LAYER CAKE. Andrzej Wajda’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem

Andrzej Wajda’s work, the recently deceased Polish director, is often associated with thematic solemnity.

Jakub Piwoński

14 May 2024

LAYER CAKE. Andrzej Wajda's adaptation of Stanislaw Lem

And it’s hard to argue with that fact. After all, in his oeuvre, one can find many historical dramas, written in exceptionally bold letters. However, it is seldom remembered and rarely mentioned that this creator, in 1968, gave Polish cinema a film burdened with slightly less genre weight.

Przekładaniec or Layer Cake is a Polish science fiction film. Although domestic cinematography has already released several interesting titles of this genre, it cannot be denied that the term “Polish science fiction film” still sounds like an oxymoron. Andrzej Wajda’s film is one of those proud examples of imaginative transformation of science fiction content and messages. In this case, it is about sociological fiction. The screenplay was written by Stanislaw Lem himself – a keen observer of human nature – loosely based on his earlier short story Does Mr. Jones Exist? Although cinema has repeatedly turned to Lem’s works (most recently with The Congress), I still have the impression that previous adaptations have not squeezed all the juice out of the originals. However, Przekładaniec / Layer Cake stands out as one of the more intriguing examples in this group.

Przekładaniec Layer Cake Bogumił Kobiela
A frame from the movie Przekładaniec directed by Andrzej Wajda 1968 Pictured Bogumił Kobiela photo by Roman Sumik Filmoteka Narodowa Audiovisual Institute wwwfototekafnorgpl

Imagine a world where medical technology operates at such an advanced level that organ transplantation is as easy and common as today’s vaccination. And although such widespread organ exchange would undoubtedly help many people, even giving them a second life, over time, as with any extreme, something problematic could arise from it. And the protagonist of Wajda’s film falls victim to such a hyperbole. It should be noted, however, that during the filming of Przekładaniec / Layer Cake, transplantation was still in its infancy.

Przekładaniec Layer Cake Bogumił Kobiela

The action takes place in the year 2000. Richard Fox (portrayed by the distinctive Bogumił Kobiela) is a renowned rally driver. During one of the races, along with his brother Thomas, acting as a co-driver, they suffer a serious accident. His brother tragically dies, and Richard ends up in a specialized clinic run by Dr. Burton (played by the surprising Jerzy Zelnik), known for its miracles in the field of transplantology. On-site, Richard has his damaged organs replaced. However, it turns out that these are organs belonging to his brother. The result of this procedure raises many ethical and legal questions. Both Richard and Thomas’ widow cannot claim full compensation. From a legal point of view, Thomas is still alive – just in a different body. Dealing with this dilemma, a hired lawyer (played by the vivid Ryszard Filipski) tries to cope. Soon, however, the situation becomes even more complicated when the main character suffers further accidents. The lawyer begins to notice that the transplanted organs of others affect Richard so much that he gradually begins to lose his identity.

Przekładaniec Layer Cake
A frame from the movie Przekładaniec directed by Andrzej Wajda 1968 Filmoteka Narodowa Audiovisual Institute wwwfototekafnorgpl

With its characteristic grotesque, the scene from the beginning suggests that the proper understanding of the work requires a certain distance. Because, of course, this tale should be treated as satire, but one that hits the mark with its commentary. Above all, it prompts one fundamental question: on what basis can we claim to be the individuals we present ourselves as? What truly defines our existence? If our belief in being ourselves is to be based only on biological principles, it may someday lead to a dead end. Neither the film nor the short story directly answer this question, but it’s easy to understand what the authors had in mind. It is the soul, consciousness, or another transcendent entity that must determine our existence, not our physicality.

This short film, lasting only thirty-five minutes, was made in a hurry. Andrzej Wajda recalled that he started working on the set while filming Everything for Sale, a film dedicated to the memory of Zbigniew Cybulski. Przekładaniec / Layer Cake had been promised to television earlier, so the agreements had to be kept. This haste somewhat affected the film because the director shortens the introduction to a minimum, not overly explaining the issues to the viewer. This can be seen as an advantage, although Stanislaw Lem himself pointed it out in his private letter to the director. Nevertheless, he praised the adaptation, speaking positively about it as he did about no other.

Przekładaniec Layer Cake Ryszard Filipski Jerzy Zelnik

The day before yesterday I watched the movie Przekładaniec on television. Both your work, the work of the actors, and the set design seemed very good to me. Especially good was the lawyer in his role, very sympathetic surgeon, well, and Kobiela doesn’t require any special praise. My only substantive reservations concerned the uncertainty whether, as a result of the very fast pace, the whole thing isn’t too difficult for the average viewer to understand?

The concerns expressed in the last sentence can be considered exaggerated from today’s perspective. The film, in terms of its messages, is too clear and meaningful. It throws the viewer into the midst of a philosophical dilemma and does not allow them to pass by it indifferently. Another point in favor of the work is the fact that the futuristic effect was achieved despite severely limited resources. Subtle suggestions were helpful in depicting the future community, characterized by its emotionless nature. Successfully conducted formal aspects (costumes designed by Barbara Hoff, music by Andrzej Markowski) also contributed to this.

Przekładaniec Layer Cake Bogumił Kobiela Ryszard Filipski

Evidence of the good reception of Wajda’s work is the awards and honors later awarded to him. The Chairman of the Radio and Television Committee awarded both the director and the screenwriter. The magazine Ekran distinguished the film with a statuette. But there was also an international award – a special medal from the International Festival of Fantasy and Horror Films in Sitges.

Today, Przekładaniec / Layer Cake somewhat fades in Wajda’s oeuvre. It is rarely mentioned, rarely associated with the creator. However, it is worth remembering that our great director once gave us an exceptionally astute science fiction with a sociological twist. Intimate and modest, yet big-hearted. And well… it is certainly one of the better representations of the fantastic genre created in our backyard.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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