THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS) is an oddball artifact of the year 1960: a science fiction film that echoes its 1950s predecessors while simultaneously foreshadowing the decade to come, the German-Polish co-production is poised somewhere on the cusp of the artistic and the absurd. Its ambition as serious cinefantastique is proudly displayed, yet the execution seems more appropriate for a tongue-in-cheek space opera. With its heavy-handed message and occasionally trite drama, it is tempting to dismiss THE SILENT STAR as an ambitious failure or a propaganda film posing as entertainment; however, a glimmer of noble intent shines through, demanding and even earning some measure of respect.
This somewhat schizophrenic assessment may surprise Western viewers who know the film only through its truncated U.S. version, retitled FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS and cut down to 79 minutes from an original run-time of 93-to-95 minutes (sources vary). Obviously intended as a lavish epic (in color, widescreen, and four-track stereo), THE SILENT STAR’s flaws shine that much more brightly when the film is reduced to the badly dubbed pan-and-scan prints shown on U.S. television and video; it is even harder to take the film seriously if one’s impression is formed by seeing it riotously ribbed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
Fortunately, the original version is available as part of the DEFA Sci-Fi Collection (three films produced at East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft in the ’60s). A good-looking widescreen transfer, with subtitles, is also available on Netflix Instant Viewing; through the running time here is only 89 minutes, nothing obvious seems missing. These European versions contain numerous character scenes and several unflattering references to America’s development and use of nuclear weapons, which were excised presumably to speed up pace and trim THE SILENT STAR’s political message.
Absent the corny star-field of the American prints, THE SILENT STAR begins like an an elaborate roadshow production, with the opening strains of an avante garde score playing against a black screen, as if signalling viewers to take their seats and pay attention. The credits roll over a background of abstract color, immediately giving the impression that one is about to go on some kind of “ultimate trip” akin to either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) or, even more appropriate, SOLARIS (1970).
Like that later film, THE SILENT STAR is based upon a novel by Stanislaw Lem, in this case The Astronauts. The story follows what happens after a mysterious alien artifact is discovered in the Gobi desert in 1970 (the date changed to 1985 in English dubbing). The artifact, which astrophysicists determine came from Venus, turns out to contain some kind of message, but it’s too damaged to interpret immediately. When Venus remains strangely silent in response to Earth-bound attempts to make radio contact, an international crew is assembled to fly to the planet while translating the message on the way; alarmingly, the message turns out to herald an intended invasion. Landing on Venus, the crew have difficulty locating the residents, but they do encounter strange power sources, architectural structures, and tiny metallic objects resembling insects. Eventually, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Venus destroyed themselves in a nuclear conflagration before they could invade Earth. The astronauts try to head home, but the still-active Venusian technology causes problems with liftoff…
In a way, the best thing about THE SILENT STAR is its opening credits sequence; the combination of color and sound brilliantly awakens our Sense of Wonder, whetting the anticipation for the adventure to come. After that, the film itself has a hard time living up to expectations. The initial scenes on Earth are somewhat prosaic. When the astronauts reach the surface of Venus, the production design and special effects create an effectively alien landscape, filled with strange shapes and swirling colors. However, the colorful design is at odds with the script; you halfway expect Barbarella to come flying by at any moment, and the overall effect begins to feel a bit like touring Disneyland on acid.
It doesn’t help that the pressure suits, rocket ship, other vehicles, though sleek and lovely to look at, suggest collectible toys that should be part of a Major Matt Mason action figure line – the mini talking robot on tractor treads even has what looks like a face. Even worse, the suits worn inside the ship resemble giant condoms with ear muffs.
The dialogue is filled with techo-babble, as if large chunks of the novel’s exposition were simply divided up and shoved into the characters’ mouths. Despite the chatter, the science is seldom convincing; at times it plays like dramatic contrivance, such as the latent Venusian technology capable of creating a gravity field that alternately pins the Earth ship to the surface or flings it into space (all without the characters showing any signs of increased or decreased weight). What function this device served is not clear; it exists in the script simply to create the third- act crisis, forcing some crew members to sacrifice themselves for their comrades.
The international flavor of the cast is a nice touch, predating STAR TREK by several years. (The credits even list the cast according to nationality rather than name: e.g., “Kurt Rackelmann as the Indian Mathematician”). Nevertheless, there is a condescending pro-communist attitude: it’s clear that the Soviets have been to the moon first, and they graciously allow an American, Dr. Hawling (Oldrich Lukes) on board their rocket to Venus, even while occasionally guilt tripping him about his country’s use of the atomic bomb against Japan. And the fact that one of the sacrificial lambs is the ship’s sole African astronaut [Julius Ongewe] plays like a bad joke: we may all be brothers in THE SILENT STAR”s Iron Curtain ideology , but the “brother” is left behind. At least “The Chinese Linguist” (Tang Hua-Ta) – who is a biologist on the side! – learns that his experiments have uncovered life on Venus, before he meets his fate.
This latter bit is one of THE SILENT STAR’s few truly affecting moments, capturing both the triumph and tragedy of the mission. Too often, the attempt at a seriousitude yields humorless tone that becomes unintentionally funny. Attempting dramatic, low-key performances, the actors shrug, shakes their heads, and mumble “bah!” as if nothing more important has happened than a light bulb burning out – all while their characters are on a mission to make first contact with an alien culture!
At times, THE SILENT STAR descends into melodrama that is old-fashioned and even sexist, with the lone female crew member, Dr. Ogimura (Yoko Tani), serving the stereotypical role as nurturer and potential love interest, her job as astronaut justified only by the fact that she is, in a sense, not a complete woman. This plays out in a cornball subplot in which Brinkman (Gunther Simon) expresses love for Ogimura and guilt for not having saved her husband’s life on a previous mission: afraid something similar will happen to her, he suggests that she should be giving life – i.e., having babies – instead of risking her own life. In response, Ogimura tells him that radiation poisoning has rendered her sterile.
This last element ties in with the film’s anti-nuclear message, which is delivered with all the subtlety of an H-bomb. As if the presence of an American scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project is not enough, Tani’s “Japanese Doctor” functions to remind us about the fall-out from Hawling’s work: when observing the shadows of bomb victims etched on Venusian walls by a nuclear blast, she says out loud what we should have been allowed to guess: that the scene reminds her of the aftermath of Hiroshima.
With its ill-fated Earth mission discovering an alien world destroyed by nuclear war, THE SILENT STAR plays like a European version of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950). The eye-catching production values and the eerie electronic music recall FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). At the same time, the almost pop art approach to space age technology and alien landscapes is pure ’60s, almost psychedelic in its foreshadowing of later sci-fi cinema. Today, THE SILENT STAR is mostly of historical interest as an example of science fiction made behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. Though no match for SOLARIS, in its original form the film retains enough of its good intentions remain to make it worthwhile viewing.
Click here to read a review of the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS). Directed by Kurt Maetzig. Screenplay by Jan Fethke, Wolfgang Kohlahaase, Gunter Reisch, Gunther Rucker, and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor in collaboration with Kurt Maetzig, based on The Astronauts by Stanislaw Lem. Cast: Yoko Tani, Oldirch Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, Julius Ongewe, Michail N. Postinikow, Kurt Rackelmann, Gunther Simon, Tang Hua-Ta, Lycyna Winnicka.