“Es ist eine schwimmende Plattform!” Here’s something for committed Sci-fi followers, a lavish German production with big drama, big emotions, and impressive, ambitious special effects. Hans Albers makes sure his pal Paul Hartmann’s artificial mid-Atlantic airport becomes reality, only to lose his new girlfriend Sybille Schmitz to him. The Murnau Foundation’s superb restoration makes the giant Flugplatform seem real. UfA produced the show in three languages with three different casts; Kino’s handsome disc gives us excellent renderings of two of them. Plus glorious German songs about the joy of flying!
F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer
1932 / B&W / 1:19 AR / 112 min. / Street Date August 10, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Hans Albers, Sybille Schmitz, Paul Hartmann, Peter Lorre, Georg John, Hermann Speelmans, Erik Ode, Werner Schott.
Cinematography: Otto Baecker, Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, Günther Rittau
Production Designer: Erich Kettlehut
Film Editor: Willy Zeyn
Special Effects: Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, Thoe Nischwitz
Original Music: Allan Gray
Written by Walter Reisch, Kurt Siodmak, from a novel by Siodmak
Produced by Erich Pommer, Eberhard Klagemann
Directed by Karl Hartl
This epic German science fiction classic has long been a prime wanna-see item; all we saw previously was a terrible-quality copy of its English-language version. The Murnau Foundation’s restoration is terrific in all departments. Although not a world-shattering film like Metropolis, it’s an impressive production. The designs, cinematography and especially the sets are eye-opening.
Kino gives us both the German-language original F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer and its concurrently-filmed English export version, Secrets of F.P. 1. They were produced just before Hitler came to power, so are still technically Weimar era pictures. In 2016 Kino and the Murnau Stiftung gave us the other German sci-fi classic of the early talkie period, Gold, also by director Karl Hartl and also starring Hans Albers. Made in 1934, it’s a Nazi-controlled production, with a more propagandistic bias.
F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer is at heart a celebration of German aviation superiority. The movie begins with a high-flying musical sequence in the clouds, and pauses twice more for songs about aviation, one cheery, one not. Silent-style expressionist montages show the progress of an amazing futuristic construction, with details meant to convince all that German technology is the best in the world. Add to that Kurt Siodmak’s fantastic-yet-perfectly-logical sci-fi premise, and the show is guaranteed to nab the same audience fascinated by the decade’s epic about a futuristic transatlantic tunnel, Curtis Bernhardt’s Der Tunnel (1933). It was also filmed in a French version, and in 1935 remade in an English version with Richard Dix, Transatlantic Tunnel.
The futuristic gimmick here is an artificial island-airport positioned at a mid-Atlantic crossroads between Europe, the U.S., South America and Africa. It will serve as a midway refueling stop — flying non-stop across the ocean was still risky business in 1932. The idea was briefly given seriously consideration; it might actually have come to pass, had engineers not felt that airplanes would soon have more range and be more reliable. And who wants to haul all that aviation fuel out into the ocean?
Screenwriter Kurt Siodmak is of course Curt Siodmak, who would emigrate to America, work on a number of Universal horror films (The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man Returns, etc.) and author the frequently-adapted science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain. His co-scenarist Walter Reisch also made the jump to Hollywood, and wrote or co-wrote many favorite entertainments: Ninotchka, Gaslight, Titanic ’53, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Promoted as a futuristic thriller, F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer has more the feeling of an ’empire building’ yarn. The footloose and impulsive showboat aviator Flieger Ellissen (matinee idol Hans Albers) wants to promote his buddy Droste (Paul Hartmann), so he fakes a crime to bring attention to Droste’s revolutionary Floating Platform. The designs have been languishing unread at the Lennartz Shipyard because the Lennartz brothers would rather gamble at casinos. Their sister (and co-owner) Claire (Sybille Schmitz) has more vision. With publicity from Ellissen’s reporter-photographer buddy Johnny (Peter Lorre), Droste’s plans are enthusiastically adopted. Claire is overjoyed that her company will be building the futuristic Flugplatform but dismayed when the handsome Flieger ignores her overtures and runs away to pursue another aviation stunt, a round-the-world flight.
