Signals – A Space Adventure/Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970)

Signale - Ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970)‘Twitting a little girl that is what you’re into.’

Approaching the orbit of Jupiter, spaceship Ikarus receives some strange signals, apparently originating from the gas giant and possibly indicating intelligent life. Moments later, the ship is hit by a swarm of meteorites, and contact with Earth is lost. A mission to investigate their fate is mounted and reaches the region almost a year later…

East German/Polish co-production directed by Gottfried Kolditz that was at least partially inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic milestone didn’t spawn all that many imitators, simply because recreating its amazing visuals took a serious budget. Still, the Eastern Bloc had a long-running love affair with cerebral science-fiction, and the model work and SFX realised here are certainly acceptable for the era when the film was made, if not in the league of Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Starship Ikarus is an exploratory vessel, reaching the orbit of Jupiter on a mission of scientific discovery. The crew start picking up strange radio signals that seem to indicate an intelligent origin, but joy is short-lived as disaster strikes. The ship is attacked by that scourge of 1950s fictional astronauts: the deadly shower of meteorites. We see the damaged ship start to break apart, and, back on Earth, the vessel is presumed lost with all hands.

Senior astronaut Commander Veikko (Piotr Pawlowski) puts together a followup mission with the spaceship Laika. This seems to be a controversial enterprise for some reason, although we never really find out just why. The only obvious problem would seem to be his choice of crew. There’s veteran Gaston (Helmut Schreiber) who is approaching his 25th year in the space program (too old), and Pawel (Evgeniy Zharikov) who may be too emotionally involved because his irlfriend Krystina (Karin Ugowski) was on the Ikarus. Also along for the ride are genius radio man Konrad (Alfred Müller), new girl Juana (Irena Karel) and medical doctor Samira (Soheir El-Morshidy) among others.

Signale - Ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970)

‘Should I fire the photon torpedoes, Captain?’

The film’s major problem is that none of these characters are remotely interesting. Sure, Schrieber is a little bit of a prankster who has a built a trashcan robot, Müller is a genius but vaguely unpopular, and Karel is the new girl, but that’s about it. The only mildly interesting character beat is when hotshot Terry (Gojko Mitic) fakes hesitation during an EVA to boost Zharijkov’s faltering confidence.

This lack of engaging characters becomes a serious problem because they only reach the scene of the Ikarus disaster with about a quarter of an hour of the film remaining, and director Kolditz has little offer in the way of philosophical insights along the way. As might be expected, there are also problems with director’s vision of our space-going future. The interior of both spaceships is massive, with apparently enough room for every member of the crew to have a cabin bigger than my current living space! The predicted technology on display also looks very dated when viewed from almost half a century later. Control panels favour large knobs rather than push buttons or keyboards, paper readouts are consulted, and the crew make notes in logbooks with what look suspiciously like ballpoint pens. Obviously, that can be forgiven to some extent, and Kolditz does have a good stab and recreating some of the zero-gravity shots from Kubrick’s masterpiece, but that’s not nearly enough to keep the audience engaged.

Signale - Ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970)

🎵Oh what a feeling, to be Dancing on the Ceiling🎶

There’s also a rather strange sequence where the crew celebrate the anniversary of Schrieber’s quarter-century in space by showing him a short animated film that they’ve created about him. This wouldn’t be so odd if it weren’t happening with barely half an hour of the film remaining! Shouldn’t we be working our way towards some sort of a climax by now?

When we do reach the remains of the Ikarus, it appears that the meteorites have fused with the metal of the ship, rather than passing right through it. This might be scientifically possible for all I know, but it would have been nice to have some kind of explanation, even a spurious one. Again, some of the plot points in the later stages lack clarity, but that could have been down to the English subtitles on the print that I viewed.

Serious-minded 1970s science-fiction from the Eastern Bloc was always a cinema about ideas, rather than action, and it’s an approach to be applauded. Unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of them here, and that makes for a seriously dull experience.

The Laika takes 300 days to reach its destination and, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like I’d lived through every one.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)‘I’ll build your temples on all the five continents and crown your images with grapes.’

The authorities investigate when a learned Professor disappears under mysterious circumstances. His plans for a heat ray have also vanished, taken by a brilliant engineer who plans to build the device and become master of the world…

Curious Soviet science-fiction piece that plays like an amalgamation of various ideas and influences, none of which resolve into a coherent end result. Based on a 1926 novel by Aleksey Tolstoy called ‘The Garin Death Ray’, this black and white picture has elements of an espionage drama, a Hollywood movie serial, a warning about the evils of capitalism and a rip-roaring juvenile adventure tale. All delivered in a style which echoes silent filmmaking and the German expressionist cinema on the 1920s. It’s a mixture with amazing possibilities, that’s for sure.

