The Silent Star / Der Schweigende Stern (1960)
This East German-Polish film production is better known to western audiences as the English-dubbed First Spaceship to Venus (1962). In Poland, the film was known as Milczaca Gwiazda (Planet of the Dead). The original and American releases are different films due to distributor cuts. The original DEFA Film’s version of The Silent Star previewed here runs 95 minutes, while the U.S. Crown International release runs 78 min or shorter, depending on the source material and how badly it is chopped. Author Bill Warren notes that 109 and 130 min versions also exist. The chopped U.S. version has been around for years. It’s poorly dubbed, cropped, or worse pan-and-scanned and terribly faded. Some copies are derived from beat-up 16mm reels used historically for television. The Silent Star is actually a visually stunning film with a saturated color palette. It was filmed on Agfacolor stock. This process was developed in the 1930’s and was the German answer to Technicolor and Kodachrome. Agfacolor became the preferred color film stock of the Third Reich and later confiscated by the Soviets after WWII. The colorful American film Brigadoon (1954) was filmed in Ansco Color, which was a commercialized export version of Agfa. Some film historians dislike the pastel-like tones of Agfacolor. Bill Warren noted that “Venus” was “hampered by a particularly ugly color process (Agfacolor) making everything simultaneously pastel and too intense… The process loves oranges and blues, and other colors almost don’t exist.” I think he saw a faded crappy print, as this restored DVD is gorgeous with a wide palette of primary colors nicely rendered.
All this said, The Silent Star is a stunning film to behold —the sets, miniature work and spacecraft models, art decoration and cinematography are all stellar.
The story is about a multinational team of scientists, specialists and astronauts who land on Venus in an attempt to unravel the mystery of a strange, coded, glass-like spindle discovered in a desert. The artifact is thought to have been derived from the Tongu (Tunguska?) meteorite impact in Siberia, but it’s really a “black-box” recording ejected from a downed spacecraft from Venus.
I’ve always had the erroneous preconception that films produced under a communist regime are heavily censored. This film has a “no nukes” statement —which I find odd from an Eastern-bloc film made at the pinnacle of the cold war and the space race. Attending the flight to Venus are a Japanese doctor (who’s mother died in Hiroshima), an Indian mathematician, an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish engineer, an African TV technician, a Chinese linguist, and a Soviet Cosmonaut. There’s also a robot and it’s a clever rover design based on all-terrain tracks.
I can’t help but think that little Omega with his round central “eye” and quirky personality helped inspire R2D2. Likewise, the launch site looks a lot like Mos Eisley spaceport. Who’s Lucas kidding?
The Venusian world of The Silent Star has been described as “Daliesque”. It is surreal. Glassy erectile structures which look like sponges or other marine life proliferate on the obsidian landscape. Weird colorful mists hover and dissipate. Strange screw-like pylons and ancient tunnels are found. One of the team members encounters bouncing metal “insects”. The film lacks a monster, but makes up for it with unusual compositions and art design. To me, The Silent Star feels a lot like one of Ib Melchior’s films, which are usually intelligent and visually captivating. (And this is the first time ever someone used these superlatives to describe Reptilicus).
I also see touches potentially used in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) and Alien (1979). The sleeping quarters remind me of the petal-shaped hibernation units on the Nostromo. Visually The Silent Star draws inspiration more from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) or Toho’s The Mysterians (1957) than some earlier German films such as Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929).
This matte painting (below) of a Venusian control center reminds me of the Krell underworld from Forbidden Planet. What will our team of multinationals find in that tunnel?
Be sure to check out The Silent Star avaiable on the DEFA Sci-Fi Collection (see link below). Don’t bother with an old crummy print of First Spaceship to Venus. This is the real McCoy and a joy to watch in widescreen 16:9 enhanced format from the confines of your living room. Thanks Mark!
B. Warren, 1986. Keep Watching the Skies, Vol. II. McFarland.