Some years ago, a trio of colorful, contemplative, and sometimes a little bit absurd science fiction films from East German studio DEFA found their way onto home video in the United States. Of them, The Silent Star was the most beloved thanks to its combination of serious speculation and pop-art design, as well as the fact that it was familiar to many in its old dubbed and re-edited version, First Spaceship on Venus. In the Dust of the Stars was the most visually outrageous, combining the futurist aesthetic of the 1970s with the flared pleather jumpsuits and feathered mullets of the disco era. And Eolomea (which I reviewed as a guest writer for Die Danger Die Die Kill) was the most often ignored, with its more somber production design cribbed from Solaris and the message being less about the wonder and dangers of space travel and more about how boring and frustrating it can be. But even more ignored than Eolomea — so much so that it wasn’t even included in the set — was DEFA’s forgotten science fiction film, Signale — Ein Weltraumabenteuer.
Silent Star was East Germany’s first big-budget science fiction adventure, and while it achieved a sort of global cult appeal, it was not a big hit in its native East Germany, not enough of a hit anyway to justify the budget. So for years, science fiction film production was scaled back substantially, and DEFA concentrated on other genres, most notably the “indianer” films — German westerns in which the native Americans, rather than cowboys, were the heroes. But in 1968, Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it made a huge impact on the world of film, proving that science fiction was viable on a large scale, and one that combined spectacle with intellectualism and a psychedelic sort of philosophy that still has people debating and wondering “what it’s all about” or if it’s about anything at all.
As big an impact as 1968′s 2001: A Space Odyssey had on U.S. science fiction cinema, it seems to have had an even greater impact in what was then known as the Eastern Bloc — the Communist countries that fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. This impact came both in the form of imitation and reaction (Tartovsky’s landmark Solaris was made after he had a decidedly negative reaction to what he considered to be a clinical and soulless film from Kubrick), and it probably caught on because Communist science fiction films were already predisposed toward being slower and more contemplative than their American counterparts, which were drawing from old pulps and adventure novels as their primary source. The most famous reaction/response to 2001 may have been Solaris, but it was not the first Eastern Bloc response to Kubrick’s film. That first response came from DEFA, who dusted off their science fiction filmmaking stuff and, in 1970, made Signale.
The film starts with a lesson all space people should learn, and one I’ve mentioned before: do not name your spaceships after characters in Greek mythology. Especially do not name your spaceship after a character in Greek mythology who was most famous for flying so high that he melted his wings and plummeted to his death. Naming your spaceship Icarus invites as much calamity as naming your spaceship “Space Titanic” or “Space Braveheart But Just the Last Few Minutes When They Are Castrating HIm.” And sure enough, no sooner are we introduced to the crew of the Icarus, which has just picked up a mysterious signal that might be a transmission from intelligent alien life, than the Icarus explodes. Figuring out what happened to it and mounting a presumably hopeless rescue mission falls to aging cosmonaut Veikko (Piotr Pawlowski), who recruits his crew equally from the ranks of the space program “due to retire” field and the young pool of cosmonauts who love doing handwalks on the beach and playing footsie with one another (it is a really weird scene, even if for a viewer more than used to homoerotic flamboyance in cult cinema). And at least one of the cosmonauts is on the edge because his girlfriend was aboard the Icarus, so including him is sort of like including “the rage-fueled psychopath” in your really complicated bank heist.
Signale occupies a curious space in the history of Eastern Bloc space cinema. It retains much of the previous decade’s pop-art design but balances it with the much starker art design of 2001 — which I guess is actually pretty 2001 of it, given that 2001 itself mixed stark white minimalism with pop-art space stewardesses and technicolor spacesuits. DEFA’s next science fiction film, Eolomea (which was still very much part of the 2001-train), would scour the colorful pop-art of the 1960s almost entirely from its style, but Eolomea was also the first DEFA science fiction films made in a decade when going to the moon had become old hat and the Soviets had real-life space stations and bored cosmonauts. Coming out in 1970, Signale finds itself balanced not just between style trends, but also between the point the wonder and potential of the space race gave way to the tedium and regularity of the space race. So we get spacesuits that are fairly realistic and drab, and some science about asteroids and out-of-control spaceships (in a scene that would be recreated closely in 2010, ironically enough), but you also get female crew members swapping mod wigs and metallic silver mini-skirts in preparation for the ship’s space birthday dance party.
