Grady Hendrix‘s work has appeared in Variety, Slate, Playboy, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Pseudopod, and is forthcoming in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2009 and he’s the author of Satan Loves You, 2011’s second-best feel-good book about Hell, now available on Amazon. You can follow every little move he makes over on his stupid blog.
by Grady Hendrix
The titles are what grab you: I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen; Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel; Who Wants to Kill Jessie?; To The Stars By Hard Ways; Ferat Vampire; Test Pilot Pirxa; Ikarie XB-1. A heady combination of ESL literalism, proletarian bluntness and purple exploitation prose, who could come up with titles like these except a bunch of communists, caught between socialist worker’s heaven and the crass capitalist hell? And that’s exactly who made these movies – filmmakers from Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Estonia and the USSR back in the bad old days of the Cold War.
We’ve all already seen flotsam and jetsam from these flicks. Roger Corman was drawn to them by their polished special effects and sophisticated set design, and he hacked them into pieces, dubbed them into English and hung clunky AIP titles around their necks like leper’s bells: Voyage to the End of the Universe, Battle Beyond the Sun, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Queen of Blood. Titles that reek of colonization, conflict, feudalism and naked chicks in fur bikinis. The poetic romance of revolution, crushed beneath the bootheel of marketing. Fortunately, there are DVD boxed sets and retrospectives surfacing all the time, including a massive megalith of one right now in Toronto, but if you’re expecting these films to be square stories of space comrades mouthing absurd Marxist slogans you’re in for a surprise. These films traffic in more uncertainty, fear of dehumanization and vampire cars than anything the United States has ever produced.
Like America, the Soviet Union’s 20th Century cinema is a science fiction sandwich between two pieces of fantasy bread. The early part of the century was all fantasy films, then from the 50’s through the late 80’s it’s hard science fiction all the way, then the century ends with fantasy again (the massively lucrative Nightwatch and Harry Potter series). As far as early century Soviet sci-fi, the Russian Revolution was re-staged on Mars in 1924’s Aelita and a few paltry propaganda films dribbled out afterwards, but Stalin had a lock on visions of the future; as sci-fi historian Darko Suvin said, “Anticipating possible developments became a suicidal pursuit at a time when Stalin was the only one supposed to ‘foresee’ the future.” The fields lays fallow for 20 years.
Then came the death of Stalin in ’53, followed immediately by the great director/film-philosopher Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s dogmatic essay, In the Depth of Space: Synopsis of a Feature Film on the Flight to Mars and Other Planets which accused American science fiction of trafficking in interplanetary gangsterism and thinly cloaked religious allegory (who are those astronauts looking for when they voyaged to the end of the universe, if not God?) and of spreading “space pessimism.” He wanted to tackle the other end of the political spectrum and make sci-fi movies based on sound ideology: planets that embrace communism live long and prosper. Those that suckle at the toxic teat of capitalism wither and die. But Dovzhenko’s dream perished when he did in 1956, and then the actual films started getting made, and they got very strange, very fast.
There was some typical space opera in the 50’s and 60’s – The Heavens Call, Planet of Storms, The Silent Star – but 1963’s Ikarie XB-1 from Czechoslovakia was something completely different, a movie that’s been described as “the missing link between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Ikarie is a giant spaceship on a 15-year mission to Alpha Centauri to look for life, and on the one hand there’s plenty to snigger at. The standard space uniform is a velour snuggie, and the hold must be packed with 50 cubic tons of mousse and Aquanet to make the cast’s pompadours and beehives hold their shape. Computer screens display random op art patterns that actors pretend are convey information, there’s a killer gas name “Tigger Fun” and some of the stiffest group dancing ever put onscreen.
But the cinematography is meticulous, and the spiritual angst is vintage Ingmar Bergman. Separated from the Earth for so many years, aging 28 months on their 15-year mission, the space comrades are as trapped as Laika. They’re not even out of Earth orbit four months before the vast, dead emptiness of space starts freaking them out of their heads. The first shot of the movie is a wild-eyed, sweaty cosmonaut screaming, “Earth is gone!” before he shoots the camera. The crew of 40 are all getting sick of staring at each other’s stupid, stupid faces and the stark, Bauhaus set design of the Ikarie isn’t helping; it’s way more alien than anything they’re going to find in space.
Birth announcements, formal dances and flirtations are constantly being interrupted by SCIENCE, but when the Ikarie discovers a derelict alien spacecraft, it turns out to be filled with American cadavers, dressed in formal wear, their rotten, gravity-free flesh crumbling off and floating away as two brave comrades investigate this shadowy, surreal galactic mausoleum. When the movie isn’t dishing up montages of empty rooms full of flashing computer lights scored to musique concrète, it’s drifting through the vast cast, peering briefly into their lives as the radiation of deep space cooks everyone’s brains. Imagine a science fiction movie with Robert Altman’s shambolic plotting and Dazed and Confused‘s disregard for narrative, couple it with a Master Computer that has a bad habit of labeling anyone who hasn’t moved for a few minutes as a “Dead person. Dead person. Dead person.” and staff the spaceship with people in the throes of total spiritual and psychological meltdown. The ending finds genuine, goose-bump-inducing transcendence through scientific exploration, but what sticks with you is the shot of a robot crawling the dead halls of the Ikarie, croaking out the name of its creator over and over again. It’s creepier than anything Kubrick dished out in 2001.
