Red skies: Soviet science fiction
From heroic propagandist tales of space exploration to post-apocalyptic dystopias of the Chernobyl era, the history of Soviet sci-fi from the 1920s to the 1980s mirrors the rise and fall of the USSR. James Blackford probes the lost world unveiled in a new BFI season
Western histories of Soviet and Russian cinema have typically focused either on significant movements – the early revolutionary cinema of the 1920s – or recognised auteurs such as Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Sokurov. While this has led to the formation of a very useful canon of Russian ‘greats’, it has also meant that our understanding of Russian and Soviet cinema remains limited, with the bulk of a mammoth national production largely obscured from view.
Beyond the established canon, the Soviet era threw up a thriving and diverse genre cinema taking in comedies, musicals, historical epics, sci-fi, war films and even ‘Red westerns’. Once difficult to see, the hidden history of this lesser-known, more populist cinema is now being revealed. DVD editions are available to import, obscure oddities are illicitly streamed on YouTube, and Mosfilm (Russia’s largest and oldest studio) has made much of its library available to view online, free of charge and mostly subtitled. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s momentous first space flight, BFI Southbank has programmed a season that probes the unexplored byways of Soviet science fiction.
Although not a prolific genre by Hollywood standards, pre-perestroika Russian sci-fi offers a fascinating body of films – a fantastic voyage from early constructivist epics to post-apocalyptic dystopias, taking in prophetic moon explorations, space-race propaganda, atomic war allegories and existential art cinema. An ideologically charged genre, Soviet sci-fi can be read as charting the rise and fall of communism behind the iron curtain, with the wide-eyed optimism of space fantasies made in the early years giving way to damning post-Chernobyl nuclear nightmares as the Soviet bloc crumbled from within.
The first Soviet science-fiction film has its roots in Russia’s rich tradition of sci-fi literature: Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) was adapted from a play written by Alexei Tolstoy, a popular writer of historical and science-fiction novels. In post-revolution Moscow, a daydreaming radio engineer receives a mysterious radio message, prompting him to fantasise about building a spaceship and travelling to a totalitarian Martian empire, where he leads a revolution of the enslaved proletariat.
One of the first films about space travel (albeit in its protagonist’s imagination), Aelita is memorable for its elaborate depiction of Mars in the constructivist style, with distinctive sets and costumes by designer Alexandra Exter. It was an influence on Fritz Lang’s subsequent Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929), but more importantly it begins an enduring theme within Soviet sci-fi of using space films as a vehicle for communist ideology.
The same brand of affirmative propaganda persists in the next Soviet sci-fi production, Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage (Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya novella, 1936), in which we’re shown the glistening utopian Soviet future of 1946. A silent film, it charts the Moscow Institute for Interplanetary Travel’s first manned expedition to the moon aboard the CCCP 1–Josef Stalin, led by the unexpected trio of an elderly professor, a young woman and a boy.
Cosmic Voyage (this poster and that of The Call of the Heavens, top, courtesy the National Library of Russia)
Made on the recommendation of the Komsomol (the Communist Union of Youth) to inspire interest in space studies, and supervised by the Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Cosmic Voyage features pioneering special effects and miniatures designed by Fodor Krasne, who had honed his skills on a Marxist adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels (Novyy Gulliver, 1935).
Here he creates a detailed and futuristic miniature Moscow, traversed by the camera in slow, deliberate tracking shots. In one meticulously staged bravura sequence, the camera crawls around a giant hangar housing two huge spacecraft full of tiny animated vehicles and people while, once on the moon, the astronauts leap between giant rocks in carefully crafted stop-motion animation sequences. As it turned out, however, the Soviet censors felt these awe-inspiring scenes were aesthetically incongruous with state-approved socialist realism, and Cosmic Voyage was removed from circulation shortly after its release.
The 1930s also saw the emergence of one of Russian sci-fi’s most important figures, Pavel Klushantsev, who in 1934 began a long career making space-themed science documentaries at Lenfilm Studios. His Road to the Stars (Doroga k zvezdam, 1957) is a spectacular and brave amalgam of factual science history and sci-fi prophecy, charting the history of Soviet space exploration from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s earliest experiments with rockets through to the first Soviet space satellite – and then on into the future with the first moon landing, the construction of the first Soviet space station and a lunar base, and even a manned exploration of Mars.
Three years in the making, Road to the Stars is an ambitious and accomplished propaganda film with groundbreaking special effects and expertly crafted model work. One can’t fail to notice a profound influence on Kubrick’s much later 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its realistic depictions of weightlessness, glowing planets and rotating model space stations.
Klushantsev’s film also captured the space-race zeitgeist; acting on instructions from film bureaucrats in Moscow, he added model footage depicting Sputnik 1, the Soviets’ first Earth-orbiting satellite. As a result, the 50-minute film proved a hit with audiences in Soviet territories – and reportedly left viewers stunned when excerpts were screened by Walter Cronkite on prime-time American television.
