Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Chemistry and Love

The Silent Star is sometimes cited as the first East German science fiction film, but that is not entirely correct. Before the state was officially founded, when it was still known as the Soviet Sector, DEFA put out its first science fiction film—Chemistry and Love (Chemie und Liebe). It’s a breezy comedy that takes place in the imaginary country called “Kapitalia,” where profits count for everything. A young scientist invents a way to turn grass into butter without the intervening cow and soon capitalists and their hired golddiggers are wooing him from every corner.

As with many of the films from DEFA’s Soviet Sector days, Chemistry and Love is virtually a West German film. The director, stars, and much of the technical staff hail from West Germany, driven to the Soviet Sector more out of necessity than political solidarity. Until the early fifties, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was intentionally hobbling the German film industry in the western sectors. The ostensible reason for this was to prevent the reactivation of Nazi sympathies through the use of motion pictures, but the real reason was to help the U.S. film industry increase its revenues in Europe. The Soviets had no reservations about promoting films, the medium having helped galvanize the communist revolution in Russia. Thus, DEFA was founded just one year after the war ended. By the end of the forties, East Germany had a thriving film industry while West Germany languished under Allied restrictions. It was only after the distribution of DEFA films to Latin American countries that the U.S. started to rethink their ban on German filmmaking. Had DEFA not existed, most likely it would have taken several more years for West Germany to develop a film industry.

Chemistry and Love resembles the risque type of stage farce known as “Boulevard theater.” It also bears some resemblance to the American Screwball comedies, but without the manic energy and overlapping dialog. While the story does have some socialist themes, stylistically it has more in common with UFA than the films normally associated with DEFA. This film could as easily been made in Munich at anytime after 1933.

The story for this film came from a rough draft by Hungarian film theorist, Béla Balázs. The screenplay was written by Frank Clifford and Marion Keller. Clifford’s real name was Hans Heinrich Tillgner, but he changed it to Frank Clifford during a visit to the States, because Americans had trouble with his real name (although how anyone could have trouble with “Tillgner” is beyond me). From 1930 until 1955, Clifford worked in many capacities in the film industry, serving as producer on René Clair’s classic À Nous la Liberté, and production manager on dozens of films. Chemistry and Love was his first attempt at a screenplay. The following year, he co-wrote two more screenplays for DEFA, but did not continue a career as a screenwriter when he moved back to West Germany. His co-writer, Marion Keller, had an even shorter career as a screenwriter. Chemistry and Love is her only feature film.

The film was directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt, a Viennese director who got his start in legitimate theater before moving to films. During the Third Reich years, Rabenalt made movies, but maintained an apolitical stance. He continued with this approach after the war, making three films for DEFA, then shifting to West Germany and Austria once those countries had rebuilt their film industries. Rabenalt was the classic studio craftsman director, along the lines of William Beaudine and Edward L. Cahn in the states. His films may lack the flair of better-known directors, but he could churn out competently made movies on schedule and on budget. His catalog contains films of every genre, from romance (Glücksritter) to musicals (Der Zigeunerbaron) to horror (Alraune), but he had a special penchant for sex comedies. He also wrote several erotic novels, as well as books on film theory. he retired from films in the late seventies and died in Wildbad Kreuth in 1993.

Most of the stars of Chemistry and Love also went on to have careers in West Germany. Hans Nielsen (Dr. Alland) starred in dozens of West German potboilers. Tilly Lauenstein (Martina Höller) had played in a couple films before this, but Chemistry and Love was her first starring role. She starred in one more DEFA film, Das Mädchen Christine, which was also directed by Rabenalt, then followed him west to continue her career. She worked primarily as a film actor up until her death in 2002. Alfred Braun, the film’s narrator and one-man Greek chorus, was better known for his work in German radio, both before and after WWII. In 1954, he became the first director of the newly established Radio Free Berlin (Sender Freies Berlin). He died in 1978.

The cinematographer for the film was Bruno Mondi. Mondi had a long and controversial career as a cinematographer. He got his start as one of several cameramen on Fritz Lang’s silent film, Destiny (Der müde Tod). During the Third Reich, he was the man responsible for the camerawork in Veit Harlan’s Jud Süß—considered the most virulently anti-Semitic film ever made—and the color photography in Harlan’s bank-busting Kolberg. He contributed some excellent camerawork to early DEFA films, including Rotation, Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat), and Heart of Stone, for which he won the Best Color Cinematography award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. During the fifties, Mondi became known as the master of eye-bleeding Agfacolor, which demonstrated in the gorgeously kitschy Sissi films. He retired in 1965, and died in 1991. His son, Georg Mondi, has followed in his father’s footsteps, working as a cinematographer, primarily in TV.

