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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.


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Moving pictures, #2

A choice selection of yet more films watched so far this year – since my last moving pictures post, of course. I’m keeping the descriptions short, or I’d never get this post done…

Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (UK/USA, 2014)
My first trip to the cinema this year. I remember not liking the book when I read it a decade ago, but I did like this film. The guerilla filming in Glasgow was especially effective, and Scarlett Johansson was excellent in the lead role. Very unsettling – and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to interpret. It probably requires a bit too much work on the part of the viewer to be commercially successful.

Kin-Dza-Dza, Georgiy Daneliya (USSR, 1986)
I found this for sale on a US site that specialises in Russian DVDs (see here), and it was in an edition which included English subtitles. I’d heard much about the film and always wanted to see it, so I bought a copy. It is… bonkers. But also really good. A Russian construction foreman and an Armenian music student are accidentally transported to a planet in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy, and must figure out how to get home.

Eolomea, Herrmann Tschoche (East Germany, 1972)
This was actually a rewatch – it’s one of the films in The Defa Sci-Fi Collection box set I bought a couple of years ago. A number of ships have disappeared on supply missions to space stations. Professor Maria Scholl becomes suspicious – and more so when one of the space stations falls silent. Meanwhile, rumours that a way has been found to reach fabled exoplanet Eolomea have begun to surface. I love the look and feel of this film, with its 1970s future; but it’s also something Hollywood does badly: an intelligent sf film.

Eolomea_004

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 2009)
Sideways look at a police seige of a house where a killer has holed up with hostages. The cops had arrived at the scene to find a murdered woman… and her son then walks across the road and takes the neighbours hostage. Flashbacks show what led to the murder – and it’s the usual off-kilter Herzog stuff. This film was produced by David Lynch, and it does feel very Lynchian, with that sort of fevered supra-reality he used in several of his movies.

Byzantium, Neil Jordan (UK/Ireland, 2012)
Vampires on the run. Gemma Arterton is a young woman in early nineteenth-century England, forced into prostitution by Navy officer Jonny Lee Miller. Years later, dying of TB, she steals Miller’s map to an island that gives a person immortality – by making them a vampire. The all-male vampires aren’t happy but let her go. But when Miller gets his revenge by raping Arterton’s daughter, Aterton takes her to the island… This is all flashbacks as the film’s set in the present day, with Arterton and daughter Saoirse Ronan shacking up in Daniel Mays’ delapidated Byzantium Hotel… and opening a brothel. A polished film, but throughout it felt like one that needn’t have been made.

On the Threshold of Space, Robert D Webb (USA, 1956)
A dramatization of the work of Captain Joseph W Kittinger II, with his parachute jumps from stratospheric balloons as part of Project Manhigh. It’s played completely straight – these were important tests, and though highly dangerous they had to be done. In that respect, it’s not unlike William Holden’s Toward the Unknown (see here). I find all this sort of stuff completely fascinating, and if the film doesn’t actually have much of a story it doesn’t matter to me. Besides, I could watch Virginia Leith in anything.

Riders to the Stars, Richard Carlson (USA, 1954)
One of a trilogy of films about the Office of Scientific Investigation, which tries for scientific accuracy but falls flat on its face. OSI satellites have been blowing up once in orbit and they suspect this is due to cosmic rays. (See what I mean.) So they decide to send up a man in a rocket designed to capture a meteoroid… because meteoroids don’t blow up in space. (Um…). The OSI invites a dozen men to their headquarters, not telling them for what, tests them, and selects three – one of whom happens to be the son of the chief scientist. They build their rockets, launch them, two of them blow up, but the third – the scientist’s son, natch – captures a meteoroid… and they discover that the rock’s secret is its carbon shield! (Sigh.)

Test Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (USSR/Poland, 1978)
An adaptation of a story by Stanisław Lem. Pirx has to evaluate a new type of android and is ordered to fly a mission to Saturn. One of his crew will be an android, but he isn’t told which one. It all looks a bit like a 1970s near-future thriller… and then they climb into a spacecraft and fly across the Solar System. The bit where they fly through a gap in Saturn’s rings, and it looks like an ice chasm, is silly; but the rest of it is good.

Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas (France, 2012)
Intense drama set in and around the student riots of 1968. I’ve liked a number of Assayas’ films but this was surprisingly dull.

It’s a Gift, Norman Z McLeod (USA, 1934)
WC Fields, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one of his films before. This is the one where a relative leaves him some money and he uses it to buy property in California. I was surprised at how nasty his character was, although the slapstick bits were funny – well, as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof…

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Через тернии к звёздам), Richard Viktorov (USSR, 1981)
The final purchase from that Russian DVD site. I’d seen a version of this previously, a badly-butchered English-dubbed version titled Humanoid Woman. It had never made sense. Now I’ve seen the full three-hour original, I finally understand the story. But it’s still bonkers. In the first half, a strange woman is discovered in a wrecked spaceship and goes to live with a scientist’s family. The second half covers a rescue mission to her planet to save it after rampant capitalism has brought about ecological disaster. Also features the WORST ROBOT EVAH.

TTSBHW_femalien02

Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, Martyn Pick (UK, 2010)
I’m not a fan of the game so I’ve no idea what possessed me to stick this on my rental list, but I did and… All-CGI with some well-known names providing the voices, and a plot stolen from every modern war film ever. The characters don’t look quite right – their shoulders are in the wrong place – and they move weirdly, and the whole thing is extremely dull and badly-paced. Avoid. Even if you’re a Warhammer 40k fan.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (Spain, 1999)
A twisty-turny thriller that aims for Hitchcock but misses and hits De Palma. Javier Bardem is a sex addict who takes up with fellow sex addict Victoria Abril, only to discover that someone has been selling tapes of private phone sex he’d been having with another woman. Abril’s husband, meanwhile, is a detective investigating the murder of a young man, and the evidence is starting to point to Bardem… You know when you get to the twist in a De Palma film and you realise it’s been done before? That. Not bad, though.

Anna Karenina, Joe Wright (UK, 2012)
This adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel is notable because it’s filmed as though it were set inside a theatre, with overt theatre sets becoming the mise en scène of shots. A nice idea in theory but it turns the film into a Sixth Form play. Also, Keira Knightley in the title role. I find her really hard to watch.

La Boulangère de Monceau, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
The first of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, filmed in black and white on 16mm. A young man falls in love with a woman he passes on the street every day, but when she no longer begins appearing, he hunts for her in the surrounding streets… and stumbles across a bakery where he starts buying something to eat every day. Then he and the girl in the bakery start flirting with each other, and he decides he’ll go out with her since he’s lost the other one… only for her to re-appear. It’s supposed to be a moral dilemma – which girl does he choose? – but it only works because the young man is shallow and self-centred, and the women only exist in relation to him. Later films in the series were much better.

La Carrière de Suzanne, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
A group of shallow twentysomethings live it up in Paris, and Suzanne is dragged into their circle. Guillaume ruthlessly exploits her, getting her to pay for things, dropping her and only returning to her when his present relationship ends… But she seems more than willing to put up it, and even gives up her job, the better to be at the group’s beck and call. The film aims for deep truth, but uses shallow characters to explore it. Not entirely sure it’s a workable technique.

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