The Review/Short Read/
A Brief History of Soviet Sci-fi
Exploring the wild and woolly futuristic visions from behind the Iron Curtain
Richard Viktorov's TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS
While they are now regarded as singular masterpieces of world cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker descended from a long tradition of science-fiction filmmaking from behind the Iron Curtain — one that was heralded by the visually dazzling epic Aelita – Queen of Mars in the silent era. In the notes below (originally written for a 2012 TIFF Cinematheque retrospective), cult-film aficionado Todd Brown offers a tour of some of the less-famed but no less fascinating examples of Soviet sci-fi.
The science-fiction tradition in the one-time Eastern Bloc was as rich and varied as anywhere in the Western world, and the region’s film output is every bit as diverse as our own, ranging from art-house fare to populist comedies, hilariously cheesy space operas and grand adventures. And while there are some instances of open propaganda, there are also strains of sly satire — as well as evidence that the camp and excess of the swinging ’60s didn’t completely pass the Soviet world by. We present below a broad range of Soviet-era science fiction, a mix of acknowledged classics and outright pulp from Russia, the former Czechoslovakia, Poland and Estonia. Bearded ladies, post-apocalyptic wastelands, robot companions, vampire cars and outbursts of random dancing await — join us, comrades!
Moscow-Cassiopeia / Adolescents in the Universe (USSR, 1973-74). When radio signals reach Earth from a planet in a far distant star system, the starship Dawn is readied for immediate dispatch to search for signs of intelligent life. But as the ship will take decades to reach the planet, a young inventor proposes that a group of the best and brightest schoolchildren be sent in place of adult cosmonauts, as they will reach the planet in their prime of life. Moscow-Cassiopeia, the first volume of Richard Viktorov’s two-part “Kids in Space” epic, traces the progress of the space voyage, while Adolescents in the Universe finds the kids arriving on the planet 27 years ahead of schedule (due to a handy, if unintended, light-speed jump), where they must confront an army of disco-styled robots who wish to bring about happiness by stripping their human creators of all emotions.
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Estonia, 1979). An anonymous phone call brings taciturn police officer Inspector Peter Glebsky (Uldus Pucitis) to a remote mountain inn. The colourful residents all deny placing the call and insist that nothing is amiss, but after an avalanche cuts the hotel off from the outside world it becomes clear that Glebsky is very much needed as bodies and bizarre events begin to pile up. Seldom seen outside of the former Soviet Union, Grigori Kromanov’s Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (adapted from the novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, authors of the original story and screenplay for Tarkovsky’s Stalker) is a sly sci-fi take on film noir, with its gritty, hardnosed antihero pitted against otherworldly forces that calls his stubborn realism into question.
Ferat Vampire (Czechoslovakia, 1982). Ambulance medic Dr. Marek (Jiří Menzel, director of the classic Closely Watched Trains) is shocked and dismayed when his beloved nurse and driver Mima (Dagmar Veškrnová) is lured away to become a rally-car driver for car manufacturer Ferat. He’s even more shocked (and rightly!) when a fellow doctor tells him that Ferat’s much-hyped new sports car is fuelled by the blood of its driver, and becomes determined to free Mima from the clutches of the evil corporation. Brilliant and prolific Slovak director Juraj Herz — whose darkly funny and supremely creepy 1968 film The Cremator was one of the high points of the Czech New Wave — turns his bizarre premise into a masterfully unsettling sci-fi horror thriller, laced throughout with his trademark black humour.
Golem (Poland, 1980). In a dark and foreboding future, a nuclear apocalypse has left the population decimated, leading shadowy government forces to embrace genetics research and cloning as a means to maintain the population. Humble watch repairman Pernat is one such creation, a manufactured man stumbling through life unaware of his own origins and trying to make sense of his fragmentary memories. Strikingly surreal and remarkably grim, Piotr Szulkin’s futuristic reimagining of the classic 1914 novel by Gustav Meyrink posits a future that looks disturbingly like the past, with the state’s quest to create the “perfect human” inevitably evoking parallels with Nazi eugenics programs, while omnipresent advertisements for sleeping pills and plastic surgery takes satirical aim at the excesses of Western consumer culture.
Ikarie XB-1 (Czechoslovakia, 1963). In the year 2163, the starship Ikarie XB-1 sets off on a years-long mission to explore the planets of the Alpha Centauri system. Though they will face external threats along the way — including a derelict 20th-century spacecraft armed with nuclear weapons and a deadly, radioactive “dark star” — the brave band of space pioneers soon discovers that the greatest danger lies within, as the isolation and pressures of space travel sparks a series of shifting alliances and enmities among the 40-person crew. Re-edited by Roger Corman for its American release (under the title Voyage to the End of the Universe), the original Ikarie XB-1 is arguably the high point of the space-opera tradition in Czech science fiction, aided greatly by writer-director Jindřich Polák’s adept technical ability and admirable focus on character dynamics rather than special effects.
In the Dust of the Stars (East Germany, 1976). In the course of a six-year space voyage, a spaceship from the planet Cynro answers a distress call from the planet TEM-4. The crew is picked up on the planet’s surface by a bizarre bus and taken to meet Ronk, the bearded, blue-jumpsuited representative of the planet’s ruling party, who denies any trouble and throws the crew a kick-ass party complete with scantily-clad women and mind-controlling drugs. Luckily, the ship’s dour, no-fun pilot had insisted on staying back on the ship as a sober designated driver, and soon discovers that the planet is on the verge of a class war, as TEM-4’s original inhabitants have been enslaved in the planet’s mines for eons. Space travel is swingin’ in Gottfried Kolditz’s campy, psychedelic sci-fi head-trip, which mocks the imperialist decadence of the West while cheerfully exploiting it to work in some trippy music and T&A.
