In 1934, following the death of Lenin, one of the new rulers of the Soviet Union identified a “conspiracy” in the upper echelons of Soviet government and began a series of murderous purges that left hundreds of officials, labor leaders, intellectuals, artists, and most importantly his personal enemies dead or in prison. By the end of the purges, no one was left or willing to oppose the ascension of Joseph Stalin as sole ruler of the Soviet Union. In 1935, the same year Flash Gordon and his silver underwear debuted in American serials, the Soviet Union took their first journey into space since Aelita, Queen of Mars. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the man whose visionary speculation in the realm of aerospace science inspired Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy to write Aelita, was summoned by Mosfilm to work as an advisor and designer for an adaptation of one of his own novels, Outside the Earth.
Director Vasily Zhuravlyov had been trying to get the movie made since 1924, but he hadn’t quite cracked the code to getting science fiction approved under the dictates of social realism. It wasn’t until a decade later that the project was greenlit, primarily because the Communist Youth League (or Komsomol) was looking for a way to inspire the next generation of Soviets to get more interested in building a glorious future. They thought Zhuravlyov’s idea of adapting an inspiring “forward to the future!” story like Outside the Earth was just what they were looking for. It became Kosmicheskiy Reys (Cosmic Voyage), one of the most ambitious films of the early Soviet era and which, though far less known than Aelita, achieved a similar level of stylistic dazzle while maintaining a much spritelier pace and more exciting, pulpier plot.
Drawing inspiration not just from Tsiolkovsky, but also from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), and HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon, Cosmic Voyage is the story of man’s first trip to the moon. Frau im Mond was a more modest production than Lang’s previous science fiction outing, the epic Metropolis, but still influential. Especially on Cosmic Voyage, which ends up largely a remake despite having began life years before Lang’s film was made. Tsiolkovsky’s 1920 story was basically scientific theory presented in the guise of fiction, with the framework of an international group of scientists coming together to solve rocketry problems serving as a way of delivering a large amount of scientific theory (and even mathematical formulas) in a more easily digested format than a more typical scientific paper. You can get an idea of the book’s structure by looking at how many chapters bear titles referring to everyone attending lectures. Although it might have inspired Vasily Zhuravlyov to start work on a movie about space travel, by the time the movie was actually in production, the story of Outside the Earth had been largely replaced by the scifi adventure of Fritz Lang’s film, though stripped of Frau im Mond‘s romantic triangle melodrama.
Woman in the Moon was Lang’s last silent film and the first feature-length film about going to the moon (Melies had explored the moon before, of course, in the short film A Trip to the Moon). It spins the yarn of mankind’s first trip beyond the confines of the earth, but much of it is taken up with the story of the romantic triangle between entrepreneur Helius (Willy Fritsch), Helius’s assistant Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), and Windegger’s fiancee Friede (Gerda Maurus). Scientist Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl) enters the unhappy triangle when he writes an article about the probability of finding gold on the moon, a prospect that is rejected by the scientific community but captures Helius’ attention. Completing the makeup of the unhappy project is Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp), a mysterious businessman and part-time thug who mugs, blackmails, and bullies his way aboard the eventual rocket flight to the moon. And because this expedition isn’t doomed enough as it is, after they finally take off they discover a young stowaway, Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur). Things go about as well as you’d expect once this bunch of yahoos lands on the far side of the moon.
Just about all of this is lifted wholesale in the USSR’s Cosmic Voyage, which gets the same job done in half the run time and in a much more rip-roaring adventure fashion. Cosmic Voyage also boasts better special effects (including some great stop-motion animation by Fyodor Krasne to simulate zero gravity, and fantastic miniatures and matte paintings). Both films showcase surprisingly accurate predictions of what space travel and lunar exploration might be like. Lang employed Hermann Oberth, the father of German rocketry and mentor of Werner von Braun, to advise him while the Soviets had Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Assisting Oberth was Willy Ley, who along with von Braun became one of the architects of the American space program. Oberth gets the launch sequence more accurate than the Russians. In fact, his vision of what a rocket launch and flight would look like was so close to what became reality that the Nazis banned the film, finding the depiction of rocket ships too accurate to the V2 rockets they were developing in secret during the War.