The film opens with the story already in motion. Engineer Garin (Evgeniy Evstigneev) has already got his hands on the designs of his colleague Professor Mantsev (Nikolai Bubnov) and has been working to fashion them into a usable prototype in a remote location. Already on his trail is government agent Shelga (Vsevolod Safonov) but, by the time he arrives, it’s too late. Garin and his invention are in the wind, on their way to Paris where he hooks up with millionaire Rolling (Mikhail Astangov) and his beautiful mistress Zoya (Natalya Klimova). Unfortunately, this is a weak opening. Despite the luminous photography by Aleksandr Rybin and excellent shot composition by director Aleksandr Gintsburg (an ex-cinematographer himself), the results are muddled and tedious. None of the characters are clearly established, and there is an over-abundance of anonymous figures with vague alliances and motivations that orbit the main cast to little purpose.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘Moving on…these are the slides of our trip to the Cotswolds…’

This confusion may have been down to the film’s slightly troubled production history. Tolstoy’s novel had gained great popularity amongst young teenage boys, and they were the film’s original target audience. However, authorities insisted on a more serious approach to the material after two Soviet scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964 for their pioneering work on lasers.

It’s unclear how much tampering may have been involved, but it’s undeniable that once Evstigneev holds the world to ransom with his deadly device that the film switches gears and morphs into a far different beast. From here on we’re given a faintly satiric, outlandish Bond science-fiction romp, albeit a little more thoughtful than most. Evstigneev’s motivations aren’t merely a lust for power or madness, but a conviction that the world will be better off under his leadership. His campaign begins when he fires the Hyperboloid from the ruins of a hillside tower and destroys the factories of one of Astangov’s rivals, although the money man is quickly reduced to a mere bystander in his plans. The film’s final third is set on a remote island where Evstigneev builds his lair; a massive installation where he mines for the Olivine Layer (a mixture of Mercury and Gold) which he plans to use to destabilise the world’s economy. All protected by the Hyperboloid in its own tower.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘You know…for kids!’

And it’s here where the technical aspects of the production score. The production design and use of real interiors are excellent, and the model work in the climactic scenes where the ray is used against a fleet of battleships is top-notch for its time. But the most impressive scene is when Evstigneev descends into the Earth in a cylindrical metal craft to complete a geological survey.

Setting the film back in the 1920s is another point in its favour as this allows Gintsburg to create some memorable visuals including a recreation of the Parisian cafe culture, a political rally (probably the film’s most satiric moment) and an escape by dirigible. The performances are also fine. Evstigneev, a respected stage actor, provides a charismatic lead and Kilmova is appropriately cool and detached as his femme fatale paramour. The heroes are a little bland, but they don’t have so much to get their teeth into.

Sadly, a lot of these good qualities are torpedoed by the uncertain tone and seemingly pointless digressions. There’s an entire subplot about Bubnov, whose gone into hiding in Siberia after designing the Hyperboloid. Evstigneev is desperate to track him down for some reason, but we never really find out why. There’s also the presence of young boy Ivan, who has a map of Bubnov’s location tattooed on his back just as inexplicably. Probably, his presence was more clearly explained in the film’s original conception. Indeed, the choppy nature of the final results does suggest reshoots and heavy editing may have been involved.

A project with some very enjoyable and accomplished aspects that would look wonderful compiled into a trailer, but falls well short as the finished article.

In The Dust of the Stars/lm Staub Der Sterne (1976)

In The Dust of the Stars (1976)‘Akala, l am going to blast the pilotron.’

After a six-year journey, a spaceship makes a crash landing on an alien world. The crew’s mission is to answer a distress call but the planet’s inhabitants deny making such a broadcast. This seems a little odd and tensions increase when the expedition discover that their emergency landing was no accident…

Science fiction from the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s is generally remembered for a cerebral approach that considered the psychological ramifications on humankind of future technological developments, and similar issues cut from the same cloth. So, it is rather unusual to find an East German space opera from the same period. But here it is; a band of heroic brothers (and sisters) travelling the universe and encountering a despotic ruler (the flamboyant Ekkehard Schall), his dastardly lieutenant Ronk (Milan Beli) and squads of their faceless guards and soldiers. There’s also a peaceful alien race, represented by Mikai Mereuta and Aurelia Dumitrescu, who are being forced to mine something or other in dark caverns at the point of a ray gun.

