Moonbeams and Miniskirts

Some years ago, a trio of colorful, contemplative, and sometimes a little bit absurd science fiction films from East German studio DEFA found their way onto home video in the United States. Of them, The Silent Star was the most beloved thanks to its combination of serious speculation and pop-art design, as well as the fact that it was familiar to many in its old dubbed and re-edited version, First Spaceship on Venus. In the Dust of the Stars was the most visually outrageous, combining the futurist aesthetic of the 1970s with the flared pleather jumpsuits and feathered mullets of the disco era. Eolomea was the most often ignored, with its more somber production design cribbed from Solaris and the message being less about the wonder and dangers of space travel and more about how boring and frustrating it can be. But even more ignored than Eolomea — so much so that it wasn’t even included in the set — was DEFA’s forgotten science fiction film, Signale — Ein Weltraumabenteuer.

Silent Star was East Germany’s first big-budget science fiction adventure, and while it achieved a sort of global cult appeal, it was not a big hit in its native East Germany, not enough of a hit anyway to justify the budget. So for years, science fiction film production was scaled back substantially, and DEFA concentrated on other genres, most notably the “indianer” films — German westerns in which the native Americans, rather than cowboys, were the heroes. But in 1968, Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it had a huge impact on the world of film, proving that science fiction was viable on a large scale, and one that combined spectacle with intellectualism and a psychedelic sort of philosophy that still has people debating and wondering “what it’s all about” or if it’s about anything at all.

As big an impact as 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had on U.S. science fiction cinema, it seems to have had an even greater impact in what was then known as the Eastern Bloc — the Communist countries that fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. Communist science fiction films were already predisposed toward being slower and more contemplative than their American counterparts. This impact came both in the form of imitation and reaction. Tartovsky’s landmark Solaris was made after he had a negative reaction to what he considered to be Kubrick’s clinical and soulless film. Solairs may have been the most famous reaction to 2001, but it was not the first Eastern Bloc response. That came from DEFA, who years after The Silent Star dusted off their science fiction filmmaking stuff and, in 1970, made Signale.

The film starts with a lesson all space people should learn: do not name your spaceships after characters in Greek mythology. Especially do not name your spaceship after a character in Greek mythology who was most famous for flying so high that he melted his wings and plummeted to his death. Naming your spaceship Icarus invites as much calamity as naming your spaceship “Space Titanic” or “Space Braveheart But Just the Last Few Minutes When They Are Castrating HIm.” And sure enough, no sooner are we introduced to the crew of the Icarus, which has just picked up a mysterious signal that might be a transmission from intelligent alien life, than the Icarus explodes. Figuring out what happened to it and mounting a presumably hopeless rescue mission falls to aging cosmonaut Veikko (Piotr Pawlowski), who recruits his crew equally from the ranks of the space program “due to retire” field and the young pool of cosmonauts who love doing handwalks on the beach and playing footsie with one another (almost every science fiction film from the USSR during this period had a scene of fit young cosmonauts frolicking on the beach). And at least one of the cosmonauts is on the edge because his girlfriend was aboard the Icarus, so including him is sort of like including the “rage-fueled psychopath” in your bank heist crew.

Signale occupies a curious space in the history of Eastern Bloc space cinema. It retains much of the previous decade’s pop-art design but balances it with the starker art design of 2001 — which is actually pretty 2001 of it, given that 2001 itself mixed stark white minimalism with pop-art space stewardesses and technicolor spacesuits. DEFA’s next science fiction film, Eolomea (which was still very much part of the 2001-train), would scour the colorful pop-art of the 1960s almost entirely from its style, but Eolomea was also the first DEFA science fiction films made in a decade when going to the moon had become old hat and the Soviets had real-life space stations and bored cosmonauts. Coming out in 1970, Signale finds itself balanced not just between style trends, but also between the point the wonder and potential of the space race gave way to the tedium and regularity of the space race. So we get spacesuits that are fairly realistic and drab, and some science about asteroids and out-of-control spaceships (in a scene that would be recreated closely in 2010, ironically enough), but you also get female crew members swapping mod wigs and metallic silver mini-skirts in preparation for the ship’s space dance party.

