In the Dust of the Stars

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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 (Im Staub der Sterne) 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.

DEFA jumped into the sci-fi game in fine style with 1960’s The Silent Star, and would return to the genre intermittently over the next twenty years. Director Gottfried Kolditz, who was most known for music-based films and Westerns, helmed two such films, starting with 1970’s Signals: A Space Adventure. Reportedly an East German answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Signals was obviously enough of a success to merit returning to the well, and, in 1976, Kolditz both wrote and directed In the Dust of the Stars, a participation with Romania’s Buftea studios that, in addition to including a number of Romanian actors in the cast, made good use of Romanian locations such as the distinctly alien terrain surrounding the Berca Mud Volcanoes near the Carpathian Mountains.

Having watched In the Dust of the Stars right on the heels of The Silent Star, it’s impossible for me not to compare the two. Though I enjoyed both, it struck me that the later film didn’t have quite the same air of “moment” as The Silent Star. This is understandable, of course, since The Silent Star was indeed momentous: not only DEFA’s first science fiction film, but also, in intention, their offering to mark the tenth anniversary of the GDR and, as such, the studio’s most expensive production to date. In the Dust of the Stars, though competently crafted, seems a little more routine by comparison, bearing the productions values and narrative scope of an episode of a typical sci-fi TV series of its era — though one with a surprising amount of completely gratuitous nudity, especially considering this was a production subsidized by a government not known for its permissiveness.

The television-scale nature of In the Dust of the Stars‘ plot should become apparent in the telling, as it concerns a crew of space travelers who find themselves on one of those planets where everything seems just a little too good to be true. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that describe the plot of every other episode of every single one of the Star Trek series? In any case, in this version, an expedition crew — composed of four women and two men — heads out from the planet Cynro toward the unexplored planet Tem 4 in response to a mysterious distress call. Due to the length of the voyage, many months have passed by the time of their arrival, at which point the conveniently humanoid inhabitants of Tem 4 claim no knowledge of the signal. Instead, the Temians go out of their way to prove to the visitors that everything is fine, just fine; and, in so doing arouse the suspicions of the crew.

The leader of the expedition from Cynro is Captain Akala, played by popular Czech actress Jana Brejchova, the closest thing to an internationally-recognized star you’ll see in the film’s cast. Brejchova starred in dozens of films on both sides of the Communist divide, including 1961’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and the West German Eurospy entry Operation Solo, and was married for a short time to director Milos Forman. Her presence here adds to the international flavor of a cast that, despite being a bit top heavy with Romanians, also includes representatives of the acting profession from Yugoslavia and, of course, Germany in leading roles. Among the Cynro astronauts alone you’ll find Germany’s Alfred Struwe as Suko, Yugoslavia’s Leon Niemczyk as comic relief engineer Thob (the comic relief engineer being apparently a staple of the space opera genre no matter what country it originates from), and Romanians Silvia Popvici and Violeta Andrei as crew members Illik and Rall.

In addition to their refreshing gender make-up, there are other things about the Cynro crew, only subtly hinted at for the most part, that make them just a little different from what you’d normally expect from the militarily-ranked team manning your average movie starship. I think, also, that these things are meant to suggest the way things roll back on Cynro. For one thing, this gang is just a tad more touchy-feely with one another than the behavior of those serving aboard the Enterprise and its like have accustomed us to. Secondly, Suko, as a not-all-that-in-shape middle aged guy with thinning hair, clearly has the arrangement to beat onboard the vessel, as he seems to be the boy toy of at least two of the female crew members, including the Captain and her blond colleague Miu.

Miu, by the way, is played by German actress Regine Heintze. Before I could glean the names of either her or her character, I kept referring to her in my notes as “Cherie”, because her blond shag, ghostly pallor, stoned expression, and penchant for jumpsuits made her remind me of Cherie Currie, the original singer for The Runaways. Miu, for her part, also might have a thing for the ladies, as one later scene seems to suggest. While all of this implied hanky-panky provides the opportunity for a bit of casual nudity and light petting between the cast members, it’s all presented very matter-of-factly, with none of the exploitational hubba hubba you might expect. Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman this is not, and the tone seems to suggest that the egalitarian ethos observed on this lots’ home planet extends to everyone getting an equal piece, not just of the proverbial pie, but of each other, as well.

Another thing that should be noted about the Cynro crew is their dress sense. And I refer to it collectively, because in most cases their outfits, though changed frequently, all match. In addition to their powder blue flight suits and bright orange astronaut gear, there seems to be a set of his-and-hers togs for every occasion. This includes the rust colored, flare-legged leather jumpsuits they wear for partying, as well as some body-hugging polyester numbers. When left to their own sartorial devices, the individual crew members’ tastes tend to veer pleather-ward, most deliciously in an ensemble I like to refer to as “The Stinger,” worn by female crew member Illik: a wet-look, head-to-toe, black-and-bright-yellow affair that she finishes off with a pair of six-inch platforms. Honorable mention should also go to Suko’s black leather overalls worn over a red turtleneck. The ABBA-liciousness of all of this makes the crew look more prepared for performing at Eurovision than undertaking an expedition to a faraway planet, and insures that In the Dust of the Stars, while quite homely overall, is at least never dull to look at.

The habilimentary splendor doesn’t end at the starship door, however, as the residents of Tem 4 have a lot to offer in terms of improbable costumery on their own. Most of this obviously draws on the same Eurotrash disco futurism you see at play in Italian space films like Starcrash, but here looks more like the kind of thing you’d see worn in a sci-fi themed musical number from a ’70s variety show. There’s also the tendency to bare beefy male flesh in all the least flattering ways imaginable, thanks to an abundance of short leather togas and mesh shirts reminiscent of those worn on Gerry Anderson’s UFO.

