The Silent Star

"Good"

The Silent Star Review


Between the end of World War II in 1945 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, in Western shorthand) was among those Soviet satellite states whose films effectively disappeared from the world stage - or at least that part of the stage that lay beyond the Iron Curtain. In fact, the GDR had a thriving film industry throughout those four decades, producing over 600 feature films, and every one of them emerged from the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft, a state-run studio better known by the acronym DEFA. Thanks to the recent establishment of a DEFA film library at the University of Massachusetts, many of these films are being made available in North America for the first time. And among DEFA's minor treasures we find East Germany's premiere sci-fi picture, 1960's The Silent Star.

Like Andrei Tarkovsky's Soviet-made Solaris, which it predates by over a decade, The Silent Star is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem. It has a rather more serious comportment than much of the sci-fi produced contemporaneously in the West (although it's never an "art" film, as Tarkovsky's are), and, also like Solaris, it boasts a lavish production and a prominent director (Kurt Maetzig, whose filmography includes over 20 titles). The appearance of The Silent Star, one imagines, was an event in 1960 more than just a "release," and even at the distance of 40-some years it's easy enough to see why.

The plot, between propagandistic asides, goes like this: The year is 1970 and workers in the Gobi Desert uncover a strange rock, for lack of a better term, which is found to be extraterrestrial in nature. An international team of scientists is assembled to examine this find, soon enough learning that embedded within it is a communication from an advanced civilization residing on Venus, the morning star. The Soviets, who are here portrayed as magnanimously inclusive, immediately offer the use of their spaceship Cosmokrator to this team of scientists, and the group is dispatched to Venus right away. Here the plot acquires the race-against-time feel of The Andromeda Strain as the scientists, each a brilliant specialist, learn en route that the decoded message warns of an imminent attack on Earth; once landed, they glean clues from Venus's surface, struggling to prevent this apocalypse, the exact nature of which they only gradually come to understand.

The Silent Star's Cold War message, when it arrives, has to do with the folly of an arrogant race whose enthusiasm for nuclear warfare has gotten the best of it. (Among the crew is a Japanese woman named Sumiko (Yoko Tani) whose childhood was interrupted by World War II, and the proper noun "Hiroshima" thus recurs in The Silent Star with some frequency.) That's the medicine, but the film's imaginative art direction, wardrobe, set design, and cinematic legerdemain are the spoonful of sugar that help it go down, and it's simple enough to understand what it was that audiences in 1960 were lining up to see. Unlike most American sci-fi efforts of the era, which tended to be cheap affairs, The Silent Star doesn't feel as though it were jammed into a soundstage, and its direction and acting are rarely so amateurish as such comparable Western efforts as The Angry Red Planet or Journey to the Seventh Planet. Much of the film's imagined future of 1970 is now inevitably quaint. (Kurt Rackelmann's Professor Sikarna springs to mind; we're informed that he has the IQ of Einstein, but his paper hat and crazy glasses undermine the illusion, and I kept imagining that I was seeing Dr. Strangelove as Henry Gibson might have played him.) But as much more of the film is rendered inventively: the gaseous atmosphere of Venus, which is garishly colorful and punctuated by horizontal, chartreuse lightning; a dead Venusian city where melted towers lean into one another like an even crazier work out of Gaudi's Barcelona and where cables with horn-shaped ends swing enigmatically out of the sky; a "glass forest" that at first seems organic but is later found to have been built to malevolent ends. Visually, the effects sequences on Earth are clean and spare, equal parts Fellini and Playtime; these Venusian scenes, on the other hand, are like Mario Bava, given a budget and a hit of windowpane.

The Silent Star was the first of DEFA's sci-fi efforts and - in a positive way - the effort shows. You can forgive the film its seriousness and its political intentions. You can even forgive the pseudo-scientific dialogue ("How could this happen? I thought the Cosmokrator automatically avoids meteor clouds." "Yes, but the accelerator couldn't go fast enough because we had the fuse set at 8G.") that moves the plot along. What matters in The Silent Star is its eagerness to please an audience, and to a large extent it gets the job done.

The Silent Star is newly available on DVD from First Run Pictures, along with the DEFA sci-fi films Eolomea (1972) and In the Dust of the Stars (1976).

Aka Der Schweigende Stern, Milczaca gwiazda, Raumschiff Venus antwortet nicht, First Spaceship on Venus, Planet of the Dead, Spaceship Venus Does Not Reply.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Prof. Harringway Hawling, as Prof. Saltyk, Julius Ongewe as Talua, Michail N. Postnikow as Prof. Arsenew, as Prof. Sikarna, Günther Simon as Robert, Tang Hua-Ta as Dr. Tchen Yu, Lucyna Winnicka as Joan Moran, as Sumiko Ogimura MD, Ruth-Maria Kubitschek as Frau Arsenjew, Eva-Maria Hagen as Reporterin

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