Tuesday, 25 August 2009

First Spaceship on Venus (1960)

First Spaceship on Venus (Der schweigende Stern) is a 1960 East German-Polish co-production. It’s based on a novel by one of the greats of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote Solaris - a great novel which was filmed brilliantly in 1972 and extremely badly in 2002). It’s one of many interesting science fiction movies made around this time in what were then the eastern bloc countries.

It’s set 25 years in the future, in 1985. An enigmatic artifact is found which proves to be of extraterrestrial origin - a spool of magnetic tape which contains some sort of message, although the message defies analysis. The artifact has some connection with the huge and unexplained explosion in Tunguska in Siberia in 1908. A team of international scientists become convinced that the spool originated on the planet Venus. A planned manned mission to Mars is diverted to Venus instead. The crew comprises seven scientists - six men and one women.

The first half of the mo
vie is a fairly conventional space exploration movie of its era, even including the obligatory meteor storm. But don’t be fooled - this is anything but a standard science fiction movie. Once they get to Venus it gets a lot weirder, and a lot more interesting. Before landing they manage to decide the message, and a very disturbing one it is. There is a lot more at stake than they thought. Arriving on the planet’s surface brings more surprises. They find traces of what may or may not be life, and evidence of a civilisation of sorts. But what are the inhabitants really like? Are they still there? Did they represent life in any firm that we could understand? Is there any possibility of communication? This is all very typical of Stanislaw Lem's work, and it’s one of the things that makes him such an important and distinctive voice in science fiction.

The acting is no more than adequate,
but the visuals make up for this. This movie is an object lesson in how to use cheap optical effects to achieve a genuinely mysterious and disorienting atmosphere. The spaceship itself is one of the cooler movie spaceships of that time, and the mini-helicopter craft they use to travel about on Venus are also rather cool. And there’s a cute robot, but it’s not cute in the sentimental kind of way that science fiction robots so often are.

This is a movie that combines thought-provoking ideas and a great sense of style. There’s a message there about technology, and about our possible future, but it isn’t l
aboured and it never feels like propaganda. It’s also a very fast-paced movie, incredibly so for a 1960 movie. There are no space battles or laser cannons or explosions, but the tension and the excitement don’t let up. This is helped by the fact that it avoids the obvious clichés so you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Director Kurt Maetzig keeps it all under tight control.

It’s in the public domain (you can find it online as well as on bargain bin DVD releases) so a lot of the prints floating about aren’t particularly good . Which is a tragedy - this film deserves a decent restoration and a proper DVD release. Highly recommended.


Mykal said...

dfordoom: I couldn't agree more. This film is spectacularly to look at, nearly intoxicating at times; and so very imaginative in its visuals. I'd love to see a Criterion treatment of this DVD. It’s just plain beautiful. – Mykal

dfordoom said...

It certainly deserves a decent restoration. The print I saw was rather washed out and grainy. It still looked magnificent, so a restored print would be truly spectacular.