In other words? I didn’t grow up in the 1930’s.
I was born in the mid-1960’s. I became a consumer of media in the early 1970’s. Much of my world view – my take on film, books, and televised SciFi – is tied almost exclusively to my experiences with products of that era. As someone who has read a lot of history – both film stuff and beyond – I can speak (to a limited degree) of projects outside my own timeline. Sure, it requires a certain amount of research to do so, but I love history enough that said reading becomes a joyful occasion, one I’m almost always willing to undertake in my role as editor for SciFiHistory.Net.
So while I was aware of F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1932), I’d never seen it. I had seen some snippets from it – a few of the film’s special effects sequences. But that was it. When I heard it was heading for release from Kino Lorber this year, I was excited, reached out to them for a screener copy to review, and viola: this article/review was born.
Because I tend to prefer older Science Fiction films (a fact I often share with readers of this blog), I trusted I was in for a special experience. I’m thrilled to say that the film did not disappoint: F.P.1 is the kind of feature I love discovering. While it clearly won’t be for everyone, I encourage fans who love genre projects as much as I do – especially old gems like Metropolis (1927), Flash Gordon (1936), and Island Of Lost Souls (1932) – because I think you’ll be rewarded. Granted, the film relies more on melodrama than it does drama, but its errors are negligible; and the time is well spent.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“… F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer dramatizes the creation of a massive floating airport serving as a way station between four continents. Hans Albert stars as Ellissen, a dashing pilot who helps persuade an heiress to fund the visionary project. When communication with Floating Platform 1 is mysterious interrupted, Ellissen risks his life to investigate its disappearance …”
Frankly, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer offers the audience a lot of things – a Science Fiction premise well before the age of the true SciFi genius of the 1950’s; some fabulous though all-too-sparse use of practical special effects (miniatures) at the dawn of the special effects industry; a rare international flare emerging from German cinema in the days when Germany itself was on the brink of shutting down collaboration in favor of Fascism – but I think what it offers best is a story grounded in an effective parallel: there’s more than one way for man to serve society. Today’s social justice warriors may take offense with my position, and that’s okay: F.P.1 was conceived, written, and produced in a different era, one where ‘toxic masculinity’ wasn’t considered so controversial. In fact, one could argue that ‘toxic masculinity’ of the past wasn’t the cultural province of the male, as names like Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earheart, Susan B. Anthony, and Carry A. Nation were female movers and shakers who’ve been somewhat sidelined from today’s history classes. That’s a real shame.
This parallel is the tale of two men: Ellissen (played by Hans Albers) and Droste (Paul Hartmann).
Ellissen is the consummate explorer. He lives a life of grand adventure – both on the ground and in the air as a dashing pilot who travels the world – and he spins yarns bigger than life for anyone within earshot who will listen to him. He refuses to be tied down to any single idea or person, and the world is his for the taking when and if his next mission comes calling.
By contrast, Droste is the film’s brilliant scientist who has committed his life to solving the problems plaguing mankind. A lack of capital and attention has stalled him and the implementation of his ideas, but once the wealthy Lennartz family ‘invests’ in his vision he is resolute in his pledge to see F.P.1 brought to fruition even at the risk of his own life via charlatans and saboteurs. Other men may back away in fear of losing their livelihoods, but Droste is steadfast in his resolve and will stop at nothing to achieve a dream that serves us all.
An audience couldn’t ask for two stronger opposites. True, they’re united in friendship – Walter Reisch and Curt Siodmak’s script ably demonstrates that men of differing opinions, ways, and means have no qualms about working together – but the way these two see the world and their roles in it couldn’t be further apart. Both will risk their lives for F.P.1, but these risks will ultimately rely on their respective viewpoint to be logically substantiated. In the beginning, Droste needs Ellissen’s cunning to put his ocean platform on the drawing board; in the film’s conclusion, Ellissen requires Droste’s willingness to risk life and limb to find his own selflessness deep within. With the way this story evolves, director Karl Hartl easily proves that not only can love make the world go ‘round but also just how differences of opinion might achieve the same mobility. After all, yin needs yang as much as yang needs yin; one is incomplete without the other.
And the film doesn’t stop there in its examination of disparities as there’s a love triangle thrown into the mix involving both men and Claire Lennartz (Sybille Schmitz). As one-third stakeholder in the Lennartz family shipping empire (her two brothers have negligible parts in the tale), she finds herself drawn at different times to both men: first the adventurer and then the engineer. Alas, the script eventually shoehorns the lady a bit too conveniently in the second half into the role of master manipulator (she tricks Ellissen into aiding her more than once by concealing a love for Droste), and I found it hard to sympathize with her in the last reel; the damsel-in-emotional-distress never feels authentic, and God only knows if her feelings were more than a writer’s creation as we just never learn enough about her to know for certain.
I’d be a fool if I failed to mention that F.P.1 also features the performance of a young Peter Lorre well before he came to America and found stardom more as a caricature than he ever did an individual character. His ‘Foto-Johnny’ is the early prototype of the media-hungry paparazzi, but the script also toys with notions of him serving as Ellissen’s sidekick: their scenes together give viewers an insight into the aviator’s consciousness. They share an amazing tete de tete, though others might see their exchanges as a roadblock to the action: the film excels when the focus in on high adventure … such is the nature of drama as opposed to melodrama, and the picture continually walks that fine line between lean and excess. The fact that flight is only achieved with optimal weight is a rule I think director Hartl forgets from time-to-time, and a tighter cut may’ve elevated the picture’s status from cult to mainstream.
Something learned that I’d been completely unaware of was that the studio (Universum Film) produced multiple versions of F.P.1. Talking motion pictures were on-the-rise; and in order to maintain the profitability of international releases, production companies would invest in foreign-speaking casts to shoot multiple versions simultaneously. (For clarity’s sake, F.P.1 is a German language production; Secrets Of F.P.1 is their English-language release – it’s included on the disk – and it stars Conrad Veidt as Ellissen.) I won’t trouble readers with a complete review of the second picture: suffice it to say that it’s considerably shorter, considerably stronger, but it lacks some the nuance of small moments distributed throughout the original (German) production. I think I liked Veidt better in the lead (Albers is much more the braggart, so much so that I wondered how much of the web he spun was truth versus fiction), but the rest of the English cast are unsubstantial.
All said, F.P.1 is a pretty grand affair. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it’s bold. Yes, it’s ahead of its time; but it’s still weighted and heavy in a few places. It may not be remembered as fondly as other projects from its time, but I had an awful lot of fun with it when the formula worked.
RECOMMENDED. As I’ve always said, I do prefer discovered (or re-discovered) older Science Fiction films of bygone eras largely because I find them vastly more inventive in ways they told their stories; and I’d read enough about F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer to know it was probably right up my alley. (For the most part, it is, though I’m no fan of melodrama.) Far from perfect, its script meanders its way through perhaps too many subplots for its own good but still manages to come together when achievements (not feelings) matter most. Performances are good, production details are better, and I wish it well, though I suspect others might take issue with its protracted pacing and its (gasp!) highbrow emphasis on exaggeration, an attribute of features from the era. (Interested in an exercise? Watch the English-language version after the German-language version to compare: I suspect there exists a near-perfect film somewhere between the two cuts.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a Blu-ray copy of F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1932) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.