Science fiction as we know it dates back to the late ninteenth-century works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. A new book by James Gleick argues that the genre only became possible after the rapid social and technological changes of the industrial revolution. Suddenly people believed the future could be starkly different from the present—an attitude that makes itself felt in the sci-fi they created.
The space race era of the 1950s was fervent in its sci-fi utopianism. Today, our culture worships the wealthy man of “genius” like Richard Branson or Elon Musk funding private space travel. But in the 1950s, space exploration was the public’s responsibility and its glory. While the default heroes of U.S. space fantasy were white men with square jaws and buzz cuts like the Mercury astronauts, the East German film studio DEFA produced a different vision in 1960. German scholar Stefan Soldovieri delves into the contentious politics behind the production of the film The Silent Star.
In The Silent Star, a multinational, racially diverse crew, including an African engineer, Chinese botanist, and a female Japanese doctor, travels to Venus in the near-future year of 1970 to investigate an ambiguous radio message threatening an attack. Based on the first novel written by Polish sci-fi legend Stanislaw Lem, the film imagines a coalition of socialist countries—with the participation of a U.S. socialist—coming together both to make significant scientific discoveries and to save humanity from an existential threat. What they learn about the history of lifeless Venus on their voyage also provides a significant cautionary tale for the Cold War era.
Such a hopeful vision was only possible after the death of Stalin in 1953. And yet in undemocratic East Germany, the message and the business behind the production required constant state intervention and negotiations. In its first-ever science fiction film, DEFA was prepared to pull out the stops, building ambitious sets, special effects, and even a radio-controlled robot, and using luscious Agfacolor film. Indeed, this made the film the highest-budget East German film to date.
But paying for the film would require obtaining distribution agreements in western countries. East German cultural authorities had already been complaining that the film was not strident enough in its pro-socialist propaganda and too freewheeling in its characterization, particularly of the American character. Making the necessary changes delayed the production for several years; perhaps it made the characters a bit too sober to spark exciting drama.
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But in the end, the film was released in Western Europe and the United States (albeit in a truncated, propaganda-free format). It arrived at a crucial time in the history of the civil rights movement when socialist critiques of American racism were having a real impact. Its socially inclusive vision of space travel thus served as an important precursor to another utopian sci-fi franchise later that decade that depicted a future with a racially diverse cast of men and women working together—Star Trek.
The Silent Star is available to watch for free on the Kanopy streaming service (available to members of many university and major city libraries around the U.S.).