First Spaceship On Venus (1960) Der Schweigende Stern
In 1970, debris from the 1908 Tunguska "meteor" are found which turn out to be recordings from a spaceship crashed there. The ship's origin is determined to be Venus, and an international team sets out with their spaceship "Kosmokrator" to visit the "Silent Planet", which is shrouded in clouds, and doesn't respond to contact attempts.
While the "Kosmokrator" is in flight, the record is decoded and it turns out that the Venusians seemingly planned to invade Earth in 1908. Should the "Kosmokrator" still attempt to get in touch with the Aliens? And why are they silent now?
Yoko Tani ... Sumiko Omigura MD
Oldrich Lukes ... Professor Harringway
Ignacy Machowski ... Professor Orloff
Julius Ongewe ... Talua
Michail N. Postnikow ... Professor Durand
Kurt Rackelmann ... Professor Sikarna
Günther Simon ... Robert Brinkmann
Tang Hua-Ta ... Dr. Tchen Yu
Lucyna Winnicka ... Joan Moran
The amazing imaginative fiction author Stanislaw Lem wrote this visually stunning East German space exploration film with a dated but still thoughtful message. The Sets of Der Schweigende Stern are detailed and beautiful - giving the film an amazingly alien feel. The cinematography varies from excellent to mediocre, and the visual effects are cleverly done - relying on actual props and set devices as opposed to split screen and blue or green screen trick photography. Lem's plot is poignant and well-paced, but, unfortunately, most of the acting in this film is a bit difficult to watch. Finally, the overuse of voice-over narration in the early part of the film detracts from its otherwise good artistic and technical merit.
The story begins with the discovery that, in 1908, an extraterrestrial space vehicle crash landed on earth. An electronic recording from the ship is recovered and linguists set about trying to decode its message. An international team of scientists, astronauts and engineers who are scheduled to undertake a manned flight to Mars are then diverted to Venus to make contact with the Venusians. On the way, they decipher the electronic "cosmic document" and learn that the Venusians were planning to attack the earth using nuclear warheads. To venture further in the plot would involve spoilers.
This is a film full of mysteries, and a film of its time - near the height if the cold war. A powerful point concerning the proliferation of nuclear arms is well made in this film, though it is perhaps the only truly predictable aspect of the plot. Lem's plot heavy brand of highly imaginative science fiction is very dense reading and often carries similar ethical messages, but rarely translates well into visual media. This is a worthy effort, maintaining the slightly wild and surreal feel of Lem's aesthetics and yet driving forward the film's plot at an entertaining pace.
Recommended for Lem fans, serious sci-fi film fans, and those interested in the connection between film and the social history of ideas. Unfortunately for Der Schweigende Stern, the average movie fan won't be able to handle this one.
In the late 50s Russia changed the world by launching Sputnik. This really was a shock; modern readers may not appreciate it as of the magnitude (in the US) of 9-11. In terms of national will, there was a more universal mobilization and commitment of resources than after 9-11, that's for sure.
Both the Russian and American space efforts were at root militarily motivated, but wrapped in more glorious notions or exploration. And both depended on "captured" Nazi scientists. At the time, East Germany was considered the most oppressed of all the communist clients, and the leaders there tried so very hard to establish itself as the center of the communist world for technology (which is how Germans see science).
East Germany as a region was cut out of the space program proper, something they wanted to change. So huge government monies went into this movie, including permissions to use Americanfilm stock and technology.
As it happens, this film proved enormously popular across the communist world and did have a profound effect on the Soviet space program. See my comments on "Planeta Bur" for that background.
The avowed goal was to show Germany as the leader and catalyst of a future international collaboration, peace led by a cleansed nation. So look what we have: a rock from the Gobi desert, a meteor from Siberia, a team mobilized for a trip — a team from all continents: American, African, several Asians. And a story from someone widely considered the father of modern science fiction, a sibling through Warsaw Pact.
It really is true that large fortunes, on the order of a trillion dollars, was swung in part by this film, money that could have eliminated all hunger and disease everywhere for generations.
But it has cinematic history as well. Was it the first one to open moving through a starfield as 3D points of light (with titles that recede ahead of us)? A totally fictitious effect that has become necessary since. Otherwise audiences won't think it "real."
The west already had "Forbidden Planet," of course, itself perhaps the most influential science fiction film in the west. In a way, the travel technology was incidental there and in fact the design of the rocket was V2-like. Here, matters of the technology of travel are central.
You have some shades of "Forbidden Planet:" a lost, powerful race. You have some by now staples: lava flows and meteor showers (even in "Star Wars"). There's an Orrery as a model of and control of the attack plan. The black man is less racistly portrayed than Americans would have. That's the point. But he still is the "don't worry, be happy" personality in the group.
They discover a geodesic dome on the planet. In the 60's this was an architectural icon of modern architecture. Interestingly, there is a wonderful sequence where the explorers come upon this thing and are amazed by it. They are talking to the space ship — cut to the interior of the space ship and what is the ceiling? Yup, a geodesic dome!
If I were going to list my favorite 10 science fiction films, this would be one of them. It is too bad that the original German language version is not available (as far as I know), but even though the American release version has some missing footage, the remaining film still is first-rate.
The film features an international cast led by Japanese actress Yoko Tani (good eye candy) and actors/actresses from Germany, Africa, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and France. The special effects from the start of the movie to its end are excellent. The effects as they explore the surface of Venus are particularly eerie and thought-provoking. But, best of all, are the philosophical speculations about the role of space flight in the future of mankind. In addition, the film makes a stern warning against the misuse of science and technology in the pursuit of war and aggression and pleads with all men to apply advances in nuclear and space technology to foster world peace.
* In the German original version, "Brinkman(n)" isn't American, but East German, and the "Durand" character is a Soviet cosmonaut by the name of "Professor Arsenjew" (Arsenyev), "the man who steered the first rocket to the moon"!
* In the 1962 USA release version, on the film soundtrack, in a scene in the control room of the Kosmokrator rocket, we hear a music track titled "In Outer Space" from Destination Moon (1950) by Leith Stevens, and later in the movie, in the scenes of eerie destruction of the Venusian city, we hear a music track titled "Metaluna Catastrophe" from This Island Earth (1955) by Herman Stein. Both of these uses of music were uncredited and unlicensed, and unauthorized by the copyright holders.
* Released to theatres in the USA on a triple bill with the Italian film "Assignment: Outer Space" and the Japanese film "The Mysterians".
* This large scale East German-Polish co-production was the first to be shot in the Totalvision widescreen process.
* The German version contains a reference to one of professors having his career stalled when he was thrown out of the university by the Nazis. Director and co-writer Kurt Maetzig had his career stalled by the Nazis because his mother was Jewish.
* Although it was a co-production with a Polish company, it was still the most expensive production for DEFA up to that time.