Although a response to 2001, another major influence on Signale looks to have been the fantastic 1963 Czech film, Ikarie XB-1 (another movie that names its spaceship Icarus — come on, people!). In many ways, Signale could pass as a remake of Ikarie XB-1. Both films concentrate on crew members dealing with day-to-day life in deep space, and both films have a mysterious potential alien presence looming over everything. But where as  the ship-bound world of Ikarie XB-1 is interesting even when it’s exploring the depths of space travel related tedium, thanks largely to a solid cast of characters, the crew of Signale never clicked and thus the film’s exploration of the often tedious nature of space travel tends toward being tedious itself. Helmut Schreiber, as old space veteran Gaston, is the bright light in the cast, but no one else is particularly memorable. On top of that, the central mystery that is supposed to lend tension to the “slice of space life” bulk of the film is neither tense nor mysterious. Once we get to the finale, it just reinforces that none of it was really worth caring about. A film’s philosophical question can be, “What is the point of any of it?” without making the viewer ask that same question about the movie itself.

One of the things that set Eastern Bloc science fiction apart from the more swashbuckling nature of a lot of American science fiction was that it was usually trying to make some sort of social or political point. Even when that point was bald-faced propaganda or pie-in-the-sky self-deluded utopianism, one can always appreciate the effort, if not the message itself. Signale, however, doesn’t have very much to say, especially for a film that was positioned as the opening salvo in a back-and-forth with 2001. If it is attempting to look at the dynamics of an isolated crew in a hostile environment, it fails because it cannot conjure a feeling of immediacy or danger. It tries o make the point that isolation and repetition dulls the sense of just how much peril surrounds you in an environment such as deep space (or, honestly, even shallow space). But intentions don’t guarantee success. If it was trying to tell us that only by working together can we ever conquer the dangers of space, it didn’t make that point very well, either. And even if it was just, “space can be tedious to the point that we forget the wonder,” well DEFA made that point much better a couple years later with Eolomea. By comparison, Signale is sort of just a shrug.

Some of the space sequences, although indeed pointless, are still fantastic. Not the least of these is the scene in which rookie space jockey Juana (Irena Karel) trains to be more nimble in zero gravity. It’s a couple of minutes of simulated zero-G shenanigans set to a jarringly jaunty and playful theme song by Karl-Ernst Sasse (who also scored In the Dust of the Stars). The scene in which the rescue team explores the wreckage of the Icarus is also good, but it employs psychedelic flashes and those “ooooo ahhh ooooo” spooky choruses a la 2001, but for scenes with no sense of cosmic wonder or mystery; it’s usually just a guy opening a door. So…I don’t know. Remember the cosmic wonder that is opening a door…for they always lead you somewhere else! This encapsulates the overarching problem with Signale: it promises the cosmic wonder and philosophy of a 2001 (or, in retrospect, a Solaris), but in the end delivers a pretty run-of-the-mill, normal science fiction “rescue mission” movie. It that sense, it has more in common with the 1963 Soviet science fiction film Mechte navstrechu (A Dream Come True).

Part of the problem might have been that director Gottfried Kolditz, who would go on to direct the much more enjoyable In the Dust of the Stars, fell ill during the making of Signale. Completing the film fell to cinematographer Otto Hanisch, who seems much more interested in shooting the film’s sets and special effects and coming up with camera tricks to convey zero gravity than in keeping us interested in the story. Which…fair enough. If you can get by on (admittedly wonderful) space set design, then Signale has plenty to offer. In fact, from a design and costuming standpoint, this might be my favorite of the DEFA science fiction films. Hanisch shoots these aspects of the film with a technical fetishism that would have doubtless pleased Stanley Kubrick. But not everything wrong with the film can be blamed on the director getting sick. The screenplay, also by Kolditz, fails to capitalize on any of the situations it presents, and the finale is disappointingly mundane.

Which is to say this movie may be disposable, and not all that great, but it’s not bad. It’s just…lesser. The art design is still good, the special effects are good, costumes are spectacular, and while most of the characters aren’t interesting, none of them are terrible or irritating. It has just enough cool stuff in it to keep it watchable, but in the greater scheme of DEFA and Eastern Bloc science fiction, it lags behind the rest of the pack. It deserves to be seen, and it’s a shame it wasn’t included in the DEFA set, but it’s also not as if you are missing a wonder in the history of German and Soviet science fiction. In terms of “wasting time with a space crew,” Ikarie XB-1 executes the story with much more panache, and DEFA’s follow-up to Signale, Eolomea, handles the “mystery of space” aspect much better. Visually, there’s still plenty to appreciate in Signale, and historically, the movie occupies a position that makes it essential viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of science fiction cinema. But in the end, the movie is its own finale. You just sort of shrug and think, “that’s it?”

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