Friday, September 23, 2005

New DVDs I Love: The Euro-SF Revelation

First, a reminder -- I'll be on the comics panel at 3 PM at the Burlington Literary Festival at the Fletcher Free Library tomorrow -- for info, see my post for Sept. 16 (skip to the bottom for directions, links) and Sept. 10. That would be
  • here
  • and
  • here.
  • Hope to see you there!

    BTW, VT filmmaker extraordinaire Bill Simmons (the man behind The Perfect Goodnight Kiss, etc.) will be at the event; he writes, "I will be broadcasting your panel discussion at the Fletcher Free Library Saturday live on tv on Cable channel 15 in the greater Burlington area." Since it's a live broadcast, times will correspond with the panel times given in my previous posts. Bill is also Technical Coordinator for the upcoming October annual Vermont International Film Festival; more info later.

    OK, on to today's scheduled DVD recommendation...

    Among the DVDs I've savored of late is one you probably haven't heard or read anything about, so consider this a heads up. The only print alert I saw was in The NY Times, which is a hoot in and of itself.

    I have a real affection for European and Russian sf from the 1960s and '70s; it's was pretty hard to come by back then, but my appetite was instilled by early-to-mid-1960s childhood theatrical viewing of two that slipped through the distribution system relatively intact, First Spaceship on Venus and Voyage to the End of the Universe.

    Why these films should have appealed so to me, I couldn't articulate: I mean, they were both rather downbeat affairs, dramatically turgid for one raised on 1950s US sf, more than a little dogmatic, completely monster-less and skirting any exploitative elements whatsoever. But they felt more adult than any sf I'd seen, and they offered an alternative take on the genre I found enticing for its odd, non-American (as opposed to un-American, mind you) flavor. Later '60s international sf was more immediately appealing: citing just two MGM pickups that swept through northern VT in their day, I loved both the Italian Wild, Wild Planet, with its mutants, tick-tack futuristic cars and costumes, and oceans of blood, and the Japanese The Green Slime for its hilarious theme song and monsters, bogus miniature & model work, and shameless potboiler energy. As my tastes matured (?), I later gravitated to Tarkovsky's Solaris and more serious European, Russian, and Asian sf fare, but the first taste test was passed and provided by First Spaceship on Venus and Voyage to the End of the Universe.

    These weren't like the US, Italian, or Japanese sf films I loved; these were something else entirely. First Spaceship was a colorful, widescreen epic of sorts, a multi-national production (German/Polish, based on a Russian novel) which was reflected in its pre-Star Trek casting of multi-gender and racial cosmonauts (white males -- German, Polish, and American -- a scientist from India, an Asian male & female, and a black male) that made quite an impression on little ol' me, if only because it seemed such a novelty at age seven or eight. This was the first truly multinational, multi-racial crew I’d seen in any film, truth to tell, and this at a time when a Vermonter like me had never seen anything but white folks in real life! Better yet, its alien landscapes (with multi-color veined skies, odd geometric metallic 'flora,' weird flitting metallic lifeforms puppeted from invisible but nonetheless obvious strings, and a sentient black magma that figured in the climax) were eye-popping and different, anticipating the pre-psychedelic landscapes I later savored in Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World and Planet of the Vampires. Its modest but cool tank-like robot seemed (despite its ‘humanized’ face) pragmatic and functional in a Popular Mechanics way that American humanoid robots never were; and its room-sized computers (operated by the eldest member of the expedition, endlessly pushing buttons without looking at them as if they were a piano keyboard) seemed state-of-the-art in the early ‘60s. Its scenario, though almost indecipherably stodgy to me as a youth, was anchored by a seriousness of tenor and intent that was unlike anything I'd seen -- I’d read sf like this already, but sf movies were never this serious. A mysterious object is found on Earth, its alien message partially decoded, directing the world attention to Venus, so an international space expedition is mounted -- blah, blah, blah, but something here was compelling, and the whole was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.