The enormous artificial island is built, even though its engineer (and Captain) Droste worries about possible sabotage from unnamed competitors. With Ellissen out of the picture, Claire and Droste grow close — she identifies with his more responsible ambitions. Two years later Flieger Ellissen has resurfaced, a poor and broken man who says he’ll never fly again. The magnificent F.P. 1 is finished. Depite its top-secret status, newshound Johnny has stowed away as part of the crew, so as to be the first to document its triumph.
Before any planes can land the feared sabotage strike occurs. Back in Germany, Claire and her brothers listen over the wireless to Droste’s gunfight with the lone saboteur. Then the line goes dead: F.P. 1 doesn’t answer! Claire decides that only Flieger Ellissen is qualified to fly her to the Platform, and to shake him from his depression lets him think she’s still interested in him romantically. They locate the Platform only to find a complete disaster. The crew has been gassed and is unconscious. The Platform is sinking — the seawater valves have been opened. The situation looks hopeless — there’s no way of summoning help, and no fuel oil for the motors that can close the sea valves. Droste is wounded, and the reawakened crew is near mutiny!
Although its drama is weak — the aviation-happy pilot doesn’t appreciate Claire’s love — the character conflicts in F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer function well enough to bolster the fanciful plot. The formula has been repeated in sci-fi movies ad infinitum: as soon as a sensational new invention is completed, something goes wrong and a disaster formula takes over. F.P. 1 works like clockwork until the final act. With just twenty hours before the enormous Platform will sink, a strange defeatism sinks in and the forward momentum stops. Only after Ellissen snaps out of his romantic disillusion does he sieze the incentive to solve the problem and save the day.
Even with its musical detours and slow finale the show works great. Sci-fi fans especially will like the way the Floating Platform is depicted. The finished product is represented by excellent, extremely convincing sets, and a (partial) full-sized flight deck set constructed on Greifswalder Oie. Especially convincing are the Platform’s enormous float-pilings, constructed like a full-sized pier.
The model work is mostly excellent as well. In wide shots the Platform is a big white slab surrounded by waves. The only criticism I can make is that the angles look exactly like the early ‘artist’s renderings’ in designer Droste’s plan book.
Star Hans Albers plays the pilot hero in a happy-go-lucky way and doesn’t wear out his welcome. He’s huge, so whether in a tuxedo or flying rig he looks like a big walking refrigerator. Paul Hartmann is excellent as the designer-turned Platform captain. He wins Claire by being serious and dependable. He’s the one to fight the saboteur and is the only one still trying to keep his creation from sinking.
Sybille Schmitz turns up in a number of still-remembered classics: Dreyer’s Vampyr, Frank Wisbar’s Fahrmann Maria and Josef Göbbels curious Nazi version of Titanic. She’s routinely slammed as a terrible actress, but I think she’s fine for the requirements of this show. Her love for Ellissen feels as real as her disappointment when he stupidly runs out on her. Ms. Schmitz is an interesting, tragic film personality, as I learned in the extras on Criterion’s Veronika Voss disc.
Peter Lorre fans will want to take a look as well. Lorre would make four more pictures before the Nazis purged Jews from their film industry. He made twelve German films after Fritz Lang’s “M” but this is the only one I’ve seen. ‘Magazine Reporter Johnny’ serves as a partial sidekick and humorous punching bag for Ellissen; he’s known as the flyer’s personal PR representative. Although Johnny sneaks aboard the Platform he hasn’t much to do except point out the Platform’s missing oil stores. He has no role in the mutiny attempt, and pretty much drops out of sight when Ellissen no longer needs someone to insult and humiliate.
With little of substance to play Lorre simply ‘makes up’ a character on his own. Johnny rarely gets a chance to smile; he’s always being fooled by the self-important, unappreciative Ellissen. A typical scene has the flyer waxing pompous while Johnny sits forlornly, with those big sad, uncomprehending eyes. At this stage Lorre looks more than a little heavy; his hair is blonde. His role doesn’t amount to much but he makes the most of it.
The screenplay celebrates good German heroes, even the irresponsible, adventure-loving Ellissen. It hasn’t quite the same anti-English propaganda hatred we noted in Karl Hartl’s Gold of two years later. These crooked foreign conspirators are so vile, they doublecross their own agent and leave him to die on the ocean. They first appear as shadows, and then as a couple of executives dressed in conservative suits. They could be English, but of course they speak German in the context of the movie, so the question is unanswered.