Although a response to 2001, the most obvious influence on Signale to me was the 1963 Czech film, Ikarie XB-1. At times, it almost seems like Signale could pass as a remake. Both films concentrate on the lives of crew members dealing with day-to-day life in deep space, and both films have a mysterious potential alien presence looming over everything (the male cosmonauts in their onesies doing gymnastics routines aboard the Ikarie XB-1 Icarus are still less homoerotic than this film’s footsie-playing spacemen). But where as I found myself totally engrossed in the shipbound world of Ikarie XB-1 (hey — another movie that names its spaceship Icarus), the crew of Signale never really clicked with me. I liked Helmut Schreiber as old space veteran Gaston, but no one else kept my attention, and the central mystery that is supposed to lend tension to the “slice of space life” bulk of the film is neither tense nor mysterious. And once we get to the finale, it just reinforces that none of it was really worth caring about.
I’m not sure what the point of any of it was. One of the things that set Eastern Bloc science fiction apart from the more swashbuckling nature of a lot of American science fiction was that it was usually trying to make some sort of social or political point. Even when that point was bald-faced propaganda or pie-in-the-sky and self-deluded utopianism, I always appreciated the effort, if not the message itself. But Signale doesn’t seem to have very much to say, especially for a film that was positioned as the opening salvo in a back-and-forth with a film like 2001. If it was attempting to look at the dynamics of an isolated crew in a hostile environment, it never made me feel any sort of immediacy. If it was trying to tell us that only by working together can we ever conquer the dangers of space — well, it didn’t make that point very well, either. And even if it was just, “space can be tedious tot he point that we forget the wonder,” well DEFA made that point much better a couple years later with Eolomea. By comparison, Signale is sort of just a shrug, though I freely admit that some overarching point might be obvious to others that was lost on me.
Some of the space sequences, although ultimately pointless, are still fun, not the least of which is the scene in which rookie space jockey Juana (Irena Karel, Colonel Wolodyjowski — born in a part of Poland that is now a part of The Ukraine, and might be part of Russia next week the way things are going) trains to be more nimble in zero gravity. It’s a couple of minutes of simulated zero-G shenanigans set to a jarringly jaunty and playful theme song by Karl-Ernst Sasse (who also scored In the Dust of the Stars). The scene in which the rescue team explores the wreckage of the Icarus is also really good, but it employs psychedelic flashes and those “ooooo ahhh ooooo” spooky choruses a la 2001, but for scenes with no sense of cosmic wonder or mystery; it’s usually just a guy opening a door. Which is the overarching problem with Signale: it promises the cosmic wonder and philosophy of a 2001 (or, in retrospect, a Solaris), but in the end delivers a pretty run-of-the-mill, normal science fiction “rescue mission” movie.
Part of the problem might have been that director Gottfried Kolditz, who would go on to direct the much more enjoyable In the Dust of the Stars, fell ill during the making of Signale. Completing the film fell to cinematographer Otto Hanisch, who seems much more interested in shooting the film’s sets and special effects and in coming up with camera tricks to convey zero gravity than in keeping us interested in the story. So if you can get by on (admittedly wonderful) space set design, then Signale has plenty to offer (from a design and costuming standpoint, this might be my favorite of the DEFA science fiction films). Hanisch shoots these aspects of the film with a technical fetishism that would have doubtless pleased Stanley Kubrick. But not everything wrong with the film can be blamed on the director getting sick. The screenplay, also by Kolditz, fails to capitalize on any of the situations it presents, and the finale of the film is disappointingly mundane. In the end, though, Kolditz was unhappy with the final product, and despite my adoration for Irena Karel’s jumpsuits and mini-skirts, so was I.
Which is to say this movie may be disposable, and not all that great, but it’s not necessarily bad. It’s just…lesser. The art design is still quite good, the special effects are accomplished without being game changing, costumes are spectacular, and while most of the characters aren’t interesting, none of them are terrible or irritating. It has just enough cool stuff in it to keep it watchable, but in the greater scheme of DEFA and Eastern Bloc science fiction, it definitely lags behind the rest of the pack in almost every aspect. It deserves to be seen, and it’s a shame it wasn’t included in the DEFA DVD set, but it’s also not as if you are missing a wonder in the history of German and Soviet science fiction. In terms of “wasting time with a space crew,” Ikarie XB-1 executes the story with much more panache, and DEFA’s follow-up to Signale, Eolomea, handles the “mystery is space” aspect much better. Visually, there’s still plenty to appreciate in Signale, and historically, the movie occupies a position that makes it essential viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of science fiction cinema. Nut in the end, the movie is its own finale. You just sort of shrug and think, “that’s it?”