(5/10) In a nutshell: German director Karl Hartl directed this ”subtle sci-fi” film in 1932 in three different languages with a different cast. This review mainly concerns the German ”original”, with some words about the English version. The ”sci-fi” idea of a floating gas station for planes is very dated today, and the rest of the film plays out as a mediocre spy thriller/love drama. At least the German version is saved by some superb acting.
F.P.1. Does Not Answer (F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht), 1932, Germany. Directed by: Karl Hartl. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Walter Reisch. Based on the novel by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Hans Albers, Peter Lorre, Sybille Schmidtz (Conrad Veidt, Charles Boyer). Cinematography: Günther Rittau. Produced by Eberhardt Klagemann, Erich Pommer for UFA. IMDb score: 6.1/6.2
This movie is curious, if not for anything else, then at least because it highlights one of the peculiar (and short-lived) practices of the early days of talking movies, namely the making of multilingual film versions. In the silent era films language boundaries were practically non-existent in the film industry, since it was a fairly simple procedure to change the title cards depending on where the film was shown. This was of course one of the reasons as to why, for example, European movies, other than British, were a serious threat to the American film industry in the early days of cinema – and as a result many influences from the vital and experimental European films scene quickly transplanted themselves to American film. It also opened up for a very collaborative European film industry, as actors, writers and directors could work freely in countries where they understood very little of the language. A cast consisting of Danish, British, French, Polish, Hungarian and Italian actors could all portray wholly German characters without anyone raising an eyebrow.
This all changed in 1928 when talking pictures made their debut, but many film companies still wanted to keep expanding the profits of successful movies in other countries. Especially American studios, that made much of their revenue outside the English speaking market, were desperate to find ways to keep selling Hollywood films in Europe, and to some extent in Latin America. And as dubbing and subtitling was still in a very crude stage, the only solution was to film the same film multiple times in different languages, often completely replacing the cast. The most famous of these ”foreign language” American films is perhaps the Mexican version of Dracula (1931), which is often regarded as technically and artistically superior to the American version. This practise waned as dubbing became more efficient, and was practically disbanded in 1936.
F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht (F.P.1. Does Not Answer, 1932) was a German concept, but it was also made into a French and English language version. The only version I have been able to find in its entirety is the German one, but I have cobbled together about one third of the English language version from various clips.
F.P.1. is one of those curious films that doesn’t feel like a sci-fi, because – for once – the filmmakers actually got something right about the future (well, almost). The sci-fi element of this film is simply an aircraft carrier. Only in the film it is not a warship carrying jets, but a stationary gas station, repair shop, diner and motel in the middle of the Atlantic. The fascination with aviation was still extremely high in 1932, despite the fact that the airplane as such was already 30 years old. But still only a handful of daredevils in specialised planes had been able to make non-stop transatlantic flights. The only practical way to fly from Europe to America was to stop along the way for rest, refuelling and maybe even to switch planes – and these were still mainly mail flights, rather than passenger flights. For example, getting from New York to Berlin meant first stopping at Newfoundland, then the Azores, then Ireland and finally mainland Europe. From Florida one took the route via Cuba or Puerto Rico, Brazil, West Africa, North Africa, France and finally Berlin. So a giant gas station smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, say on a line between New York and London, wasn’t a bad idea as such, at least not to the film engineers. Of course, as history has proven, the actual real-life engineers thought it was a better idea to simply make better planes, something the filmmakers – or rather author Kurt Siodmak – failed to take into consideration.
If the name Kurt Siodmak (or Curt, as he would later spell his name) rings a bell, it is probably because you are a fan of old Universal horror films. Polish-born Siodmak was the man who created The Wolf Man (1941), and with that film script basically also the werewolf as we know it today – but we’ll catch up on that later. F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht, written in 1932, was Siodmak’s first highly successful novel, and his breakthrough as a screenwriter, as he helped turn the book into a film (he had both written and directed films previously). The direction of the film was handled by Austrian editor-turned-director Karl Hartl. F.P.1. was his breakthrough film. His other foray into science fiction was the 1934 film Gold (review), which also became an international hit, and it is perhaps his best known film today. That film was also made into a French version. Both films incidentally starred Hans Albers, Germany’s top movie star at the time. The English version of F.P.1. starred German actor Conrad Veidt, who was already an international star because of his work in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Waxworks (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) – his major Hollywood breakthrough role. The lead in the French version was played by Charles Boyer, who was a star in France, and had made a short, unsuccessful tour to Hollywood. He later returned to Tinseltown and became a major star of the late thirties and forties – in films such as The Garden of Allah (1936), Algiers (1938), and Gaslight (1944). The closest he came to sci-fi again was appearing as a balloonist in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – one of numerous cameos by various celebrities in the film. James Bond aficionados might want to note that he appeared in the 1967 spy film spoof Casino Royale starring Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and David Niven.
