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DVD SAVANT

First Spaceship on Venus


First Spaceship on Venus
Image Entertainment
1960 / Color / 2:35 letterboxed flat / mono audio
Starring Yoko Tani, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, Julius Ongewe, Michail N. Postnikow, Kurt Rackelmann, Günther Simon, Tang Hua-Ta, Lucyna Winnicka
Cinematography Joachim Hasler
Production Design Alfred Hirschmeier and Anatol Radzinowicz
Film Editor Lena Neumann
Original Music Andrzej Markowski (replaced with Gordon Zahler stock music)
Written by J. Barkhauer, Jan Fethke, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Kurt Maetzig, Günter Reisch, Günther Rücker and, Alexander Stenbock-Fermor, from the 1951 novel Astronauci (The Astronauts) by Stanislaw Lem
Produced by DEFA, Iluzjon Filmunit
Directed by Kurt Maetzig and Hieronim Przybyl

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The original East German version of this film has also been reviewed at DVD Savant (8/18/05).

REVISED, 9/22/00, with information from Andreas Kortmann . ALSO REVISED, 1/21/01, by the author with notes on the German version, Die Schweigende Stern. (see bottom of page)

1962 brought a dandy show to 'nabe theaters everywhere. Savant, aged 11, saw the full page ads in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and practically went nuts. "You Are There ... on Mankind's Greatest Adventure!" First Spaceship on Venus, in TotalScope and Technicolor, and Varan, the Unbelievable. Since neither film was longer than an hour and twenty minutes, my hometown theater ground out 4 complete cycles a day. On the Saturday I went the double bill filled the house with hundreds of candy-eating, popcorn-tossing kids.

We didn't have a clue about what we were watching. We didn't know that both features were recycled foreign productions, presumably bought cheaply and retooled to amuse American kiddies. Varan had a monster. It smashed things and roared loudly. Spaceship had what looked like a full-sized rocket taking off, lots of futuristic hardware on display and a unique and exotic planet looking nothing like the cardboard scenery of Missile to the Moon.

(This article was written in ignorance of what really happened in the original German-Polish version. (See Below) Rather than rewrite the text, I've changed the portions that later were proven false, to the color green.)

Synopsis:

In the not so distant future, Earth is peaceful, a model of international cooperation. There is already a base on the Moon, and scientists are preparing the Cosmostrator, a beautiful, four-spired Mars rocket. Construction workers in Siberia unearth an artifact called a 'spool', that is discovered to be of extraterrestrial origin. Linguist Tchen Yu (Tang Hua-Ta) and mathematician Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann) team with American scientist Harringway (Oldrich Lukes) and nuclear physicist Orloff (Ignacy Machowsky) to study the spool. They decide that it was part of an alien spaceship that exploded over Siberia in 1908, creating a crater previously thought to be a meteor impact. The Cosmostrator is rerouted to Venus, the source of the alien rocket, to investigate. Joining the group are four more ethnically diverse astronauts: Cybernetics expert Dr. Durand (Michail N. Postnikow) has a tanklike robot named Omega (pronounced with the accent on the 'O'). Talua (Julius Ongewe) is the voyage's communications expert. Sumiko Omigura (Yoko Tani) is a widowed physician whose husband died on the Moon. Ace American astronaut Brinkman (Guenther Simon), was the first person to set foot on the Moon. He has a crush on Sumiko, and interestingly was the only witness to her husband's accidental death.

Avoiding a meteor storm, the Cosmostrator lands on a bleak Venus of weird and unfamiliar sights. Brinkman discovers a cave infested with metallic insects, that Sikarna determines hold recorded data. A 'vitrified' forest' is a tangle of radioactive trees that once functioned as some kind of energy-projecting weapon. Like everything else on Venus, it appears to have been partially destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, a theory borne out when shadows of Venusians are seen burned into a wall, Hiroshima-style. Just as the explorers are realizing that Venus was preparing to invade Earth, but destroyed themselves first, a chain reaction of events throws their plans into chaos. A black and red ooze pursues Omigura, Brinkman and Durand up the spiral ramp of a conical structure. Durand fires a ray gun at it in desperation, a move which saves the trio but upsets the balance of the giant machines that still function on the dead planet. An underground power plant starts augmenting gravity with a force field. To allow the Cosmostrator to blast off, Talua and Tchen Yu enter the plant to try and reverse the process. Tchen Yu's spacesuit is punctured, so Brinkman takes a mini-rocket in a rescue attempt. Talua's efforts succeed in reversing the gravitation, which then swings to the opposite extreme - negative gravity. The Cosmostrator is forced off the planet, while Brinkman is tossed into the void. Poor Talua is abandoned on the surface. Back home, the five survivors mourn their lost comrades but deliver a tale of world whose fate the Earth will hopefully not share.


