Monday, May 20, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Elomea (East Germany, 1972) by Keith Allison


As other, non-4DK related matters have been making demands on my time of late, I've reached out to some friends in the blogosfear to contribute guest posts. The first comes from my esteemed friend, colleague and boss over at Teleport City, Keith Allison.

Of the three science fiction films produced by East German studio DEFA that found their way to the United States, Eolomea is often considered the least of the three. It lacks the 1950s pulp appeal of The Silent Star and the eye-popping disco style of In the Dust of the Stars. Compared to those two brightly colored space adventures, Eolomea is a more somber affair set in a lived-in solar system where the wonder and daring of space travel has been replaced by workaday drudgery and blue-collar boredom. The space stations are less wonders of futurist architecture and more akin to a grubby bachelor pad. The cosmonauts of Eolomea are not bold venturers into the great beyond; they are mostly irritated guys who just want to do their time and get home, like a crew stationed at some remote Antarctic outpost.

Eolomea begins with one of those multi-cultural “general assembly meeting” that are usually convened to discuss what to do about the Mysterians. Scientists and associated bureaucrats on Earth are panicked when they start losing contact with their far-flung network of space stations. Unable to figure out what might be causing this (some sort of plague is suspected), they take the emergency measure of freezing all space flights. This order sits poorly with cosmonaut Dan Lagny (Ivan Andonov), stationed on a remote outpost with only one other ennui-wracked crewmember for company. Lagny is sick of space stations and endless voids, and his return to Earth is delayed by this new order. Luckily, space -- like the Soviet Union -- is pretty big, and most of the people on the outskirts of the colonized cosmos simply ignore orders from Earth.

Thus is Dan able to escape the confines of their little station and return home, where he can don space-age (1970s) leisure-wear and yell at the sky. His retirement is derailed when he meets scientist Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema), in charge of investigating the communications blackouts and uncovering the mystery behind the single cryptic message anyone has received from the space stations: the single world “Eolomea,” which seems to have no meaning. Despite his grouchiness, Dan is pressed into service once more. The investigation eventually uncovers something sinister to do with another prominent scientist and leads Dan, Maria, and their small crew to the littered and wrecked halls of one of the seemingly abandoned space stations -- seemingly.


The dramatic change in tone that sets Eolomea apart from other DEFA sci-fi films is thanks largely to it being one of the first Eastern Bloc science fiction films released in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film effectively ushered in a new era, one less concerned with rocket models and monsters and more concerned with human drama played against the vastness of space. The first Communist response to 2001 was 1970’s Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, a German production that places one foot in the pre-2001 world of space pulp and the other in awkward attempts at post-2001 intellectualism. That film is largely forgotten, falling as it does in the twin shadows of both 2001 and the Soviet response, Solaris, a stark and complex film that is as well-regarded and almost as well-known as 2001. Also existing in that shadow is Eolomea, based on a book by Bulgarian writer Angel Vagenshtain, released the same year as Solaris and promptly forgotten until recently.

Although its disjointed timeline and contemplations on the emptiness of space make Eolomea a more complexly structured film than Silent Star and In the Dust of the Stars, it’s still relatively accessible compared to Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The central mystery proves more solvable than the mind-bending freak-outs that comprise the ends of either of those movies. Like Solaris, Eolomea explores the effects of space and isolation on the human psyche, but Eolomea’s themes are more proletariat than the melancholy, metaphysical weirdness of Solaris. Here, the chief human emotion is not grief, but simple everyday boredom.


It’s not unexpected that Eastern Bloc science fiction in the 1970s, buoyed by the Soviet space program, would chose to dwell on this aspect of space exploration. In oversimplified summary, while the American space program went for flight and exploration, the Soviets went for space stations and orbiting settlement. The Soviet space station program kicked off in 1971 with Salyut-1. Both Solaris and Eolomea came out a year later. The effects of living in such an environment must have been as heavy an influence on the directions of both films. Once you have guys actually up there, it tends to scrub away a bit of the polish to expose the gritty reality of day-to-day space life: less proud cosmonaut pointing toward the stars, more bored cosmonaut with holes in his socks.


It seems at first a jarring change of tone for a Communist science fiction film, so full were they of can-do attitude and faith that adherence to core socialist principles would eventually see us achieve the stars. In Eolomea, we have achieved the stars, and it turns out it’s kind of dull. It starts to make more sense as the film progresses, however, and in the end Eolomea is about the importance of not letting the drudgery and bureaucratic red tape of space travel outweigh the profundity of the pursuit. Despite similar trappings, it’s a much more optimistic view of man versus the cosmos than Solaris.

Still, despite the ultimately hopeful “to boldly go” ending, Eolomea is rather a jarring shift from DEFA’sother sci-fi films. Trading in pop-art set design for grubby space stations, primary colored space suits for more workaday realistic ones, and scantily-clad space dancing girls for irritable cosmonauts with stinky socks might be part of what keeps Eolomea from attaining the same level of love shown the other DEFA scifi romps. It’s a fascinating and ambitious science fiction film though, and as long as you don’t go in expecting the non-stop visual disco of In the Dust of the Stars, Eolomea gives you a slow burning but engrossing mystery. And hey, it’s not all depressing space grind! There’s Cox Habbema in her future-bikini, Ivan Andonov in his space leisure-wear, a reel-to-reel robot, some cool spaceship and station miniatures, and of course space vodka. Lots and lots of space vodka.

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