Another starring role in the German version of F.P.1. was given to Peter Lorre, one of the great actors of his generation – whose major film work is far too great to list here. But sticking to the Bond theme, one might point out that Lorre played the first ever Bond villain as Le Chiffre in the 1954 TV series. In Casino Royale Ronnie Corbett comments that SMERSH includes among its agents not only Le Chiffre, but also ”Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi”. Lorre and Veidt would team up again with added help from Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in Casablanca (1942). Apparently the three films were made simultaneuosly, so on any given day the star factor on set would have been huge! Of the three female leads, the best known is probably German femme fatale Sybille Schmitz – although she never came near the same recognition as the film’s male stars.
I might be able to talk my way out of a paper bag in German, but I still had to check up the plot synopsis on Wikipedia and IMDb to be able to get a hang of what actually was going on, since this is a rather talky film, and if you can’t understand the dialogue, you’re screwed. Basically this is what’s going on:
Major Ellissen (Albers/Veidt) is a former war pilot ace and something of a ladies’ man and thrill seeker, who has returned home to Germany. During a lavish party at a hotel he is overheard by the beautiful, young Claire Lennartz (Schmitz/Jill Esmond) as he supervises a break-in at the Lennartz Shipyard – owned by Claire’s brother – by phone. But, it is all with good intentions, he explains when she confronts him (and the break-in has happened). He hasn’t actually stolen anything, but simple ”hidden” the plans for the so-called F.P.1. When the Claire’s two brothers – the owners of the shipyard – ”discover” the long forgotten plans that have been collecting dust in a safe for years – Ellissen has conveniently arranged for the newspaper photographer Jonny/Sunshine (Lorre/Donald Calthrop) to be there to snap a picture for his paper – thus making F.P.1. famous.
You see the designer of Floating Platform number 1 is Captain Droste (Paul Hartmann/Leslie Fenton), Ellissen’s old pilot buddy, who has been too modest to bring up his designs, and noboby has paid any attention to his brilliant idea to build a floating platform to serve transatlantic flights in the middle of the Atlantic. Well, now they have, and now it will also be built.
Fast forward two years. F.P.1. is ready and successful. Ellissen and Claire are a couple, but Ellissen gets cold feet as soon as Claire brings up marriage, and now flees the decision as often as he can to instead go off for adventures, leaving Claire to slowly fall in love with the handsome young Droste – in turn making Ellissen jealous. One day gun shots are heard over the radio from F.P.1. and then radio contact is broken – and Ellissen and Claire fly out to investigate, only to crash on the deck and ruin their plane. It seems the shipping firms have taken offence at the damage the increased air freight is doing to their business and have hidden a thug on board the platform. He has sabotaged F.P.1. so it is slowly sinking, and destroyed the radio, so they can’t call for help. This is all revealed in a pretty slow-moving and uninspiring spy tale, accompanied by a love triangle melodrama. Droste is wounded in a gun fight and the spy escapes, leaving sinking platform to its destiny. After some tinkering with the crashed plane, Droste is convinced he can fly it – or die trying – to get help. The by now seriously depressed and cynical Ellissen scalds him for even thinking about flying that piece of scrap metal, and is infuriated by the thought of Droste trying to make a martyr out of himself – and for the fact that he and Claire seem to grow closer every day. In a dramatic argument Jonny/Sunshine convinces him that Ellissen’s bad mood and depression stems from the fact that he has commitment issues and flees his relationship with Claire – but now when the time really calls for heroics, he chooses to be a cynic. After sulking for a whle, Ellissen then finds his joy in life again, after realising that all he wishes for is for Claire to be happy, and that Droste is the right man for her. Just as Droste is taking a teary-eyed farewell of Claire, they suddenly hear the plane spluttering to life, and running out on the platform, they see Ellissen taking off, throwing down a note as he flies by: ”I will send you a ship”. And so he does, heroically parachuting out of the tin can of a plane, saving the day.
As a sci-fi, the film is not much worth writing home about. As a spy thriller its is serviceable, as a melodrama it is quite decent. The German version of the film is very enjoyable to watch, simply because of the performances. Sparks fly every time Albers and Lorre appear together on screen (as much as sparks ever fly around the laconic and wry Lorre). Albers is simply suberb as the suave man of the world, the adventurer and Don Juan. Modern viewers may find it hard to believe that this bulky man with a quickly receding hair line, and a jovial, gentlemanly face was the leading man number one in Germany, basically all the way through the thirties and through WWII. But his charisma, humour and raw talent makes it impossible to take your eyes off him – and his versatility meant he could appear in almost any genre, from musical comedy to horror, sci-fi, drama and action. His stature, broad shoulders and regal bearing are in hilarious contrast to the short, plump, bug-eyed and laconic Lorre – the master of understatement, who could say more with a single eye movement than many lesser actors could with a thousand lines. Hartmann, Schmidtz are not bad either, but completely out-acted by the dynamic duo. From what I’ve seen of the Englsih version, Veidt is by far the best part of the film. He is always good, but perhaps slightly miscast in the role as Ellissen. Often playing sinister or tragic roles, he lacks something of the joie de vivre that is needed to carry the lead in this film. He also doesn’t seem to have had much time to prepare – his German accent is far worse than in his previous English language films, as if he hadn’t had the chance to practise. And when he doesn’t quite know what to do with the role, he simply retorts to lumbering around the set and brooding – and here Karl Hartl is partly to blame. But it is still always a joy to see Veidt explode in fits of rage.
here are some really nice miniature shots of the platform with miniature planes landing and taking off, but apart from that, the design in the film is not very inspired, neither is the filming. The pace is also a bit slow at times, but it may be I perceive it as such because of the language barrier.