Chemistry and Love is a unique film in the DEFA catalog. It is western in style but eastern in theme; a science fiction comedy from a company that in later years would never consider such a concept. It is all but forgotten today, but holds an important place in the history of German film history—east and west.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (part of a box set).

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.1 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 similarity to 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.

IMDB page for the film.


1. 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).

If I was to choose the one film that got me interested in East German Cinema, it would have to be this one. Sometimes referred to as the “East German Barbarella,” In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne) is one of the strangest film to grace the movie screens of the GDR; or anywhere else for that matter. Featuring a cast that heralded from a number of different eastern European countries, In the Dust of the Stars is the story of a space team sent from the Planet Cyrno in response to a distress call on TEM 4, a desolate planet on the outskirts of inhabited space. When they arrive, they are whisked off to an extravagant compound belonging to a man known only as the “Chief”—a decadent despot who has enslaved the indigenous people of TEM 4 for his own profit and enjoyment. The team is invited to a party that features dancing maidens in an art park, boa constrictors on the hors d’oeuvre table, and a screaming woman on a trampoline. At the party, the team is brainwashed into assuming that nothing is wrong on the planet, but the one crew member that skipped the party remains sceptical. He thinks something is amiss and he is, of course, correct.

DEFA made four outer-space films. In the Dust of the Stars was the fourth and final one. Unlike the three previous films (The Silent Star, Signals, and Eolomea), In the Dust of the Stars is not based on a book. The original screenplay was written by the director, Gottfried Kolditz. Kolditz got his start in the fifties working as a musical advisor on The Love Mazurka (Mazurka der Liebe) and The Czar and the Carpenter (Zar und Zimmermann). He started directing shortly thereafter, at first working on the short comedy films for the Statcheltier group, and then on musicals. He directed Midnight Revue (Revue um Mitternacht) and Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus)—two of the most popular musicals in East Germany. In the late sixties, he moved into other genres, directing two science fiction films (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars) and three Indianerfilme (Trail of the Falcon, Apachen, and Ulzana). Kolditz died in 1982, shortly before he was to begin filming yet another Indianerfilm (Der Scout).

In the Dust of the Stars

The music score is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, one of the most accomplished, and prolific composers in East Germany (see Her Third, for more information on Sasse). Kolditz and Sasse worked together often, beginning with Midnight Revue in 1962 and continuing until Koldtitz’s death in 1982. Considering Kolditz’s start as a musical advisor for DEFA films, it is no surprise that he would make movies in which the music is an important component. What is surprising is that he would choose a science fiction film to continue his exploration of the subject (although there are good reasons for this, and I’ll be covering them in my review of Signals). In an interview with the cinematographer, Peter Süring, Süring opines that the nude musical number performed by Regine Heintze is superfluous to the narrative; but this opinion assumes that the obvious story (that of the oppressed people of TEM 4) is the primary point of the movie. Perhaps Kolditz was after something more complex here. Music figures prominently throughout the film. The eccentric Chief seems to need music at all times, and is unable to think without it, and it is music that is used to hypnotize the spaceship’s crew into ignoring the warning signals they received earlier.

Sasse’s score varies from jazzy pop à la Can’s Tago Mago, to abstract numbers resembling the electronica of Beaver & Krause. Most of the time, the music is combined with modern dance numbers performed by a bevy of heavily made-up women in colorful harem costumes. In one memorable scene, The Chief (whose hair color changes in every scene) serenades Akala, the spaceship’s captain, in a hall of mirrors filled with the usual dancing women. The Chief performs this number on a musical instrument that looks like exactly what it is: a board covered with Christmas lights. Like the nude dancing scene, it does nothing to move to plot forward and further bolsters the effect that In the Dust of the Stars is really a musical revue that has been interrupted by a slave revolt.

In the Dust of the Stars

At other times, it resembles a western. When we first see Chta, the Temian slave of the evil overseer, Ronk, she is dressed in a Native American outfit that looks like it was borrowed —and probably was—from one of the Gojko Mitic Indianerfilme. The effect is further enhanced by the appearance of Milan Beli as Ronk. Beli had already impressed East German audiences with his performance as a villains in Tecumseh, and Apachen, and he is no less villainous here. The climax of In the Dust of the Stars features a shoot-out on mud flats that would have been at home in any western on either side of the iron curtain.

