavily made-up Circassian plays the aged man who watches her as she leaves the archives. This scene was omitted from initial showings of the film, which end at the point that Hulmer destroys the time machine. Vernilak had intended its inclusion, and the abruptness of the incomplete ending was widely criticized; later releases of the film did feature it. (Circassian is not credited as playing the old man in the closing titles.) The ambiguity of the message of this sequence led to much speculation. Are we meant to assume that Streek gave up on his grand plans and instead just focused on his own family? Is it implied that we can change small things, but the course of major events is much less tractable? Would the efforts to kill Hitler have succeeded without the interference, or would they have failed anyway?

This film was a turning point for Vernilak’s reputation. His popularity had been largely confined to SF fandom and young audiences. Though there was much adventure and tension in As It Was, this film was seen as struggling with important ethical and philosophical questions.  It was also well-acted and the settings were generally plausible. The pseudoscience was underplayed, but the technology of time travel looked convincing enough. The process of being sent back or forward in time in many ways anticipated the iridescent/transparent effects of being “beamed” by a Star Trek matter transporter (not shown on TV till 1966).  As It Was  won several international awards, and had wide showing in countries whose audiences were comfortable with foreign-language films. It is still often shown in festivals and, of course, SF fan events.  SF connoisseurs have often bemoaned the fact that few later films have really investigated the paradoxes of time travel that Vernilak pointed to in this movie. There has been little exploration of the personal significance of the plot. But is seems reasonable to ask whether the film hints at his own family’s experiences, even an unfulfilled desire to have acted differently in the past to save family members?  Streek is not overtly Jewish, of course, but that would be expected of a film made in that particular time and place.

There has, too, been surprisingly little effort to discuss what it might have to say about its own political moment. Was Vernilak regretting his own past commitments and wishing he could rewrite history? Was he endorsing a great man theory of history, something that official Marxism both rejected with its talk of “inexorable historical forces”, and surreptitiously endorsed in its panoply of great leaders, from the holy father of Marx on through Lenin, Stalin, Mao and of course the General himself? Was he whitewashing Germany’s inner essence, as one film critic claimed? The discussion of such issues has more or less spluttered out, while the film itself remains revered for its cinematic qualities: a truly timeless tale of time travel.

It is only recently that an early draft of the screenplay has been unearthed, in which a rather different temporal entanglement is posited. The idea is intriguing, but the script works towards a rather disappointing ending. In this version, Streek is not injured in escaping the Operation Spark debacle. Realizing that it is his own interventions that have led the plots to fail, he decides that he has to prevent his own actions. He transports himself back just a few weeks of present time, to warn himself not to interfere with history. (It could be argued that since the plots have failed before the time travelling begins, this could be futile, but the script does not tackle this paradox.) When he confronts his earlier self, however, he wakes up – it was just a dream, the time travelling equipment is not yet even functioning. Or was it a dream? As so often in speculative fiction, the final shot of the film would have homed in on a clue that he really had travelled in time and changed reality. Vernilak was clearly unhappy with this version, possibly because of the “just a dream” cliché, possibly because of the intense paradoxes of such an effort to forestall one’s own actions. The confrontation between the two Streeks could have made for a powerful moment, if the technical challenges of portraying the actor could be overcome. Nevertheless, in my judgement, the version that was realized is, if not flawless, far superior to the abandoned conclusion.

Vernilak was by no means untouched by the political upheavals of the mid-1960s.  He came in for more than his share of criticism from official quarters, as the leader himself ailed and his coterie squabbled over the course that the revolution might take in the case of his demise. It was in this period that “Vernilak the maniac” was denounced on state radio. Numerous artists, intellectuals, and other creative spirits were dismissed in sneering tones by party hacks assuming the role of cultural police. He spoke of funds being cut, difficulties in getting actors and personnel to work with him, restrictions on the freedom of movement of many key people. These difficulties surely impeded an eventually abandoned project, the proposed filming of the screenplay he’d drafted from Algernon Blackwood’s short story The Willows (1907).

