A Brief, Shining Moment of Pre-Nazi German Promise Restored
DIRECTED BY KARL HARTL/GERMAN/1933
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: AUGUST 10, 2021/KINO CLASSICS
Imagine, if you will, a unified world. In this transatlantic utopia, North America, South America, Africa, and Europe have been figuratively conjoined since the early 1930s, all participating in free and clear small-engine air travel around the globe. And it’s all thanks to Germany.
In actuality, there was indeed a time when Germany ruled the world. Not by result of any militaristic power grab or viral fascist messaging, but rather, artistically ruling the medium of cinema- which was, by the early 1930s a global medium, to be sure. Chief among German studios was the mighty UFA (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft), itself a conglomerate of smaller independent film companies united for a greater purpose (the peace-time national interest, quickly shifting into production of entertainment). UFA enabled major mind-blowing productions such as Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Metropolis (1926) to happen with auteur-driven momentousness and flourish.
In the last days of 1932, UFA released F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (aka F.P.1; aka F.P.1 antwortet nicht), a grandiose cinematic undertaking with truly international aspirations. Based on a novel by Kurt Siodmak, English and French language versions were produced alongside of the native German version, utilizing different actors but sharing most if not all large scale shots and sequences. Austrian director Karl Hartl clearly constructed F.P.1 in such a way that the “talking” and “dramatic” scenes took place apart from the “big stuff”, all able to slot together in whatever spoken permutation is desired. The English version, Secrets of F.P.1, which is available as a suppliment on this Kino Classics Blu-ray release, stars Conrad Veidt, Leslie Fenton and Jill Esmond. A fine cast, but still somehow the lesser of the two versions provided. Unlike the German version, the semi-literal seams can’t help but show.
The primary version under consideration here, the German one, is substantially more fluid in nature. It stars Hans Albers as the pilot explorer Ellissen. Initially motivated by the prospect of new adventure in unseen lands, Ellissen is not so much fun once the relational sacrifice of his latest trip sinks in. Sybille Schmitz stars as Claire, the spirited woman who loves him, but just couldn’t keep him on the ground. He opts to leave her- and the ambitious plan for a major floating aviator’s platform he helped along by endorsing- for other global adventures.
Two years pass, in which time, following much discussion about it, the grand F.P.1 (floating platform number one) is fully constructed and operational. As envisioned by Kapitänleutnant Droste (Paul Hartmann), the mighty man-made island serves as a necessary stopover in the Atlantic, enabling all manner of air travel between North America, South America, Africa, and Europe. Director Hartl reveals it in a majestic overhead swoop not unlike how James Cameron introduces the Titanic. And not unlike the Titanic, it isn’t long at all before the mighty F.P.1 begins to sink. Ominously, no communications will go through.
Claire, desperate to get to the bottom of what’s caused this disaster, convinces Ellissen to fly her there to check it out. Ellissen, all too happy for the time to potentially win back Claire, agrees. Sabotage has indeed occurred, gassing all the personnel and throwing the switches to cause disaster. Fortunately for the protagonists but not so great for the film’s ticking-clock suspense, the water isn’t coming in very quickly at all. Plenty of time for Ellissen to either get it through his thick head that Claire has moved on, or maybe actually win her back.
Unfortunately, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer opened just as the Reichstag fire raged, fast-tracking terrible change for Germany. The film’s underlying vision of global connectivity quickly became trounced by the jackbooted legions of Hitler’s followers amid the accession of the Third Reich. This film that might’ve trumped Metropolis in the UFA science fiction pantheon (yes, F.P.1 is just speculative enough to qualify for the genre) instead was kicked into obscurity.
Thankfully, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer has been restored and is now available in a terrific Blu-ray edition from Kino Classics. The film looks rather remarkable considering it’s rough history. As mentioned, Kino also includes the English-language version, Secrets of F.P.1, and a solid commentary by film historian Eddie von Mueller.
Author Kurt Siodmak would flee to Hollywood and become Curt Siodmak writer of such genre classics The Ape, The Wolf Man, Donovan’s Brain, and many others. Another German F.P.1 veteran who’d soon hop into Hollywood is the venerable Peter Lorre, who plays a cunning photojournalist in the film. Their involvement accounts for just two reasons to answer the call of F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer. While it’s unlikely that the film actually would’ve attained the cinema immortality of Lang’s Metropolis, the German version does indeed hold water as a worthwhile spectacle of its time and place.