If F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer disappoints it’s because it doesn’t deliver the kinds of retribution we now expect in our disaster-crime movies. The hero never gets to punch out the saboteur, or riddle him with bullets. We don’t know what happens to the saboteur, or for that matter, the crew that deserts the sinking Platform. We never even get a parting shot of Peter Lorre’s Johnny, looking happy at the way things turned out. If the movie were made now, the corporate creeps that tried to sink the Platform would at least be arrested, if not shot down like dogs. Think of Die Hard where the curtain can’t fall until every lovable supporting character gets to hit a villain, even if only a troublemaking reporter.
The picture does contain one scene that brings an inadvertent chill to the spine. Early on we’re shown a schematic of F.P. 1’s modern sprinkler system, for fire prevention. When Ellissen and Droste are trying to determine how one lone saboteur could render the whole crew unconscious all at once, the camera tilts up to the ceiling — to show that the fire sprinklers were used to spread knockout gas through the entire ship. The sight of the water pipes and nozzles is an unpleasant pre-echo of the mass-murder gas chambers constructed not ten years later.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer allows us to scratch one more sci-fi classic from the ‘Unseen’ list. The Murnau Foundation’s restoration was performed in 2014, and it’s a beauty. The almost flawless image enables us to admire the beautiful optical work in the montages; some of the effects work is so good, it’s difficult to know which parts of the Platform are real, and which are painted. Ms. Schmitz looks great; I suppose her prominent jaw and hungry-looking mouth sets the perfect Teutonic glamour image for the time.
Eddy Von Muller’s audio commentary is a bit thin, perhaps because the Covid pandemic has made research difficult. All three stars of F.P. 1 stayed with the Reich and a couple of them experienced postwar difficulties resulting from their work in Nazi film. We hear a great deal of information about the actors and filmmakers but not too much about the film’s place in genre filmmaking. The subject may not be so obscure in Europe but here in the U.S. almost all German sci-fi after the Fritz Lang pictures is difficult to see. The Nazis encouraged escapist films but the genre seems to have petered out after Gold, the second Karl Hartl film.
The interesting title persisted, in a roundabout way … the German release of Universal’s This Island Earth was reportedly titled, “Metaluna IV antwortet nicht,” or “Metaluna Four does not answer.” We that read Famous Monsters as small children learned important things like that.
Conrad Veidt stars in Secrets of F.P. 1. It is a carbon copy of the German original, and its encoding on this disc is just as good. Karl Hartl directed this version too, but it seems rather rushed in comparison. Veidt is as good as Hans Albers, with much less swagger. Jill Esmond is acceptable as the Sybille Schmitz replacement, but not as intense. The actor playing Droste in this version is Leslie Fenton. He took on all kinds of roles and directed as well, but we mainly know him from his gangster villains, like the unlucky Nails Nathan opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Replacing the workman with a bad tooth in the German version is none other than a young, and slimmer, Francis L. Sullivan. Peter Lorre’s replacement Donald Calthrop makes almost no impression at all. A third French-language version of F.P. 1 was filmed but apparently has become lost (?). It starred Charles Boyer, who had just returned to Europe after his first attempt to conquer Hollywood.
The English-language version on the disc does not carry English subtitles.
The other German sci-fi specialist I’m aware of is Harry Piel, who in the silent era made daredevil serials that were compared to those of Harry Houdini. I’ve seen two of his three 1930s sci-fi show, both of which are also light comedies with action sequences. Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt (An Invisible Man Walks Through the City) sees happy taxi driver Harry find an invisibility device in his cab. The story skips any serious considerations and goes right to a pal borrowing it for a bank robbery. Die Welt ohne Maske (The World Without a Mask) is a promising story about a fantastic television device that allows one to see what’s going on anywhere in the city; the confused story give us competing inventors and droll comedy, but the invention’s abilities are never fully exploited. We instead are given get rather exciting car chases — director-star Piel mounts his camera on moving cars.
I’ve only seen a clip of Piel’s third techno-fantasy Der Herr der Welt (The Master of the World) — it has something to do with a giant robot that gets out of control. Piel doesn’t appear on screen in this one, but the hero’s girlfriend is played by… Sybille Schmitz.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I acknowledge Janne Wass’s enlightening website scifist 2.0 as the source for some of my images. Wass covers silent and European sci-fi in great detail.
F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: English-language version Secrets of F.P. 1, audio commentary by Eddy von Mueller
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (German feature only, none on English-language version)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson