A distress call originates from a remote land. The senders implore the intervention of a more politically stable and technologically advanced state, to assist, enlighten, or liberate them. That widespread trope in science fiction—perhaps the most common inciting event is an interplanetary Mayday—takes on allegorical dimensions when tales of deprived citizens crying for help come from behind the Iron Curtain.

The Strange Lands series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center spotlights a number of sci-fi relics of the Cold War, many involving populations (or disadvantaged sectors of the populace) reaching out through risky or deceptive means to those with power to aid them. One such film is Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars, released in East Germany in 1976. The final sci-fi production from the GDR’s state-owned Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft studio (DEFA), In the Dust of the Stars contains no shortage of anti-imperialist propaganda and swipes at Western culture. But in the same way Lang’s Metropolis can be understood as both a universal denunciation of class disparity and a cry for social justice at home, this film is too tortuous to be read as mere critique of capitalist decadence.

The action begins when the spaceship Cyrano reaches planet TEM 4, after a six-year journey in response to an SOS. On arrival, Captain Akala (Jana Brejchová) learns from the planet’s ostensible leader Ronk (Milan Beli) that the Temians sent no deliberate distress signal. The crew is invited to a psychedelic “midnight party,” shot like something from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, showcasing the wanton depravity associated with Western excess—drugs, belly dancers, ornamental snakes—during which all memories of their mission are wiped clean. Only suspicious navigator Suko (Alfred Struwe), who has remained on the ship, escapes erasure and later learns the source of the call for help: the planet’s native Turi have been conquered and enslaved by the Temians, forced to work in underground mines.

In the Dust of the Stars

On the surface, the Temians seem to represent Americans. The real chief of TEM 4 (Ekkehard Schall), a cavorting Caligula, appears in various scenes with hair alternately dyed red, white, and blue. The reigning powers oppress those with fewer resources, and the chief cautions Akala that “Your great era is coming to an end.” But whose great era is actually obsolete? With their egalitarian order, freedom from censorship, and autonomy to pursue missions of mercy, Akala and her crew seem more like the democratic wave that will crash on the shores of subjugation and rescue TEM 4 from a repressive system. The hedonistic Temians paint an alarming picture of how liberty begets libertines, but perhaps the snakes are red herrings. A double meaning is at work when a crew member tells the Turi: “We cannot build a shield around your planet so you can develop undisturbed.” Manifestly an echo of Star Trek’s Prime Directive against tampering with the progress of alien civilizations, it’s also a call for transparency, an avowal of the inefficacy of subsisting in secret: the Curtain must come down.

A far-flung message also serves as catalyst for Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea, produced by DEFA in 1972. A council convenes to discuss the fate of eight missing spacecraft, declaring a ban on space travel until the cause is pinpointed. It’s revealed to be a Morse Code communiqué from the constellation Cygnus, which is deciphered as “Eolomea”—eternal spring. State scientist Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema) and pilot Dan Lagny (Ivan Andonov) discover that Eolomea is a distant planet, the Holy Grail of space travel, and the ships were hijacked by Scholl’s mentor, Prof. Tal (Rolf Hoppe), for an expedition to that world without governmental consent.

In a startling denouement, scrupulous bureaucrat Scholl upholds Tal’s act of defiance, maintaining the supremacy of exploration over regulation. The film itself reflects this belief—namely, that curiosity and awe are worthier causes than pedantic adherence to protocol (“Man has the brain, but administration has the control” someone says with a sniff of derision). Dan, the Han Solo-ish hero of the piece, is a rule-bending rogue, defying the travel ban to visit a colleague, maintaining a stash of contraband liquor, and corrupting government property (a ramshackle robot with a nobly intractable fealty to Asimov’s Laws). Though the protagonists are stand-ins for government functionaries, not saviors from abroad, Eolomea allows for (and endorses) the possibility of dissent if the reasons are just.


A stray notion that skims across the Anglo viewer’s mind when considering these parables from the GDR—and one that further complicates their etchings of future history—is that everyone from Earth to TEM 4 is speaking German. While this plainly derives from the films' national origins and not from Kolditz or Zschoche posing alternate outcomes to World War II, the reactionary bromide '…or we'd all be speaking German' faintly surfaces to suggest the empire has extended its dominion to the cosmos–and all that might historically entail.

Georgiy Daneliya’s 1986 Russian cult classic Kin-dza-dza! is not necessarily what one would call a subversive work, but its Wizard of Oz-ian narrative of seeking passage home from a bizarro landscape doesn’t expunge the haste with which “home” was initially abandoned. When, at the start of the film, two passersby are greeted by a barefoot man in a tattered coat and offered a galactic teleportation device, one of them, a construction foreman (Stanislav Lyubshin), reflexively activates it, sending himself and a young violinist (Levan Gabriadze) over the Soviet rainbow to the planet Pluke.

Unlike the opulent milieus of In the Dust of the Stars, The Tenth Victim (the future as Pop Art battleground), or Morel’s Invention (a throwback to the Art Deco of the 1920s), Kin-dza-dza!’s Pluke is a desert wasteland. The inhabitants are greedy and primitive, with no more than a 10-word vocabulary (though they quickly master Russian and Georgian). Their society is divided between two groups: the favored Chatlanians and the subordinate Patsaks, who wear bells in their noses. The unit of currency is the ketseh, or matchstick, and those with enough of them may wear colorful pants and be exempt from nightly beatings, as the others squat and slap their faces in deference. It’s Marxism of the Groucho variety.


With shades of Blade Runner and The Road Warrior, Kin-dza-dza! uses absurdist humor to portray the randomness and idiocy of social hierarchies. The two castes are physically indifferentiable. Even the privileged class admits the distinction is not national or biological—rather, in the presence of a handheld detector, one group triggers a green light and the other an orange light. On neighboring planets the Patsaks dominate the Chatlanians—the assignation is arbitrary.

But underlying the zany free-market satire remains the question of why the foreman pushed the button in the first place. Mere curiosity, or boredom with his wife’s macaroni? Or was the comrade answering a distress call from within?