Though it's easy to mock its very '70s art direction, costume design and general sensibility, In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne, 1975) exhibits much imagination throughout. This East German production is one of a trio of Iron Curtain fantasies (the other two are The Silent Star and Eolomea, both recently reviewed by DVD Savant) being released in disappointing non-anamorphic transfers by First Run Features, as part of its DEFA (Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft) collection.
Two years after receiving a distress call from the planet Tem, and after perilously avoiding a crash landing, the crew of the spaceship Cynro 19/4 arrives on the barren planet to investigate. The two men and four women are greeted by Chta (Aurelia Dumitrescu), who escorts Commander Akala (Jana Brejchova) and her crew to meet with the Temian representatives. Navigator Suko (Alfred Struwe), also Akala's lover, is suspicious and opts to stay behind.
In the vast Temian court, bearded Ronk (Milan Beli) at first treats his guests coldly and standoffish, but after conferring with The Boss (Ekkehard Schall) invites them to a wild party where our heroes are subjected to a subtle form of amnesiastic mind-control, and return to the ship thinking the Temians are swell folk indeed. Meanwhile, Suko learns that the Temians had forced their ship down, and (mild spoilers) are in fact foreign invaders who have enslaved the Turi, the planet's true indigenous people, forcing them to dig for a precious metal in a vast mine. (An enormous salt mine near Bucharest was used.) It was they who sent the distress signal, and now the crew of the Cynro 19/4 must decide whether to beat a hasty retreat or fight for the Turi and risk starting an interplanetary war.
Like their Soviet counterparts, the East German science fantasies are notable for their striking and often wildly imaginative art direction, and In the Dust of the Stars is no exception, though it is scaled back somewhat from previous efforts. Though referred to at one point as cosmonauts, and identified as voyagers from Earth on First Run's official synopsis (on their website), the film seems to indicate that Akala, Suko, and the others aren't from Earth at all, but rather from a planet also called Cynro. There's never mention of anything earth-specific and throughout the film, both on Tem and inside the spaceship, a great deal of effort has been made to render both props and behavior very slightly alien. Computers print out data on metallic paper, inter-personal relationships are subtly different from present-day Earthbound ones, and everything from eating utensils to board games are made to look a bit unfamiliar as well as futuristic.
The overall look is reminiscent of Gerry Anderson's '70s efforts for British television, shows like UFO and Space: 1999, though on a slightly grander scale. Some of the sets and props are vividly imaginative, others are merely silly and preposterous, and try too emphatically to be science-fictiony. There are a lot of scantily-clad women dressed in veils straight out of a Maria Montez-Jon Hall extravaganza, and the choreography is as funny as similar scenes in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953). And yet there's also a surprising amount of demure, almost tasteful nudity, and the film was clearly intended for adults, not children. The mining scenes are fairly epic, with hundreds if not a thousand or so costumed extras, and the locations are used very well. There are few special visual effects, but the miniatures and full scale sets of the Cynro 19/4, its flying surveillance probes and the land rovers the Temians use are attractive.
Some will read way too much in the film's exploitation of the workers story by decadent and technologically superior invaders, but this is a theme running through fantasy going back to She and endless cheap science fiction movies. More interesting is the fact that the commander of the Cynro 19/4 is a woman, as is the majority of her crew (including the ship's doctor). This is treated casually and without much comment, just as it was with the racially and politically varied cosmonauts on the First Spaceship on Venus.
Video & Audio
Despite claims that the three DEFA features were 16:9 widescreen, in fact all three titles are non-anamorphic letterboxed, severely dampening the great excitement that had greeted early announcements. (Indeed, the image on The Silent Star isn't all that better from the Image/Wade Williams transfer of the U.S. version, First Spaceship on Venus.) According to DVD Savant, First Run Features "says the info [indicating 16:9] came from the East German supplier," but that's no excuse. They could have rejected the transfers (a common practice) and demanded a new one, and certainly they had to have known there was a problem long before the street date. What's more, apparently the German DVDs of all three titles are 16:9 anamorphic, making this even more bafflingly frustrating.
The 4:3 letterboxed (about 1.85:1) image presented here has good color and a reasonably sharp image, yet it's hard not to wonder how much better it might have looked in 16:9 format. On my 16:9 Toshiba, I was able to reformat the image just fine, but as DVD Savant points out, some widescreen sets can't reformat the image in such a way that you can still read the subtitles, so buyer beware. The subtitling is not without flaws of its own. Throughout the film the letters "ALS" appear in lines of dialogue, presumably a formatting error. All the credits are translated, but the film's several songs are not. The mono soundtrack, in German only with removable subtitles, was looped entirely in postproduction owing to the international cast, but is acceptable. Menu screens are available in both German and English.
The best of the supplements is Dusting Off After 30 Years: Cameraman Peter Suring remembers, a 15-minute interview with helpful comments from the veteran DP. It may have originally been 16:9 as well, but here it's 4:3 letterboxed to about 1.77:1. An essay by Sonja Fritzsche of Illinois Wesleyan University, East German Science Fiction Literature, offers an instructive overview. Less satisfying is an all-too-brief Director Gottfried Kolditz: Biography & Filmography, which is little more than the kind of basic information one can easily find off the IMDb. Better is Jana Brejchova: Biography & Filmography, which has good background on the popular Czech actress, who was married to both Milos Forman and the late Vlastimil Brodsky (Jacob the Liar).
East German Sci-Fi Movie Trailers is limited to the three DEFA titles, all 4:3 letterboxed with the filmed-in-color Eolomea trailer in black and white. None of these German trailers have been subtitled, so their value is limited. A Photo Gallery is another disappointment, as it appears nothing more than a series of frame-grabs, with no behind-the-scenes photos or advertising art.
First Run Features' DEFA collection, including In the Dust of the Stars, must rank as one of the great DVD disappointments of 2005. Long unavailable in their original form, the films are fascinating but the presentations a major let-down, with even the supplements a mixed bag.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.