ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Hot German Blondes Rule Space

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Erich Kuersten

On a Sunday afternoon in 1976 my life changed forever when I accidentally saw a British-German science fiction TV show about a planet where men were slaves to hot blonde imperialistic women --not hot in the Penthouse sense but an I Claudius BBC 70s sense. As an easily spooked nine year-old looking for more arguments why he should be excused from all responsibility, it became my favorite show.

I never even learned its name at the time and I saw only that episode, BUT I was huge into being dominated by hot older women--babysitters would lead me around on a leash, or let me ride them on horseback (in 1976 such things were merely the yield of a permissively sexual middle class and not something to be burned out of a boy via therapy and ridicule)--and though my S&M proclivities faded on their own as I reached high school I still remember that day in 1976-- Dan Fogelberg's "Sometimes When We Touch" played round the clock on the radio, it was a Sunday afternoon and my mom had just driven us home from the Mall, and the mournful over-the-top manful emotionality of Fogelberg's song became ensnared in the images from a show I've only recently learned is called Star Maidens!

What happened to these brave new sensual, unabashedly submissive men of 1976? Where are the shows that reverse gender and let women wield the phallic batons?

Now, thirty very odd years later, the internet helped me track it down. It turns out the show holds up quite well, in a retro-futurist semi-deadpan British-German camp kind of way. It's full of imaginative mattes and special effects, mod fashions, and a very refreshing disrespect for men and their blustering, presumptuous ways. The story is set in motion when a pair of men seeking refuge from a lifetime of household drudgery hotwire a spaceship to take them away from their home planet of Medusa to Earth, where, rumor has it, men run wild and free. Hot on their trail are their 'owners,' Octavia and Fulvia. When the ladies land on earth to get their men, the awesome gender sparring begins.

Fulvia and Octavia are contemptuous of the male scientists who greet their arrival, preferring to address to their female assistant, and Fulvia gets irked when a men dares answer instead. "I'll take your word for it, as a woman," Octavia finally says. When the main scientist asks about Medusa's society, Octavia snaps, "About our civilization I can tell you one thing - we do not suffer the pomposity of foolish little men. That is why were are more advanced than you."

Their men meanwhile are carefree, their big Germanic bodies loose and easy like children's, laughing and snorting, shuddering and running from the dreaded women like truant schoolkids. When they hide out in an old castle, Octavia wants to tear it down:

We can't break down the gate, it's an ancient monument
O: As far as I'm concerned, your whole planet is an ancient monument!"

O: They're coming back.
F: Of course! They can't survive without women to protect them!

Holly, an imdb user, notes:
Scenes are awkward, characters inconsistent, and plot-holes abound, but a groovy synth lounge soundtrack keeps things rolling along. Feminists attempt to seize power on Earth with stolen Medusa weapons, Fulvia and Adam roleplay a trial suburban marriage, while Liz and Rudi investigate the ecological collapse of planet Medusa. Where is all this going? Is it satire or space opera? Who cares! Sit back and indulge in this strange artifact from a time when the sexual revolution threatened to go too far.
What a crazy, highly advanced show this was. Now that I'm watching it again, on a friend's DV-R, I find that, in light of its subversive gender power switch, its unavailability is most suspect. On a post-feminist level its downright emblematic. Of all the trends in the 1970s that have since been 'forgotten,' it's 'women's lib' that has been most neglected, even by modern feminists. The result is that Star Maidens is even more subversive today than it used to be, and seems almost dangerous. Another matriarchal TV show, this one from Norman Fell, lasted a season around the same time, All that Glitters and that's so rare it's not even on greymarket! Someone is going out of their way to make sure we never see examples of what it would be like if women ran the world.

In the pop media now, humorless aggravation is associated with women in control: they must be either desexed or made into camp icons, or materialist shrews (The Devil Wears Prada) or continually undermined by their male subordinates. There's none of that here, and while there's no getting around the camp edge of Star Maidens, it works because the S/M aspect isn't explored or winked at, but allowed to thrive. Luckily, this very chill interpretation of hot blondes in power didn't originate in a vacuum, but perhaps from certain East German films coming out of DEFA studios which portray the gender equality of communist government.

Eolomea (1972) offers lots of moments with German astronauts living on outposts deep in space, awash in dry philosophical dialogue, drinking, and existential Solaris-ish flashbacks. It all works to make a communist future in space seem much more than plausible due to the lack of interference of the financial sector that so undermines our own space program, and this lack of financial concern frees the subjects to engage in discourse of a much more philosophical nature than whether funding will be cut off.

Professor Maria Scholl (Cox Habbema) is the undisputed leader of all earth space programs--though she gets counsel from the UN-ish counsel. Scholl is shrewd, kind, and able to have a romance with the main cosmonaut Dan (Ivan Andonov) without it clouding her judgment or weakening her authority. She doesn't overreact or have womanly issues, or pine for something 'real' in her life, something 'better than command... like a child and a family,' the way she would have to in the U.S.

