When Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mr. Hulot, and Mr. Bean blast off for Venus, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart and his chess-playing robot turtle will be watching on DVD. Oh, that's The Silent Stars.
"Despite our incredible speed, the stars seem to stand still."
If you don't screen your companions carefully, you could end up the foremost Polish writer of science fiction, as Stanislaw Lem explains: "During our trip, we talked about the absence of Polish science fiction…[publisher Jerzy] Panski asked whether I could write such a book. I answered 'yes'—not knowing who my companion was…After some time, to my great surprise, I received an author's agreement from [publishing house] 'Czytelnik.'"
That first book, Astronauci or The Astronauts, hit the big screen as Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star) in 1960, the first East German sci-fi film and the most expensive film by that time from DEFA Film Studios. Lem reportedly disowned the movie. A chopped-up, dubbed version of the well-regarded film was released in the United States as First Spaceship on Venus two years later (eventually winding up on Mystery Science Theater 3000). And now, the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Film Polski have helped to bring back the original German version, with English subtitles.
So, are you seeing a classic example of sci-fi cinema, or a cheesy movie fit only for Joel and the 'Bots? The answer is both.
The movie starts out at a too-leisurely trot, with a narrator (apparently reading from Lem's book) talking about the alien recording device found in the Gobi Desert, which is sent to the "translation commission." Earth scientists figure out that the device came from Venus, but wonder, "Why is Venus silent?" Their first move is to place a global call to Venus; when that goes unanswered (Venus is apparently a cell-phone dead spot), the Eastern bloc decides to send an international team of scientists. The first few minutes have a lot of narration, including joy-of-Socialism bits talking about how the East has solved the hunger problem in the then-future of 1970. About the point where you'd like to sentence the narrator to a gulag just because, he's replaced with a pretty on-camera Intervision reporter who serves the same function more photogenically as the crew members essentially do a roll call scene. Keep an eye on Talua (Julius Ongewe) as he addresses his wife on the radio; there's a quiz, or at least a memorable scene, on this point later. Most intriguing up front is the backstory love affair between sterile Hiroshima survivor Sumiko (Yoko Tani) and Brinkmann (Günther Simon). Least intriguing up front is the extended time synchronization and fastening seatbelts scene. During some tedious early scenes, you might find yourself doing MST3K stuff like trying to spell words with the big letters emblazoned on the chests of the ground crew workers, giving new meaning to "you do the m-a-t-h." After liftoff, a running-gag chess war between American Hawling (Oldrich Lukes) and Omega the Robot (a hammer-and-sickle dead ringer for K-9 from Doctor Who)—in which Sumiko notes of the robot, "If he had a soul, he would have let Hawling win one, too"—and a standard-issue meteor shower, complete with the cosmonaut cast moving sideways to simulate the ship getting hit, are typical 1950s spaceship movie stuff, playing as well as any.
By the time the Cosmokrator 1 lands on Venus, there have been some good moments—verbal sparring between Brinkmann and Sumiko before both are put to sleep (only temporarily, because they're too nervous to sleep on their own before the space flight begins) and a well-assembled scene in which Hawling rips off his seatbelt for the thrill of weightlessness, which uses close shots so we don't know what he's standing on—but the last 45 minutes, in which the cosmonauts explore the Venusian surface, give this film its well-deserved reputation. Venus is just a set, like on Star Trek, but what a set! The special effects mix real scenes with pictures and miniatures, a process developed with the help of special effects man Ernst Kunstmann, and set designer Ernst Hirschmeier gives a sleek style to the Venusian buildings and gadgetry. The effect is a psychedelic landscape—complete with wisps of gas floating through the atmosphere—that you might enjoy watching without a story. The cosmonauts sift for clues on the planet surface to figure out what happened to the Venusians and whether they still pose a threat to Earth. Along the way, they're attacked by spider-like metallic recording devices (Talk about killer apps for an MP3!) and a strange mass of goo. The effects are well-done for the era, and the movie's moving along at a pretty good clip, finally, so the Venusian scenes are a lot of fun.
Watching a Cold War film made behind the Berlin Wall takes some getting used to. The United States is portrayed as an evil aggressor which threatens the world with its atomic bombs, and the film's script takes every opportunity to show that the Eastern Bloc does things differently. For example, when the cosmonauts decipher the message that suggests that Venusians plan to fry the Earth, they go ahead and try to contact the folks back home, secure in the knowledge that their people will handle the news well; by contrast, American movie astronauts would keep the bad news to themselves, secure in the knowledge that we'd panic and do ourselves more damage than the Venusians could. This stuff was toned down or trimmed as incendiary in 1962; now, it's an ironic time capsule of a failed system.
Watching this particular Cold War film is a visual delight, thanks to a glorious remastering that shows off the colorful Venusian landscape set and some fine on-location Earthscapes. No information available on the sound, but it seems to be a standard mono track in German. My disc had a glitch which skipped ahead about 12 to 14 minutes, meaning I had to rewind to see the scenes in the Cosmokrator 1.
The extras mix stills, text and film footage to provide the background on the movie. The best among them is a collection of East German sci-fi trailers, including an intriguing teaser for the lower-budget Eolomea and a pop-art cheesy-looking trailer—complete with suggestive-but-not-revealing shower scene, a dance number by intergalactic maidens, and bouncy 1960s-style score—for Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of Stars). Two too-short East German newsreel clips that promoted the movie are shown as well. Also included are stills of the set design and several text pieces, including details on the "Schüffen process" (first used in 1927's Metropolis, on which Kunstmann worked) and "Socialists in Outer Space," which explains the political views of the movie.
After reading up on Lem and The Silent Star online, I had to book this charter tour of Venus—and East Germany. If the meteorities I've spotted haven't discouraged you by this point, you'll enjoy it, too. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Socialists in Outer Space (text) by Stefan Soldovicis
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