Tsiolkovsky comes much closer than Oberth to nailing the surface of the moon. The crew of Cosmic Voyage (minus the evil capitalist – oddly Cosmic Voyage is somewhat less socialist than Lang’s film, stripping away the subplot about a vile, jealous capitalist presumably because such awful people simply wouldn’t exist in a socialist utopia like the Soviet Union; his character is replaced here by a cat) has to spend their entire trip in their spacesuits and deal with the lack of gravity. Though it should be noted that assessing films like this on “what they got right” about the future misses the point of them specifically and science fiction in general, which is less about making guesses about how the future will be and more about using the future to explore the present.
Lang’s film is full of brooding and backstabbing undercutting the triumph of space travel and reflecting the increasingly dark days at the end of the Weimar era and during the ascension of the Nazis. Vasily Zhuravlyov’s film, made before the reality of Stalin’s purges had gripped the nation at large, is full of the potential of humanity to succeed, reflecting the boundless optimism (or at least the need to appear boundlessly optimistic) of the Soviet Union, still less than two decades old. Both films include women, though Cosmic Voyage thankfully removes the burden of a romantic subplot. In fact, Vasily Zhuravlyov trims most of the melodrama that increased Frau im Mond‘s runtime to an epic 200 minutes, making for a much breezier adventure. He also adds more comedy, and in a rare turn, the comedy is actually pretty amusing. No El Brendel on board these spaceships. Sadly, if you were hoping for an early example of the Soviet belief that the sexes should be equal, don’t hold your breath. Despite being signed on as the pilot, the woman in Cosmic Voyage mostly gets stuck with domestic duty while the men crash the ship into the moon. Because he’s not a pilot, and he’s making the pilot cook dinner.
The film was a major undertaking, requiring two years to complete. Ostensibly a children’s film, Cosmic Voyage still deals out quite a bit of hard science. Or the best guess in 1935. Cosmonauts still board their ship carrying luggage, accompanied by a wife yelling at one of them not for forget his winter boots, since it’s very cold on the moon. Tsiolkovsky himself designed the miniatures, including a streamlined winged space plane and a futuristic research facility. Some of the more fantastical elements that crept into Woman in the Moon were excised in the Soviet version. No breathable atmosphere, no gravity, and certainly no mountains of gold. Whereas Lang’s crew is beset from the very first by one calamity after another, compounded by the occasional betrayal, Zhuravlyov’s crew – brilliant but erratic scientist Pavel Ivanovich Sedikh (Sergey Komarov, looking like an obvious stand-in for Tsiolkovsky himself), brave young stowaway Andryusha (Vassili Gaponenko), and pilot Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) – don’t go to the moon to bicker and die while looking for gold like a bunch of futuristic Treasure of the Sierra Madre types; no, the Soviets go there because they can, and because mankind is awesome and full of potential.
Their trip to the moon, though not without complications, is a delight to behold, with the three valiant proto-cosmonauts whooping it up, doing those long low-gravity moon leaps, and generally enjoying the hell out of being the first people on the moon. Not that exploring the moon is all frolics and mirthmaking. Soviet science fiction has always split itself between optimism and caution, remembering that great adventure comes with great risk. In Cosmic Voyage, for example, a combination of excitement and hubris leads to Sedikh piloting the rocket despite not being qualified for the job, resulting in that crash landing that potentially dooms them all. No matter how much optimism fuels your endeavor, it turns out space is really dangerous. But then, no matter how much danger there is, mankind should accept the challenge. Because that is the way forward, the way toward enlightenment, and the way toward doing joyous leaps across the lunar surface.
Which is more joy than the film brought Soviet officials. Despite the endorsement of the Komsomol, the government found the film too flippant, too fantastic, not nearly grim and realistic enough. Probably not nearly enough material about beet distribution centers and people driving tractors. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky passed away just before the film was complete, never seeing the finished product but also being spared the huge step backward the Soviet space program took during World War II and Stalin’s reign. After its initial run, Cosmic Voyage was pulled from circulation and buried. It wouldn’t resurface again until the 1980s. When it did, people inside and outside the Soviet Union were as happy as a bunch of jumping cosmonauts to discover such a forgotten gem of science fiction. In fact, despite the great push forward and the futurist dreams of the Constructivists during the era of Lenin, science fiction and real-world rocket science in the Soviet Union disappeared almost entirely during World War II, when the country was under siege, and during Stalin’s brutal reign. Cosmic Voyage was, in fact, the last Soviet science fiction film until Nebo Zovyot (The Heavens Call) in 1959, after Stalin had died and the USSR began to rebuild. Cosmic Voyage is a tremendous recovery. If you have to have a last of the era type film, it might as well be something as unabashedly delightful and energetic as Cosmic Voyage.