- DEFA's floating islands
Despite the vaunted respect for sf – or rather its official socialist form, the 'utopian adventure' – in the USSR and its satellite states, few sf films were made in the Eastern bloc. The Russians produced about a dozen, the Czechs perhaps another half-dozen, the Poles perhaps three. The German Democratic Republic's state-run DEFA studios made four. First Run Features has released three of these – Silent Star (1960), Eolomea (1972) and In the Dust of the Stars (1976) – in a DVD package, produced from the prints housed in the University of Massachusetts' DEFA collection. Some of these films have attained legendary status. For some viewers, Silent Star and Eolomea represent the most concerted effort by the Eastern bloc to present alternative socialist sf to international audiences. For others, who grew up in the region under Soviet domination, they were powerful childhood experiences and spurs for 'ostalgie'. For most, they are the most accessible examples of sf film under Communism.
The three films in the collection are a very mixed bag. It is not clear why the fourth DEFA sf film, Signals: A Space Adventure (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer/Sygnally MMXX; Kolditz East Germany/Poland 1970), was not included. I have not seen it, and it is not highly regarded by those who have, but historians attest to its importance as the first step in 'DEFA 70', the effort by the studio to produce and distribute 70mm film on a regular basis (see Vonau). Even if Signale had been included, I doubt we would be able to trace a distinctive DEFA style of sf. Unlike romances, musicals and even westerns (of the Karl May type), DEFA did not produce enough examples of the genre to establish a style. Sf proved to be prohibitively expensive to make for the always cash-and-creditstrapped bloc states. And the clear value of utopian adventure as a vehicle for Marxist–Leninist ideology actually hindered its production, as the various bureau-heads and Ministers of Culture, and indeed even Party First Secretaries, insisted on having their say about the films' messages. Nonetheless, DEFA's [End Page 121] sf films do share an aesthetic-political purpose: to negotiate between western commercial sf adventure and the Soviet model of socialist romanticism.
At first glance, it is surprising that a studio as endowed with experienced filmmakers as DEFA would have produced so little sf. Officially chartered in 1946, the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft was the reconstituted heir of the great Babelsberg Ufa studios that played such a dominant role in European filmmaking before World War II, and which had produced Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany 1927) and Die Frau im Mond (Germany 1929) and the fascist sf films of Harry Piel (on the history of DEFA, see Bergahn; on Harry Piel and Nazi sf film, see Strzelczyk). East German cinema represented a confluence point where the powerful traditions of Soviet and National Socialist propaganda cinema met with its cross-border counterpart-antagonist, the postwar entertainment cinema of US-backed Western Europe. Under other circumstances, this might have led to the emergence of a powerful, reflective sf cinema. In fact, it contributed to its stifling. Burdened by being the main frontline state of the Warsaw Pact, and to Soviet eyes having the most suspect population, East German culture was kept on the shortest leash in the bloc.
Not all of the Soviet bloc cultures were equally interested in the genre. Sf in Russia constituted a true literary tradition, both dangerous and uplifting, the stuff of cultural adventure. Extending from pre-Revolutionary times, through a period of high experimentalism, criticism and utopian vision in the 1920s, it was stifled brutally under Stalin, when it became the occasion for the persecution of scientists in the 1930s, and settled into a form of imperial propaganda until the breakout period of...