Saturday, March 29, 2014

F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933)

Director: Karl Hartl                                           Writers: Curt Siodmak & Walter Reisch
Music: Allan Gray                                            Cinematography: Otto Baecker
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Leslie Fenton, Jill Esmond and Donald Calthrop

In 1932 Curt Siodmak co-authored the screenplay for the film version of his futuristic novel, F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer. The original German version was produced by Erich Pommer and Eberhard Klagemann, and starred Hans Albers and Sybille Schmitz with a young Peter Lorre in a supporting role. Once the transition had been made to sound, however, films could no longer simply be given new title cards and distributed to another country as they had with silent films, and without the ability to dub new dialogue in those early days an entirely different version had to be created for each foreign market. The most famous case of this was with Universal’s Dracula the previous year where the Spanish language version, despite inferior acting, displays a far superior visual style than the original. For this film Pommer was given the task of also creating a French language version that starred Charles Boyer and an English language version that starred Conrad Veidt. All three were filmed in Germany at the Ufa studios and directed by Karl Hartl.

The film opens with Conrad Veidt at a nightclub. He calls up a newspaper photographer he knows, Donal Calthrop, and tells him that there will be something to shoot at the Lennartz Shipyard. But what he doesn’t know is that he has been overheard by Jill Esmond. He acts as if she misheard him and even tries to pick her up, but when she refuses he leaves in a hurry. Veidt gets to the shipyard and manages to break in and steal the plans to F.P.1. but when Esmond, owner of the yard with her brothers, remembers him she confronts him later only to discover the plans weren’t stolen and that it was all a publicity stunt to try and get the F.P.1 built. The Floating Platform is a mid-Atlantic station that would allow larger planes with heavier cargo to refuel halfway across the ocean. The stunt works, the platform is built, and she begins to fall for him, but Veidt is a famous pilot who is given the opportunity to be the first to fly around the world non-stop and leaves immediately.

The romantic tension in the piece comes from the fact that, while Veidt is away, Esmond develops a mutual affection for the project’s designer Leslie Fenton. In terms of conflict surrounding the platform itself, there has apparently been a systematic campaign to sabotage the construction and implementation and Fenton, onboard the platform once it has been situated in the Atlantic, can’t figure out why. As with all of Siodmak’s work, with the possible exception of The Wolf Man, there is a certain juvenile aspect to his writing that he could never rise above, and this film is no different. Nevertheless, there are some things to admire. Siodmak’s idea did prefigure the aircraft carrier in its ability for planes to land and take off in the middle of the ocean. Siodmak said later, “My conception of a floating platform in the ocean was the prototype of the present airplane carrier . . . where the airplanes land between Europe and America, to refuel. I wrote that in 1931, and there’s radar in it. And the weather stations of today are exactly the same construction.” But another part of the script predicts something more diabolical: sprinklers that emit poison gas instead of water, like the Nazi gassing chambers constructed to look like showers, though clearly that’s not something he could have ever guessed would have happened.

In all, the film is rather banal. But for fans of Siodmak, as I am, it is incredibly fascinating. The connection with horror films of the past, through the use of Conrad Veidt who starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, combined with Siodmak’s participation in the horror films of the future at Universal is a terrific confluence of talent. The English version was created with financial assistance and distribution by Fox in the U.S. and Gaumont in Britain, and while the British actors are decidedly second rate, the presence of Veidt does elevate the proceedings. But it also whets the appetite to see the other two versions. While the only available copy of the German version, with Peter Lorre as the photographer, is a much more complete version than the English, it has no subtitles. The French version with Boyer, unfortunately, is presumed lost. F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer is certainly not a great film, nor is it particularly suspenseful or futuristic. Instead, its claim to fame is in its historic value as one of the last German films made before the Nazi takeover and the participation of Curt Siodmak and Conrad Veidt. And for this viewer, that’s more than enough to recommend it.

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