Planet of Storms (USSR, 1962). Re-edited and expanded by Roger Corman into two different but equally trashy American release versions (Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women), the original Planet of Storms is a technical marvel and a beautifully executed story of space exploration. After a Soviet starship on a three-ship mission to Venus is destroyed by a meteor, the crews of the two remaining ships are forced to land on the uncharted planet and improvise to complete their mission, with nearly disastrous results. Directed by special-effects pioneer Pavel Klushantsev, Planet of Storms has everything you could ask of a vintage sci-fi flick: stoic heroes, imminent peril, a bizarre, treacherous environment, a dash of romance (courtesy the one female cosmonaut) and, just because they can, a robot named John. Throw in volcanoes, carnivorous plants, lizard men and a few dinosaurs, and you have the prototypical Soviet space opera.
Test Pilot Pirxa (Poland, 1979). Corporate interests want to replace human space crews with lifelike robots (“finite non-linears”), arguing that it will be cheaper and safer than sending humans into space. But steely Commander Pirxa (Sergei Desnitsky) is having none of it: he knows this isn’t about safety or cost effectiveness, but rather about lining the pockets of big business. Determined to prove the superiority of humanity, he agrees to pilot a test flight commanding a crew made up of both humans and non-linears, without knowing which is which — but when disaster strikes, to which does the finger point? Adapted from a story by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem (Solaris) by director Marek Piestrak (an assistant to Roman Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby), Test Pilot Pirxa is a gripping space adventure with a strong undercurrent of social criticism, and a premise that intriguingly anticipates Blade Runner. (And listen for the score by acclaimed classical composer Arvo Pärt!)
Eolomea (German Democratic Republic, 1972). When eight cargo ships disappear and the space station Margot suddenly enters radio silence, Prof. Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema) and the space council are forced to decree a flight ban for all spaceships leaving Earth until the cause of these events can be determined. Along with embittered cosmonaut Capt. Lagny (Iwan Andonow), Scholl soon divines that the disappearances have something to do with mysterious Morse code signals emanating from the Cygnus constellation, which spell out the name “EOLOMEA” — and the fact that one of her colleagues seems to have had details of the disappearances before the news was made public is a sign that these events may not be random. A realistic look at a far-from-utopian future filled with squabbling bureaucrats and isolated, alienated, blue-collar space-workers, Eolomea is an impressively made, tightly paced sci-fi mystery that daringly experiments with a non-chronological narrative.
To the Stars by Hard Ways (USSR, 1982). A Russian starship finds an abandoned and derelict alien space station drifting near Earth containing the decaying bodies of artificial humanoid beings. The only surviving inhabitant is the beauteous Niya (Yelena Metyolkina), who seeks the help of the earthlings to restore her severely polluted home planet of Dessa to its natural splendour. Divinely campy, with its abundance of space-age leisure-wear outfits, cosmic mercenaries and bionic women (not to mention a midget capitalist who is responsible for Dessa’s desecration), Richard Viktorov’s teen-targeted space adventure is also visually ravishing and, in its own unique way, deeply affecting. Released in a shortened and dubbed version in the US under the title Humanoid Woman (and subjected to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in that form), To the Stars by Hard Ways was carefully restored to its original version in 2001 by Viktorov’s son Nikolai, who had previously acted in his dad’s kiddie sci-fi opus Moscow-Cassiopeia (see above).
I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Czechoslovakia, 1970). In the distant year 1999, a group of terrorist physicists drop nuclear “G-bombs” that render all women bearded and infertile (though still buxom) — a situation which is both scratchy and detrimental to the survival of the human race. So the world’s greatest scientific minds come up with a foolproof plan: build a time machine, travel back to 1911 and kill Albert Einstein before he can concoct the theories that paved the way for nuclear technology. Mishaps, hijinks and drastic alterations in the space-time continuum naturally ensue in Oldrich Lipsky’s hilariously lowbrow sci-fi comedy, which plays like Sleeper/Bananas-era Woody Allen. Looking like a Czech version of Peter Sellers in The Mouse That Roared, Jirí Sovák makes for a fabulous comedic lead.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Czechoslovakia, 1966). A husband-and-wife team of scientists have been working on developing a dream manipulator which will supposedly produce happier, more productive workers by exorcizing their bad dreams and affording them a good night’s rest. However, it soon becomes clear that the invention does not only banish dreams, but brings them out of the dreamer’s mind into the real world — which the husband discovers when he wakes from a comic book-inspired nightmare to find himself in bed with blonde bombshell cartoon heroine Jessie (Olga Schoberova), who has been pursued into the real world by the caped supervillain and gunslinging cowboy who want to kill her. Václav Vorlíček’s hilarious, visually inventive postmodern comedy benefits considerably from the casting of the stunning Schoberova, Czechoslovakia’s first Playboy model (from the epochal “Girls from Behind the Iron Curtain” issue) and later the star of the Hammer Films potboiler The Vengeance of She.
The Silent Star (German Democratic Republic, 1960). In the year 2003, with communism having conquered the globe and a new era of international peace, prosperity and cooperation secured, engineers discover what appears to be an alien artifact in the Gobi Desert. Scientists determine that the object is some kind of extraterrestrial flight recorder, and a partial decoding of its contents indicate that it came from a spaceship which originated from Venus. A multinational crew is sent to investigate the planet, where they find only the shattered remnants of an extinct civilization, and evidence of a terrible catastrophe that could portend doom for the Earth. Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s first published novel and dramatically altered by Roger Corman for its US release (as First Spaceship on Venus), The Silent Star is a chilling cautionary tale of the dangers of technology run amok — and its vision of a future where all nations cooperate for the common good establishes it as a kind of communist mirror image (and precursor) of the democratic utopia posited by Star Trek.