Of course, the Temians have every right to be flamboyant, because they are a happy people and, above all, fun, which is a pretty special characteristic for an entire planet’s population to share. I can’t imagine anyone ever describing the inhabitants of Earth in their entirety as being “fun” — but, hey, its something for us, as a planet, to strive for. Anyway, that is what the Temians’ transparently jovial representative Ronk (Yugoslavian actor Milan Beli, who also graced the cast of She Devils of the SS) wants the visitors from Cynro to believe. To this end, he throws a lavish party in their honor, at which no shorthand for decadent excess is spared. Pythons slither among the colorful hors d’oeuvres as couples make love in swings suspended from the ceiling and diaphanously-garbed acrobats perform on a giant trampoline to orgasmic screams of delight from the blearily intoxicated crowd. Meanwhile, the apparently peanut-brained but blandly attractive residents of the planet flatter the bedazzled astronauts with their fawning attentions as a chorus line of women in every stage of undress dance robotically to rinky-tink Casiotone space disco.

And it is at this point that I must address the music in In the Dust of the Stars, because, while the movie is otherwise professionally mounted in every sense, the score has a weird, distinctly homemade feel to it. The theme song sounds like a fledgling bedroom recording made by two over-earnest indie girls. A string theme used during the party sequence is actually okay, and there are a couple of fairly anonymous stabs at minimalist electro-disco, but, aside from that, a lot of the rest is comprised of aimless Casio noodling and proggy sounding guitar explorations which are often somewhat muddily recorded. Remember that stoner roommate you had that one time who, while you were at work making a living, spent the day fiddling around with his little home studio set-up? And remember the great lengths you went to never, ever have to “check out” any of the musical products of that fiddling? Well, if you had done, I wager that it would have sounded a lot like the soundtrack to this movie. So, good on you.

During the course of the party Ronk and his team of toadies (and I use the term “toadies” advisedly: they laugh in unison at all of his jokes) manage to put some kind of whammy on Akala and her companions, and as a result they all arrive back at the ship chattering about how “cheerful” and “fun” the Temians are, just like the people in that old SNL skit who keep saying the hypnotist’s act is “better than Cats“. This raises suspicion on the part of Suko, who sat the party out, especially once Akala blithely proclaims that the ship will be returning to Cynro with no mention of their original mission whatsoever. Suko questions Miu on the matter, but, being under the influence of the Temians’ brain-addling techniques, she is able to shine little light on the subject. After Suko departs her cabin, she does, however, engage in a protracted and apparently spontaneous display of nude interpretive dancing that is so completely uncalled for by anything that comes before or after it in the film that you just have to stand up and applaud.

Determined to solve the mystery behind his crewmates’ actions, Suko commandeers one of the ship’s shuttle pods and flies back toward the Temian city, where he eventually uncovers the Temians’ horrible secret. This revelation comes to Suko during one of In the Dust of the Stars’ most impressive set pieces, set inside an actual salt mine of staggering vastness. Adding to the spectacular scale of this scene is the sheer number of extras who were recruited for it. This abrupt pulling away of the faux Temians’ mask of civility leads to a confrontation between Captain Akala and Ronk’s superior, a man referred to only as “The Boss” or “The Chief”. “The Chief” is played by German born Ekkehard Schall, by all accounts a respected stage actor whose presence in In the Dust of the Stars was expected to lend it some kind of high culture pedigree. If you think that tells you exactly what to expect, you’re right.

Within moments of Schall’s arrival on screen, you can barely see the scenery for the teethmarks. Schall, aided by a particularly exuberant wardrobe and hair that is spray-painted a different primary color in every scene, plays the character as a hyperactive freak show, going from hammering away on a futuristic synthesizer while panting sexually at one moment, to doing a weird, waddling victory dance in another, all the while displaying a disquieting arsenal of physical tics — chief among which are the darting, serpentine head movements he does in mimicry of the ever-present pythons that seem to inhabit every corner of Tem 4. It’s certainly an entertaining performance, but more interesting is how it affords Jana Brejchova a chance to really display her own acting chops by simply maintaining an authoritative calm while he’s doing all of his attention-seeking spazzing out.

Ultimately, the question for Akala and her crew boils down to the very Kirk-ian one of whether they should interfere in the affairs of Tem 4 or just turn their backs and let matters take their course. After all, as Akala intimates, the occupiers’ system contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. But is it right to, through inaction, condemn the Turi to the amount of hardship they must suffer during whatever amount of time it takes for the inevitable turnaround to take place? The process of arriving at an answer involves lots of explosions, hundreds of rioting extras, and cheesy-looking futuristic tanks fashioned from old industrial farming equipment.

While In the Dust of the Stars‘ plot is to some extent ideologically driven, you’d have to be pro-slavery in order to find its political content at all controversial. After all, who can’t get behind freeing the poor Turi. And, after their life of grueling servitude, who would deny that they’ve earned the right to a utopian existence marked by copious amounts of pleather-clad free love, whether with or without Communist overtones? In any case, the movie’s function as a political relic is vastly overshadowed by its more important function as a harmlessly engaging slice of cinematic pop art. Or is it? Perhaps buried within the sweaty crevices of all of those constricting, unnaturally-fibred garments is a truth capable of enriching the lives of us all: That truth being that the desire to dress like ABBA and attend clothing-optional parties inspired by Jess Franco movies crosses all political boundaries. Maybe the people of the world really can be united in fun-ness, after all.