Information about First Spaceship on Venus, Varan and many imported features distributed under new titles has been very slow in coming to America. It wasn't until the 90's (and Stuart Galbraith IV) that Savant learned that Varan had been a 1958 Toho television show upgraded to theatrical halfway through production. There is so much monster footage in Toho's original, including shots of Varan shooting through the air like a flying squirrel,


that it looks as if it were produced expressly for sale: 90 minutes of random Kaiju destruction, ready for a smart producer/editor to add their own Raymond Burr substitute. Denied normal distribution in the West, Russia's Mosfilm fantasies ended up completely reedited, revoiced and sometimes re-plotted by the likes of A.I.P.: The Sword and the Dragon (Ilja Muromets), Queen of Blood (Niebo Zowiet), Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (Planeta Bur) and The Day the Earth Froze (Sampo) are just a few.

But news squeaked through about screenings at places like the Trieste film festival, of movies never shown here: La Poupee, Omicron, Ikarie XB-1. These were serious pictures, sometimes with adult themes. It would be tough for American producers who specialized in these imports to turn them into kiddie matinee fare, as had been done with the Czech Karel Zeman's Baron Munchausen and Vynalez zkazy (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne). Shorn of 26 minutes, Ikarie XB-1 became the still-fascinating Voyage to the End of the Universe.1

First Spaceship on Venus appears also to have been a serious Science Fiction epic, something that most reviewers didn't bother to think about in 1962. The Variety critic lazily quipped that this colorful Venus was "quite a planet, but no place to spend a summer vacation." Now that's wit.

The book source was the 1951 Astronauci by Stanislaus Lem, a first space novel by the man who would later find reknown for Solaris. Director Kurt Maetzig was the founding rector of the College of Film Arts at the Potsdam-Babelsberg studio in East Germany. It appears that this German-Polish co-production was made at a studio that was at least partially a film school called DEFA; perhaps the stunning designs and the bizarre vision of Venus, was the work of students. The film was called Der Schweigende Stern in German and Milczaca Gwiazda in Polish, both presumably meaning "Silent Star". An alternate title was Spaceship Venus Does Not Reply. This would seem a play on the title of an early 30's UFA science fiction epic called Floating Platform One Does Not Reply. The construction had been repeated for This Island Earth, renamed Metaluna Does Not Reply for its German release.

The latter title is perhaps an important clue. Many of the reviewers who trashed First Spaceship thought situations like its meteor shower were tired cliches. Perhaps this Eastern-Bloc space opera consciously intended to restate and transcend all the American space movies they had seen. There's the planet destroyed by atomic war from Rocketship X-M. A colossal alien technology outliving its extinct creators (Forbidden Planet). An EVA to repair the ship (Destination Moon). An Asian biologist who makes life grow on another world Conquest of Space. And a tank-like robot that goes haywire and injures a scientist (Gog). The original release was never intended for children, nor as a joke, as can be seen in the beauty of the Polish poster (below).

Of course the dubbing is terrible, with the line, "It's incredible!" repeated to distraction. The music is an obnoxious needle-drop collection of stock cues that chimes in with a goofy comical tune for the robot and predictable 'oriental' music for the introduction of Sumiko. Savant knows there are experts who can rattle off the sources verbatim, but he's pretty sure he heard the 'entering Metaluna' theme from This Island Earth, and a blip or two from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. If Forbidden Planet wasn't the source of some of the sound effects, then they sure sound similar. Only two original actors, one writer and the director made the American on-screen credit list, but Crown International managed to include Gordon Zahler and two of his music editors.  2 Savant recommends that for at least one screening you just turn down the volume, put on your favorite music and pretend its an avant-garde silent film!

