Friday, 17 August 2018

The Tunnel (2001 film)

Der Tunnel (The Tunnel) is a German film, released in 2001, and directed by Roland Suso Richter.

The movie is set in the 1960s, and is loosely based on the true story of a group of people in West Berlin who excavate a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in order to allow some relatives and friends to escape from the East.  We follow the often precarious tunneling operations, the hazardous border crossings made by members of the team and the efforts of the East German authorities to infiltrate and thwart the escape plan.

My view is that the film is not especially profound in its insights, and it is relatively sparing in its use of the philosophizing which often permeates films which deal with similar topics. However, it is well made, quite moving in places, with sober, grey and austere visuals. In addition, the acting is generally of a good standard.

Although I found myself rooting for the tunnelers and their friends, some of the tone of the film is ambiguous. Those who have escaped to West Berlin don't always find things as wonderful and straightforward there as might be imagined. 

This is a film which demands close attention, because there are necessarily plenty of nuances in the plot, especially in the parts where people are captured, interrogated and/or blackmailed by the East German secret police.

One feature of the film which stuck with me was the distrust and paranoia which appeared to be prevalent on both sides of the Wall. The tunnelers were suspicious of everybody, and took rigorous security measures in a bid to safeguard their plans.

As this picture progressed, I found myself becoming emotionally involved, and feeling for the participants. Their fear and anxiety were palpable, but so were their resolve and determination. I also found the blackmail by the East most unsettling, and recognized that the people affected by this were placed in an impossible position, and it is unfair for us to judge them too harshly.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film is the one where border guards shoot a young man, the boyfriend of one of the tunnelers, who is trying to escape to the West. Ordinary people caught in the crossfire, and used as pawns in the game. That scene I found quite unflinching, in depicting the pitiless nature of the struggle.

Heino Ferch delivers an excellent, authoritative and believable performance as the main character Harry. A resourceful, resilient and humane person who rarely seemed to lose heart or his nerve.

The ending to the movie is tense, emotional and adroitly captured and paced.

This is an entertaining and, in places, compelling film.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Eolomea (1972 film)

My odyssey through Eastern European science fiction continues with Eolomea, a 1972 film which I believe was an East German/Soviet/Bulgarian co-production. It was directed by Herrmann Zschoche, and based on a book by Angel Wagenstein.

The plot concerns the disappearance of some spaceships and the severing of communications with a large space station. An investigation is instigated by the authorities on Earth, and a series of curious events unfolds.  "Eolomea" refers to the name of a mysterious planet which it turns out is the ultimate objective of clandestine manoeuvres by space personnel.

The first thing to say about this one is that it appears to take a while to get going, or at least for a large part of its duration it appears to be going nowhere. There is lots of rambling dialogue, apparently about nothing in particular.  Towards the end, however, it all begins to make sense, and I found myself identifying with some of the characters on a human level, because of the care taken to exhibit their traits and concerns.

In the final analysis, I enjoyed it. A genuine story, not just a series of scenes put together for "philosophical" purposes.  Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but a reasonably engrossing watch.  There are some flashback sequences, and these are initially a little confusing, but they do add to the overall effect of the story.

As is almost standard in sci-fi stories of the time, the tale is related against a backdrop of international unity and co-operation, with the goings-on at the beginning of the movie under the scrutiny of some kind of "space council", with representatives from all over Earth. I liked the performance of Cox Habbema as Professor Scholl, the leader of the investigation and the subsequent expedition to the space-station Margot.

Overall, then, an interesting movie, which is less flashy and ostentatious than most of its genre.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Per Aspera Ad Astra - (1981 Soviet film)

Continuing my exploration of Soviet science fiction films, I duly moved on to this intriguing work from the early 1980s (also known as Through The Thorns to The Stars), directed by Richard Viktorov, and based on a novel by Kir Bulychov.

To summarize the plot, a space expedition inspects a crippled spaceship, and recovers a beautiful female humanoid (Neeya), bringing her back to Earth for analysis and evaluation. She suffers from some memory loss, but it also emerges that she possesses mysterious and special powers.

Later on, Neeya somehow manages to stow away on a spaceship which is bound for her home planet.  The situation there has become dystopian and brutal, with the landscape ravaged and polluted, and controlled by tyrants.

The earlier portion of the movie which is based on Earth is in places quite unsettling, but it also has a wistful charm. The future which it portrays is rather reassuring, as it appears to be based on scientific research, space exploration and progressive universal values. The visuals here are crisp and alluring, and the overall feel of these sequences betrays self-confidence and quiet authority.

The narrative is strong and compelling, but there is ample room for messages about the need to understand aliens and outsiders, rather than being afraid of them, the dangers of people being manipulated and the misuse of science.

I must admit that I enjoyed the second half of the film a good deal less than the first, though I can appreciate that the Light verses Dark motif is impactful. The sequences on Neeya's home planet are occasionally hackneyed, even if the subject matter which is being explored is important and profound. Topics such as human cloning and environmental destruction come to the fore at this stage, in addition to the favourite Soviet topics such as class oppression and economic exploitation.

The ending is somewhat hysterical and clumsy, unlike the cool and assured nature of the early parts of the film, and I gradually lost interest. A word though for the mesmerizing and sympathetic performance of Yelena Metyolkina as Neeya.

