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.
It is this process that resulted in the 1960 Russian film Nebo Zouyot, which featured a heroic team of Soviet astronauts beating out a markedly less distinguished crew from a certain other country in the race to Mars, being transformed into the Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Sun — a transformation that in part involved then novice director Francis Ford Coppola inserting into it scenes of warring penis and vagina monsters. Corman would similarly recruit a young Peter Bogdanovich to spice up another Russian space travel yarn, Planeta Bur, with footage of Mamie Van Doren lounging around in a clamshell bikini, thus facilitating that film’s transformation into 1966’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. This, however, was only after Corman had initially repurposed Planeta Bur‘s impressive special effects footage for Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet in 1965, which in that case involved incorporating scenes of a befuddled-looking Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue sitting around the set of Corman’s Queen of Blood (which itself borrowed from the Soviet scifi film Mechte Navstrechu, aka A Dream Come True) pretending to talk to the Russian actors via shortwave radios. One example of Eastern Bloc sci-fi cinema that managed to reach US screens in somewhat less bastardized form was Ikarie XB-1, a Czech film based on Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Magellan Cloud, which ended up being released by AIP in 1963 under the title Voyage to the End of the Universe.
To me the most interesting of these films was another adaptation of one of Lem’s novels, the 1960 East German/Polish co-production The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern), which Crown International released in a substantially edited, but not entirely re-invented, form as First Spaceship on Venus later the same year. The book that it’s based on is Astronauci (The Astronauts), which was Lem’s first full-length novel. He wrote a sort of anti-mystery called The Investigation that is still one of my favorite books — and which hasn’t failed to anger a single person I’ve foisted it upon with its refusal to deliver anything resembling the type of resolution that its genre dictates. To most people he’s known primarily as the author of Solaris, which has been made into film versions both George Clooney-free and George Clooney-rich by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh, respectively.
A work of science fiction situated squarely in the Juvenile category — somewhat at odds with the thoughtful, deeply philosophical novels that Lem would later become known for — Astronauci was commissioned by a publisher who demanded it be written in the prevailing style of Socialist Realism. Lem, who was no stranger to clashes with communist censors, and who chose the science fiction genre in part because it seemed like the best medium in which to couch his more potentially controversial ideas, would later disown the book, and no doubt would have been none too happy about those propagandistic elements of it retained within The Silent Star. Still, those political sentiments are not core to the film, and, as such, don’t prevent it from being a compelling piece of imaginative cinema, regardless of origin.
The Silent Star was the first science fiction film to be produced by East Germany’s state-run studio DEFA (in this case, in co-production with Poland’s Film Polski), and was also the studio’s most expensive production to date. It was originally intended for release on the tenth anniversary of the Germany Democratic Republic in 1959, but was delayed due, in part, to some squabbling behind the scenes. The production was marked by a constant struggle between officials at the studio and the government’s cultural ministers over the extent to which the film would be a delivery device for audience thrills or propaganda. Filming even came close to being shut down when higher-ups in the bureaucracy learned that producers were seeking French participation in the project, both in the form of financial backing and in the acting services of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. The filmmakers compensate for the inevitable absence of those stars by naming one of the reporters in the movie “Jeanne Moreau.”
Ultimately, though, after much rewriting and turnover of personnel, a balance was struck, with the resulting film combining apparently just the right amount of effects-laden cautionary space opera and contrasts between peace-loving, international-cooperation seeking Socialists and suspicious, war-profiteering Americans. To be fair, the main East German and American characters in the film are presented as having a deep friendship borne of their mutual commitment to peaceful scientific progress, so an obviously conscientious effort is made not to demonize Americans as a whole. Rather than presenting, as its origins might lead you to expect, a vision of the future rooted within the tangibly achievable limits of technology and dogged human industry, it relies to a surprising degree on the purely fantastic in its visual imagery, seeking first and foremost to engage a sense of wonder over simply instilling pride in the socialist state’s potential accomplishments. When viewed in its original scope and richly vivid Agfacolor presentation, you get a further sense of just how much effort was put into presenting this vision. It’s a truly terrific looking film, right up there with big budgeted American science fiction films of its era like Forbidden Planet and… well, Forbidden Planet.