All of which makes Klushantsev’s subsequent film – his only full-length feature Planet of Storms (Planeta Bura, 1962) – something of a disappointment. One of the better-known Soviet sci-fi films of the era, it follows an expedition to Venus by a team of cosmonauts – four men, a girl and a bulky robot clearly modelled on Robby the Robot from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – who are forced to descend to the planet’s surface when their two spaceships are damaged by meteors. Once on land, they encounter malevolent lizard-men, predatory pterodactyls and man-eating plants, before finally escaping back to space.
Despite some enjoyably surreal moments, Planet of Storms comes across as a rather careless B movie, abandoning the visionary scope and craftsmanship of Klushantsev’s previous films in favour of camp thrills involving unconvincing monsters (extras clothed in feeble rubber outfits) and rumbling model volcanoes. A far cry from the meticulously scientific, pseudo-documentary approach of Road to the Stars, Planet of Storms with its monsters and robots seems more influenced by American sci-fi schlock of the 1950s.
No surprise, then, that Roger Corman acquired Klushantsev’s film and distributed it theatrically across America in a re-edited, bowdlerised version with added footage, first as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and then again as Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), on which a young Peter Bogdanovich cut his directing teeth.
A similar fate would befall the two space-themed films made by Klushantsev’s contemporary Mikhail Kariukov, in the process giving a career boost to another Corman protégé, Francis Ford Coppola. Produced by the smaller Dovzhenko Studio in Kiev – no doubt spurred on by Sputnik-era public interest in all things cosmic – Kariukov’s 1960 debut The Call of the Heavens (Nebo zovyot, co-directed with Aleksandr Kozyr) is explicitly a story of the space race, with heroic Soviet cosmonauts rescuing stranded Americans who have become unstuck in their hasty attempts to beat the communists to Mars.
Although unrelentingly dogmatic in its anti-American propaganda, Kariukov’s film boasts impressive space sequences and vaguely expressionist art direction courtesy of Yuri Shvets (a veteran from Cosmic Voyage); in one sequence portraying the cosmonauts’ emergency landing on a giant asteroid, Kariukov bathes his rocky scenery in the deep red glare of Mars.
Also snapped up by Corman, The Call of the Heavens provided the young Coppola with an early break when (working under a pseudonym) he was given the chance to shoot extra footage and remodel it as the (admittedly inferior) 1962 B picture Battle Beyond the Sun.
Kariukov’s second sci-fi film, 1963’s Toward Meeting a Dream (Mechte navstrechu, co-directed with Otar Koberidze), was a larger-budgeted production made by the Odessa film studio in the wake of Gargarin’s triumphant first space flight. Just 66 minutes long, it follows another Mars rescue mission, this time of alien cosmonauts from the planet Centurian who are attempting a visit to Earth.
With huge-scale futuristic panoramas created using matte effects, and fantastic alien worlds bathed in reds and greens, Toward Meeting a Dream boasts some of the best special effects and production design found in 1960s sci-fi. But for reasons that remain unclear, it would be his last film, and also the penultimate Russian sci-fi film of the 1960s. It was followed only by Yevgeni Sherstobitov’s The Andromeda Nebula (Tumannoct Andromedy, 1968), the first instalment of an aborted series; poorly received on release, it remains difficult to track down.
In the meantime, however, there had also been sightings of sci-fi life in other Soviet bloc countries: the East German/Polish co-production Silent Star (aka First Spaceship on Venus/Der schweigende Stern, 1959), made at the legendary DEFA film studios, and Czechoslovakia’s Icarus XB-1 (1963) – both big-budget, utopian visions of international space exploration that criticise America via overt reference to the horrors of atomic war.
Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope, Icarus XB-1 follows a space journey to the planet Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. On the way, crew members are lost when a party boarding an Earth vessel (with English markings) from a decadent earlier century accidentally triggers a nuclear device; the crew is also temporarily struck by catalepsy caused by a mysterious radiation force that penetrates the ship.
Despite its anti-American implications, Icarus XB-1 was released in the US by Corman’s American International Pictures as Voyage to the End of the Universe – albeit with a different ending that radically changed the film’s meaning.
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Kurt Maetzig’s Silent Star is about an expedition to Venus (reminiscent of Dali’s surrealist dreamscapes with its misshapen formations, strange structures and bubbling slime), where the pan-ethnic cosmonauts encounter the remains of a civilisation ruined by avarice and warmongering. A glossy production filmed in gaudy Agfacolor and Total Vision, it’s marked by unsubtle references to Hiroshima and the Western imperialist threat: in more than one instance, the sole American crew member (already severely chastised by his compatriots for joining a Soviet-led international mission) literally hangs his head in shame while a Japanese crew member recounts the horrors of the dropping of the atom bomb.
But Silent Star marked the high-water mark of DEFA’s foray into sci-fi; its two further space-exploration films, Eolomea (1973) and In the Dust of the Stars (1977), were both comparatively low-key, forgettable productions that replicate the socialist utopian mores of Silent Star on a smaller scale, with garish 1970s space-age sets and fashions.