In comparable US films of the same era, women couldn't have positions of power over men unless they were just biding time for the right guy to knock them up and take over, so they could pay attention to what mattered most, the patter of little feet, etc. and even later if they did keep their authority they had to be ballbusters (Ripley in Alien) or older and sexually neutered (Star Trek's first New Generation). But professor Scholl is able to keep her feminine sexuality and even have a romance all without losing the respect of her peers. Even her love interest can argue about assignments with her while they fool around on the beach and not get turned off.

Contrast that with, say, a similar beach scene in Return of the Creature (1955), the sequel to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which I wrote about for Scarlet Street in 2001. Clete (John Agar) is a biologist studying the creature in captivity, who hooks up with a promising young student:

As Helen and Clete discuss their possible romantic future in a roundabout way. Most of the kids I went to undergraduate school with are already married and have children, Helen says, asking him but what do you want?

I'm a man, I don't have to decide, he says, setting the boundaries for their conflict. As a female, and thus a natural nurturer, she has already fought a huge battle with herself just by staying in school instead of having kids. There is an unspoken implication that her time is running out.

There's no such clock running out in Eolomea, though it seems that way, as the story is convoluted with flashbacks, ultimately amounting to the slow realization that a fleet of spacecraft have been commandeered by brave young volunteers for a 136-year journey to a remote planet named Eolomea, which a cracked scientist (Scholl's old physics teacher) has determined may have life.

Like DEFA's In the Dust of the Stars, which we'll discuss next, it's a grand metaphor for communist ideals and sophisticated politics that are alien enough in the eyes of western viewers to provide a good frisson effect.

Eolomea especially works in addressing the issues of responsibility in government vs. as part of humanity's higher goal. The space council would never authorize such a long mission, dependent as it is on remote chances of success and on reproduction of the crew (it would be the original astronaut's grandchildren that ultimately meet the Eolomea aliens, if there are any) and remote odds of success. Still, everyone at Space UN knows, deep down, it's the right thing to do. As the elder professor masterminds the mission, he realizes the volunteers will attempt to go anyway whether he approves it or not, this based on a need inherent in humans to seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly, etc.

Zizek often writes about the communist ideology of the 'Big Other' the invisible social embodiment of the superego, for whom, say, parades of military strength and solidarity are performed. Communism in East Germany is performed then, as a kind of love letter to the Big Other. In Eleoma the volunteers understand what the Big Other wants beyond what it is allowed to ask for. The sacrifice the individual must make for the greater good here would be verboten by an evolved world conglomerate (we see that the assembled 'space UN' over which Professor Scholl presides is very diverse racially, culturally, and in age and gender) but with the implicit idea that such laws must occasionally be disobeyed if it is for the greater good of humanity. In the west we call them 'executive decisions', for example, and people are often promoted for making them, after first being reprimanded. In such a field of operations, for example, such decisions may prevent the overthrow of a government were it as inflexible as it presents itself to be.

We should remember that, invariably, in future worlds depicted as utopian, i.e. the earth as it exists in the future on the TV show Star Trek, ideas like capital, interest, financial gains, losses, and property are largely forgotten and transcended:
The Federation claims to offer virtually unlimited personal freedom to every citizen, but no one ever tests this claim. Billions of people live quiet, spartan, communist lifestyles. They never covet wealth, they never go ripping through space in a personal vehicle, they never expect compensation for their achievements, they never challenge the government with rebellious propaganda, they never push the envelope by producing offensive art, they never accumulate private arsenals ... in short, they never do anything to test the limits of their freedom. Supposedly, they have all the benefits of a strong government, without any of the negatives. ---(Michael Wong, The Economics of Star Trek)
Ironically, then, it's the East German films that show direct rebellion and personal gain (i.e. the choice to explore strange new worlds is in direct violation of orders) to say nothing of the patriarchal 'given' of male command and female objectification that runs rampant in American sci fi.

We in the USA must escape our view that women in the workplace must be objectified or belittled. The ease with which women are accepted by men as authority figures in Eolomea is progressive, impressive, and, I find, very sexy.

What happens when a peaceful rocket full of sexy East Germans are lured to a remmote planet and are subject to drugs (the red spray is "spicy" while the blue spray is "sweet"), erotic dancing and orgiastic staring contests?  Das ist die frageI in Gottfried Kolditz's colorful, cool and just plain weird EFA science fiction film Im Staub der Sterne AKA In the Dust of the Stars (1976). Like Elomea the film is fascinating not for its space aspects so much as the gender equality on display and how the sexiness of the characters is enhanced rather than dampened by this.

Answering a distress signal from the planet Cynro, the emergency ship lands and is greeted first by a woman dressed like Pocahontas driving a combination school bus-railroad handcar who comes rumbling up to the ship in welcome like she's Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. Suko stays behind to spy while the rest ride over to the club to sit on divans and catch snide insults from the local bosses. Someone wants this spaceship to go home, but first, why not invite them to the party? Pocahontas comes by later with prismatic plastic fantastic invitations for each of them.