    Voyage to the End of the Universe was an AIP release of a somber black-and-white Czech space-travel gem originally titled Ikarie XB-1. Like First Spaceship, it proposed a multi-gender crew in space sans the romantic overtures American '50s sf required, with long stretches in which crew members debated, danced, relaxed, and argued: adults acting like adults, however arch the dubbing or dramaturgy. The core of the film for me, though, was a long, partially silent, almost slow-motion (due to the convincing illusion of weightlessness and movement without gravity created) and utterly haunting sequence in the middle of the film in which the crew responds to a distress signal. They come across an apparently abandoned derelict spaceship, and cautiously enter the vessel: here was the seed for subsequent faves like Queen of Blood, Planet of the Vampires, and Alien, played straight -- no monsters waited on board, only stillness, death, and an unsolved mystery that ends in disaster. One image, of a dead, decay-ravaged crew member aboard the derelict being found, the gray crust of dried facial skin drifting away like a mask from the bare bone of the skull at the slightest touch, malingers in my memory to this day. It was as breathtaking a moment of quiet horror as the unmasking of Barbara Steele’s pallid corpse in Bava’s Black Sunday, even more startling for its appearance in the relatively sterile confines of a dubbed black-and-white sf import.

    I dug the film -- so much so that I later arranged to rent it in 16mm for a public sf double-feature (as student council film dude at Harwood Union High School) and again for a sf literature class at Johnson State College. Post-2001: A Space Odyssey, of course, it seemed like mild tea indeed, but oh, that derelict sequence...

    Over the years, I've gravitated to such films like a moth to a flame. Among my first 8mm film purchases (remember 8mm film 'cutdowns' of features, anyone?) was a Ken Films 50-foot release of First Spaceship on Venus, which was sharp but in black-and-white, it's barely-five-minute running time condensing the black-magma climax into a weird little Blob knockoff with cosmonauts. Still, it was a souvenir of that childhood theater experience, and as such treasured. As I teenager, I caught a late-night TV broadcast of First Spaceship on Venus, and I couldn't believe how wretched it was, an impression intensified by the fact that the colors were so faded the film seemed to be in black-and-white, and the widescreen images I so vividly recalled were pan-and-scanned into almost incomprehensible nonsense. Could I have really so mis-remembered the film?

    When the vhs era hit, I snagged a $5 copy of Star Classic's threadbare 1986 video release of First Spaceship on Venus, and it was agonizing, but an accurate record of the crap pan-and-scanned prints TV used to broadcast. Perversely, I held onto it -- which panned out, when Englewood's sterling color, letterboxed restoration of First Spaceship surfaced on the market in 1998. I incorporated duplicate clips from both video versions in my film classes, relating the story of my fond childhood memories of the film, my dismal teenage and adult experiences with the pan-and-scan 'decolorized' prints, and the wonders of letterboxed restorations (which led into a broader section on the joys of letterboxed video and DVD, and its importance to storytelling, using companion clips -- p&s vs. letterboxed -- from Dressed to Kill and Pulp Fiction, among others).

    Which brings me at long-last to the DVD set I am bringing to your attention:

    The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection is a singularly unappealing title, but I suggest you pick it up if you love sf cinema. Its a boxed set sporting three individually-cased feature films: DEFA's first sf opus, The Silent Star, along with In the Dust of the Stars and Eolomea, and though I've just begun to view the set, imagine my surprise when The Silent Star (original East German title: Der Schweigend Stern)turns out to be -- at long last! -- the complete, original-language, restored Polish/East German production I first saw, cut and dubbed on the big screen, as First Spaceship on Venus! First Run Features' functional packaging makes no mention of this fact, making me doubly glad I dumb-lucked into this on a pre-order listing and ordered it, sight unseen.

    I'll post a full review of the entire set on my site once I get through all three films, but I must say The Silent Star is a revelation. Adapted from a Stanislaw Lem novel I'm unfamiliar with, The Astronauts, this 95-minute color, stereo, and letterboxed (16:9, showcasing DEFA's 'TotalScope') subtitled Agfacolor print is crystal clear and intoxicatingly vivid. The extras are terrific, too: a short gallery of set design sketches (b&w pencil/charcoal roughs and color) for the film, bio and filmography of director Kurt Maetzig (who co-founded DEFA in the 1940s, and directed 20 features before retiring), set designer Alfred Hirschmeier and special effects creator Ernst Kunstmann (whose career stretches back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and Murnau's The Last Laugh, and many more!), and a text essay "Socialists in Outer Space" by the University of Toronto's Stefan Soldovieri (which does acknowledge the US version First Spaceship and cites a few of the changes made for the US condensation). Best of all are the subtitled East German 1959 newsreel excerpts -- a UK filmmaker's visit to the DEFA Studio, including a behind-the-scenes Silent Star set visit, and the brief but cool A Rocket in the Soviet Zone, showing the film's special effects and miniature work being shot -- and the preview trailers for all three films in the set.