There is plenty of editorial evidence to suggest 'executive supervisor' Hugo Grimaldi performed major film surgery on Der Schweigende Stern. Besides repeating the rocket launch (what a spoiler) to jazz up the opening, there are enough abrupt cuts to black and forced fades to hide any number of missing scenes. At the end, a woman in the crowd of greeters (Lucyna Winnicka?) gives Harringway an emotional hug, implying that some pre-launch personal stories may have been jettisoned. The provocative triangle between Sumiko, Brinkman, and Sumiko's dead husband is unresolved. Did it have anything to do with Brinkman's constant volunteering for the most dangerous missions? Were there backstories, jealousies or soap-opera intrigues among the other astronauts? Or were there perhaps philosophical discussions of issues, slow-paced debates, as filled up the running time of the later Solaris? This version is only 78 minutes long, and something substantial had to have been cut - the original is listed as 95 minutes long.

Savant guesses that scientific rationales, especially at the end, were simplified or pulled out of a hat by Grimaldi during recutting. Verbally, the English dub repeats almost verbatim the matter-energy gobbledegook from the 1957 film Kronos. But things start to get pretty confusing. Someone kicks a rock into the mud, and that causes a reaction of some kind? Shooting a ray gun into the blob-monster causes an atomic reaction? This makes the underground machines increase the gravity? Talua, the only crewmember without a PhD, is the one who reverses the process? And reverse gravity is what kills Brinkman and expels the Cosmostrator off the planet? Here's Savant's analysis:(later proved completely false)

The rock leaping back out of the mud, or the reverse action of the blob on the cone walkway, could have been reverse printing, imposed during Crown International's post-production process. Note that we never see the trio walking down the spiral path, they just appear clear of the hazard a couple of cuts later. Savant guesses that the cone episode was unrelated to the chaos at the end of the film and may have had some other function in a more complicated plot. We see the gravity meter go up and then down, but nothing seems to be affected by the yo-yo Venusian gravity force field except the Cosmostrator. (Its retro-rockets are a nice touch, aren't they?) Talua and Tchen Yu can walk in the 4 and 5 Gs of increased gravitation, and nothing except the Cosmostrator and Brinkman's mini-rocket seem to be affected when the gravity reverses. Also, we see Talua lowering himself into the machine cave, and the survivors say he succeeded in doing whatever he planned, but we never see him do anything. We don't even know how he got out of the hole. Savant suspects that there are more complicated things going on here, and that details and whole scenes may have performed completely different functions in the original. And the order of some scenes seems to have been changed. Look at the scene immediately before the arrival of American space ace Brinkman - he's already there, standing behind the other crewmembers! At the beginning of the power crisis, Talua notes that the giant globe is glowing red. Ten or so minutes later, the crew jumps up at the sight of the globe, as if it had just turned red moments before.

But Savant's betting that Brinkman's being an American must have been an alteration - he makes his entrance in a Russian MIG, for Pete's sake. The Soviet puppet Germans and Poles make a movie in the middle of the space race where an American is both the first man on the Moon and Venus? No way, Ivan.


The stunning Polish Poster, courtesy reader G. Knowles. On a Mac, hold your mouse until the menu choice 'open this image' appears, to see it full-sized. On a PC, uh, Savant doesn't know what you do.

So First Spaceship on Venus is a remnant of an Iron Curtain space opera. We can't judge it by its script or its soundtrack. Who knows what Andrzej Markowski's original music sounded like? (note: lots of German DVD fans ... again see the revision, bottom of page) What we are left with are the visuals, which amount to the best-looking space movie made outside of Hollywood to that date. Virtually everything we see is an imaginatively designed prop or custom costume, and unlike most space operas very little looks ridiculous or dated. Omega the robot works at least as well as R2D2 on screen (actually yelling 'Danger!' at one point, but not 'Will Robinson'). The Cosmostrator (Kosmokrator in the original, according to Phil Hardy) appears to be a large model with convincingly smoky rocket exhaust, that works in a gigantic forced-perspective set. It may be twenty or thirty feet tall. It's certainly original and beautiful, albeit rather outrageously impractical-looking.