Most probably, however, the main reason for the failure of this project, is the problem that Vernilak himself spoke of in his Folios de Film interview. The power of the story lies in the depiction of internal states of dread and foreboding; these are hard to depict without falling into the sort of overacting prevalent in silent films of the 1920s. Vernilak had wanted to dispense with those elements of Blackwood’s short story that described visions of paranormal entities, and to focus on more naturalistic phenomena – sightings of a strange otter and then of a boatman shouting warnings while being borne down the river, the ominous movements of the willows themselves in the winds, the loss of provisions and the damage to the canoe, and the discovery of a dead peasant. Perhaps a director more familiar with expressionist horror cinema could have pulled this off, but Vernilak claims that he found it beyond his capabilities to develop a satisfactory screenplay. The realization on screen of Blackwood’s vivid descriptions of unease and a deepening sense of barely-glimpsed but pervasive hostility, would have been a considerable achievement. We can only speculate as to whether finding a suitable leading man would have inspired him. With the end of his relationship with Circassian, though, the obvious candidate was off the scene. Another reason for the failure to proceed with the film may simply have been that Vernilak was seeking to transform his own perceptions of an once-charmed, but now increasingly oppressive political regime into a parable about the natural world turning upon those who are trying to embrace it.  If this film had been made, it would most probably be seen as an early example of the subgenre sometimes known as eco-horror.  While some lists of eco-horror movies do include the rat-infested Willard (1971), the nearest parallels that I can think of are The Birds (1963), of course, and more closely, the less well-known The Long Weekend (1978, and remade in 2008) from Australia; but these films’ atmospheres are very different.

Despite the domestic political discord and hostility of more “official” artists and critics, Vernilak had never had his studio taken away from him. Compared to less commercially successful contemporaries, he actually remained  fairly well-resourced. He was also unusually free to travel for many years, which of course triggered some resentment among his peers, and speculation in the West that he was some kind of stooge. He attended several major film festivals and was even able to accept awards at one of these. In France during 1968, he was present for that year’s abandonment of the Cannes film festival.  The evenements must have influenced the film he was subsequently to complete, Hatchlings (1970). The tortuous production of the film has often been described. It has been cited as an inspiration for satirical scenes about the difficult art of cinema in French and other films made around that time, such as Truffaut’s (1973) Day for Night, though these may also have been inspired by Fellini’s (1963). Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), in contrast, seems to have emerged from a completely different context: arguably, its addled view of the process of film making derives more from its own director’s alcohol and drug problems than from the struggle with personalities and politics that Vernilak, Fellini and Truffaut encountered.

Hatchlings (aka The Heavenly Eggs) further reinforced his reputation as a director to be reckoned with. The success of As It Was surely lay behind the decision to make more funds available, allowing for international settings to feature in several episodes of the film, even though the bulk of the story takes place in an unspecified country and city that looks very much like Vernilak’s own.  What is presumably an alien visitation has taken place: saucer-shaped craft have descended from the sky, in all parts of the inhabited world. Typically, these perform some local miracle – weapons directed at them are turned into shiny trinkets; ancient monuments restored to pristine glory; arid land, deserts, and forests damaged by human intrusion given new life – and then depart as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrived. But on departure a pile of shining egg-like artefacts are found at each location of their visits. These “eggs” prove impenetrable to x-rays, and confound efforts to drill into them with machinery or to cut into them with lasers.

Some years later, there has been no further visitation, and while some regimes have the “eggs” under lock and key, in many countries they have been widely shared across scientific facilities and even museums and art galleries.  The protagonist is again a scientist, Professor Morell (played by the previously unknown Evgeny Tchulok, as a bearded and craggy heroic type). He realizes that his discovery that one batch of eggs is glowing and becoming warm actually reflects a widespread phenomenon. Perhaps significantly, this is happening over the course of one Christmas period, which gives the director opportunity to contrast festive celebrations, and consumer and conflict, around the world. He is the first to establish that this is also related to the eggs being in close proximity to pregnant women – experience with his own pregnant wife being the clue that sets him off, despite initial ridicule from his colleagues, and subsequent efforts to suppress his research. (These bureaucrats even include one sneering character who dismisses Morell as a maniac!)  This is not quite the scenario of Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos (published 1950, with the first – and most faithful - of the several films it inspired, Village of the Damned, appearing in 1960). In Wyndham’s novel, aliens (never seen) have impregnated Earth women, who go on to bear children who start to display telepathic and mind control abilities. The women in Hatchlings are already pregnant, in contrast, but what will the effect of the eggs be on them?

