Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.
Time for another Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, where I am writing Einstein and the Bearded Lady, about the Czech science fiction comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove) from 1970. The film asks the question, “What would men of the future be willing to risk to make sure women don’t have too much body hair?” Silliness ensues.
Also, the Gutter is having a fundraiser to help pay for hosting and writing, so if you have a few bucks, consider sending it their way. You’ll get stuff in return, in addition to helping keep the site alive and kicking and slinging the wisdom about comics, romance novels, film, and science fiction.
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.
Todd from Die Danger Die Die Kill is responsible for many of the best reviews on Teleport City, including reviews of two East German science fiction films produced by DEFA. I got a chance to return the favor (a little) by writing about a DEFA science fiction film, Eolomea, for his site.
One of the things I love about these Eastern Bloc science fiction films from the early 60s is the air of moment that hangs around them. Unlike American sci-fi films of the era, which were more often than not throwaway drive-in fare, these movies were a major undertaking for the countries that produced them, and were not only intended to be an expression of national pride, but also a source of it. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the versions of them that eventually made it to theater screens here in the U.S. Radically edited to eliminate all evidence of their communist origins and frequently retaining little of their original footage beyond their special effects sequences, such films became the building blocks for cut-rate titles such as Roger Corman’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (both fashioned from the Russian Planeta Bur) and Crown International’s retooling of East Germany’s The Silent Star, First Spaceship on Venus.
In 2002, I had the possibly once in a lifetime chance to spend an entire summer driving across the United States. My traveling partner and I were able to indulge every whim, sometimes diverting wildly from our vaguely set course in order to visit some out of the way attraction or satisfy some curiosity or whim. Among the many things we both enjoyed was visiting air and space museums. Some we had targeted ahead of time. Others we learned about along the way. Some we stumbled upon entirely by chance out in the relative middle of nowhere. We were, at one point, making our way across Kansas after having already stumbled upon the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal. We hit a town called Hutchinson, and as we made our way through caught a glimpse in the distance of a couple rockets. Obviously further investigation was warranted, and that in turn led us to The Cosmosphere. By this point in our travels, we’d hit more air and space museums than I can remember off the top of my head, and though I was not tiring of them (who can get enough Ham the space chimp? No one I’d want to know, that’s who), what made Cosmosphere one of the best was that a substantial portion of the museum was dedicated to the Soviet space program.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
The mid-sixties were a time of increased experimentation and political outspokenness for filmmakers in Czechoslovakia, thanks to the increasing relaxation of government censorship that peaked in 1967 with the sweeping reforms of the Prague Spring, and which came to a crashing halt with the Russian invasion the following year. Of the films produced during that brief renaissance, Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is far from the most radical or subversive. But it is just possible that viewing it would have been enough to convince the CCCP standard bearers back in Moscow that the Czechs were having entirely too much fun for their own good.
You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.