Friday, October 6, 2023

First Spaceship on Venus (GDR/Poland/USA, 1960)

Poster by Ernst Litter (5 June 1918 – 27 Dec. 2006)
 "In 1985, during the course of the work undertaken to irrigate the Gobi Desert, a strange fragment of rock was discovered. Several remarkable features of this rock attracted the attention of the scientists engaged on the project. Research revealed it contained a spool. Further analysis showed the material to be extra-terrestrial in origin and not of human manufacture; where did it come from?"
Poster by Heinz Handschick (21 Sept. 1931 – 22 Jan. 2022)
(Nothing but Spoilers!) While from today's viewpoint it might be hard to imagine, First Spaceship on Venus was actually a prestige product once upon a time, if one from behind the Iron Curtain. 
When originally made and released under the German title Der schweigende Stern ["The Silent Star"] — a misnomer, seeing that film concerns a trip to Venus, a planet, and not to a star — the East German/Polish production, with an "international" cast, was the first East German science-fiction film ever (some sources also list it as the first Polish science-fiction film as well). Likewise "the most expensive DEFA film ever made" [Springer], Der schweigende Stern became one of the most financially successful DEFA films, with about 4.3 million tickets sold [Inside Kino].
That version, the original East European one, was 93 minutes long, as compared to the 79-minute English dub version that eventually made it to the US in 1962 when low-budget genre specialists Crown International Pictures — one of their first releases was Bloodlust! (1961), and they later foisted such fine stuff as The Creeping Terror (1964 / trailer), Orgy of the Dead (1965 / trailer), Nightmare in Wax (1969), The Pink Angels (1971 / trailer) and so much more onto the American public — released First Spaceship on Venus stateside on a highly financially lucrative double bill with the far more worked-over Japanese film Varan the Unbelievable (1962 / trailer / original poster below), which retains only around 15 minutes of the original film.
Later re-releases saw First Spaceship on Venus gain other names, such as the oddly familiar Planet of the Dead and the oddly dull Spaceship Venus Does Not Reply.
Trailer to
First Spaceship on Venus:
Der schweigende Stern, and thus First Spaceship on Venus as well, is based on Astronauci ("The Astronauts"), the first published novel by the internationally recognized Polish author Stanisław Herman Lem (12 Sept. 1921 – 27 Mar. 2006), possibly best known as the author of Solaris (1960), which eventually became "one of the greatest science fiction films in the history of cinema", Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972 / trailer), and the George Clooney dud, Steven Soderbergh's already mostly forgotten Solaris (2002 / trailer). Lem is not known to have ever said anything about First Spaceship on Venus, but in regards to the original film, Der schweigende Stern, when asked he always tried to distance himself from the "trashy" film and supposedly even tried at one point to have his name removed from the credits.
DEFA Trailer to
Der schweigende Stern:
Shorn as it is of over 13 minutes, there is probably no justification of passing judgment here at a wasted life on Der schweigende Stern, so the opinions that follow are only applied to the English-language version, First Spaceship on Venus, which, aside from the change in length, also includes some changes in characterizations in what was already an international crew: in First Spaceship on Venus, probably to make the film more palatable to western audiences, the character Brinkman (Günther Simon [11 May 1925 – 25 June 1972]) is American instead of East German, and Sołtyk (Ignacy Machowski [5 July 1920 – 11 Jan. 2001] of Night Train [1959 / full film]), the Polish chief engineer, is now Durand and from France.* And in its reworked and shortened English-language version, First Spaceship on Venus has long since entered (at least in the US of A) the sphere known as "the public domain", which means you can find it everywhere. In our case, it was one of two films on a DVD we picked up somewhere along the way, the other film being the similarly set reworking of a Russian movie, Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet (1965), likewise of the PD.
* Of special note in both versions, the unknown Julius Ongewe, at the time a Leipzig medical student possibly from Kenya [Cambridge] and who plays the technician named Talua, in his only screen appearance ever: by dint of the Der schweigende Stern's original release date (East Germany, 26 Feb. 1960), he is the first Black man in film to go into space, beating out the Afro-American dancer & actor Archie Savage (19 Apr. 1914 – 4 Feb. 2003), seen below from the blogspot Arts & Foolish Grandeur, who followed soon after (Italy, 25 August 1960), looking groovy with blonde hair, in Antonio Margheriti's Italian sci-fi outer Assignment: Outer Space (1960 / trailer). Interesting but possibly expected: both men, the only Black characters of their respective films, die by the end of their movies. (See: "heroic sacrifice".)
Like so many films, usually not very good ones, First Spaceship on Venus requires an inordinate amount of expository and time to finally get going, in this case, to get going on its trip to the titular Venus. Set in the future of 1985 — at least one online source claims that the original DEFA release was set in the future of 1970 — the movie begins with the revelation that a mysterious artifact, a "spool", has been discovered that proves to be an alien recording; then we learn that the famed Tunguska Event of 1908 was not caused by a meteor, but by a crashed alien spaceship. A lot of time is spent on the linguistic deciphering of the spool before the source is finally discovered to be Venus, and since Venus doesn't answer our calls an international team of mostly not-very-fit-looking men (plus one woman, the attractive Japanese medical officer Dr. Sumiko Ogimura [Yoko Tani*]) board a groovy-looking rocket and take off for Venus — after which, the more interesting (if only mildly and mostly familiar) stuff happens.
