Berlinale Blog: These are the Voyages of the Starship… Ikarie XB-1

     |    Monday, der 6. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

We here in the West might think that the genre of Socialist science fiction, with perhaps the notable exception of “Solaris”, is largely unknown. Yet without our knowing it, it was secretly infiltrating our drive-ins, grind houses and VHS tapes, albeit in somewhat revised forms, often courtesy of Roger Corman – realeyz Playlist and/or American International Pictures. The Soviet film “Planeta Bur” (Planet of Storms) was released as “Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet” -with new scenes shot with Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue watching from the orbiting ship, while “Nebo zovyot” (The Heavens Call) and “Mechte navstrechu” (Meeting In Space) were mixed up and reconfigured into a few different pictures most notably, “Queen Of Blood”. In the outer East Bloc, the East German film “Die schweigende Stern” (The Silent Star) became “First Space Ship To Venus” and the Czech film “Ikarie XB-1″ was given a decidedly different ending and released as “Voyage To The End Of The Universe”.

I originally saw Jindrich Polák’s Ikarie XB-1 (Czechoslovakia 1963), screening in the Retrospective, 20+ years ago on the small screen of a slightly out of adjustment editing table, dubbed into German when my German was not the greatest. But somehow, barely able to understand or appreciate what I as seeing, it stuck with me all these years.

Unlike what we are used to in classical “space opera” there are no big battles, no big disasters, and in fact very little action at all. Not that that’s a bad thing. One reviewer said it was like Antonioni in space, visually striking but very spare – and it is – but to me it’s more like Bresson’s “A Condemned Man Escapes Prison” which found it’s drama in absorbing us in the many simple and subtle details, carefully laid out, that finally come together to set up the escape we know is coming – or in this case the final arrival at Alpha Century.

Like Star Trek, the XB-1 is on a long term exploratory mission manned by a crew which is more like a community in space. Unlike Star Trek it’s not about heroics of the few but the daily life of the many on board.

They are a range of ages and professional disciplines. There are flirtations, crushes, short and long term pairings. There is the excitement of the journey as well as regret for those left behind – due to the faster-than-light speed of the ship, their 2 ½ year mission corresponds to the passing of 15 years on earth.

There is the discovery of a derelict ship from a “bygone” era of Earth’s space program that results in the sadly accidental deaths of the two crew members assigned to check it out, allowing an obligatory dig on the misguided and primitive 20th century (read Capitalism/militarism). We are meant to feel that the world has since left it behind for a better future.

There is also boredom, psychological breakdown, and exposure to some strange radiation, as well as onboard entertainment like an art gallery, mixed drinks and formal dances, and the communal joy over the first interstellar born baby. There is even a pet dog.

For a 50+ year old movie, the design and special effects are surprisingly impressive. The main set is a cathedral-like bridge that elegantly defies scientific reality of conservation of space on a spacecraft, while at the same time, with the obligatory array of lights, switches and screens plays perfectly into every 60s kid’s fantasies of what their rocket should look like. The rest of the ship likewise looks very sophisticated, though still very 60s, suggested by lighting and pieces of background that suggest much more than what’s shown.

This year we get to see the true and original version, digitally restored to wide screen and silvery b/w glory along with decent subtitles instead of the previous bad dubbing. And it’s worth it.