In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sent shock waves through the film world. While some complained about its nearly incomprehensible plot, everyone was impressed with the film’s technical achievements. It is not an overstatement to say that Kubrick’s film represented a quantum leap in special effects. The genre would never be the same again. The eastern bloc was particularly impressed with Kubrick’s film. This is partly because the Eastern Bloc saw science fiction as an extension of communist achievement, having made it into space first, but also because the genre offered filmmakers a chance to imagine a world on their own terms, without those wet blankets—the cold war, politics, and economic realities—getting in the way.
DEFA got off to a bang-up start in the science fiction department with Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Silent Star, but this was an expensive film to make, and the GDR’s economy couldn’t take too many more films on that scale. After a subsequent lower-budgeted attempt to bring science fiction to the screen flopped (Der Mann mit dem Objektiv), the folks at DEFA shelved further sci-fi film projects in favor of cheaper, more topical subject matter. They still made fairy-tale films (Märchenfilme), crime films (Krimis) and a few musicals, but most other genre films were avoided or ignored. After the 11th Plenum, the winds of change shifted again at DEFA and genre pictures became fashionable again, most notably, with the Indianerfilme of Gojko Mitic. In 1970, Gottfried Kolditz, better known at that point as a director of musicals and fairy-tales, decided to create a space adventure using Kubrick’s film as a template, and Signals – An Outer Space Adventure (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer) was born.
Signals starts when The Icarus— a research ship searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe—is destroyed by meteorites near Jupiter. When no signals are received from the Icarus, it is presumed lost, and attempts to retrieve it are abandoned. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Commander Veikko of the Laika and Pawel (Yevgeni Zharikov), a young pilot whose sweetheart is among the missing. While repairing unmanned space stations, the crew of the Laika continues to search for the missing Icarus, in spite of the official edict that the ship is lost.
DEFA created dozens of science fiction films, both for theaters and television (for a list of these, see Robert Gemmell’s comment post on the About page). Four feature films took place in outer space. Three of these (The Silent Star, Eolomea, and In the Dust of the Stars) are available as a set from First Run Features. The fourth is Signals, and while there is a version out in cyberspace that includes fan-authored subtitles, the film has not been officially released in United States. This is primarily due to the fact that the film was a co-production between DEFA and the Polish state film production company, Zespoły Filmowe, which means twice as much money and paperwork is needed to secure the film rights (there is an irony in private companies wrangling over the rights to communist films). Like Eolomea, Signals is slowly paced, and more cerebral than exciting, but it has its moments.* The zero-gravity musical interlude is worth the price of admission, and the scene where Gojko Mitic and Alfred Müller play upside-down footsie on the beach is an amusing bit of homoerotic camp (I would say this is unintentional, but I’m not sure that it is: Terry and Konrad seem to have a very close relationship).
As with The Silent Star, the crews of the spaceships in Signals are aggressively multi-cultural, with nearly every major ethnic group represented. There is also—à la Omega in the previous film—a non-anthropoidal robot on-board the Laika to do the bidding of its owner, Gaston (Helmut Schreiber).
Signals is very loosely based on Asteroid Hunters (Asteroidenjäger), an East German science fiction novel by Carlos Rasch. Rasch’s Utopian space operas were popular in East Germany, but when the wall came down they, as with many other aspects of East German culture, were assigned to the “dustbin of history” (to use a phrase coined by Leon Trotsky). After the Wende, Rasch became a journalist, but returned to science fiction writing in 2009 with his Raumlotsen (Space Pilot) series.
According to Sonja Fritzsche in an article for German Studies Review, Kolditz fell ill during production and the project was taken over by its cinematographer, Otto Hanisch. This would explain a lot. The film lacks Kolditz’s usual pizazz, and seems more interested in the technical aspects of the special effects than the story. No doubt Hanisch was anxious to explore Kubrick’s film techniques for portraying rockets and zero gravity, but, unlike the 2001, Signals at least attempts to create back stories for the main characters (a common beef about the Kubrick film).
Every scene involving special effects inevitably must be compared to 2001, and inevitably Signals comes up short, particularly in the scenes involving spaceship docking and manoeuvring. To make such scenes believable requires that they be done slowly and deliberately, which doesn’t make for good entertainment. Kubrick’s solution was brilliant: he staged the scenes to Richard Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, which turns them into elegant ballets of machines in space. In Signals, similar scenes seem rushed and end looking like exactly what they are: models on wires. When the exploration pods in Signals rotate in space, the music is not an elegant waltz, but weird calliope music, overlaid with the tick of a clock fed through an Echoplex. By itself, this music is interesting, but in conjunction with the visuals, the effect is too literal and not particularly exciting.
Better (or at least, wackier) use of music occurs in the aforementioned the zero-gravity exercise scene where the music—a cross between Esquivel and saxophone dance-hall music—offers a welcome relief from the drama that preceded it. As with several other Kolditz films, the music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). In spite of my earlier criticisms about the use of music in the film, Sasse’s score is fun and strange. Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Hans J. Salter, Sasse was a classically-trained musician who composed for the movie industry to pay the rent. Unlike those musicians, however, Sasse was not averse to exploring schmaltzy pop music and pure noise as sources of inspiration. As a result, a cross-section of Sasse’s soundtrack music encompasses nearly every style imaginable, from dissonant percussion to fifties jazz. In Signals, his music is an unlikely combination of experimental and kitsch and definitely deserves a listen.
There is some evidence that suggests that Kolditz wasn’t happy with either Hanisch or the resulting film. After Signals, Kolditz and Hanisch didn’t work together again (Hanisch did film The Scout (Der Scout), which was started by Kolditz, but he died before it went into production). Kolditz shot two more science fiction films (In the Dust of the Stars and Das Ding im Schloß). For these, he turned to cinematographer Peter Süring. This is too bad, because Hanisch was a talented cameraman and he does some interesting work here. The camera swoops, zooms, and spins; and in one scene between Pawel and Veikko, it swings back and forth like a pendulum. Add to this some bizarre editing by Helga Gentz and you have a potent mix of abstract bedazzlement. As with many other DEFA technicians (Peter Süring and Helga Gantz included), Hanisch’s career effectively ended when the wall came down.
The costumes were designed by Günther and Marianne Schmidt. Again, the template here appears to be 2001. For the Kubrick film, Sir Edwin Hardy Amies, was chosen. Amies was an odd choice, He was better known as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite designer—hardly a bastion of futuristic style. For Kubrick’s film, Amies took his cues from sixties fashion (most notably the Austrian designer, Rudi Gernreich), tempered by the director’s desire for zero-gravity practicality. The Schmidts’ designs have a similarly mod look to them, but seem more forward-thinking. In fact, they bear a marked similarityvto Bob Fletcher’s costume design in Star Trek: The Motion Picture; although it’s doubtful that Fletcher ever saw Signals.
I don’t doubt that Signals will eventually be released with English subtitles. While it is not as strong as In the Dust of the Stars, it is as good as Eolomea and deserve to be seen by a wider audience.
* Slow pacing, cerebral content, and frequent scenes of people debating political and philosophical viewpoints are commonly associated with DEFA films. Of course, there is more to East German Cinema than this stereotype, but stereotypes have their roots in reality (at least, in commonly perceived reality).