Commander Akala (Jana Brejchová) and her merry band from the planet Cyrno have travelled across the galaxy to Tem 4 on their mission of mercy, aided by comfortable couches and paper readouts from their onboard computers. After a narrow escape on landing, they are met by a slightly odd-looking truck and are taken to meet the bearded Beli. This conflab takes place in a highly impressive great hall where everyone gets their own comfortable couch (obviously, essential furniture in the silvery space future). Unfortunately, Beli and his flunkeys just find their visit highly amusing. Rather miffed that they’ve come all that way for nothing, Brejechová and co retire to their ship, but science officer Suko (Alftred Struwe) is more than a little suspicious of the locals.

In The Dust of the Stars (1976)

🎵 Well she ain’t no witch and I love the way she twitch – a ha ha 🎶

Aware that they need our heroes to leave on good terms (or further visitors may follow), Beli invites them to a party and this  provides the film’s highlight as it revealed that Tem 4 is actually Planet Glam Rock! Yes, it’s the super ’70s version of the future, where everyone wears sparkling silver, facepaint and very wide flares. And women do vaguely suggestive things with snakes.

Unfortunately, it’s back to the plot all too quickly, as Struwe goes on a secret reconnaissance mission, discovers that the real native population are working in the mines and the inevitable rebellion ensues. The only surprise is the fairly downbeat conclusion, although it’s hard to be that bothered by it, given that we’ve been given very little reason to have an emotional connection with any of our protagonists.

Although the story is predictable and generic, that would not be a dealbreaker if director Gottfried Kolditz delivered it with a sense of style and humour. Unfortunately, save for wonderfully over-the-top villainous turns from Schall and Beli, everything else is pedestrian at best. Our brave heroes are faceless ciphers and the action scenes are flat and lifeless. The only sequence with any real merit is when Brejchová first meets Schall in his den; a mirrored room with disembodied heads and yet more snakes. It’s vaguely unsettling and a glimpse of what the film could have been if a less conventional approach had been adopted.

In The Dust of the Stars (1976)

‘A secret agent on Mars? Sign me up. asshole!’

Kolditz, who also co-wrote, went on to direct science-fiction obscurity ‘The Thing In The Castle’ (1979). Brejchová was a Czech actress, who had already enjoyed plaudits earlier in her career but when on to her greatest success with comedy-drama ‘Beauty In Trouble’ (2006). She was also once married to muti-award winning director Milos Forman, who is best known for ‘Amadeus’ (1984) and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975).

It’s always tempting to draw a political parallel with films originating from the Eastern Bloc at this time in history, but this just appears to be an attempt at delivering a slice of popular entertainment, albeit lacking in the necessary swagger and fun. Not all of the story’s threads are neatly tied at the climax so it’s possible that a sequel was planned but it’s little surprise that one failed to appear.

Test Pilot Pirxa/Pilot Pirx’s Inquest (1979)

Test Pilot Pirxa (1979)‘Tomorrow we will be passing through some extremely dusty regions.’

A veteran astronaut is recruited for a mission to place a satellite in the orbit of Saturn. However, the real objective of the exercise is for him to evaluate the performance of a new prototype of a humanoid robot, who will form part of his crew. But its’ identity is withheld from him…

Thoughtful Eastern Bloc science-fiction based on a story by ‘Solaris’ author Stanislaw Lem. This was a co-production from Poland and Estonia, which at the time was still part of the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers seem to have had an eye on the international market, the film making a deliberate effort to be seen as set in the West. McDonalds makes an appearance, and the space project apparently comes under the auspices of UNESCO. Apparently, this is down to the fact that they are responsible for dealing with the ‘cultural and social impact’ of the robots, or ‘non-linears’ as they are called here. It’s also clear that this is the near future as, aside from the mission and the robot, there’s a complete absence of any other science fiction trappings.

Seasoned spacer Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is a sceptic with a public reputation for complete honesty. Conscious of the inevitable conflict between man and machine, he’s the perfect choice to run the mission because he wants the robot to fail. lf he can’t criticise its performance, or evn identify it, then the way will be clear for their introduction into many walks of everyday life. Unfortunately, some of the business interests behind the ‘non-linears’ aren’t too keen on his involvement and attempt to have him killed before he can get off the launch pad. Once bound for Saturn, he’s then faced with the puzzle of picking the odd one out from his crew, made doubly difficult when they start casing suspicion on each other.

Test Pilot Pirxa (1979)

‘…and be sure to watch out for showers of meteorites…’

This film turns out to be rather a mixed bag. On the plus side, it’s a solid premise which brings up some interesting questions. Can artificial life replace humankind, particularly in dangerous tasks and environments? It’s quite prescient when you consider current innovations in self-driving cars and speculation on artificial intelligence. This all gives the film a surprisingly contemporary edge, even if these questions are presented are on a fairly basic and unsophisticated level.

