Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Strange Lands: Eolomea

Eolomea is sort of like utopia or Erehwon, except it really might exist—maybe. It is one of the great debates of Prof. Maria Scholl’s age, but she is more concerned with the recent rash of vanished cargo ships. As she pursues her investigation, she will need the help of her summer fling in Hermann Zschoche’s Eolomea, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

In a case of rotten timing, yet another space freighter loses contact with space station Margot just as Scholl is giving her report to the UN-like council of interplanetary busybodies. Strangely, her toughest critic, Prof. Oli Tal, seems to know all the details already, including the presence of his daughter on the latest missing vessel.

Tal was not always such a bureaucratic boor. He was once a hotshot flight officer, who was keen to initiate an expedition to Eolomea. Unfortunately, he could never entirely prove its existence, so no mission was ever authorized. Ironically, Tal becomes one of Scholl’s friendlier associates, as she diplomatically probes him for the truth. At least, he will meet her for lovely picnics and a spot of witty repartee. Still, he is no substitute for Dan Lagny, the disgruntled moonbase crewmember, whom she met during a recent seaside holiday. Although Lagny wanted to resign (and perhaps pursue a serious relationship with Scholl), he is too talented for Scholl to approve his release. Indeed, she will be quite glad to rendezvous with him when she lights off to Margot herself.

Of the major science fiction films produced by the East German studio DEFA, Eolomea is the critical redheaded stepchild, but it is really the best of the lot. Frankly, its withering depiction of a risk-averse bureaucracy stifling space exploration feels more John Galt than Erich Honecker (but perhaps the space station was a hat tip to his wife Margot). It also presents a rather crummy, dysfunctional vision of the future, not so very different from the GDR’s crummy, dysfunctional socialist present.

Yet, in subtle ways, it portrays how mankind has yet to emotionally acclimate to the interstellar age. This is particularly acute in the case of Pilot Kun, Lagny’s grizzled old comrade. Surprisingly, Eolomea is quite touching, serving as an elegy to the relationships and connections that were ultimately not meant to be.

As Scholl, Dutch actress Cox Habbema carries the film with grace, smartly playing off Rolf Hoppe’s Tal and Ivan Andonov’s Lagny. Hoppe (seen in Volker Schlöndorff’s English language Palmetto and a raft of German television productions) is a standout as the exasperating but charming Tal, while Vsevolod Sanayev nicely embodies the film’s increasingly confused human element as old Kun.

Arguably, Eolomea is a deceptively simple story, but it captures the romantic spirit of space exploration. Fans will also appreciate Günther Fischer’s groovy soundtrack, which sounds more in keeping with some of its trippier DEFA counterparts. Granted, the over abundance of temporal shifts is counterproductive, but it still has a unique vibe that sticks with you weeks after watching it. Recommended as the class of DEFA science fiction, Eolomea screens this Saturday night (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.