(1960) Directed by Kurt Maetzig; Written by Jan Fethke,Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, Günther Rücker and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor; Based on the novel Astronauci (The Astronauts) by Stanislaw Lem; Starring: Günther Simon, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski and Yôko Tani; Available on DVD
“…some kind of catastrophe must have happened on Venus… Everything is fragmented, broken. If it was a catastrophe that changed everything so senselessly, then it must have been a disaster of unimaginable dimensions.” – Prof. Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann)
People who grew up west of the Iron Curtain might have known East German/Polish co-production The Silent Star by its alternate title, First Spaceship on Venus, which was a staple on late night TV, albeit in a dubbed print, with cut scenes and altered characters. More folks these days, however, probably remember the Americanized version as it appeared in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanks to the release of the film on DVD, we can now see it in its original, unadulterated form.
Shot in color, 70 mm and stereo sound, The Silent Star represented a significant investment for 14-year-old DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) studios, the biggest budget to date (source: DVD essay by Stefan Soldovieri). It was the first, and most lavish, in a handful of sci-fi releases to come from DEFA, and took a serious approach to the source material. The screenplay, based on a Stanislaw Lem novel, is credited to at least five individuals, but probably had more hands due to meddling by watchful East German culture bureau officials. Directed by veteran filmmaker Kurt Maetzig, it’s an optimistic view of humanity’s quest for knowledge, and a powerful allegory for our dangerous flirtation with nuclear weapons.
When a strange cylindrical object is found in the Gobi desert, scientists attempt to determine its origins. A thorough analysis of the device reveals it’s carrying a message from Venus. Although attempts to communicate with the extraterrestrial inhabitants yield no results, the discovery prompts a space mission to the second planet from the sun. The spaceship Cosmokrator I is manned by a multinational team, including Russian commander Arsenyev (Michail N. Postnikow), intrepid German pilot Raimund Brinkmann (Günther Simon), Japanese physician Dr. Sumiko Ogimura (Yôko Tani) and African (his country is never specified) communications expert (Julius Ongewe).
One of the movie’s greatest assets is the distinctive set design by Alfred Hirschmeier. The surreal, mist-shrouded Venusian landscape is one of the most distinctive depictions of an alien planet that has been committed to film. While it’s easy to spot the influence of Forbidden Planet on the look of the strange alien machinery, it’s not too much of a stretch to see how The Silent Star in turn influenced the extraterrestrial designs in Planet of the Vampires, while Omega, a cute little robot on treads, seems to be the spiritual predecessor to R2-D2. And the stylized design of Cosmokrator I is just kitschy-cool, appearing as if it flew out of the cover of a pulp sci-fi novel. The visual effects, supervised by Ernst Kunstmann, may appear a bit creaky to modern eyes, but are certainly in step with other genre films of the era, regardless of origin.
The Silent Star is very much a product of its time and the tense political climate that surrounded its inception. The filmmakers paint an idyllic socialist future (of 1970) where nations peacefully cooperate for the good of humankind. This is reinforced by Arsenyev’s statement, which seems to take a subtle jab at the United States: “In a peaceful world we don’t keep our successes to ourselves.” The film goes on to not so subtly point the finger at the U.S. as the instigator of nuclear Armageddon,* while conveniently ignoring the Eastern Block’s role in the Cold War. Aside from the clash of Eastern and Western politics, many elements of the film hold up well. The concept of a multiracial, multinational team of cosmonauts, which predates Star Trek by several years, would not have arisen from any similar Hollywood production of the time. The universal themes about exploration and cooperation resound today. It also works well as a cautionary tale. Much like the Krell in Forbidden Planet, the Venusians in The Silent Star are undone by their hubris and superior technology.
* The American crewmember, Prof. Hawling (Oldrich Luke) laments his culpability for helping create the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at the naïve idea that Venus is capable of supporting life. With surface temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s safe to assume that we won’t be setting foot on the planet anytime soon. On the other hand, Russian space probe Venera 9 landed on Venus, just 15 years later, so maybe the creators of the film were onto something. The Silent Star, in its unedited form, deserves a reassessment by Western audiences. It’s an impressive achievement by any standards, and one of the forgotten science fiction gems of the mid-20th century.