Morell manages to institute an international survey of the several thousand children identified as associated with the phenomenon, finding like-minded scientists. It is stated that he has collaborators in ten other countries, though scenes from only six are displayed. Under the guise of a health study, the children are regularly examined. The main features they display in common in the first years of life are simply that they seem to radiate calmness and to have the ability to defuse conflicts between people around them. Morell first recognizes this latter characteristic as the common element across a number of scenarios which the film illustrates vividly: a brawl at a Soccer match somewhere in South America, a tense stand-off at a border in South Asia, a feud between religious leaders in Israel…. These moments were often cited in the favorable reviews won by Hatchlings. Even Pauline Kael, usually immune both to sentimentality and SF, recognized the power of the depiction, and it was she who fits described Vernilak as “a good egg”.

The children later grow to be leaders of one sort or another in their communities, and in the culmination of the film, when the eggs are again warmly glowing, and alien craft are hanging in the sky, they are shown as soothing anxieties and eventually acting as emissaries from Earth to the aliens (who are never actually shown). Many viewers felt let down by the concluding sequence, where the young adults are heading to the meeting with the aliens, was too inconclusive – what would they find? Were the aliens really as friendly as they had seemed, or was this prelude to an invasion?  Many others thought that this lack of definitive answers was really coherent with the sense of wonder of the earlier sequences of the film, and left plenty of scope for the audience to exercise their imaginations and to debate the implications of alien contact for humanity. Arthur C Clarke was an admirer of the film, and may have been more than half-serious in claiming that the likely resolution of Hatchlings would have been close to that of his 1953 novel Childhood’s End (itself the subject of a TV miniseries, aired on Syfy in 2015).

In the early 1980s I had a rare encounter with SF royalty, when I was attending a Society for International Development conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Clarke, resident in Colombo, had given a keynote at the conference. Clarke had spoken, as I recall, of the coming era of cheap, high-capability, and pervasive communications technology, of the threat to dictatorships that would be posed by ordinary people gaining the ability to stream live video of, for example, police suppression of demonstrators. When I was making my way down the long driveway that led from the conference venue to the road back into town, Clarke was driving by in his Land Rover – or perhaps he was being driven, I can’t recall. He stopped to give me a lift. I took the chance to ask him what he thought of Vernilak and his disappearance. I knew that Clarke was reticent to talk about being gay to those who were not close confidants, so I first asked about how familiar he was with the director’s work.  I posed the question as the innocent SF fan that in reality I was. Clarke made a joke, I realized, by saying something like “I do hope nothing bad has happened to him: He’s a good egg.” (Presumably he knew the Kael review.) After a pause he added: “if a little scrambled”. I asked what he meant, and got a response about Vernilak’s films being something of a curate’s egg, good in parts. It was then that he drew the comparison between Hatchlings and Childhood’s End. Whether he would have said more, or moved into reminiscences about film makers, I cannot say: I had to get out and head off in another direction, losing the chance to get Clarke to open up more. Clarke may or  may not have been familiar with the Strugatskys’ The Ugly Swans (circulating as samizdat in the 1960s, published in West Germany in 1972, and the basis for a 2006 film). Vernilak himself could well have known of this novel, which is often, though debatably, seen as pursuing themes similar to Childhood’s End. The “aliens” of the Strugatskys’ novel may be from humanity’s future, but their bonding with present-day young people – elders are often antagonistic - does have parallels with Clarke’s work. Themes of young people with extraordinary powers are of course longstanding n SF: for example, the mutations induced by a nuclear apocalypse in Henry Kuttners’ Mutant (1953 as Lewis Padgett) and Wyndham’s own The Chrysalids (1955), each of which features telepathy.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Hatchlings, it is striking how well this film has stood the test of time – so well, perhaps, that there has never been an attempt to remake it. The specific political contingencies may be strictly historical, the special effects may be scrappy, but the piecing together of riddles and the unfolding of successive mysteries remain powerfully evocative. I have elsewhere argued that the best SF from the “Eastern bloc” frequently  involves protagonists struggling to coexist with, or subsist within, alien and largely incomprehensible systems. Lem and the Strugatkys are obvious cases.  I have seen this as reflecting the lives of questioning and creative people under Stalinism and its successors and offshoots in the Cold War period. (Recent revelations about Lem’s work now lead me to think that Nazism and the Holocaust may also play a significant role: even before these monstrosities, of course, Kafka was an early master of articulating such encounters.) The contemporary resonance is less vicious, though recent trends in nationalism, populism and cryptoFascism are certainly foreboding. But the experience  of living in societies where corporate forces, remote governments, and complex technoscience leave many people bemused, cynical and suspicious, is pervasive. And we can only wait to see how the Chinese moves in the direction of techno-surveillance will unfold.  

