Wednesday, April 15, 2009

First Spaceship on Venus (DEFA/Globe International, 1960-62)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 take on a movie I actually remembered from my childhood: First Spaceship on Venus, an Eastern bloc (East German, actually) science-fiction movie from 1960 which was released here in 1962 by a company called “Globe International” but was apparently an actual prestige production in its day. It was made by the Deutsche Film (DEFA) studio and filmed at the old UFA complex in Babelsberg, and in its original version it ran a whopping 130 minutes and was the most expensive movie DEFA had produced to that time.

It also carried Prestige with a capital P; it was intended as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the “German Democratic Republic,” the official name of East Germany — and the fact that the 1990 “reunification” of Germany was really a friendly takeover of the East by the West is exemplified by the fact that the reunited Germany has the same legal name as the old West Germany: the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or “Federal Republic of Germany”); it was based on a novel called Astronauci by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, whose Solaris was filmed brilliantly by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and less brilliantly by Steven Soderbergh in 2003; and DEFA actually sought out an international cast, including Yves Montand and his wife, Simone Signoret — but the East German bureaucrats who held DEFA’s purse strings objected to their collaborating with a big, bad capitalist country like France and so the best the producers could do to bring an international flavor to their movie was to borrow Japan’s Scream Queen, Yoko Tani (probably the most famous person in the world named “Yoko” until John Lennon got involved with Yoko Ono), from Toho Studios and her similar roles in bad Japanese horror/sci-fi movies.

First Spaceship on Venus takes place in the year 1985, when an expedition to the site of the 1908 meteor crash in Siberia (a real event) digs up an object that looks like an inept amateur potter’s attempt to make a vase but which we are solemnly told is a “spool,” a magnetic recording from the spaceship that actually crashed into that bit of Siberian countryside and was mistakenly thought to have been a meteor. When the world’s scientists get hold of it and run it through a computer to decipher and translate it, they learn it’s a message from Venus Central to their operatives in the spaceship on how to attack and conquer Earth. Thinking the plot is still operative, the nations of the world and their representative scientists — Dr. Sumiko Ogimura (Yoko Tani), astrophysicist Prof. Harringway Hawling (Oldrich Lukes), Orloff (Ignacy Machowski), Talua (African actor Julius Ongewe — and yes, it’s nice to see a Black face on screen at a time when U.S. and Western sci-fi films were invariably all-white!), mathematician Prof. Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann), pilot Raimund Brinkmann (Günther Simon) — in the U.S. version his nationality is changed from (East) German to American and his first name to “Robert” — linguist Dr. Tchen Yu (Tang Hua-Ta, surprisingly the most attractive male in the film), and Durand (Michail N. Postnikow), the first man to land on the moon (and another character who was made an American in the U.S. dubbed version — he was Russian in the original — as well as being the former lover of Dr. Ogimura, and while she couldn’t care less about him he wants to end the “former” part of their relationship and get back together) — decide to redirect their super-rocket, the “Kosmokrator” (a sort of trimaran missile whose three spires make it resemble a Mormon temple), from Mars to Venus to investigate.

First Spaceship on Venus might have been a genuinely interesting movie except for the fact that virtually nothing actually happens. The script was written by no fewer than five credited people — Jan Fethke, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, Günther Rücker and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor — plus at least seven other uncredited ones, and according to it took three writing teams and 12 screenplays before one was finally found that was acceptable not only to the DEFA producers and director Kurt Maetzig but to the two governments involved (East Germany and Poland were co-producing). The result seems only to provide good evidence for my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers; the script (at least in the 78-minute American dubbed version) is laden down with reams of pseudo-scientific dialogue that doesn’t make any sense to anyone without scientific training and is probably utterly hilarious to people with scientific training in the disciplines supposedly represented by the cast.

I remember seeing this movie when it was first released in the U.S. (by a company called “Globe International” — it seems a good idea to beware of any movie studio that has “International” as the second word in its name), falling asleep relatively quickly and remembering only the stock shots of giant radar antennae sweeping the countryside (the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew joked about them coming so close to the humans that they’d take off hats, toupees and pieces of skin) attempting to find clues to what’s going on on Venus and how we puny humans can stop it. Eventually the spaceship not only flies to Venus but actually lands on it, two of the crew members (Brinkmann and Tchen Yu — in one of their few tasteless bits that verges on racism the MST3K crew decided to interpret Tchen Yu’s name as a sneeze and say “Gesundheit!” every time it was spoken) get killed, they discover a group of quasi-mechanical, quasi-biological metal insects that are the only even remotely lifelike objects they find on Venus, and eventually the planet itself rejects the spaceship and launches it involuntarily back to Earth. (Apparently the planet Venus was getting as bored with these people as we were!) I must say that this mind-numbing movie from my childhood has lost none of its remarkable power to make me sleepy!