July 8, 2014

In the Dust of the Stars (1976)

Let’s talk about In the Dust of the Stars, aka Im Staub der Sterne. It was produced in 1976, it’s many things: it’s odd, it’s camp, it’s hilariously dressed in vinyl and pleather. It has an unusual interpretive dance sequence. It’s in German, and it’s communist propaganda. The film was produced by DEFA, a state-owned production studio in East Germany, and a little knowledge about DEFA will go a long way to explaining the sort of environment in which In the Dust of the Stars was made.

DEFA (Deutshce Film AG) was a production company licensed by the Soviet Allies in May 1946. As part of East Germany’s new system of government, DEFA was a wholly government-owned production company, charged with producing feature films, television programs, documentaries and animation. It was initially part-owned by East Germany and partly by the Soviet Union, but in 1953 the USSR handed over its stake allowing it to be a 100% German endeavour.

At its height the company was producing about 15 feature films, 100 short and documentary films and about 55 animated shorts and television cartoons. The company’s films accounted for about 12% of all films screened in East Germany between 1946 and 1990. It was the largest East German film company, and by the mid-1960s the country’s largest distributor as well – both domestically and overseas.

While DEFA was naturally obliged to follow fairly strict rules as to the content and theme of its films, it had a large amount of latitude when it came to genre.  In the late 1950s the company extended its repertoire from straight dramas to include musicals, comedies and a surprisingly large number of youth films aimed at East German teenagers. DEFA’s filmmakers also tended to straddle a fairly dangerous tightrope between expressing the socialist ideals of the Second World yet at the same time striving to represent East Germany as it was, rather than simply as an idealised space. Increasing amounts of criticism of the East German government started to trickle into DEFA’s films, culminating in a showdown in December 1965 when the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) banned almost the entire year’s film output from DEFA, branding it ‘modernistic, nihilistic, anarchistic and pornographic’.

 When the East German government collapsed in 1990, DEFA was put under the administration of trustees, who in turn sold the entire company and its back catalogue to a French media company, CGE. Their new German subsidiary, CIP, took control over DEFA’s studios and personnel and continues to produce films and television programs in Germany today.

One very successful genre of film, which existed pretty much exclusively in East Germany, was the ‘Indian’ film: that is, a cinematic response to the American western in which the protagonists were peaceful, communal Native Americans forced to fight back against the Caucasian, colonial, imperialistic and capitalist invaders. Entire movie franchises were built up within this genre, including several films directed by Gottfried Kolditz – who directed In the Dust of the Stars.

And of course another genre that DEFA occasionally dabbled in was science fiction. They first tried out the genre with The Silent Star, a serious SF film released in 1960 and granted what was at the time the biggest budget of any East German film ever made. Other science fiction films produced include Signals, a sort of pastiche-come-tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eolomea, a slightly strange drama about a string of missing starships, and – I think most impressively – Gottfried Colditz’s In the Dust of the Stars.

This film was shot in Romania, using both the Buftea film studios as well as a location shoot at the Berca Mud Volcanoes and the Carpathian Mountains. It featured an international cast led by Czech actress Jana Brejchova – the star of a 1961 production of Baron Munchausen and then the wife of Czech director Milos Forman. Other actors include German Alfred Struwe, Yugoslavia’s Leon Niemcyzk and Romania’s Silvia Popvici.

On a superficial level In the Dust of the Stars is a wonderful viewing experience for just how utterly strange it is. It may be an East German film, produced in the middle of the Cold War and forced by government mandate to follow a propagandist line, but it’s also – aesthetically speaking – highly similar to science fiction film being shot in the West. This is Blake’s 7, Barbarella and UFO rolled into one, and then performed in German. Now there was some cross-pollination of films and television drama between Eastern and Western Europe, but certainly not to a large extent and definitely not including popular British and American science fiction. There’s something reassuring in that whether in the Western World, the Soviet Bloc – even Japan, we all used to think the future meant vinyl jumpsuits and funny-coloured hair. It seems that it’s bad fashion, and not love, that is the universal language.

The plot involves a spaceship that arrives from a peaceful Federation to investigate a distress signal, the locals are hiding a terrible secret, our heroes are submitted to mind control, and so on – wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Star Trek. It's also somewhat amusing to note the great lengths the filmmakers went to present a genuinely alien environment. They went to the Carpathian Mountains. They shot at a series of mud volcanoes. It looks like a BBC quarry in Dorset.

Beyond the superficial elements there’s still a lot to think about here. One of the most fascinating elements of the film is the relationship between the protagonists. They present a wholly idealised view of a communist society: there is equality, there’s a sense of community, as well as a strong impression that each character performs their tasks not for financial gain or duty but because they collectively want to help and improve things. They want to stand shoulder to shoulder, work in the same direction and make the universe a better place. There are other very obvious pro-communist elements in the film, so obvious that I do not need to bother spoiling the story for you here. Trust me: you’ll know them when you see them.

The gender breakdowns of the film are surprising: six crew members, two of them are men and four of them – including the commanding officer, are women. If we saw a crew with four men and two women, most of us wouldn’t think twice about it. If we saw five men and one woman, most of us probably wouldn’t question it. Seeing the ratio presented the other way around for a change is delightful.

There’s also a very odd sexual undercurrent to the film. The protagonists seem very close, almost uncomfortably so given the context. There’s a sensuality that seems to exist between them, a very late 1960s sense of ‘free love’. Not only do the characters seem relatively sexualised, but they seem utterly relaxed by it. It comes across as so commonplace that it’s unnecessary for the characters to comment on it. It many ways it feels like Kolditz is making the ultimate extension of communist thought: the citizens of the future don’t just collectively work as a society rather than as individuals, they express and receive affection and intimacy in the same collectivised fashion.

By contrast the film’s villain is quite sexually threatening. There’s an unpleasantness to him, caused by a weird combination of aggressive sexuality and his want to control: mentally, physically, and socially. There’s some fairly blunt symbolism to do with snakes. Like a lot of the film it’s very heavily laid on, so much so that it’s difficult to miss without keeping your eyes shut.

In the Dust of the Stars is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect film. It isn’t some previously unseen master work, or a profound statement on humanity or society. It was produced as a popular science fiction film for a mass audience: a little silly, a little scary, more than a little camp, colourful, cheerful and above all strangely enjoyable.

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