Hatchlings was initially a slow-burner, but eventually did unusually well for an “Eastern” film in many Western countries. It continues to be listed as among the top twenty SF films. After two successful films, Vernilak was becoming a name to be reckoned with. The relative failure of his next release, Shambala (1973), was thus a surprise as well as a disappointment. It was repeatedly described as “shambolic”, while denunciations along the lines of “ intrinsically vacuous” and “an encyclopedia of hippy orientalist delusions” were commonplace. One reviewer said that “he only thing in its favor is that there is no sign of the Yeti”. While the film has its moments – not least the widescreen shots of towering mountains and close-ups of the verdant life that clings onto their foothills – it has not aged well. It was rediscovered by some “New Age”  spokespeople around the turn of the century, but is now rarely included in retrospectives of Vernilak’s work. What seems to be less known is the inspiration that underlies the depiction of the main character and his adventures.

Walking along Ulitsa Volkhonka in Moscow a few years ago, more or less across the road from the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior,  I spotted a tangle of signs in both English and Russian, on  a piece of street furniture, directing walkers to various local attractions.  Among the formal-looking points of interest - Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and so on – is a rather clumsy formulation that piqued my interest.  I don’t have a photograph of this, but from memory there were words written in white on a blue background, saying something like “The Non-Governmental Museum Named after Nicholas Roerich”.  Googling for information on this, I am alarmed to see that this museum was taken over by the Russian Ministry of Culture in 2017, and news reports suggest it was subsequently closed or at least denuded of much of its collection of Roerich’s art and the artefacts he had brought back from his journeys to the East. But travel guides still list it as among major off-the-beaten-track attractions in Moscow, and I shall investigate further on my next trip to Russia.

At the time I had heard of Roerich only through an article in Fortean Times, which featured him on its February 2015 cover as “Occult Agent of the East”.  But a visit to the museum revealed  that Roerich was the inspiration for the explorer in Shambala. A charismatic Russian painter/philosopher, he loved the Himalayas and believed them to be both the home of gurus possessing ancient wisdom, and themselves repositories of spiritual energy of some form. He may not have made his way to the hidden city revealed in the film (and based on Himalayan myth), but his paintings vividly demonstrate his deep fascination with the mountains, and with Tibetan and Nepalese culture more generally. Vernilak must have had contact with some of Roerich’s own disciples, who had somehow managed to preserve his work through Soviet times. He used the Roerich-as-spiritual-explorer theme to spin a story that is more Lobsang Rampa than Indiana Jones, but as fantastical as both of them. The main character in the film, Richter, is clearly modelled on Roerich (though his name is also that of a famous Russian pianist).

The orange-robed inhabitants of Shambala are not just gurus and sannyasins, but actually guardians of humanity. Though their speech is couched in metaphysical profundities, their mysterious powers – enabling them to conceal the city from the naked eye – are revealed to be based on an advanced technology. Possibly this derives from Atlantis, whose destruction is briefly mentioned as a result of human folly. Alternatively, extraterrestrial sources are hinted at by a glimpse of a portrait of a flying saucer in an ancient tapestry - though it is more likely that Shambala is itself the source of UFOs. The nature and modus operandi of this almost magical technology is never revealed, though one hint is the declaration that “Among your scientists only Nikolai Tesla has come close to these ideas.” (This film may have been the first recorded mention of “red mercury” in fiction, too...)

Though the guardians tend to speak in portentous and apparently paradoxical mystical tones, Richter gradually comes to learn of their role in averting disasters from space. There is a brief but impressive visualization of the Tunguska incident, where Richter is shown a stylized picture of the event, which morphs into an FX-heavy vision of the descending asteroid, the aerial explosion and the devastation caused in the forests below. Some contemporary Russian eyewitness accounts described lights streaming up­ into the sky before the near-impact, and this element is intrinsic to the visualization. The notion is advanced that the guardians have been preventing such major disasters befalling humanity for millennia. But the gurus forecast that they will be as unable to prevent nuclear conflagration in the future, as they were to save Atlantis from itself.