The movie’s story is set in motion when, in the distant future of 1970, a strange cylinder is found in the Gobi desert — a cylinder which, it is later determined, was ejected from a Venusian spacecraft that crashed in Siberia in 1908 (and which, in turn, was the source of the massive explosion that subsequently became known as the Tunguska Event). The cylinder is, in fact, a recording device, but, unfortunately, a severely damaged one, and it is entrusted to an international team of experts to translate what little remains of the message it contains. Unfortunately, the only part of the recording that the assembled brain trust is able to make out is a cataloging of our planet’s elements, and it is assumed for some reason that this is the preamble to some sort of message to the people of Earth from the Venusians. Attempts to contact Venus are met with an ominous silence, and so it is determined that a spacecraft originally intended for a mission to Mars, The Cosmokrator (a streamlined piece of phantasmagoria that looks like one of Chesley Bonastell’s creations on steroids), will be repurposed and sent to Venus with an international crew.
The crew’s American representative, physicist Professor Hawling (Oldrich Lukes), must first, however, appeal to the pack of whiskey-swilling suits from the “consortium” that runs his university to allow his participation. They heap scorn upon the project, preferring that he stay behind to help them prepare a competing mission. Ultimately they let him go, thanks in part to the urging of an idealistic senior professor who contrasts the nobility of the Venus endeavor with the University’s dedication to the American project of developing ever deadlier instruments of war. As Hawling arrives at the launch site, he is joined by the ship’s Chinese linguist Chen Yu (Tang Hua-Ta), German pilot Brinkmann (Gunther Simon), African communications officer Talua (Julius Ongewe) and Indian mathematician Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann). Also arriving on the scene is the ship’s Polish engineer Solfyk (Ignacy Machowski), an occasion which provides the opportunity to introduce some of the nifty gadgets that the crew will be taking to Venus along with them. These include a small, tank-like robot called Omega, something called the “Jet Propelled Elasti-copter”, and two all-terrain vehicles called the Caterpillar and the Turtle, all of which are represented by fairly impressive-looking, full-sized mock-ups.
The opening credits of The Silent Star boast a cast containing “many actors from different countries,” but chances are that you’ve only heard of one of them, the top-billed (in both the U.S. and German versions) actress Yoko Tani. A French citizen of Japanese descent, Tani never made it beyond supporting roles in major productions, but she made quite a living as a star of European B-movies throughout the sixties, lending the required touch of exoticism to numerous peplum and eurospy films, as well as turning up occasionally on British spy series like Danger Man and Man in a Suitcase. As the Cosmokrator’s onboard doctor, Sumiko Ogimura, Tani is clearly intended to be the emotional center of The Silent Star, coming complete with both a tragic back-story and an ill-fated romantic history with another crew member.
With the crew assembled, the Cosmokrator takes off for Venus. During this long journey, The Silent Star starts to drag its heels, thank in large part to that journey being depicted mostly by having the set-bound actors — though, admittedly, bound to a ship’s interior set that is mighty cool looking — sitting around and describing their progress as they stare into instruments and out the window.Not showing the actual ship in flight was a cost-cutting measure, because it’s not as if special effects director Ernst Kuntsmann wasn’t up to the task. Kuntsmann, during his early career, frequently teamed with fellow effects man Eugene Schufftan, and with him developed the pioneering “Schufftan Process” — first used in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — which allowed for the simultaneous filming of miniatures and full-scale action. Kuntsmann worked in Hollywood with Schufftan between 1926 and 1928, and after returning to Germany worked with such figures as Lang, Leni Riefenstahl and F.W. Murnau. Among his accomplishments were miniature effects for the 1943 German film Titanic that were reused for the identically-titled American production ten years later. His miniature effects for The Silent Star, though used sparingly, approach the level of the work that Eiji Tsuburaya was doing for Toho at the time, and contribute immensely to the film’s overall technical sheen.