Kurt Siodmak was clearly quite obsessed with the idea of crossing the Atlantic, since he was involved the the writing of three films about the subject during the thirties. The first one was the British version of The Tunnel (1935) – a remake of the German/French sci-fi film Der Tunnel (1933, review), based on a novel by Bernhard Kellerman. The second, also British, was Non-Stop New York (1937). And third time is the charm, I guess, because after hitting and missing with first a floating platform and then a tunnel, he actually got it right this time with non-stop transatlantic flights.
Siodmak continued his sci-fi adventures in Hollywood in 1940 with The Invisible Man Returns, starring horror icon Vincent Price. He also wrote the sci-fi horrors Black Friday (1940, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and The Ape (1941, starring Karloff) Universal like the scripts, and gave him the task of conjuring up a script for The Wolf Man, thought as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr, son of the legendary Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces – as well as a chance to introduce a new character in the Universal horror franchise. In writing the script, Siodmak invented a whole new mythology for the Wolf Man. There wasn’t a definitive source for the story, as with the novels and plays that were the basis for films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931, review) and The Invisible Man (1933, review). He could, though, draw some inspiration from Universal’s previous, less successful werewolf film, Werewolf of London, but used little material from that film. Most previous lore about werewolves came from ancient folk tales and myths, or from the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, and these were all very diverse. Siodmak instead tied in the character of the Wolf Man with Dracula, making him virtually immortal. It was Siodmak that first came up with the idea that only silver can kill a werewolf. He also wrote the famous poem that has since been recited in many werewolf fictions, often believed to be of old folk tale origin. He was also the first to tie in the werewolf with the wolfbane plant.
Kurt Siodmak went on to write scripts or novels that inspired scripts of a whole host of horror and sci-fi films. These included Invisible Agent (1942, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). In the fifties, the so-called Golden Age of American sci-fi, he penned the scripts for such B-grade films as The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), Riders to the Stars (1954, review), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), and Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956). His 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain became a bestseller and inspired a whole slew of films, including The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), Donovan’s Brain (1953) , The Brain (1962) and Hauser’s Memory (1970). Among his 9 directing credits we find such masterpieces as Bride of the Gorilla (1951), The Magnetic Monster, Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957).
Peter Lorre’s screen credits include such legendary films as M (1931), Mad Love (1935), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and the hugely influential Disney sci-fi adventure film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review), that kicked off a torrent of Jules Verne adaptations. Other sci-fi sidesteps include Invisible Agent (1942) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).
German actor Conrad Veidt created big waves as the mute somnambulist murderer in Robert Wiene’s expressionist milestone Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari in 1919. He soon became an iconic performer of tortured, sinister roles in horror films, but also had the looks and the charisma to pull off a few leading man parts. In 1920 he played the lead in an unauthorized Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaptation, Der Januskopf, directed by F.W. Murnau, later of Nosferatu (1922) fame, and played Ivan the Terrible in the infuential film Waxworks, directed by Paul Leni in 1924. Russian director Sergei Eisenstein claimed he used Veidt as a model for his protagonist in the epic film Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958). In 1924 he also created one of his most haunting characters in The Hands of Orlac, about a pianist who after an accident gets transplanted hands from a murderer. 1928 saw his perhaps best remembered role, at least among aficionados, in the Hollywood film The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni. The character served as an inspiration for the Joker in Batman. He moved back to Germany at the advent of talkies, and starred in a number of thrillers, horror films and historical dramas in Germany, France and Britain, where he lived as the Nazi regime cemented its power. Here he also perfected his English before returning to Hollywood in 1939. He realized that Hollywood would have him play many Nazi roles, and stipulated in his contract that they would always have to be villains. But he also got the chance to play the lead in the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad. His most famous Nazi by far was Major Strasser in the memorable anti-Nazi drama Casablanca.
Paul Hartmann would later play the lead in the German version of The Tunnel, Der Tunnel (1933). Of the British cast Donald Calthrop played opposite Boris Karloff in the 1936 sci-fi horror film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review). Of the French cast Marcel Vallée played the thief in director Rene Clair’s experimental time stopping film The Crazy Ray (Paris qui dort, 1924, review).
F.P.1. Does Not Answer (F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht), 1932, Germany. Directed by: Karl Hartl. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Walter Reisch. Based on the novel by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Hans Albers, Peter Lorre, Sybille Schmidtz, Paul Hartmann (Conrad Veidt, Charles Boyer). Cinematography: Günther Rittau. Music: Allan Gray. Editing: Willy Zein. Production design: Erich Kettelhut. Special effects: Konstantin Irmen-Tschet. Produced by Eberhardt Klagemann, Erich Pommer for UFA.