The Silent Star
Sound: C+ Extras: B– Film: B-
Sometimes, the Cold War was being fought in film and one
of the least-known battles was in the Science Fiction genre. Along with The Space Race, which was an
extension of The Arms Race, general ideological wars were being fought in the
production of films. With the big
anti-Soviet “Red Scare” cycle of the 1950s, something the Soviets obviously
took note of, came a few films that were trying to show a “realistic” portrayal
of the possibilities of the future. For
Hollywood, that goes back to the likes of the 1950 film Destination Moon,
though space operas and other cinematically technical forays were
included. Kurt Maetzig directed The
Silent Star in 1960, the most expensive production to that time of the
Communist East German DEFA studios at the time, even though they co-produced
with the state-owned studio in Poland.
It was their first Science Fiction film, but was released in the U.S. as
First Spaceship On Venus at an hour shorter than this cut.
Based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Astronauts, this
film substitutes them for Cosmonauts and the party line. A multi-country team of experts are flown to
space en route to Venus to see why an object from The Gobi Desert came from
there, what it means and what it is.
Unfortunately, instead of a serious space drama about something that you
would expect from the author of Solaris, the film is an anti-West,
anti-American propaganda film that says the U.S. and its allies are nothing but
warmongers whose imperialism is the only real ill of the world. Lem despised this film.
As part of the sinister propaganda, a Japanese woman
scientist (Yoko Tani) is a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. She cannot bare children as a result, but
looks very beautiful and sexy (if very sexually oppressed) for being a nuclear
holocaust survivor. Of course, the film
ignores that World War II happened, who was on whose side, or what Japanese
Militarism was and how it helped the Nazis almost win. That is how good propaganda works. The result of the film is that Venus has life
and to say anything else would be to ruin the film’s ending, though if you
follow the “party line” and the like, you might be able to figure it out.
At times, the film looks like a pilot to the original Star
Trek that deserved to fail, with acting sometimes stiffer than classic
William Shatner. As a substitute for not
begin able to make a Robby The Robot, the film comes up with Omega The Robot,
which is essentially a radio-controlled tank that talks with a phony smile on
its face (where the gun cannon should be, but those communists are “a peaceful
people” and the replacement “shows” the peaceful “intent” versus any kind of
imperialism) that is half the size of any of the adult actors. That this robot is less human than Robby is
purposely anti-individualist, even when he plays chess, but the Greek letter
Omega now makes it look like the “amazing machine” is doing an ad placement for
the famous watchmaker of the same name!
However, for those expecting something as innovative or as
important as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei
Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) will be very disappointed. If anything, those films further show up this
film as the scourge of a propaganda film it was intended to be. However, the East Bloc countries would not
have sunk so many resources into this production for any other reason than
that. Now, you can enjoy this relic for
the failed hoot it is, give or take its hidden dark side.
The letterboxed 2.35 X 1 image is soft, with strobe
effects on the image when the camera moves from the transfer, which is credited
as 16 X 9 on the DVD case despite NOT being anamorphic. Played at 16 X 9 in zoom in mode, you will get
all the subtitles on the bottom of the screen.
Shot in Totalvision, the notes in the extras mention 70mm, but the
system is a 35mm German anamorphic system known as UltraScope and is atypical
of the lower-budget productions it was used for the most part on. Maybe some 70mm was used for backgrounds or
even a blow-up was done outside of the U.S., but the system is not 70mm. With that said, the film is trying to look
like a serious version of the MGM Science Fiction classic Forbidden Planet
(1956), which it hopes to be the political version of, trumping the
“capitalist” original. In addition, it
is in Agfacolor, which happens to be one of the four color formats Forbidden
Planet was originally issued in.
Agfa is still in business, but produces little motion picture film
anymore. To read about how impressive
their stocks are today, see our 301/302 review elsewhere on this site.
After looking at several Totalscope films, it is obvious
the system was on the soft side in detail, something original CinemaScope was
rightly criticized for, though Totalscope seems to have this problem even more
so. The old Agfa stocks have great,
interesting, unique color that makes this more watchable, while Joachim
Hasler’s cinematography is not bad overall.
Too bad for that strobe effect, while the dated look of the effects is
amusing, but this was ambitious for its time.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is a somewhat stereo version of the
original 4-track magnetic stereo, but does not offer the separation and depth
such 4-channel would have in the original film’s release. Andrzeji Markowski’s score is typical of the
genre, yet pulled back as not to be too “decadent” for its audience. It is apparent some traveling sound effects
were also intended, but not realized on this DVD. Maybe a 5.1 upgrade in DTS to boot would be an
idea when they do a digital High Definition transfer of the material.
Extras include trailers for the three of four DEFA Science
Fiction films First Run has issued on DVD, text essay Socialists In Outer
Space by Stephan Soldovieri, director Maetzig’s bio/filmography, bio text
on production designer Alfred Hirschmeier, set design gallery, two DEFA
newsreels, and text on Ernest Kunstmann.
Kunstmann did visual effects for this film as well as for Fritz Lang’s Last
Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and the
infamous Leni Riefenstahl’s equally infamous and innovative pro-Nazi film Olympia. That rounds out a disc that all Science
Fiction fans worth anything should catch.
Be sure to catch Eolomea and In The Dust Of The Stars
elsewhere on this site.
- Nicholas Sheffo