Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Your Spaceship

Continuing my series of 3-way Iceberg Arenas focusing on the science-fiction films of various countries (see Britain and the Soviet Union), I now come to the Czech Republic. As both a genre and a country that I have a special connection with, I feel a deep affection for Czech SF despite only recent acquaintance. Notwithstanding their obscurity and datedness, I think they are well-worth watching today.


Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

Ikarie XB-1 is a 22nd century spaceship sent on a multi-month journey to our nearest neighbors, Alpha Centauri, in the hopes of finding intelligent life. On the way, the crew, including a robot named Patrick, must deal with a variety of problems and adventures. Boredom, claustrophobia and homesickness wear down the initial euphoria of the mission. The discovery of a derelict space station provokes their curiosity and, after the discovery of human corpses inside, their fear. Most dangerous of all, their unwitting proximity to a radioactive dark star is draining their energy and turning one crew member into a potentially homicidal psychopath. Note that the English version of Ikarie is Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun.

“Forbidden Planet” (1956) is often cited as the primary influence on the 1966 Star Trek TV show and as the prototype for the successful brand of space opera that would make the genre popular. Yet “Ikarie XB-1” (1963) deserves recognition, too, as a more mature, sophisticated and consistent work that really dug into the world-building mechanics of what life in space would be like. Their culture is detailed through food, recreation, dance, romance and history as much as by technology.

“Ikarie XB-1” is also an early example of sci-fi horror with powerful scenes frequently copied by later films. For instance, the roving flashlights of a crew exploring a ghost ship in space or the “villain loose aboard a spaceship” premise seen in films like “Alien” and “Sunshine.” Yet for all that the film is unusually optimistic, featuring a triple dénouement that includes a tense shootout, a shocking revelation about extraterrestrial life and the first pregnancy in space (a metaphor brilliantly developed by “2001: A Space Odyssey” several years later).

But is “Ikarie XB-1” more than just a collection of ahead-of-its-time ideas and “missing-link” influences of chief interest only to SF buffs and historians? I think so. The Zdenek Liska score is fantastic, particularly the proto-electronic opening. The set design is dazzling, clearly pumping up the production values and really giving the film quite a bit of space-age 60’s atmosphere. Especially impressive is the number of shipboard sets (most contemporaneous SF used one or two) that span the cathedral-esque bridge, exercise facility, lounge (with mezzanine), mess hall, private living quarters and mainframe core (called the robotics facility in my translation).

The characters are a little dry and I found them slightly difficult to keep track of, but the sense of a multifaceted futuristic society aboard a self-sufficient spacecraft is well realized through their relationships and recreations. The pacing is pretty uneven, but the action never hinges upon a single issue or threat allowing several highlights to punctuate the mission. Critics, censors and distributors during its limited American release (by AIP, who characteristically brutalized the ending) didn’t like the hints of propaganda, but I think that it’s handled tastefully and smartly: the writing on the dead spaceship is clearly English and the explanation for its demise is related to gambling, greed and the hoarding of WMDs.


The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967)

Aside from sporting one of the coolest titles in all of cinema, “The End of August at the Hotel Ozone” also presents one of the most depressing visions of the apocalypse in a subgenre (post-apocalyptic SF) literally defined by depressing visions of the apocalypse. I’m especially drawn to the subgenre (see another Iceberg Arena), and this low-budget entry provides a particularly pessimistic, savage and yet low-key example.

A band of eight female scavengers roam the uncivilized wasteland of Earth looking for food and ammunition. Their behavior is instinctual and animalistic, driven by the crude fundamentals of survival and yet hampered by an ignorance and amorality that borders on self-destruction. Only one woman, the elderly emaciated leader, is old enough to remember the world before an unspecified nuclear disaster wiped it out. The other women, some of them not more than girls, are almost an unrecognizable species in their primitiveness. The director does not shy away from the boredom or the brutality of their meager existence, including such acts as the apparently real-life shooting of a dog and the still-living slaughter of a cow for food.

Having gone many years since their last encounter with any other member of humanity, the gang stumbles upon an old man struggling vainly to preserve the fragments of culture and civilization that he still possesses. His eccentric yet charmingly domestic revival of music, ranching and even chivalry awakens long-buried nostalgia in the gang’s leader and a timid love begins to bloom. Yet the ravages of age and radiation, the friction between the nomadic and settled life and the paranoid regression in the young feral generation leaves little opportunity for hope.

The black and white cinematography emphasizes the crumbled decay and shrinking signs of civilization with bleak, unflinching detachment. The torn-down, shriveled visuals, minimal dialogue and “there’s no rush now that everyone’s dead” pacing remind me of later films like “The Last Combat” (1983), though “Hotel Ozone” is unusual in that it doesn’t even try to give its lone survivors a sense of existential hipness or post-apocalyptic renaissance-man resourcefulness. Set several decades after the crisis, the film is not concerned with modernist commentary on the mistakes of the past. Nor is the future fate of man still open for debate: human life is doomed.

If this doesn’t sound like a good time, you’re right, it’s not. This is not a post-apocalyptic movie that has any room for Will Smith, animal sidekicks, comic relief, special effects or action scenes involving legions of vampires. However, it’s probably not too unrealistic and it deserves to be seen by anyone as fascinated by end of the world scenarios as myself.