In conclusion, an intriguing, well made, but slightly flawed movie.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Planeta Bur (1962 Soviet movie)

In continuing my exploration of Soviet science fiction, I next moved on to Planeta Bur (also known as Planet Of Storms), directed by Pavel Klushantsev, and first released in 1962.

The film revolves around a voyage by three spaceships to the planet Venus in a Soviet mission, and the subsequent adventures and discoveries which the crews experience.

Overall, the atmosphere of the film is claustrophobic, grim and austere, with a tone of foreboding and unease. Venus I guess was, and is, a more mysterious and nebulous concept than the Moon or Mars, and this angle accentuates the apprehension, as the cosmonauts go outside to brave the surface of the planet.

The special effects and general technical quality of the film are pretty good, considering the likely budget and the time when the film was produced. There are occasional lapses in to near B-movie standards as regards props and sets, but in general it holds up, and in truth the realism of the effects is not the main point here.  What is there is perfectly adequate, and more, in conveying the mood and the direction of the narrative.

Soviet science fiction movies do tend to tackle weighty topics, but I find that they come across as more convincing, and less patronizing, in so doing. There are times when sci-fi tries too hard, and emerges as excessively earnest and preachy, but this picture does not fall victim to that failing.

Planeta Bur examines a few big questions, both scientific matters and also ones concerning humans and their relationship with space and space exploration. There is an interesting sub-plot, not uncommon in science fiction, namely the extent to which "normal" rules and commands, adhered to on Earth, are also applicable or practicable once people are in space. This is seen with the decision to proceed even when one of the three spaceships is destroyed.

There is something about scenarios where people are far from home, and forced to co-exist with others. Temperaments are laid bare, and improvisation is important. This film does pose some questions about the role of the individual when set against the need for team-work, the notion of self-sacrifice and to what degree individuals are expendable in extreme circumstances.

One of the scenes which I found affecting was one where some of the cosmonauts start firing on and killing some of the creatures on Venus. This raised the thorny question of what right humans, in their urge to explore space, have to interfere with other worlds.  After all, Venus had not threatened Earth, and they could argue that they were defending themselves.

Planeta Bur explores some fundamental questions about evolution, ancient civilizations and so forth, but I like the way that the debate amongst the cosmonauts is left largely unresolved, leaving much for the viewer on which to ruminate. The presence of a robot permits the standard agonizing about the relationship between humans and machines and technology.

How scientifically accurate or "valid" all this is must be open to debate, but this is science fiction, and of course in the early 1960s much less was known, or perhaps more correctly more was unknown. Having said all this, this film works well partly because the "science" is kept reasonably within the bounds of plausibility and human comprehension.

I think that the minimalist and understated approach to production values and to the storyline suits this film admirably. Also, the dialogue is intriguing, with plenty of dry humour in there, and not just run-of-the-mill sci-fi fare. Things are kept simple, but the movie is gripping and always interesting.

Oh, and the film's ending is wonderful....

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Taming Of The Fire (1972 Soviet film)

I was recently pointed towards this movie and, having greatly enjoyed a couple of Andrei Tarkovsky's pictures, decided to watch another example of Soviet cinema from the Seventies.

Taming Of The Fire chronicles the progress of the Soviet rocket, missile and spaceflight programs, mostly through the lead character, who is quite clearly based on Sergei Korolev.  Names were changed, presumably in the interests of secrecy.

This is quite a long film, but it pretty quickly grabbed my attention.  This was due in part to the way in which the subject matter is handled, and also by the superb, believable and sympathetic performance by Kirill Lavrov in the lead role. 

The visuals are stunning in places, and the atmospheric music also contributes to a welcoming ambience. In addition, the producers evidently had access to real facilities and installations, which tended to augment the realism somewhat!  This meant that the film could contain "real" launches of rockets and missiles.

One thing which did concern me early on was that the movie occasionally jumped forward in time, with little or no explanation. However, my fears were gradually allayed, as the chronology becomes clearer and less confusing, especially in the sequences which follow the end of World War Two.

A dimension of the movie which intrigued me was the way in which disagreements within the Soviet Union were portrayed. Also, there is the odd subtle dig at "the system". My interpretation was that there was comparatively little in the way of Cold War points-scoring going on here, and at times the tone was genuinely of the "progress of mankind in general" variety. An optimistic approach, which some Westerners should perhaps bear in mind.

There are some interesting sub-plots, none of which are that original, but bear consideration. The age-old tensions between scientists and bureaucrats, idealists and pragmatists, the visionary and the practical, are presented in the form of discussions between the lead character and his political and military superiors. 

In parallel with his momentous achievements in his chosen profession, we see the unsteady and awkward course of Bashkirtsev's personal life. I must admit that I found these parts of the film less interesting, but they presumably serve to demonstrate the difficulty which many brilliant people experience in maintaining basic human relationships and handling complex emotions, and balancing professional fulfillment with other aspects of life .  By contrast, the certainties of science must seem straightforward and comforting.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent film, technically very good, and Lavrov adroitly conveys the driven, restless and visionary nature of the character, with the attendant pressures and strains.