In and of itself, the plot is not unpromising, and the cinematography is excellent. But the ideas are handled clumsily, with much convoluted exposition. The characterization is insubstantial plot, and the depiction of the guardians is rightly dismissed as simplistic Orientalism. The acting is uninspired, and the culmination of the film (as the hidden city is transfigured to remove it further from invasive Western forces) is banal.

To the best of my knowledge, the Roerich connection was not made among Western critics, though Roerich was not entirely unknown among what became the “New Age” in the next decade. The general consensus was that Vernilak was a late convert to hippie ways of thinking, much as was claimed for  Makavejev when W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) surprised audiences around the world. Perhaps there is some connection, but I cannot help but think that Vernilak’s visits to Moscow in the late 1960s must have had more to do with Shambala than did any encounters with the Western counterculture in the same period.  His biographers do not seem to have unearthed anything of significance about the Russian visits - we do not even know whether the rumored meeting with Tarkovsky even took place. What a treasure it would be to see a transcript of their conversation, if it did happen! My correspondence with Roerich enthusiasts in New York, Russia and India has not yielded any hints of his interactions with the followers in Moscow.

Vernilak’s reputation took a big hit with Shambala, and he beat a quick retreat home after its initial showings in film festivals met with near-universal derision. Yet he rebounded from this disaster with his late masterpiece, the fittingly titled, as it turned out, Swansong (1978).  While many reviewers saw this as overly freighted with the cod mysticism of Shambala, it is most often seen as an alternative take on the second half of Hatchlings, with even more of the flavor of Childhood’s End.

The origin of the children is never clearly specified, but the film begins with shots of groups of children aged between 8 and 12, brought together in various locations by various authorities. The locations and authorities are never explicitly named, but evidently encompass all regions of the world. In some cases, military institutions are clearly involved (there is even a fort-like prison displayed, though now I am inclined to see this as a concentration camp). In other cases, they appear to be more like social or health services, and in some they are rather sinister if overtly (over) friendly “men in black” types.  There is a religious (Islamic?) organization in one case, and what might be a New Age cult or a mad billionaire’s (or rock star’s) coterie in another.  The film switches from one scene to another, as (subtitled) explanations, instructions, and questions are directed at the children. We are able to piece together the background – the children were all born within a few years of each other, as a result of some unspecified event (the Earth passing through “a particular phase” or “region of space”).  They have begun to manifest powers that have led to their being removed from their communities and sequestered from the rest of society “for their own good”, or “in the national interest”, or so that scientists or the military could have a chance to assess them.

Most of the children escape their captivity in various ingenious ways, while some are rescued by those who have escaped earlier. In one case they are assisted by Dontae, the biological father of one of the group, and in the second main section of the film he is shown travelling with one of the groups of children, who are evidently able to communicate telepathically among themselves. They do not have powerful mind control capabilities, but can gain the sympathy of many receptive humans by evoking strong empathy for their predicament. They mean no harm, they are simply trying to fulfil their destiny, and they need support to do so. By this means they are able to enlist some of their captors, and later border guards, airline pilots, coach drivers and many others to help them.  In many cases, they could simply be eliciting people’s natural solidarity: some viewers interpret this element of Swansong as signifying human resilience and willingness to act against oppressive regimes. Vernilak’s life and times should have deprived him of starry-eyed views of individual resistance to authoritarian power, even when children are concerned. But he may have hoped that by depicting such examples he would help them to become more common reflexes.
The thousands of special children congregate in a strange rocky environment (filmed in one of the volcanic lava-strewn zones, called malpais, of the Canary Isles), where they create a tent city with the aid of Dontae and a number of other adult helpers (some are parents, others may or may not be). There is a striking episode where an effort is made to communicate telepathically between the children and a large group of these adults. The psychedelic scenes that ensure  have a rare beauty, speaking of far more  than the era’s “light shows” that accompanied some rock concerts were ever able to. Parallels have been drawn with the films of Ed Emshwiller and Oskar Fischinger,  with parts of Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. The sequence is echoed in the later work of numerous creators of music videos and films to accompany concerts of rock, jazz and experimental music (many of the latter deserve to be circulated more widely than they currently are). There is no doubt that this imagery is vastly more sophisticated than that of Kubrik’s 2001, and indeed of practically all subsequent efforts to capture psychedelic, spiritual and similar states of consciousness and exotic journeys. Recently several efforts have been made to create 3-dimensional versions of this episode, both for display in IMAX cinemas and  for use in Virtual Reality environments. These are rather impressive, but the context of the film is needed to really grasp the emotional depth and significance of the imagery.