Dinner for Adele (1977)

If you’re in the mood for something lighter, than “Dinner for Adele” might be for you. I’ve reviewed maverick madcap director Oldritch Lipsky before (see the classic Eastern western “Lemonade Joe”) and this films levels similar satire but directs it at the mystery genre, specifically lampooning the Nick Carter detective series that still today continues its 100+ year publishing history after dabbling in popular comic book and radio show formats.

In “Dinner for Adele” Nick Carter is charged with solving the murder of a canine in the family of a wealthy and beautiful Prague maiden. The clues point towards a carnivorous plant, leading Carter to suspect his longtime nemesis Baron von Kratzmar, a criminal mastermind known as “The Gardener,” whom Carter thought he killed years earlier in a swamp confrontation (an event we will witness, humorously, from both points of view). Kratzmar was incenses as a young botanist student by his poor grades and vowed to prove his talent and score his revenge by musically hypnotizing Adele, his bloodthirsty flower, into eating a former professor and his beautiful daughter. Olga Schoberova co-stars.

If “Ikarie XB-1” is about an optimistic future and “Hotel Ozone” is about a pessimistic one, “Dinner for Adele” is about a fun-loving return to the past. Yet despite the whimsical tone and vintage setting, “Dinner for Adele” freely makes use of SF inventiveness in a Jules Verne sort of way. Kratzmar, for instance, babbles his mad scientist jargon with the best of them and even Carter can, with little foreshadowing, whip out a solar powered laser if need be. The stop-motion and animated special effects for Adele were done by Jan Svankmajer himself and won the Czech’s their only Saturn award.

The real cornerstone of “Dinner for Adele” is its humor, which might be a little broad and wacky for the art film crowd, but which never fails to amuse me with its creative absurdity. Some favorite examples: Our damsel in distress tells Carter that she sealed off the room where her dog disappeared to preserve any clues and, expecting to see the usual band of yellow tape across the door, we find the Victorian entrance has been bricked off. Nick Carter, of course, karate chops his way through. Or another: during a climactic air balloon chase, Carter’s gun explodes in his hand at a crucial moment causing him to cry out “Material fatigue!” as the villain escapes. Despite the setback he’s content (he gets paid either way), until a change of wind blows in his favor.

Lipsky’s witty dialogue survives translation in the two versions I’ve seen, while the inflections and melodramatic direction need little help to understand. It’s kind of a toss up as to whether the visuals are better in this or “Lemonade Joe.” Given that Svankmajer’s effects are more for laughs than for horror or realism, I’d say “Lemonade Joe” is the more refined and innovative presentation, but the Facet’s aspect-ratio cropping of the latter seriously compromises it. I can’t wait to watch more of Lipsky’s films, especially “Happy End,” “The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians” and “I Killed Einstein, Gentleman.”

Conclusion:

While I adore all three films, there’s no question in my mind that “Ikarie XB-1” is the champion. It’s high-style, well-thought-out foundations for space opera surpasses retro-kitsch to become a convincing vision of the future. Now that it is available in a clean, uncut transfer with passable subtitles, it deserves to be widely seen and finally acknowledged as one of the great, groundbreaking works in SF history. Even casual fans of the genre should place this on their must-see list. As a side note, I now have a 1963 film that handily defeats “Tom Jones” for my SF-themed Oscar revisionism.

Winner: Ikarie XB-1

But where can I get these films?

“The End of August at the Hotel Ozone” is available through Facets on a manageable transfer with an insert booklet. You can get it on Netflix. The other films are a bit harder, but both can be found through dvdr.cz. Click on the British flag for the English version. The current currency exchange is about $1 (USD) to 18 Czech koruny (CZK) and expect to pay a lot for shipping. I had to apply the subtitles for “Dinner for Adele” through some frustrating computer piddling, but they are easy enough to find free online. If you want a subtitled version and don’t mind not having the case you can purchase them from one of my new favorite rare film dealers, AllCluesNoSolutions or legally torrent either film.

3 comments:

Flickhead said...

I like what you said about Hotel Ozone. I first saw it on a double bill with Peter Watkins' The War Game in 1977... and I went back to the theatre two days later to see it again, figuring it would return into the obscurity it came from. This was pre-VHS, and not a chance of any cable station showing it.

One thing I remember from New Line Cinema's theatrical print that I don't recall seeing on the DVD, is a credit for the involvement of the Czechoslovakian Army. With the exception of the old man, old woman and the one younger woman who has more screen time than the rest, the other women were real Army soldiers with no prior acting experience. I assume director Jan Schmidt wanted people who could actually kill the dog, cow and snake without flinching.

It is an amazing film, and when the DVD came out a year or two ago, almost thirty years since I last saw it, Hotel Ozone lost absolutely none of its strange beauty and power.

Walrus said...

That's a really good match to put Hotel Ozone with The War Game. I think DVD Savant says that he saw it double-billed with Ikarie XB-1, which also makes sense.

Very interesting about the army involvement.What a different reaction than the British government with regard to cooperating with a post-apoc film. I think they withdrew their support on "The War Game" after seeing the finished product.

Hana - Marmota said...

Actually, Icarus is Ikarus or Ikaros in Czech as well (like in Greek, I suppose), Ikarie is only based on it... to my Czech ears, it sounds like a female version of the name, which makes sense with it being a ship (although that is only a tradition in English, referrinmg to ships as females).
The film sounds VERY interesting. I should check it out.