The film was a co-production between DEFA and the Buftea Film Studios near Bucharest. The location shots were done in Romania first, primarily at the Berca Mud Volcanoes and an abandoned salt mine nearby. At that time, DEFA was using ORWOcolor, the East German version of AGFAcolor. Romania, on the other hand, was using Kodak’s Eastmancolor. When it came time to develop the first batch of film, the Buftea studios had to modify their equipment to handle the ORWOcolor film. The finished film had a softer contrast than usual, and Wolfgang Staudte liked the look of it. After the production moved back to Babelsberg for the in-studio filming, Staudte had all the film sent to Buftea for processing. This forced the movie to work at a slower pace than usual since dailies weren’t possible. To speed things up, DEFA set up a hotline between Buftea and Babelsberg in case of emergencies.

In the Dust of the Stars

1978, the year that In the Dust of the Stars came out, was one of those pivotal years in East German cinema. Two years earlier, the officials had exiled the popular folk singer Wolf Biermann while he was performing in Cologne. Although he was an ardent communist, his criticisms of the Stalinist policies in the GDR stirred the wrath (or, as he suggested, the terror) of party officials and they thought it would be better if he just didn’t come home. This provoked protests, particularly in the arts community, and eventually led to some of the the strongest lights at DEFA to cross over to the west, among them, Frank Beyer, Jutta Hoffmann, Angelica Domröse, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. For many of these people, 1978 was the last year that we would see them in East German films (and some, like Rolf Römer, stayed in the east, but were effectively blacklisted because of their pro-Biermann stance). Conversely, 1978 is also the year that afforded the most artistic freedom to filmmakers in terms of style and subject matter. Had In the Dust of the Stars been made in 1965, it would have almost certainly been banned; the same holds true for Egon Günther’s 1978 made-for-TV oddity, Ursula (although after only one screening, Ursula did manage to get itself banned not only in East Germany but also in Switzerland). In these films we see the ultimate examples of  cinematic experimentation at DEFA. From here until the Wende, mainstream movies in East Germany would never again reach this level of oddball imaginativeness.

IMDB page for this movie.

Buy this film.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, ushered in a new kind of science fiction movie. Monsters from other planets and war-minded invaders took a back seat to a more cerebral approach to the future. Actions became less important than ideas, and ideas could be expressed in the most abstract terms imaginable. This was a good thing for filmmakers in communist countries for two reasons: First, it meant they could make films that might compete with Hollywood where state-of-the-art effects were no longer the most important thing (although, Hollywood never did really learn this lesson; perhaps because Space Odyssey did have state-of-the-art effects). Second, it meant they could explore ideas that strayed away from communist doctrine without coming up against the review boards.

DEFA had already ventured into the realm of thoughtful science fiction with its 1960 release of The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern), but that film still used the conventions of 1950s science fiction, even if its message (that all mankind should join together for the common good of the human race) was relatively under-represented at the time. East Germany’s first foray into post-Space Odyssey science fiction film was Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and was clearly influenced by Space Odyssey, but it was the year 1972 that saw the release of two of the most important sci-fi films from behind the Iron Curtain: Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris and Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea. While most film fans are familiar with Solaris, Eolomea remains obscure.

Eolomea is based on a book by the Bulgarian writer, Angel Vagenshtain (aka Angel Wagenstein). Vagenshtain was already a successful author in Bulgaria when he began working on films at DEFA, starting with the Bulgarian/East German co-production, Sterne (not a science fiction film). Eolomea starts its story in the middle, with the sudden radio silence of six space stations. A team of scientists on Earth are not sure why this is happening, and meet to discuss what to do next. While they are debating, two more space stations lose contact. The scientists decide to cancel all space travel until they can ascertain if this silence is caused by a virus or something even more sinister.

The story centers around two people: Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema), a science professor and one of the big-wigs at the space authority; and Dan Lagny (Ivan Andonov), a bored and aimless cosmonaut. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, hopping back and forth through time and space, allowing the story to unfold slowly. Most of the film centers around Cosmonaut Lagny, who is on Earth in one scene, and in space the next. The space sets have the cold metallic look common to space movies at the time, but with a slightly more lived in look than most. The obligatory robot is nicely funky-looking, falling somewhere between the Lost in Space robot, C3PO of Star Wars, and a reel-to-reel tape deck.