The "boss" of the planet is a fey German artiste who gets his hair spray painted blue and is forced to play with lite-brite and a keyboard that controls a disco dance floor full of pythons and gel-lit frauleinen. And let me tell you, his army sucks. Mostly the battles consist in a lot of standing around, working up the nerve to bust a cap, like a high school dance, and then linking arms in a rehearsed nonviolent social protest move, or a drab version of line dancing. These cavorting hedonists never speak, but spend most of their time spraying drugs of one color or another into their mouths, brainwashing nosy visitors with pen flashlights and doing licentious frugs.

The costumes are pretty fetching, with an uncanny resemblance to UN peacekeepers (they advise the exploited miners "Help means so much more than giving you weapons."). And it's nice that they change clothes about five times a day and stay color coordinated with each other. The patterns and styles are elegant and mod without being tacky or cumbersome, and they go well with the natural blonde shag haircuts of the majority of the crew. Jana BrejchovŠ is the hottie commander (above, center). She was once married to Milos Foreman!

Kind of like Hell House (the Halloween 'haunted house' wherein Christian kids finally get to dance, pretend to do drugs and worship Satan in their own way), the licentious dancing and spraying of the aliens here presumably was acceptable to the East German censors because it was negatively depicted as a trap-- set by decadent western Imperialists--to ensnare good honest communists. As with the licentious dance of Miu the morning after the all-night spray-athon disco party.

While she compares fine with Professor Scholl from Eolomea, the commander here is sometimes beset by overly compassionate female emotions with the same objective grappling of, say, Kirk on Star Trek might with his angry masculine will. The point is, she can admit it to her crew, and navigate her human limitations with the same open intellect she navigates through space. In admitting weakness she becomes stronger, something usually limited to male characters in not just science fiction, but every genre, where women are either saints or prostitutes, but never 'human' in the sense of complex antipathies. Her nurturing distance encourages friendly interplay between all of the crew, resulting in an unusually relaxed vibe (they sleep with each other and make no big deal of it? Man, those East Germans!). My favorite is the girl at lower left; what a magnificently sensual pout!

I think her name is Miu. She's played by Regine Heintze, and I love her. Also, I love the offhand way that the film's sexuality and lovely female forms are displayed matter-of-factly. It's like the characters in this film actually have sex rather than just winking and drooling and then finally having one chaste kiss like they're David Manners at an ice cream social. In Dust they just do it and forget about it. The Germans have no patience for lovelorn leering! Stand straight! Are you slouching?! Achtung!

So... back to STAR MAIDENS (1976 - TV Series)

Of course it's not just the utopian idealism that makes these DEFA 1970s sci fi films and the West German-British co-production Star Maidens so subversive, but the way the common, icky roots of capitalism, patriarchy, and sexual frustration are exposed by contrast. Interesting, then, that both Star Maidens and a similar show (men indentured to women) from Norman Lear from the approximate same time, the soap opera satire All that Glitters (1977-78) are both nary impossible to find on video or DVD, as if someone wanted them burnt from our collective memory. Decades later and they are, apparently, both incredibly 'dangerous' to the status quo, showing just how progressive the 70s really were and just how far we've backslid. The coincidence of both series being unavailable (Star Maidens is at least on greymarket in a pretty good set created by some anonymous fan, but Glitters is MIA.

As the friendship between Octavia, (Christiane Kruger, above left) the Nico-voiced German, and Fulvia, (Judy Geeson, right) the hardass Brit, is the real relationship of Star Maidens it's worth examining: Fulvia is impetuous and imperial, but is the most eager to have her man back after he escapes to Earth, a little 'too' eager. But she's awesome when she protects the frightened prime minister on Earth in a hilarious scene. Octavia is less interested in her man and more in the big picture: She doesn't want earth's barbaric patriarchal social structure infecting the purity of Medusa. Together they're a bit like a female version of Spock and Kirk, though by the second half of the season Fulvia (the Kirk) is on Earth dealing with the runaway men and Octavia is on Medusa dealing with typical sci fi hazards like a berserk cold storage computer and crazy meteors. Both planets get their share of humorous moments but nothing really tops the scenes of the escaped men running around with their shirts open, shouting "I'm frightened!" Or when Fulvia soothes a rattled male politician like a fireman talking to a kitten in a tree.

What makes the whow work is that this idea of a women-run advanced civilization planet is never allowed to be either too stringent nor too campy. The clothes are an amazing 70s Euro fantasia of thigh-high boots, tastefully kinky choke-collared shirts, flowing dresses and elaborate long hair, and the acting spot-on deadpan. It may be retro but it's way ahead of it's time and an invaluable record of the decade that still stands alone in daring to imagine women not just in positions of authority usually reserved for men, but evolved far past them. These German 70s sci fi epics show that our idea of what a woman in charge can be needn't exclude sex or be swamped by it. Women can be in charge of the world while remaining relaxed and inviting. They can strike deals with men while simultaneously seducing them on the beach, and they can even admit when they're wrong or if their emotions are getting the better of them. Seeing is believing. Watch these films and the show and realize we lost something very important 30 years ago... let's get it back! Commence launch!

see also: Death Driving Ms. Henstridge

c. 2011 Acidemic

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