A Natural and Artificial Homeland: East German Science-Fiction Film Responds to Kubrick and Tarkovsky
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A Natural and Artificial Homeland:
East German Science-Fiction Film Responds to Kubrick and Tarkovsky1

As détente brought a thaw to the Cold War, two films appeared from opposite sides of the ideological divide: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris in 1972. Released at the culmination of the space race, both asked the question "What does it mean to be human?" Scholars and critics alike have written on Kubrick's exploration of the borders of the human in terms of the natural vs. the technical, human vs. machine, and physicality vs. disembodiment.2 Tarkovsky's film takes up these same themes in terms of humanity's inability to perceive the other.3 As science-fiction films, both displaced contemporary anxieties into the future. Thus, the continuing academic discourse on these films helps us to better understand the United States and the Soviet Union at the time of release.

Two films from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), however, have yet to be analyzed in terms of the Kubrick-Tarkovsky dialogue with which they strove to engage: Gottfried Kolditz's SignalsA Space Adventure (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, 1970) and Hermann Zschoche's Eolomea (1972). Science-fiction films as well, Signals and Eolomea also reveal much about East Germany, exploring what it means to be human, but doing so specifically in dialogue with the GDR's own unique version of Marxism-Leninism, the prevailing ideology of the country's dominant Socialist Unity Party (SED).

To Be a Socialist Human in Space

On one level, the films appeared for political reasons. Not recognized as a country by the world community until 1972, East Germany continually searched for ways to demonstrate its legitimacy internationally. In the mid-1960s, the State-run film studio Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft (DEFA) developed its own 70mm camera,4 making East Germany the third country to do so after the United States and the Soviet Union. DEFA also tried to emulate the 70mm film projects that came from these two countries, and invested significant resources to this end. Signals and Eolomea were both shot in 70mm, with costly special effects based directly on those in Kubrick's 2001,5 as part of a campaign to prove that the GDR was one of the select cohort of "world-class" countries filming in this format. [End Page 80]

Eolomea, however, had more to offer than high-quality special effects. Hermann Zschoche, its director, is best known for his film Karla (1965), which was banned, along with an entire year's worth of production, at the Eleventh Plenary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Zschoche built his reputation on films for young adults that thematized the often-conflicted search for the self in society. Even coming-of-age was political in a country where the narrative of self-realization was not left to the individual, but was pre-determined by the State's prevailing Marxist-Leninist ideology and socialist realist aesthetic. Zschoche explored this conflict in Karla, through the character of a young schoolteacher who runs into trouble when she encourages her students to question and think for themselves rather than follow the Party unquestioningly. As we shall see, he continued to challenge the limits on self-development for young adults in Eolomea, but in a much more cautious manner.6

One of Zschoche's techniques for creating cinematic discourse about self-realization was to associate the individual freedom of the private sphere with Nature, framed in sharp contrast with the restrictive socialist public sphere based on technological innovation. In Eolomea, this involved engaging with the East German interpretation of Heimat. In Germany, the complex concept of Heimat or homeland is identified with place of birth, one's earliest experiences, and childhood, as well as language. It gained its modern, mythical significance as a result of mass movement from the country to the city. The idealized regional or rural Heimat became, for these migrants, a place of symbolic refuge in the face of urban alienation, loss of community, and loss of individuality. The National Socialists easily integrated this regional German patriotism into their anti-semitic and racist ideology, and...