Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Well, from one side of the Iron Curtain to another, and to a rocket of a different type. I'd seen the dubbed American version of this before, in various lousy, faded, cropped prints. (You can also see part of it in the 1980 film Galaxina.) But seeing the restored, letterboxed original was a much more enjoyable experience.

Der Schweigende Stern was the first science fiction film made in East Germany, which makes it noteworthy in and of itself. Though a little slow as science fiction, there are a number of things that make it very much worth seeing, either as a historical footnote or a so-so piece of entertainment.

But first, the story. In the near future, scientists are puzzling over a mysterious artifact found in the debris of the famous Tunguska explosion - an artifact that appears to have been manufactured by extraterrestrials. After determining that the object must have come from Venus, a spaceship is launched there to investigate. But the bad news is (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) that a message contained on the artifact is, in fact, a declaration of war on the Earth, and, it turns out that the very presence of the human astronauts on Venus activates the doomsday weapon aimed at Earth.

Now, as I've said, some of this film is just bad sci-fi silly. I can think of no reason for the members of the space team to each have different colored spacesuits, other than to show off the admittedly beautiful Agfacolor used in the film. The remarkably slow-talking, chess-playing robot is pretty corny. And the rocket launch pad located in the middle of a grassy field...Well, let's just say I could see a lot of fire and security hazards with such a set-up.

And most of the first two-thirds of the film are pretty talky, with the introduction of the plot, the various characters, and the journey to Venus. Once there, the film features some great sets, some nice sound effects and music, and some truly trippy and surreal visuals that were way ahead of their time. Not exactly what you might expect from a stolid East German studio.

Given that it is from an East German studio, and was made post-Sputnik in the middle of the Cold War, Der Schweigende Stern does contain what probably counts as propaganda, but, in my opinion, gives it a soft sell that actually makes it more effective. For one thing, the dialogue often subtly makes it clear that, in this particular future, Communist countries are seen as legitimate and valued players on the global stage. Their ideology is presented as being both intellectual and inclusive.

Thus, it's taken for granted that the Germans will take a leadership role in the cooperative efforts to unravel this mystery. When the crew for the journey to Venus is assembled, it is made up not only of scientists (men and women) from Germany and Poland, but also from Japan, Africa and the U.S. In this way, the film is once again ahead of its time, and resembles the one-of-everything casting that has become much more common in Hollywood genre films today.

Now, to repeat, if your personal definition of science fiction needs to include cool robots or lots of action, then this is probably not the movie for you. This leans more towards the cerebral, with some nice surreal special effects near the end, just so you'll know you've been to Venus. I was reminded at times of the Andrei Tarkovsky film, Solaris (1972), which makes a certain sense, since both films are based on novels by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. I don't think that Der Schweigende Stern is something I need to see again anytime soon, but it is an interesting film with much to offer students of film and/or the Cold War.

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