Director Herrmann Zschoche’s visual style is straightforward, relying heavily on medium and two-shots. But he makes up for this in the editing room. The film includes some of the few examples of jump cuts to be used in East German cinema. Zschoche began his career as a news cameraman, and switched to directing movies in the early sixties. Most of his film are family-oriented films or coming-of-age tales. His career was temporarily derailed in 1965 when his film, Karla, was banned by the SED at the 11th Plenum (see The Rabbit is Me). After a few years, he was back at DEFA and achieved his highest box-office success in 1978 with Seven Freckles, a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet myth at a modern summer camp. Herrmann Zschoche continued making films in East Germany up until the fall of the wall. After the Wende, he moved to television, directing episodes of the popular series, Tatort, Kommisar Rex, and Kurklinik Rosenau.

Cox Habbema was a Dutch actress who had much success in East Germany, and was married to the East German actor, Eberhard Esche. Ivan Andonov, on the other hand, was a popular Bulgarian actor, who, like the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitic, was dubbed for German audiences. Special mention should be made of Günther Fischer’s pop jazz score, reminiscent of French films of the sixties. The sets were the last to be designed by the East German production design team of Erich Krüllke and Werner Pieske. After this film the duo (who had, up until this point, always worked together) went their separate ways, with Pieske moving into the field of television production design, and Krüllke continuing in movies. Both men retired from production design after the fall of the wall.

IMDB page for Eolomea.

Buy this film.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, ushered in a new kind of science fiction movie. Monsters from other planets and war-minded invaders took a back seat to a more cerebral approach to the future. Actions became less important than ideas, and ideas could be expressed in the most abstract terms imaginable. This was a good thing for filmmakers in communist countries for two reasons: First, it meant they could make films that might compete with Hollywood where state-of-the-art effects were no longer the most important thing (although, Hollywood never did really learn this lesson; perhaps because Space Odyssey did have state-of-the-art effects). Second, it meant they could explore ideas that strayed away from communist doctrine without coming up against the review boards.DEFA had already ventured into the realm of thoughtful science fiction with its 1960 release of The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern), but that film still used the conventions of 1950s science fiction, even if its message (that all mankind should join together for the common good of the human race) was relatively under-represented at the time. East Germany’s first foray into post-Space Odyssey science fiction film was Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and was clearly influenced by Space Odyssey, but it was the year 1972 that saw the release of two of the most important sci-fi films from behind the Iron Curtain: Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris and Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea. While most film fans are familiar with Solaris, Eolomea remains obscure.

Eolomea is based on a book by the Bulgarian writer, Angel Vagenshtain (aka Angel Wagenstein). Vagenshtain was already a successful author in Bulgaria when he began working on films at DEFA, starting with the Bulgarian/East German co-production, Sterne (not a science fiction film). Eolomea starts its story in the middle, with the sudden radio silence of six space stations. A team of scientists on Earth are not sure why this is happening, and meet to discuss what to do next. While they are debating, two more space stations lose contact. The scientists decide to cancel all space travel until they can ascertain if this silence is caused by a virus or something even more sinister.

The story centers around two people: Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema), a science professor and one of the big-wigs at the space authority; and Dan Lagny (Ivan Andonov), a bored and aimless cosmonaut. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, hopping back and forth through time and space, allowing the story to unfold slowly. Most of the film centers around Cosmonaut Lagny, who is on Earth in one scene, and in space the next. The space sets have the cold metallic look common to space movies at the time, but with a slightly more lived in look than most. The obligatory robot is nicely funky-looking, falling somewhere between the Lost in Space robot and C3PO of Star Wars.

Director Herrmann Zschoche’s visual style is straightforward, relying heavily on medium and two-shots. But he makes up for this in the editing room. The film includes some of the few examples of jump cuts to be used in East German cinema. Zschoche began his career as a news cameraman, and switched to directing movies in the early sixties. Most of his film are family-oriented films or coming-of-age tales. His career was temporarily derailed in 1965 when his film, Karla, was banned by the SED at the 11th Plenum (see The Rabbit is Me). After a few years, he was back at DEFA and achieved his highest box-office success in 1978 with Sieben Sommersprossen, a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet myth at a modern summer camp. Herrmann Zschoche continued making films in East Germany up until the fall of the wall. After the Wende, he moved to television, directing episodes of the popular series, Tatort, Kommisar Rex, and Kurklinik Rosenau.

