Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Strange Lands: In the Dust of the Stars

Would you travel halfway across the galaxy to check out a prank call? Supposedly, that is exactly what this star-faring crew has done. However, once they arrive on TEM 4, they are assured there is nothing to see here, so please move along. Thanks to the brainwashing, most of them are inclined to agree. Of course, there is a sinister scheme afoot in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Say what you will about the locals, but they throw a smashing party. The entire crew is quite taken with their psychedelic hospitality, except Suko the navigator, who stayed behind to nurse his suspicions about the “accidental” distress call that brought them to this swinging planet. As a result, he is the only one not to get dosed by their sonic mind-blocking device. Rather put out by his fellow crewmembers’ giddy compliance, Suko will single-handed uncover the truth on TEM 4. However, it is not like his comrades would be much help, even under the best of circumstances.

Frankly, the Cynro crew inspires even less confidence than Peter Davison’s Doctor Who—and it starts right at the top. In 1978, a woman space captain might have been considered a progressive symbol, but Akala is no Janeway, not by a long shot. She is indecisive, gullible, and conspicuously frustrated by her unconsummated longing for Suko. Clearly, he shares her lust, but he makes do with a willing subordinate instead, presumably out of respect for the chain of command.

The entire Cynro crew looks like a wish fulfillment fantasy, consisting of a couple middle aged dudes and half a dozen hotties in mod jumpsuits. Indeed, Dust features some of the most flamboyant costumes this side of The Fifth Element. In terms of narrative, it is sort of like a middling Star Trek episode in which Yeoman Rand performs a naked interpretive dance, but Dust is really about its candy-colored sets and costumes, as wells as its free-loving melodrama.

It is hard to believe this was a co-production of the GDR and Romania. One can only imagine the expressions of bewilderment on the scoldy state censors’ faces as they watched the Temer dancers Vogueing through the “Boss’s” Henry Moore sculpture garden, but since the oppressed eventually rise up against their oppressors, Dust was apparently safe as houses.

The general hamminess of the ensemble hardly matters either. Arguably, Alfred Stuwe fares the best as Suko and Jana Brejchová (the one-time Mrs. Miloš Forman) gets by okay as Akala. On the other hand, Ekkehard Schall and Milan Beli bring extra cheese as the boss and his chief enforcer, Ronk.

Dust is a ton of fun in a trippy retro kind of way. Karl-Ernst Sasse’s groovy soundtrack is a classic of its kind and production designer Christa Helwig truly crafted a strange land. Recommended as a lava lamp curio from the DEFA filmography, In the Dust of the Stars screens this Saturday (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the Strange Lands film series.