Excitement finally arrives on board the Cosmokrator in the form of news from Earth that the Venusian recording contains not a message of friendship, but rather a blueprint for invasion. At this, those aboard take a vote as to whether they should continue their mission, and decide unanimously to do so, resolving to attempt to make peace with the planet’s inhabitants. And it is with their arrival on Venus that The Silent Star really kicks into gear. Stanislaw Lem always attempted, in his descriptions of other planets and the life thereon, to depict landscapes and beings that were alien to the point of challenging human comprehension (Solaris‘ sentient ocean being a good example). Set designer Alfred Hirschmeirer does his best to stay in step with that vision. Though, given the dictates of social realism, the sources he draws upon in doing so are a little surprising, seeing as he seems to rely a lot on the imagery of surrealist painters, especially Joan Miro, and to a lesser extent Salvador Dali, for his realization of the Venusian terrain. The astronauts encounter a planetary surface covered with structures and formations that, to their minds, could just as easily be organic as engineered, including a forest of oddly-shaped glass-like protuberances, a mysterious gigantic glowing orb, and a pair of bizarre conical towers surrounded by what appears to be a living swamp. Devoid of any apparent sentient life, sheathed in constant, abysmal night, and plagued by perpetual violent storms and an obtrusive, serpentine haze, the picture presented is of an environment singularly eerie and hellish.
The crew finds evidence of a devastating catastrophe that has scarred the planet’s surface and perhaps ended the lives of the Venusians. Sure enough, once the Venusian archives are discovered, it’s learned that the planet’s masters, in their attempts to develop ever more destructive weaponry for use in their assault upon Earth, created a nuclear disaster that wiped out all life on the planet. In addition, the crew discovers that the strange glass forest they encountered is in fact a component of one of those very weapons, an energy generator targeted at Earth — and that, in their blind fumbling amidst all this mysterious alien technology, they have inadvertently activated and set that weapon in motion.
After watching the original cut of The Silent Star, it’s interesting to revisit First Spaceship on Venus to see exactly what changes were made for the benefit of the U.S. audience. All of the obvious speechifying is gone, of course, as is the scene in which Hawling pleads his case to the warmongering suits. A closing shot of the Devo-like workers at the rocket site clasping hands in solidarity was apparently also deemed too Commie for American audiences at the time. In addition to that, a predictable reshuffling of nationalities has taken place, with Captain Arsenyev and Brinkmann recast as Americans, and the rest of the international crew purged completely of its Eastern European members, with the engineer Solfyk granted French citizenship and rechristened Girod. Also — surprise of surprises — the black guy’s screen time seems to have been shaved a little bit.
But the changes that are most interesting are those to Yoko Tani’s character. In The Silent Star, a defining aspect of Ogimura’s character is that she is a survivor of Hiroshima. This is mentioned repeatedly, and every one of those mentions has been excised from First Spaceship on Venus — and not always all that artfully. In one The Silent Star scene, her expression becomes anguished as the crew surveys the planet’s devastation, and in response to Brinkmann asking her what she’s thinking about, she replies, “Hiroshima”. In the American version, this reply is changed to “all the damage,” which makes it sound as if she is less concerned with the horrific scale of the catastrophe than she is in whether the Venusians’ insurance will cover it. Elsewhere there is a scene between her and the linguist Chen Yu in which she confides in him that her exposure to the bomb’s radiation has left her barren, a scene which is cut completely from First Spaceship on Venus. There is, however, one visual reference to Hiroshima that remains in the American cut; an image of the Venusians’ shadows blasted onto the walls of their city. But without any of the implicit references that preceded it, that image loses some of its impact.
While Tani’s constant dropping of the verbal “H” bomb gets a little heavy handed, its removal from First Spaceship on Venus ends up being one of the only cuts that actually undermines the movie’s effectiveness as a taut work of cautionary sci-fi. Four years after the original Gojira suffered a similar fate, American distributors still didn’t feel that their audience was ready for the controversial notion that the destructive power unleashed at Hiroshima might be seen as having a bit of a dark side. Still, despite greasing the film’s narrative wheels with some of its less troubling editing choices, Crown International ultimately did The Silent Star a disservice by way of its tone-deaf dubbing and the replacement with library music of the film’s original score, which thrillingly combined Andrzej Markowski’s thundering orchestral work with otherworldly electronic sounds not unlike those used in Forbidden Planet.
There are things that need to be overlooked in order to enjoy either version of this film. But, in terms of technical achievement, the original version of The Silent Star presents a shining example of exactly the type of handsomely-budgeted space adventure I wish had been more prevalent during its era. It is a visual treat, and the amount of imagination apparent in every aspect of its design is a joy to behold. Furthermore, it has a story that is solid and economical enough in its construction to easily survive those instances of ideological lip service that are awkwardly grafted onto it. I also like how the film’s optimistic presentation of a technologically-driven future is balanced by what seems today like a healthy awareness of that technology’s dark potential, an aspect which makes The Silent Star seem somewhat ahead of its time.