An interesting – if almost forgotten – moment in the history of Science Fiction cinema happened back in 1930s Germany.
Starting with Ufa’s F.P.1 Does Not Answer (1932), a movie about a floating airport in the Atlantic, German filmmakers turned out a series of near term SF films. These included Ufa’s follow up, Gold (1934), the Bavarian films, Der Tunnel (1933, better known here from its parallel British version, Transatlantic Tunnel) and Weltraumschiff 1 startet… (1937).
(In many ways, these films resemble Fritz Lang’s Frau Im Mond, which features a similar blend of everyday drama, business intrigue and spy theatrics, mixed in with excellent miniatures of futuristic machines)
But the gathering clouds of war put an end to this boom, strangling Weltraumschiff 1 startet… in its cradle and leaving us with only a twenty minute short.
At the same time, German silent star Harry Piel made his own trilogy of near term SF films, his 1933 film Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt (featuring an invisibility suit that is considerably bulkier than Professor Van Dorn’s belt in The Vanishing Shadow, 1934), Die Welt ohne Maske (1934), about a new type of television, and this film.
It wasn’t the first time he’d ventured into the world of SF, as all the way back in 1916, he made what some people have called the first SF epic, Die große Wette (The Big Bet) which supposedly involved a city of the future and robots. Like most of his early films it is apparently lost.
Piel started out as a silent comic and starred as the hero of a long series of movies which he also directed and produced. Like Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks (whom he is often compared to) he did many of his own stunts. Unfortunately, most of his films were lost during the war (some of them recycled for the war effort) and his membership in the Nazi party didn’t stop his films from being censored.
In this one, a mad scientist, Professor Wolf, plots to use the robots his late employer’s factory produces in a scheme to take over the world. As was typical for these German SF films, most of the running time seems to be spent on the budding romance between a young engineer and the Capitalist’s widow; on a lot of corporate intrigue; and, of course, lots of shots of beautiful young German girls in bathing suits.
Well, that’s not so typical.
This is one of his few films in which Harry doesn’t appear. Clearly he didn’t have anywhere near the budget that Ufa had for their films, as his robots are fairly simple and quite limited in their motion, and the villain’s secret lab is mostly a bare room with a lot of dials on the walls.
But then there’s the robot, the big special model that Wolf plans to use to keep everyone in line if they decide they aren’t that wild about his robots. At least this is impressive, as it is huge, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet tall and full of all sorts of lights. It has two big Tesla coils for arms and sends sparks everywhere. Republic Pictures’ serial department would have died of envy, although it really isn’t particularly mobile when it finally moves – slowly – into action. However, we also get to see a building blow up (which is another Harry Piel trademark, as one of his friends ran a demolition company and let Harry film his handiwork).
Unfortunately, the robot rampage is too little too late – and would have been far more impressive if, as in the somewhat similar (if far more ideological) Russian film, Gibel Sensatsii, he’d given us a whole army of amok robots.
As if he had the budget for that.
Most of the film involves a lot of talk, in airplanes, factories and even mansions, and I’m sure it didn’t help that I only had badly autotranslated titles for the film. But it does definitely seem as if that big robot is one of the few things saving this film from utter mediocrity.
It isn’t quite enough, unfortunately.
However, there is one curious note worth mentioning here. The engineer’s scheme for dealing with the dislocations caused by replacing human workers with machines sound suspiciously like Major Clifford Hugh Douglas’ real life Social Credit schemes: while Piel was a Nazi party member, perhaps this is why he still faced censure and censorship. Perhaps.
(The movie, without subtitles can be found here.)
(Special thanks go to Jo Waas of the Scifist, who first introduced me to this film)