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Thursday, February 11, 2010

First Spaceship on Venus

Crown International released an english dubbed version of a 1960 East German/Polish sci-fi A-level production. Der Schweigende Stern (DSS: The Silent Star) was itself based on the novel "Astronauci" (Astronauts) by Stanslaw Lem. Crown dubbed the film and shortened it. While the original adventure story is fairly well maintained, the moral of the tale is muted. The First Spaceship on Venus (FSoV), as Crown retitled it, becomes a B film in America, but its landmark qualities are still evident. As Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon kicked off the 50s, Der Schweigende Stern is their counterpart that kicked off the 60s. An international crew set out to explore Venus.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A strange object is found in the Gobi dessert that is of alien origin. It is a recording "spool" whose message can only partially be deciphered. People connect the recordings with the huge meteor impact in Siberia in 1908. Scientists calculate that it was a space ship, not a meteor, and could only have come from Venus. All antennae train on Venus, transmitting greetings, but the morning star is silent. A manned rocket mission to Mars is reassigned to go to Venus. As they get close to Venus, interference blocks radio contact with earth. The two scientists decipher the remaining bit of the message. Venus planned to attack earth. Since the crew cannot get a word of warning to earth, they decide to land. They find traces of a civilization, but no Venusians. They follow a power cable to a big sphere. Others follow the other end to a ruined and melted city. Inside a chamber, a black ooze tries to get them. Durand shoots it with his laser rifle. The ooze retreats, but it triggers a defense mechanism. Gravity is increasing, but will snap into anti-gravity and throw the ship back into space and firing the mega weapon the Venusians planned to strike earth with. Everyone gets to the ship, along the way seeing the shadows of the frightened Vensuians burned onto a wall. Aboard the ship, one of them thinks he can stop the mega weapon from charging. The chinese man and african man go back to a control center to shut it off. The chinese man rips his suit. Brinkman rushes to him with more oxygen. The african shut off the weapon, but the gravity snap occurs anyhow. The ship is tossed into space, as is Brinkman. Chen Yu dies of a ripped suit. Talua is left behind. Back on earth, the surviving five give somber little speeches to the assembled crowds. Let it be a warning to us all, but let's keep exploring space. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The sets are impressive. Even the special effects, which by today's standards are crude, still have a certain polish. It is fun to see the advent of second-generation sci-fi getting underway.

Cold War Angle
Crown's edited version, FSoV, cut away much of the original's heavy nuclear warning moral, but some of it remains. The original film had a heavy nuclear caution message.

XM 2 -- The story line of FSoV merges the grand scale space epic like Conquest of Space ('55) with the cautionary discovery of Rocketship X-M ('50). With much techno-wonder, people travel to another planet. There, they discover that the alien civilization was destroyed by nuclear disaster. The traditional theme of the 1950s, also kicked off the 1960s.

Harmless Edits -- FSoV omits some tangental scenes which were not crucial for the action/adventure story. Much of the background about the death of Sumiko's husband is omitted. Non-essential character development scenes before the launch are dropped: Brinkman and his mother, Arsenyev's goodbyes with his wife, Talua missing Mona, etc. The romantic tension between Sumiko and Brinkman loses several little scenes.

Willful Omissions -- Noteworthy cuts include a longish scene where Sumiko rejects Brinkman's romantic advances, telling him that she cannot have children because of the radiation at Hiroshima. When the crew are traveling in the "crawlers" through the melted Venusian city, Brinkman asks Sumiko what she's thinking. (she looks stunned). In the original, she says "Hiroshima." In Crown's dubbing she says, barely audibly, "...all the damage..."

Shifty Characters -- The nationalities of some key characters shift from the original film to FSoV. The captain of the mission is a Russian in DSS, Professor Arsenyev. In FSoV, he becomes an American, Professor Harringway. Appropriately enough, the American in DSS, Dr. Hawling, becomes the Russian, Dr. Orloff. The Polish engineer, Soltyk becomes a Frenchman, Durand. Brinkman, the pilot, changes from being German to being American. The other four keep their nationality.

Doofus D'Jour -- In DSS, the American is portrayed as a bit of a doofus. He floats around helplessly weightless and frets that the robot Omega always beats him at chess. He suggests that the people of earth will panic. It is the Russian captain that is strong and assured. In FSoV, the roles are reversed. It is the Russian who is helpless, is beaten by a machine, and has to be assured by a steady American. The nationalist posturing is subtle, but interesting in both films.

Internationalism -- both DSS and FSoV feature an international crew. This trope began towards the end of the 50s, but became almost customary in the 60s. 12 To The Moon ('60) made a big point of this. Gene Rodenberry would institutionalize the idea with his Star Trek series later in the decade. From the 60s on, space travel was less of a nationalist endeavor.

Bottom line? FSoV is actually a fairly good english dubbing of DSS. Some of the human interest stuff is cut, but the action adventure story is almost entirely intact. The Hiroshima angle is expunged, neutralizing much of the moral of the story, yet even that is still there. Both versions are well worth a sci-fi fan's time to find, as it represents the advent of Sci-Fi II.


ditzyleopard said...

Do you have any information on why it was changed? What benefits were there for the american version? If any... we are studying this in an american/german histories class, and would love some outside imput

Nightowl said...

As mentioned in my notes, the primary motivation for the changes seemed to have been political partisanship. In the Cold War environment, there was a very strong polarization of US (the good guys) and THEM (the bad guys). Both East and West were engaged in this.
The original East German version was pretty blatantly harsh on America for dropping the A-bombs on Japan. When Sumiko utters "Hiroshima" under her breath upon seeing the massive destruction of the Venusians, it's a pretty clear message that this is what America can do.
Americans did not feel they were the bad guys so messaging to that effect had to be edited out.