Venus is a wonderful visual creation from its crunchy diamond-coal surface, to the spiky twisted canyons of melted alien buildings, to the tunnels and glowing power structures. Superimposed oil-like clouds of wispy color slide across the screen. The foggy full-sized sets seem to go on for hundreds of feet, and the miniature landscapes are well-integrated. The 'city' structures resemble the nightmarish hell-scapes of Hieronymous Bosch, especially the gourd-shaped stilt-buildings. This ambitiously realized Venus impresses because it looks like the Planet of Modern Art, sort of an extra circle of Hell. What appear to be dozens of telephone receivers dangle on cords in one setting. And the best scene in the movie, the attack of the black ooze, looks like a surrealist painting come to life.


Image's DVD of First Spaceship on Venus is a good but not perfect show. The 16mm copies previously available were simply awful-looking, and this TotalScope 2:35 frame once again restores the beauty of the compositions (Savant's favorite, the dreamy shot of the Cosmostrator's spotlight circling in the fog). The transfer appears to have been made from a 35mm positive release print, which may be all that space-meister Wade Williams possesses, or indeed, all that exists of this release. As such, there are more splices and scratches than one would wish. But only once is a dialog line abbreviated by a jump cut. The color is bright and reasonably approximates the Technicolor experience except for the blacks, which clog up to a degree. Julius Ongewe's face is a blot in many shots, where there is supposed to be more detail in the darker extreme. The trailer repeats the smorgasbord list from the original advertising materials: "See! the vitrified forest! ... etc."


Savant is tickled to finally have a DVD of First Spaceship on Venus. Kurt Maetzig, the retired director of Der Schweigende Stern is listed on the American Cinematheque's International board. Maybe he could help get some terrific original prints to show in the coming Summer of Science Fiction, 2001.

Sounds like a plan to me.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, First Spaceship on Venus rates:
Movie: Good (visually: the dubbing and replaced music are not)
Video: Good - (contrasty; not 16:9 enhanced)
Sound:Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: August 19, 2000


REVISION 9/22/00: Savant did indeed receive the reply he hoped for from the reliable Andreas Kortmann, a name familiar from internet Forums. Herr Kortmann found some research that is probably the final, (and very positive) word on Der Schweigende Stern - it's not as long as some sources say, but the original version IS available on DVD - if you have a multi-region player.Vielen dank, Andreas.

Glenn: I just read your review of First Spaceship on Venus. There is no 130 min. version of that movie. I have seen two German reference books where the movie is listed. I have a TV-recording of the 80 min. version. I have never heard of a 130 min. cut outside of Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia.

I just discovered a website of the Mediothek of the University of Oldenburg. They have a collection of DEFA movies and apparently their copy of Der Schweigende Stern is 94 min. The URL is:

http://www.bis.uni-oldenburg.de/defa/0685/0685.htm

It looks like there are a couple of different versions of the movie around. I suspect that the 80/81 min. version was the cut released here in West-Germany under the title Raumschiff Venus Antwortet Nicht ("Spaceship Venus doesn't answer") and the 94 min. version is the original East-German cut. It would be 90 min. in PAL so that the running time given by amazon.de for the DVD may be correct after all.

If you can play region 2/PAL DVDs you could order the DVD from amazon.de. The price is very reasonable (about 12$ + shipping). I'm not 100% sure if it's properly letterboxed. - - Andreas Kortmann

Note 1/21/01: Savant did indeed get a VHS dub of the German DVD late in November, and watching it was quite an experience. First, a lot of the conjecture in the review above turned out be be bad guesses and wishful thinking. Instead of revising and tossing out the original text, I've left the errors up and tinted them green, so that those who read the review initially will not be looking for the old, wrong information ... you get the idea, I hope.

The VHS of the German disc was probably made on one of those code-free PAL-to NTSC Chinese machines, and the only flaw really in the copy was that the picture is stretched out horizontally about 3 or 4 percent. This might have something to do with the lines of resolution. Whatever is true, it didn't hurt appreciation of the movie.

The titles go on forever and are simple lettering over a bluish background that doesn't express anything particularly spacey. The original music on the titles is very good, orchestral and electronic tension music that promises a lot. Unfortunately, once the movie gets going, the music settles into automatic pilot mode, and isn't very exciting. It's still better than the American stock cues that are well cut but dramatically overbearing. The picture looks much better. There is scarcely a mark on the negative, and the color (a big AGFA logo is in the titles) is much better than the Image disc. Many more hues can be seen in the clouds of gas; and a lot more detail is visible in the blacks. When the first cosmonaut sets foot on Venus' crunchy surface, it looks like granular black rocks with shiny diamond highlights. It doesn't hide some of the effects as well as the American disc, but on the German disc the art direction is far better represented.