Part of its success can be laid at the feet of Stanislaw Lem whose book, The Magellanic Cloud was the basis for the film. Lem wrote a lot of science fiction that got turned into movies (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and he’s the Soviet equivalent of Philip K. Dick (coincidentally, Dick was the one American sci-fi writer Lem thought was worth a damn; Dick returned the compliment by writing a letter to the FBI claiming that Lem was a group construct out to spread Marxist poison to America, and by the way here is a list of communists in American science fiction you should also investigate). Dick’s influence on American science fiction films would make itself apparent in the early 80’s but, even more so, in the 90’s and 2000’s, whereas Lem had a massive impact on Soviet sci-fi in the 60’s, and the late 70’s. As a result, while Americans were making sci-fi movies about planetary conquest, travel to distant stars and monster-fighting, the Soviets were making movies about what it meant to be a human.
Test Pilot Pirxa (1979, Poland), also based on a Lem story, is about a hardassed pilot named Pirxa who is sent into space on a routine mission with a crew comprised of humans and lifelike androids called non-linears. It’s a test to see if non-linears can replace human labor on the off-world colonies, and Pirxa has his doubts. The ship feels like the Nostromo (and there are lots of similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien, right down to the crew member’s family meals) but it’s also laced with hilarious coming out scenes as crew member after crew member buttonholes Pirxa in private to secretly confess that they are either a robot or a human. It winds up being a pretty typical “Up with People! Down with androids!” sci-fi film but there are enough weird politics, animated robot supremacist propaganda film clips, UN speeches accompanied by found footage of car accidents and truly tense “Who’s real? Who’s a robot?” scenes to hold your interest.
The following year, Polish cinema would update the Golem story with Golem, an orange-tinted nightmare about a Golem who is not entirely sure if he’s real or artificial, trying to eke out a living in a world destroyed by nuclear conflict and a State eugenics programs. Riddled with muggers who collapse into tears, people begging for cigarettes then claiming they don’t smoke and Golems peeling off their own faces in cinema lavatories, director Krystyna Janda is clearly cultivating the same area of the subconscious that David Lynch was farming two fields over. There are hints of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil throughout, but only a director familiar with state terror would find the heart of his film in the Golem’s pathetic cry to his police interrogators (torturing him for a crime he – probably – didn’t commit) “I only want to assit this enquiry!”
But it’s Estonia’s aggressively hallucinatory Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel that makes it clear just how unlike our science fiction Soviet sci-fi was. Peter Glebsky, a cop who looks like a young Peter Graves, heads to a snowed-in mountain resort, lured by a call that someone’s been killed. Shot in all the faded retro glory of a glossy 1981 Sharper Image catalog and crammed with black leather couches, chrome tubing and random pink neon art, the movie is shattered from the beginning by lens flares and blasts of sunlight, while a shimmering electronic Alpine drone buzzes on the soundtrack. It turns out the murder hasn’t happened yet and so Glebsky has his luggage carried to his room by a dog, and then stays for dinner, at which point the murder actually occurs. Quickly he’s in over his head as he realizes that his fellow guests, a gaggle of highly fashionable freaks, are either gangsters, liars, transsexuals or aliens. Cut off from command, forced to be responsible for his own investigation, he yearns to be impotent again, picking up dead telephones in the hopes that someone’s going to be on the other end to give him orders.
One of the sweatiest movies ever made (even his eyelids sweat), it beautifully conveys the sick, lurching nausea of true first contact between man and alien. Meeting another species is beautiful here, as in Steven Spielberg’s movies, it’s horrible, disorienting and spiritually terrifying. It’s a movie that should live forever, if only because of the absurdist scene in which Peter addresses the gathered guests at dinner. Since the 30’s, the mealtime dénouement has been a classic set piece of locked room murder mysteries, a chance for the great detective to strut his stuff. Here, it becomes something completely different.
“Attention, please,” Peter gulps, trying to appear brave. “It appears some crooks selected this hotel as a place to settle scores. With the help of Mr. Snewahr I sent word to the police by pigeon. A police helicopter will arrive shortly. The criminals will get their just desserts. I advise that criminal activity be ceased. I’m warning you or else your position will be hopeless. Thank you for your attention.”
Everyone pretty much ignores him, and he realizes that he’s sunk. Thinking to himself in voice-over he says, “I wanted to scare them, but I knew my pretend pigeons wouldn’t help.” Rarely has man’s helplessness, hopelessness and pure gibbering uncertainty in the face of the alien been as funny, as poignant or as Soviet as this.
(Attack the Bloc: Cold War Science Fiction from Behind the Iron Curtain plays at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox Theater from January 19 to April 6, and it includes the amazing Ferat Vampire, the afore-mentioned movie about a brand new model of race car powered by the blood of its drivers.)