Cox Habbema was a Dutch actress who had much success in East Germany, and was married to the East German actor, Eberhard Esche. Ivan Andonov, on the other hand, was a popular Bulgarian actor, who, like the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitic, was dubbed for German audiences. Special mention should be made of Günther Fischer’s pop jazz score, reminiscent of French films of the sixties. The sets were the last to be designed by the East German production design team of Erich Krüllke and Werner Pieske. After this film the duo (who had, up until this point, always worked together) went their separate ways, with Pieske moving into the field of television production design, and Krüllke continuing in movies. Both men retired from production design after the fall of the wall.

IMDB page for Eolomea.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, ushered in a new kind of science fiction movie. Monsters from other planets and war-minded invaders took a back seat to a more cerebral approach to the future. Actions became less important than ideas, and ideas could be expressed in the most abstract terms imaginable. This was a good thing for filmmakers in communist countries for two reasons: First, it meant they could make films that might compete with Hollywood where state-of-the-art effects were no longer the most important thing (although, Hollywood never did really learn this lesson; perhaps because Space Odyssey did have state-of-the-art effects). Second, it meant they could explore ideas that strayed away from communist doctrine without coming up against the review boards.

DEFA had already ventured into the realm of thoughtful science fiction with its 1960 release of The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern), but that film still used the conventions of 1950s science fiction, even if its message (that all mankind should join together for the common good of the human race) was relatively under-represented at the time. East Germany’s first foray into post-Space Odyssey science fiction film was Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and was clearly influenced by Space Odyssey, but it was the year 1972 that saw the release of two of the most important sci-fi films from behind the Iron Curtain: Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris and Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea. While most film fans are familiar with Solaris, Eolomea remains obscure.

Eolomea is based on a book by the Bulgarian writer, Angel Vagenshtain (aka Angel Wagenstein). Vagenshtain was already a successful author in Bulgaria when he began working on films at DEFA, starting with the Bulgarian/East German co-production, Sterne (not a science fiction film). Eolomea starts its story in the middle, with the sudden radio silence of six space stations. A team of scientists on Earth are not sure why this is happening, and meet to discuss what to do next. While they are debating, two more space stations lose contact. The scientists decide to cancel all space travel until they can ascertain if this silence is caused by a virus or something even more sinister.

The story centers around two people: Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema), a science professor and one of the big-wigs at the space authority; and Dan Lagny (Ivan Andonov), a bored and aimless cosmonaut. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, hopping back and forth through time and space, allowing the story to unfold slowly. Most of the film centers around Cosmonaut Lagny, who is on Earth in one scene, and in space the next. The space sets have the cold metallic look common to space movies at the time, but with a slightly more lived in look than most. The obligatory robot is nicely funky-looking, falling somewhere between the Lost in Space robot and C3PO of Star Wars.

Director Herrmann Zschoche’s visual style is straightforward, relying heavily on medium and two-shots. But he makes up for this in the editing room. The film includes some of the few examples of jump cuts to be used in East German cinema. Zschoche began his career as a news cameraman, and switched to directing movies in the early sixties. Most of his film are family-oriented films or coming-of-age tales. His career was temporarily derailed in 1965 when his film, Karla, was banned by the SED at the 11th Plenum (see The Rabbit is Me). After a few years, he was back at DEFA and achieved his highest box-office success in 1978 with Sieben Sommersprossen, a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet myth at a modern summer camp. Herrmann Zschoche continued making films in East Germany up until the fall of the wall. After the Wende, he moved to television, directing episodes of the popular series, Tatort, Kommisar Rex, and Kurklinik Rosenau.

Cox Habbema was a Dutch actress who had much success in East Germany, and was married to the East German actor, Eberhard Esche. Ivan Andonov, on the other hand, was a popular Bulgarian actor, who, like the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitic, was dubbed for German audiences. Special mention should be made of Günther Fischer’s pop jazz score, reminiscent of French films of the sixties. The sets were the last to be designed by the East German production design team of Erich Krüllke and Werner Pieske. After this film the duo (who had, up until this point, always worked together) went their separate ways, with Pieske moving into the field of television production design, and Krüllke continuing in movies. Both men retired from production design after the fall of the wall.

IMDB page for Eolomea.