But there are problems. The ‘conspiracy theory’ side of things never really develops and seems a little illogical anyway. Sure, it’s obvious why the manufacturers of the ‘non-linear’ wouldn’t be keen on Desnitsky as a judge of their product, but is it really a sound motive to kill him? Although they do try to make it look like an accident, it’s out of step with the rest of the film and, after the rocket takes off, it becomes irrelevant anyway.

Worse still are some of the events on the mission itself. Yes, we can give a pass to the scientific inaccuracy of the climactic scenes in the rings of Saturn (not present in Lem’s story apparently), but it’s harder to forgive the unclear motivations given to Desnitsky’s fellow crew members. But the film’s worst sin lies in its’ treatment of the ‘non-linear.’ It turns out to be mad. Yes, it gets a god complex and starts ranting at a bemused Desnitsky via a trippy recording. ‘Your democracy is just a reign of schemers chosen by fools’ it proclaims, possibly exposing some intended political subtext on behalf of the filmmakers. ‘I will show you that there is no foolishness crazy enough, or an idea so ludicrous, that it cannot be accepted by humans, as long as it is nicely packaged.’ Which is all true enough, but the non-linear’s adoption of the standard ‘psychotic bad guy’ role is too neat a way to sidestep all the questions that the story has raised. Basically, it’s a bit of a cop out.

Test Pilot Pirxa (1979)

Their mission took them on a surprising excursion to the Cookie Nebula.

The SFX are fairly minimal and not all that impressive, although the ship’s interiors are functional and the whole business of space exploration is presented on pleasingly practical terms. Director Marek Piestrak keeps things grounded and performances are competent, if a little anonymous. This can obviously be forgiven in the case of the mission crew as the audience is supposed to be left guessing as to who is human and who is not.

Science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain was primarily a cinema of ideas rather than spectacle and this means that many examples have stood the test of time a fair bit better than their Western contemporaries. This is not a bad example of the genre, but there is a sense of an opportunity missed; that a tighter script and a stronger viewpoint could have achieved a lot more.

Eolomea (1972)

Eolomea_(1972)‘You look like you just fell from the moon.’

In the near future, the human race has established permanent space stations and planetary bases in its own galaxy. Panic strikes when a number of spacecraft disappear in quick succession, and the leading scientist involved begins to suspect that one of her colleagues may know more about events than he is saying…

East German science fiction drama which strives for a serious tone and the same philosophical insight as Russian examples of the period, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic ‘Solaris’ (1972). The story comes from the pen of Angel Vagenshtain, a Bulgarian writer who first found recognition with his screenplay for ‘Stars’ (1959), which won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A number of his scripts were produced over the years, and he enjoyed recognition later in life as a novelist, so it’s strange that the weakness of the film lies in its lack of story development. The solution to the central mystery is pretty much given away around the halfway point and, although the film may have been intended more as a rumination on mankind’s future among the stars than as a space age thriller, it might have helped to keep the audience in suspense a little while longer. As it is the final third falls flat as events unfold on lines that are entirely too predictable.

It’s a shame as we have a decent setup. Space station Margot falls silent after a number of ships disappear in the area, prompting a complete ban on space travel, much to the disgust of chain-smoking head scientist Maria Scholl. She determines to investigate and soon targets colleague Professor Tal (Rolf Hoppe) and a long-abandoned exploration project that never received official approval. Simultaneously, her sometime lover (Ivan Andanov) endures a dead end posting on an asteroid with only crusty old Vsevolod Sanaev for company. His isolation is contrasted with fairly random flashbacks to his romance with Scholl, which seem jarring at first, but are designed to provoke an emotional payoff at the climax.



Unfortunately, the film never grips either emotionally or intellectually. The notion that space exploration might actually be very boring is intriguing, and well realised in the scenes where Andanov and Sanaev get drunk to deal with it. But there’s little insight elsewhere, beyond a consideration of man’s urge of explore at whatever the personal cost.

The SFX are fairly basic, with the crew apparently shooting their spacecraft models upside down, and at night. The inversions were to eliminate wires showing on the screen, and the midnight schedule was to eliminate vibration caused by daytime traffic passing outside the studio! Apparently, there was some involvement from Russia’s famous MosFilms and from a Berlin-based company, but this can have only been minimal, as the film only received a theatrical release in East Germany, eventually surfacing on home video over 25 years later after German re-unification.

It’s not entirely without merit, and worth a watch if your taste in science fiction runs to the more studious, prophetic aspects of the genre.