First on the Moon [Pervye na Lune] (2005)

In 1936, years ahead of the West, the Soviet Union began an epic program to create the first manned space rocket.

Or at least that’s what this extraordinary faux documentary would have us believe.

In 1939, a mysterious fireball crashed to Earth in Chile.  In 2005, the team of researchers making the documentary travel there to learn what they can about it.

Somehow, they’ve managed to locate an archive of materials on the selection and training of four people for an undisclosed mission which we learn was nothing less than an attempt to send a man into space.  Not only to we get to see their training, we also get to see the candid footage shot by the security agents spying on them.

However, no one involved wants to talk about what happened (and as the narrator tells us at the end of the film, the one surviving member of the team who provides an extensive interview about the space mission is found dead in his workshop).

This is an impressive first film, with a lot of very clever use of stock footage, some nicely filmed “old” footage, and a spectacular rocket launch that looks like it came out of one of the more dramatic Soviet films of the thirties (I particularly loved the series of filmed reactions to the launch, including one of the crew breaking into a goofy jig, which look like they came straight out of some Soviet classic which just seems to escape my memory) .

One of the nice ironies here is that the Cosmonauts take the time out from the training to watch Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya novella (aka, Cosmic Journey), an impressive (if sadly obscure) Soviet SF film released in 1936, which portrays a trip to the Moon (one reviewer actually thought these clips were just part of the joke, and not from a real movie).

Where the film has lost a lot of its American viewers is its portrayal of the obsessive security culture of the Soviet Union – not only do they carefully document everything that happens, and spy on their chosen heroes, they also destroy it all – and make many of those involved “disappear” – when the program apparently fails.  Those who’ve had the misfortune of actually living under Communism could easily tell us how believable this truly is, as many of these things were everyday occurrences (I would recommend the Czech film, The Ear (1970), which offers an equally paranoid view of surveillance as an ordinary part of life under Communist rule).  The director, Aleksey Fedorchenko, cleverly uses this to give us a close up view of the lives of the four candidates, who are being filmed secretly – and to take the upbeat mood of the first half of the film and crush it completely in the second.

Perhaps the best part of this film is the wealth of amusing details – like the young women in a parade who are strapped on as the “spokes” of a big, rolling wheel, or the character who later becomes a circus act as “Alexander Nevsky”, fighting dwarfs dressed as knights in costumes borrowed from Eisenstein’s legendary film – and set to Prokofiev’s film score.

All in all, an interesting and well-made film which seems like a strange cross between “In Search of…”, Peter Jackson’s own mocumentary, Forgotten Silver, and some bold Thirties SF film like FP1 Doesn’t Answer.

Just be careful who you show it to, or they might end up believing the Soviets secretly sent a man into space in 1939.

(English subtitles available here).

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