In the final parts of Swansong, we witness the children ascending to their destiny. Huge channels of light, like luminous veins and arteries along which blood cells move (in both directions) become manifest. The children fuse with these, transmitting themselves into signal that flow up the channels. The adults who have made connection with them are able to choose whether to join them or not, and Dontae is one whose Earthly ties are strong enough to make him remain. When the columns, and the children, have gone, he is left apparently forlorn, but illuminated by a pulsing light that descends from one of the columns. In a final scene, set in an unspecified future, the malpais is blossoming with new flowers and there is birdsong in the air. We see a number of people, including small children,  apparently working and celebrating in the reborn environment.
The interpretation of these sequences continues to be controversial, with political and religious factions claiming Vernilak for their own. The power of the narrative, and the very tangible evocation of intense emotions in the conclusion, make the ambiguity more telling. While many films that initially confound their audiences turn out to have quite straightforward meanings,  Swansong  has resisted this trajectory. Vernilak’s disappearance soon after its release means that he has never been able to demystify things for us.  Indeed, voluntarily or otherwise, he added his own mystery into the equation. The 1978 special issue of Journal of Second World Cinema (now Central and Eastern European Cinematic Arts) devoted to Vernilak features three essays that present differing accounts of the film, as well as a transcription of an interview with him conducted before the production of Swansong. (We have drawn on this interview at several points during this essay.)

What can we say about Vernilak’s disappearance that has not already been recycled endlessly in the more sensationalistic media?  The only thing that is universally agreed is that he ceased to appear in any official engagements – including several in which he had been billed to feature – from 1980 on. Most of the numerous claimed sightings of him can be put into the bin used for disposal of tales of having seen Elvis, Hendrix, or deceased members of the Kennedy clan. The passing resemblance of bit players to Vernilak, in a number of films from Hollywood and its echoes in Bombay, Lagos, Singapore and so on, has been demonstrated, to the best of  my knowledge, to be no more than a matter of mistaken identity. The probability is that Vernilak is dead, not a prisoner nor someone who has gone undercover.
One version of events is that Vernilak was murdered by a gay pick-up, or a homophobic attack, echoing the killing of Pasolini by a teenager in Italy in 1975. A local newspaper story in 1980 is reported to have told of a body being found in a car park known to insiders as close to a favored holiday home of Vernilak. The theory goes that the story was covered up, perhaps because of the identity of the murderer (ties to high city authorities are alleged), or perhaps to protect Vernilak’s own reputation at a time of much homophobia. More lurid accounts speculate about a revenge killing on the part of security services or those victimized by them in the wake of the country’s liberation. These stories all depend upon memories of the newspaper story, an actual copy of which has proved extremely elusive.

The main reason to believe that there is more than just speculation in these stories of Vernilak’s death is simply that his last works demonstrate that he was in his prime, and enjoying his own achievements. The tales of his going underground (again?) and using a random murder as an opportunity to reboot his life, simply do not accord with this expanding talent.

So, on this anniversary year, what are we to make of Vernilak’s life and legacy?
He is rightly celebrated among both producers (especially in Europe and Asia) and their usual enemies, film critics (in many regions of the world). His work has cult followings in several locations, often extending beyond SF fans and those passionate about postwar Eastern European cinema. That none of his films were made in the English language has surely restricted their impact, but he is certainly among the top two or three directors from what was the Eastern bloc whose films managed to make, and retain, a substantial reputation in the West.
Much cinema  continues as if he never existed. Yet traces of his ideas and approach are pervasive (see Delany’s account of – often surprising - influences on the Star Wars series). Hatchlings and Swansong motifs are evident in the rash of films about children and young people with superpowers, and the reactions to them of the wider society. (These are often directly drawn from comic books, but the authors of these are likely to have been influenced by Vernilak.) Few time travel films escape his influence directly, or more often indirectly, through its uptake by modern physics. Of course, much SF these days is grappling with issues concerning robots and AI. These topics have come to almost obsess contemporary makers of serious SF, though they have well-known antecedents in Metropolis, Demon Seed,  and a host of less memorable works. Perhaps the Frankenstein motif deterred Vernilak from venturing in this direction. But more to the point, probably, is his preoccupation with themes of humanity encountering aliens and their works – or the even more unfathomable political artefacts of contemporary social systems.