In 1969 the Apollo moon-landing struck a devastating blow to the Soviet space programme, as a result of which the early 1970s saw Russian sci-fi turn to more thoughtful, highbrow concerns in films that even Roger Corman wouldn’t have been able to re-edit into B pictures for the drive-in audience: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).
Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Solaris concerns a scientist’s assignment to a space station situated off a vast, sentient ocean-planet that somehow delves into the human unconscious, physically manifesting repressed desires and lost loves. Tarkovsky’s grave inward journey is far from the previous decade’s wide-eyed, patriotic tales of astral ‘manifest destiny’; instead, it asks existential questions about the very idea of the (lost) space race, summed up when Dr Snaut says: “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors.”
Seven years later, Tarkovsky returned to sci-fi with Stalker, a loose adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic. Set in and around an unnamed industrial city of the future, it follows an illegal guide (or stalker) as he leads a writer and a scientist through a perilous forbidden space known as “The Zone” to find “The Room” – a place where one’s innermost desires are realised.
Tarkovsky’s dystopian future is created from the dilapidated chemical factories and power plants of the economically stagnant Brezhnev era. Seen today, the film’s decaying industrial world, with its uninhabited “zone”, seems horrifically prophetic of the 30-kilometre Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone or ‘Zone of Alienation’ created in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster that would befall the Ukrainian SSR only a few years later in 1986.
The precursor of several dystopian sci-fi allegories made in the deteriorating Soviet Union of the 1980s, Stalker was a key influence on the emerging director Konstantin Lopushansky, who worked on it as an assistant.
Lopushansky’s first feature Letters from a Dead Man (Pisma myortvovo chelovyeka, 1986) is a nightmarish vision of human existence after a nuclear holocaust, depicting life among a community of fallout-ravaged survivors confined within an underground shelter. The protagonist, a guilt-ridden ex-scientist, maintains a dim faith – communicated through symbolic letters written to his dead son – that the human spirit will somehow endure. The film ends as, Moses-style, he leads a band of surviving children through the nuclear winter to an uncertain new life. Lopushansky’s grainy sepia images of windswept chaos are unrelentingly grim, but the glimmer of hope he offers in the children’s climatic exodus betrays a redemptive humanity that earned the film international critical acclaim.
Even more impressive, however, was his 1989 follow-up Visitor to a Museum (Posetitel muzeya), which won him a prize at the Moscow Film Festival. Set in a barren, polluted future where some of the population have become deformed mutants housed in wire-fenced reservations, it’s a dystopian vision of Earth’s annihilation. A solemn visitor becomes a Christ-like idol to these enslaved subhumans when he embarks on a pilgrimage to a ruined museum, which can only be reached during the annual low tide of its surrounding ocean.
Made at a time when religion was suppressed by the Soviet state, Visitor to a Museum is an unabashed Christian allegory depicting a Chernobyl-inspired future hell created by man’s arrogant pursuit of science and industry. (Lopushansky later headed the St Petersburg Christian Film Association in the post-perestroika 1990s.) With its slow, long-take tracking shots, tinted images and brooding music, the film is noticeably indebted to Tarkovsky, both thematically and stylistically. As in Stalker, Lopushansky uses the real disused factories and industrial detritus of the ailing Soviet state to evoke his future world.
Other notable dystopias of the late Soviet era include Karen Shakhnazarov’s surrealist critique of bureaucracy Zero City (Gorod Zero, 1989), about a Moscow engineer trapped in an irrational small town, and Georgi Daneliya’s absurdist comedy Kin-Dza-Dza (1986), which depicts the corrupt and unequal society of a faraway desert planet.
But equally symbolic of Soviet decline were the few films made during the 1980s that continued the earlier narrative of earnest space exploration. While often strikingly odd and entertaining, latter-day Soviet pop-space films such as To the Stars by Hard Ways (Cherez ternii k zvezdam, 1981), Orion’s Loop (Petlya Oriona, 1982) and Moon Rainbow (Lunnaya raduga, 1984) are characterised by primeval scripts and outmoded special effects.
Viewed alongside the dystopian pictures, these later space films tell a similar story of decline, signposting the road to perestroika and a new era of capitalist democracy. But now at least the excavated glories and oddities of earlier Russian sci-fi cinema can be savoured once again – a strange and oddly moving monument to the dreams of the Soviet era.
The season ‘Kosmos: A Soviet Space Odyssey’ runs throughout July and August at BFI Southbank, London. Mosfilm productions can be viewed online at cinema.mosfilm.ru.
Strange energies from the east: Jonathan Romney on a Russian sci-fi cult attraction at the Berlinale (February 2011)
Perestroika reviewed by Chris Darke (October 2010)
Me and Joseph Brodsky: Andrey Khrzahanovsky talks to Nick Bradshaw about his portrait Room and a Half (May 2010)
Moon reviewed by Philip Kemp (August 2009)
Wall•E reviewed by Andrew Osmond (August 2008)
Father Russia: Julian Graffy on Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son (September 2004)
Space Cowboys reviewed by Edward Buscombe (October 2000)
Muppets from Space reviewed by Leslie Felperin (January 2000)