    BTW, the other two films are enticing. In contrast to the 1960 Silent Star, the two companion films are 1970s efforts, with Eolomea, 1972, looking like the most unusual of the trio. The preview is a sui generis tease -- "Is this film a love story?... Is this a nature film?... Or perhaps a thriller?" -- as it eases into increasingly obvious sf imagery and trappings, arriving at "It's the new utopian film by DEFA!" Metal Hurlant-like imagery is wed to absurdist dialogue shorn of any context ("You don't know me at all. You're not getting the container from me." "We're entering your shadow. Over and out!")... hmmm, just like vintage Heavy Metal translations. This I gotta see! In the Dust of the Stars looks like the most traditional sf of the three, with more mysterious messages drawing expeditions to distant worlds inhabited by lounge-lizard humans with big hair and colorful spandex outfits, silly dancing girls, cosmonaut interrogation and torture, ragged slaves laboring away in subterranean chambers, helmeted laser-toting soldiers, disembodied sentient heads, et al., along with a Diabolik like shower scene. You'll never see a preview for an American sf film end with bracing ballyhoo like, "Will they stay and assume responsibility? Or will they return to their cozy lives?" Incredible! Bring it on, DEFA...

    Back to Silent Star/First Spaceship: The film is vastly improved sans dubbing, but the subtitled dialogue is nonetheless risible at times ("I appeal to the consortium to accept that nothing will deter me!"). The script is completely coherent in its complete form, and indeed brimming with imaginative touches and concepts lost in the clumsy First Spaceship condensation and dubbing. "The indespensible robot Omega" is still as clunky and pragmatic as ever; if anything, after the recent NASA Mars robots, Omega looks more realistic than ever. But the film has never looked lovelier, with one foot in Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M traditions (the inevitable meteor shower; ongoing "should we stay or should we go?" angst; etc.) and the other anticipating the trippy imagery and psychedelia of later '60s sf and Gene Roddenberry's 'innovations' for Star Trek (again, multi-racial and gender crews).

    BTW, Silent Star in its uncut form makes a fascinating companion piece to the Russian Planeta Burg (Planet of Storms), which launched another group of Cosmonauts to Venus to find prehistoric reptiles (a pteranodon, ‘brontosaur,’ and outsized man-in-suit bipedal lizards) and... something else. Carlos Clarens first wrote about this gem in his seminal An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967, a book that changed my life), and thankfully video put it in reach at last; this has been available from Sinister Cinema and other 'gray market' sources for almost a decade, and is well worth scouting out. Corman drafted Curtis Harrington and Peter Bogdanovich to revamp this Russian gem into Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, respectively, for AIP-TV release in the mid-60s, which makes it all the more extraordinary that seven-or-eight-year-old Steve Bissette was actually able to see as much of First Spaceship as he did on the big screen, sans too much US distributor manhandling.

    Counting one's blessings, it's even more astounding to see The Silent Star at last in its original form in such a glorious restoration. Man, I’m glad I lived long enough to enjoy the DVD revolution!

    For more info ASAP, go to
  • the First Run Features website.
  • First Run is offering the set at 25% off its list price of $59.95 -- a bargain at $44.96, though there may be better pricing at other online venues.

    FYI, DEFA was an acronym for Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft (German Film Shareholders Company), the state-run studios of the former German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) that were headquartered in what was formerly the UFA Studios in Babelsberg (near Berlin).

    Curiously enough, it turns out the US branch of the DEFA Film Library is based not far from my Green Mountain State home: The University of Masschusetts in Amherst, MA, in fact. For more info, go to
  • the DEFA site.

  • More DVD blather tomorrow!

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