Vernilak’s work is of its time, to be sure. But it is of much more than historical interest, and is surely due for a revival that will secure his place in the pantheon of unmissable cinema. Perhaps the Netflix dramatization will lead to more of his work becoming available on streaming services, being discussed on fan sites of all sorts, securing the recognition it deserves beyond cineastes.

Meanwhile the major impact of Vernilak’s work is undoubtedly in modern philosophy and, more recently, in some arcane but fascinating areas of quantum physics. In each field – and they overlap, of course – As It Was has become something of a trope, frequently referred to in discussions of the nature of time, the paradoxes that might be associated with travel in time, the existence of multiple realities, and the like. Moving on from simplistic criticisms of the supposedly inconsistent temporal mechanics of the film, philosophers have argued about the “many worlds” implications of the abortive attempts at re-engineering the past into a more acceptable direction. Ideas such as “knotted time” and “transitional inertia” are deployed by critics of “many worlds” and multiverse accounts. Meanwhile proponents of the multiverse - and not only those who proclaim “if it is possible, but has not happened here, then it will have happened elsewhere, perhaps in many elsewheres” - see As It Was as an exemplar not of track dependence, but of slippage across worlds. The time machine is also an engine of displacement, which seems appropriate enough for Vernilak and his compatriots.  

Physicists have also taken the film up, especially in America. Hy in particular claimed that it was seeing this as an adolescent that prompted his lifelong fascination with the physics of time, and led to his pivotal role in the development of quantum supratime theories. As It Was (or more accurately, variants of the brief synopsis of As It Was presented in several of Hy’s earlier studies) is regularly cited in both popular accounts and cutting-edge studies. Disputed claims that laboratory work is demonstrative of looping effects like those of the film have emerged from two US teams, with researchers in other countries disagreeing about the substance and/or significance of their claims. The debate is reminiscent of that over so-called cold fusion a few years ago, though the expenses of the necessary apparatus have meant that there is nothing like the rush to replicate that was then evident. Meanwhile, there is the usual touting of alarmist fears about unintended consequences of human meddling (“playing God”) with nature. The current sensationalism resembles that around the Large Hadron Collider, which allegedly was going to accidentally create a black hole into which we would all disappear. The trajectory of quantum physics suggests that this controversial field of study would have risen to the fore whether or not Vernilak had made his film. Perhaps the intense debate about temporal paradoxes might not have done. We might have been more preoccupied with the intricacies of worm theory, as developed by Prinn, Bloch and their followers, who focus more on the problems of dark time that are creating such stumbling blocks for analysis of the Big Bang.

The message of As it was, is an ambiguous one, but it can be seen as warning us against speculating too much about what might have been had history taken a different course. One thing is certain. Without the rise of quantum supratime, Netflix and their gaggle of independent producers would never have hired Hy and his colleague Alhazred as “advisors” to their forthcoming miniseries on Vernilak. Billionaires do sometimes invest in vanity projects in space exploration or biomedicine, as we well know: publicly listed companies less often. Historians and other specialists are often employed as consultants in film and video projects: SF movies will often have engaged astrophysicists and the like. But controversial quantum physicists, whose work is barely comprehensible to most laypeople, are another matter. Not only is the field of study unusual; according to information given to investors, a large chunk of the “advisory” funding is paying for laboratory research.  What can this mean?

We can dismiss the ideas floated on some outlandish websites that this funding is intended to finance a “chronoscope” (a device for viewing historical events), or even to build a functioning time machine. The only piece of “evidence” for such ideas is an off the cuff comment by Alhazred in one of his rare public appearances since the deal with Netflix was commissioned. He said that he hoped to “establish the truth” about Vernilak’s early life and to “test his philosophy of time”.  These comments may be frivolous, or are more likely to be misdirection. Perhaps the testing is purely theoretical work, and the establishment of truth a matter of more archival study.  The alarmists also seize on Hy’s recent statements (reported by participants in several academic seminars) that he is well on the way to documenting how transitional inertia can actually be combined with his version of supratime theory. If this could be done, it is implied, we can rest assured that interventions in the past (if such things were possible) would follow the main thrust of As It Was, and not disrupt history.  Fearmongers have seized upon these statement as proving that his team is hell-bent on more than subatomic time travel. But physicists that I have spoken to insist that these statements are merely elaborating on claims that he has made for many years now, and that alleged mathematical models have yet to be fully elaborated, let alone validated by other researchers.  (There is, at the time of writing, a call for papers on this topic in the International Journal of Supra- and Hyper-time Studies.)