The movie has not been drastically rearranged at all. Savant's radical theories about the menace of the reenergized Venusian machines in the review above is all wrong; things happen exactly as they do in the Crown recut. Savant couldn't follow the German track, but the words he did recognize indicate that the same events happen: They do knock a rock into the black goop (it pops out again, just as we're used to seeing). The gravity does reverse. The crewmembers go through the same motions .... with the same results. In general, there are no new effects scenes. The new material Savant spotted is this:

New, longer titles (described above)

More preflight discussion. Here's where the heaviest cutting was done. There is much more milling about on the tarmac with the ship in the background, both day and night. The lady reporter interviews everyone at least twice. I think that Talua says goodbye to his girlfriend through the tv camera. Brinkman's mother sends him off, and also says farewell to Sumiko. We see the other cosmonaut's wife, who only shows up at the conclusion in the short cut.

Two of the Cosmonauts take a last minute jeep ride out of the compound for a casual walk in an alpine field so green and airy, it looks as if Julie Andrews is about to run out singing at any moment. From the German Savant knows, the dialogue is typical,"Gee, here we are leaving the warmth and life of Earth for the coldness of space, how strange."

There is a new scene where the expedition leader has a heated discussion with some important men behind the project - businessmen? politicians? industrialists? Savant can't tell whether what's being debated is technical or what - there are no props and nothing written anywhere. Whatever the outcome, the launch never seems to be in jeopardy. It's altogether possible that the scene is about the ship being rerouted from Mars to Venus, just as in the American cut. There's not a lot of dramatic tension that can be detected in any of this; just the fact that the launch is happening seems to be plot enough for Die Schweigende Stern.

The moment where the crewmembers pile into jeeps to drive out to the KosmoKrator is a bit longer, and reminiscent of the The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy leaves the Munchkin village. Because they are driving into a forced-perspective set, they can only go so far without giving away the illusion. The blocking is almost identical, right down to the crowd of color-coded techies waving goodbye just like Munchkins.

There are perhaps half a dozen scenes en route to Venus, all dialog scenes that seem to differentiate the characters, but introduce no shocking new material. Sumiko disabuses Brinkman of any notion that they're going to have a romance. Brinkman fills in the other crew members on the fact that her fianceé lost his life on the moon. There's more of the typical scenes we're all used to, with doctor Sumiko trying to get the cranky professors to eat their ketchup, or whatever's in those colored bottles.

On Venus, there appear to be only trims here and there. When they break out the surgery after Omega runs his treads over a crewmember, there is some added material. Most of the blocking leans to the stiff side; Tchen Yu has more scenes with Sumiko, but I don't think the relationship is anything beyond professional.

The trip back to Earth is almost identical. The plain static shot of stars that seems to have been tossed in as a buffer is disappointingly identical in both movies. On Earth, after the speeches are over, the American version fades abruptly. It is the last shot of the movie, but in the original the take continues, panning left down a long line of space personnel linking hands in a gesture of solidarity and communal resolve. It's a nice touch that only a Commie-hater would cut out, as it isn't particularly ideological or anything.

Savant will have to wait for a German speaker to tell me if there is any hot content in the original German dialogue. I certainly don't see anyone making any obvious political speeches; I would say that any interesting political content is going to be that 'heated discussion' scene, and for all I know it's all going to be about fuel mixtures or something. GE (2/21/01)

Note: most of the above is cleared up in Savant's review of The original THE SILENT STAR.


Footnotes:

1. This is an abandoned movie, at least the American cut. A.I.P. released it but eventually lost the rights; it stopped being shown pan'scanned on TV in 1982. Lippert's Spaceflight 1C1 is an obvious ripoff. If it could be seen now, Savant believes it would be added to Terrore Nello Spazio and It! The Terror from Beyond Space as a key source for Dan O'Bannon's Alien. It's now a totally unseeable title. MGM has a 35mm 'scope print in its inventory, but when Savant tried to screen it early in 2001, he found that much of it had shriveled up until it crumbled like brittle cellophane.
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2. This still happens, if you count Sony/Tristar's dropping the entire end credits from the DVDs of its '90s Toho Godzilla - Mothra movies. In some cases they've thrown out important montages that go with them.
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