* Yoko Tani (2 Aug 1928 – 3 Jul 1999), alongside Ongewe, is one of the few people on the flight that looks as if they would pass a physical. Obviously included in a socialist attempt to show advanced gender attitudes (much as Ongewe and she are there to show advanced racial attitudes), her character nevertheless spends a lot of time serving food and looking maternally concerned — although she does save one life requiring an emergency operation. Tani, a mostly forgotten name today, was a nightclub entertainer in Paris of limited thespian ability who had a brief flourish in film before marrying into wealth and retirement. Among her films of note and non-note: Fire in the Flesh (1958 / German poster below), The Savage Innocents (1960 / Italian trailer), Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (1961 / trailer), Tartar Invasion (1961 / full film), and Invasion (1965 / trailer).
Yoko Tani in London:
The directorial chores for First Spaceship on Venus, as perhaps to be expected in a prestige product, were handed over to one of DEFA's most respected directors, Kurt Maetzig (25 Jan 1911 – 8 Aug 2012), whose melodrama Ehe im Schatten a.k.a. Marriage in the Shadows] (1947 / original German trailer) is not only considered a minor post-war classic but is also the second most financially successful DEFA film ever made [Inside Kino].
But Maetzig, while well-versed in the inclusion of subtle to not-subtle propaganda messages, was never exactly what one would call a particularly exciting director. It is truly noteworthy that in what should be one of the film's big thrill scenes — a group of the astronauts trying to escape a deadly sludge by running up the ramp of what looks like a building inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's Tower of Babylon — is shot in manner that is decidedly not thrilling.* Maetzig's somewhat staid if clear visuals are simply wrong for the genre, and do little to add any excitement to the film, which already suffers from a slow start and a narrative full of mostly stock plot points and situations.
* "According to director Kurt Maetzig, creating the radioactively contaminated sludge on Venus depleted the entire annual [East German] output of glue in 1959, making it impossible to find glue anywhere in East Germany. [Springer]"
Full PD film –
First Spaceship on Venus:
In regard to the "stock plot points and situations", for example: a possible former romance between two characters is inferred but remains a pointless addendum that is in no way relevant to a narrative that includes such chestnuts as the loss of radio contact with homebase, some fun with weightlessness (during which it is obvious that at least one ["healthy"] guy is on a harness), an endangering meteor shower and corresponding spacewalk to fix the damage, giving AI a "heart", the ability to land and take off from the planet only once, and, finally, the looming doom of being unable to take off from the planet. (Likewise, actually, going by the blackened soot remains on the walls of some ruins, the Venusians were very much biped and two-armed humanoids, a trope that still hasn't left the stage.) Lastly, while it was perhaps not a rote plot point in 1960, the film's only Black character dies — if perhaps more tragically than in most films.
The big kicker of the plot, of course, is that while the "first spaceship" is underway to Venus in space, the Indian mathematician Prof. Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann [21 Apr 1910 – 31 Mar 1973]) and Chinese linguist Dr. Lao Tsu (an unknown and forgotten Tang Hua-Ta) finally translate the spool only to find out it is a recording of the Venusian plot to wipe out mankind and take over the Earth. Deciding to nevertheless continue their journey, when our group of dedicated astronauts reaches the planet, which obviously once housed an advanced civilization, it proves to be completely dead: the entire civilization (and all life on the planet) has been wiped out by a nuclear accident.
As for that plot "twist", one can only wonder if Stanisław Herman Lem, or whoever came up with the "they killed themselves" plot, hadn't somewhere along the way seen the 10-year-older B&W American science fiction film Rocketship X-M (1950 / trailer), which alongside a much more downer ending — spoiler: everyone dies! — concerns the discovery of a formerly civilized race on Mars reduced to a new stone age thanks to a nuclear war.
On the whole, like so many science fiction films First Spaceship on Venus has not aged well. It is slow and cheesy and overly preachy flick that manages, at best, to be a fascinating yawner liberally spiced with an obvious wariness of the future possibility of a nuclear war between the two superpowers (and their respective blocs) of the time. For all its slowness, the movie is also visually interesting on occasion and displays a nice production design when it comes to the spaceship and planet, the latter of which, especially with all the fog floating around, for some odd reason made us think of Mario Bava's Hercules and the Haunted World (1961 / trailer), if not his Planet of the Vampires (1965 / trailer). Also interesting is that, unlike in so many science fiction films, the dangers the crew faces are not some monster or race or evil thing: the dangers are simply the unknown and the unexpected of an unknown environment.
Hardly imperative viewing, First Spaceship on Venus is nevertheless fun for what it is — ripened cheese — and it does offer more than enough unintentional, if not age-induced laughs. There is a major event on Venus just before the closing scenes on Earth that is truly a winner, when what looks to be an exciting, last-minute, big save-the-day interlude (of the kind that Will Smith or Tom Cruise always succeed at) results, rather unexpectedly, in people dying and/or suffering certain future death. Unluckily, but as befitting the anti-nuclear theme and didactic nature of the film, First Spaceship on Venus sort of ruins the punch of the deaths by sticking around for a lackluster preachy ending. The tragic thus becomes the comic.
Fun trivia that you probably don't even care about: the [uncredited] woman playing Intervision reporter is no less than "the Brigitte Bardot of East Germany" Eva-Maria Hagen, the mother of Nina Hagen.
Nina Hagen sings
New York New York:

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