If we dismiss the idea that any real effort is underway to advance the study – let alone the practice - of time travel, what is going on? I can see several possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive. I think that it is most probable that the researchers are employed to provide insight into the veracity of the miniseries’ treatment of time travel. Perhaps, too, they are being consulted as to the equipment featured in As It Was, why Vernilak chose the apparatus he did, how far it corresponds to modern technology, and so on. Another speculation is that the entertainment company is looking beyond Vernilak, and exploring prospects for further documentary or drama series around the themes of time travel. Perhaps Netflix is simply seeking to gain publicity and/or burnish their output with scientific credentials. Among the more sane discussions on the web, I am struck by two viewpoints in particular. At one extreme is the group calling itself The WatchMen, along with numerous excitable commentators. Most of these voices assume that time travel is not only possible, but its deployment is imminent. They ask for radically new regulations and more "responsible innovation" to govern this and other areas of science. They demand that we properly understand the limits of temporal inertia, and most of these commentators seek to ensure that nothing is done that might substantially change the course of history. A few individuals have argued that we have a duty to erase major tragedies from the past, making a progressively better world. But the great majority of WatchMen commentators see this as fraught with immense dangers - not least the obliteration of ourselves, since major changes in history would probably undermine our own existence. The possible investigation of Vernilak's past is a case in point. What if his death were forestalled? We would then have access to the body of work that he might have gone on to create… but would "we" still be we? My memory of writing these lines would have been erased,  since I would never have been engaging in these speculations. My account of his career would have taken some other form. Or what if time travellers somehow interfered with his earlier life, perhaps in an effort to uncover some of his secrets? Might be have been exposed as an agent? Might his life have been ended, or taken different paths – he could have been inspired to be a philosopher rather than a filmmaker? Could it be that an effort to discover the real person would mean that the name Vernilak would never even have come into being?

The second viewpoint is more mainstream. This echoes the opinion of many scientists that such speculation is pointless, that the advances in quantum time physics are of no practical significance. Their scepticism about the possibility of transporting any significant material backwards in time through time is expressed almost every time that they deign to comment on the topic at all. Furthermore, some of them have remarked that there is the issue of space, as well as time, to consider. Since the Earth is hurling through space, aty an orbital velocity close to 30 kilometers per second, would not a trip back in time, even one of a few minutes, mean that travellers would find themselves propelled into  a vacuum yet to be occupied by our planet. (Consider the even worse consequences of emerging within the body of this planet  - the explosive consequences of two bodies of matter attempting to occupy the same space at once.) There is little reason to assume that that a time-travelling person (or other object) would continue to move in synchrony with the Earth in its orbit round the Sun (itself moving relative to other parts of the Milky Way, which in turn is moving relative to other galaxies…).  Relativity theory tells us that space itself is not some static unchanging grid. I confess that I get lost in the scientific arguments about whether there are any mechanisms that could enable an object displaced in time to retain a stable relationship with persisting elements of their environment. What I can deduce, however, is that these are only the most immediately striking of a large number of problems articulated in academic journals and more popular media.  It is also apparent that the Watchmen and their ilk have displayed little interest in engaging with such issues. Until they can systematically refute the objections from mainstream scientists, their alarmism warrants little attention. But then again, perhaps the Netflix series will in some way build upon the arguments. If the researchers they have hired are advising precisely upon this, the outcomes are going to be, shall we say, interesting.

Vernilak’s name will live on in one way or another. He will be more than a footnote in the worlds of philosophy and physics. If Hy’s hypotheses prove correct, and supratime becomes an established paradigm, he may become today’s version of Newton’s apple. Beyond that, hopefully he will be best remembered as a virtuoso and creator, as a pioneer of East European and indeed world cinema, and as one of the giants who brought SF into mainstream respectability. Whatever spell is cast by the Netflix drama, the embroidery around his life is unlikely to overshadow that reputation. The miniseries, if completed, will surely bring more people to his work. We can then look forward beyond As It Was, to As It Will Be.


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