The only East German film to receive wide circulation in the US during the early sixties is a science fiction film titled The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern). It is based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, and was the first science fiction film to be made at the DEFA studios as a co-production with Zespoły Filmowe. The Silent Star tells the story of a multi-national team of astronauts that goes to Venus to investigate the possible existence of intelligent life there. [Note: this was before later space probes proved that Venus is actually an extremely inhospitable environment for nearly any form of life, except for some sulphuric acid-loving microbes.]

The film was picked up by Crown International Pictures (CIP), a company that specialized in cheaply-made exploitation films for the American drive-in market. Like that other drive-in movie distributor, American International Pictures, Crown International often supplemented their catalog of low-budget, American-made movies with heavily-edited foreign films. CIP bought the distribution rights to The Silent Star, dubbed it (badly), and chopped fifteen minutes out of it, rendering the already complicated story nearly incomprehensible. They then released it under the title, First Spaceship on Venus. Small wonder, then, that it ended up as a target for ridicule by the snarky film mockers at Mystery Science Theater 3000. In spite of the poor dubbing, choppy editing, and relegation to the grindhouse circuit, the movie still made a strong impression on those of us who saw it in 1962 (in my case, at the Lyric Theatre in Tucson, Arizona).

On of the most memorable things about the movie—at least to kids—is Omega (pronounced “OH-mee-ga”), a tiny tank-like robot that may well have served as the inspiration for R2D2. Radio-controlled devices were still fairly new at the time. The Nazis had used radio-controlled rockets and bombs during WWII, but these were heavy devices with large batteries and vacuum tubes. The advent of transistors made it possible to include these controls in smaller, lighter devices, leading to the model airplane craze of the late fifties. When the film first played in East Germany, Omega must have seemed like a pretty impressive piece of technology. By the time the film made it to the United States most people were familiar with radio-controlled toys, but that didn’t make Omega any less endearing.

The Silent Star starts with the discovery of a mysterious spool found in the Gobi Desert. It is made from an unknown substance and a group of scientists from around the world is brought together to examine it. The scientists discover that the source of the spool is Venus. They build a rocketship to go to Venus and investigate. On board the ship are an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish chief engineer, a female Japanese doctor, a Soviet astronaut (the term cosmonaut had not been coined when Lem wrote his book), an Indian mathematician, a Chinese linguist, and an African technician. What they find is a civilization that accidentally destroyed itself while building a weapon intended to destroy our planet. The crew—as least the ones that survive—come back to Earth and convince everyone on this planet should live in harmony. The film ends with all the different crews holding hands. All that’s missing is Kumbaya.

It is worth noting that while people give Star Trek credit for using a multi-ethnic cast at a time when TV in American was almost exclusively the domain of white males, The Silent Star had done this six years earlier. More importantly, the film played in the United States in late 1962, shortly before Gene Roddenberry started working on the Star Trek pilot. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the film did receive wide distribution, and was seen by many fans of science fiction.

Stanislaw Lem was never very happy with either his book or the movie. It was his first book, and he felt he was forced to bend some of the ideas to fit a specifically communist perspective. This is truer still of the movie, but the proselytizing is mild compared to many other films of the time (both east and west). It is no small irony that this tale of brotherly love and international friendship was made a year before the wall was built, sealing off East Berlin from the west for the next twenty-eight years.

The technical crew for this film consisted of the best that DEFA had to offer. The special effects supervisor was Ernst Kunstmann, who had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematographer was Joachim Hasler, who would later go on to become a successful director in his own right, mostly famously for the East German “Beach Party” movie, Hot Summer. And the editing was by Lena Neumann, who had gotten her start as an editor during the Third Reich and was, at that point, the most experienced editor in East Germany,

The director, Kurt Maetzig, had already made a name for himself with films such as Council of the Gods, Marriage in the Shadows, Die Buntkarierten, and the Ernst Thälmann films. At that point, he was the most respected filmmaker in East Germany. Maetzig got his start as a film technician during the Third Reich, but lost his work privileges after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted (his mother was Jewish). During WWII, he joined the banned Communist Party, and didn’t return to Berlin until after the war. In October of 1945, he co-founded Filmaktiv—a group dedicated to reinventing and reviving the German film industry. This eventually led to the founding of DEFA. Maetzig retired from filmmaking in 1976. He turned 100 in January of 2011.

IMDB page for the film.

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