If you were a filmmaker and your name was "Ion," it's just possible you would have a predisposition to make science fiction films. And if your full name was "Ion Popescu-Gopo," maybe you'd make comedy science fiction films.
There was a filmmaker called Ion Popescu-Gopo, but he was Romanian, and so his name probably doesn't imply any such predisposition, but he did make at least one comedy science fiction film, the wordless S-a Furat O Bomba, or A Bomb Was Stolen, in 1961. So there.
A graphic artist turned animator turned feature director (this was his debut), Popescu-Gopo displays his training at every opportunity, especially in the film's stunning opening sequence, set amid a featureless plain of infinite expanse (but actually a hillside, I guess, enabling characters and vehicles to abruptly appear over the horizon instead of gradually expanding out of it). Our hero, a young chap in a suit, is wandering about and picks a flower. Suddenly an army of security forces in RVs and helicopters is all over him. They wear what look like sci-fi hazmat suits, only with the impersonal helmets with eye-slits are actually plastic buckets. They even still have the handles attached.
"Uh...Klaatu barada nikto?"
The minimal environment strongly suggests Popescu-Gopo's elegantly simple anti-Disney cartoons, made over twenty-five years and all starring a single character, unnamed in the dialogue-free films and known either as Gopo, after his creator, or Homo Sapiens, after his creator. The hero of this movie is similarly universal/uncharacterized, apparently basing his life on Buster Keaton's first intertitle: "Our hero came from nowhere. He wasn't going anywhere. He got kicked off somewhere."
After the stunning visuals of this overture, we retreat to the studio, a weirdly quiet, modernist city that looks forward to the Tativille of Playtime and back to the Berlin of Fritz Lang's M. It has the same eerie lack of traffic noise. This environment proves rather cramped and cluttered, so we miss the stark beauty of that featureless plain, and instead we get lots of running about by some pinstriped gangsters, who steal an atom bomb, and our hero, who accidentally receives it.
Popescu-Gopo's desire to portray his hero as an archetypal little man does get in the way of the story's progress, since our hero has no goal save to wander around the city and moon after a cute blonde bus conductor, who acquires angel wings whenever he sees her. This means that the film's middle is a rather random selection of skits and incidents, of varying cleverness and interest. Popescu-Gopo seems not too concerned with actual gags, so the appeal is mainly in the fact that this is a Tati-esque dialogue-free comedy about an atom bomb. which is enough to keep me watching but might not work for those with full-time jobs.
All the tropes of latter-day visual comedy are present and correct, perhaps excessively so. We have undercranked action, pantomime overacting, ludic jump-cuts, cake hurling, wistful sentiment...When the hero fantasizes a dream home with his dream girl, the sequence is straight out of Chaplin's Modern Times (just as her angel wings are straight out of The Kid) but the production design throws in expressionist diagonals, a night sky peaking through the ceiling, a curtain limply hung like a Dali soft watch, and a clash of modern and antique furniture that makes the whole dream feel unstable and disjointed. We can't have nice things.
(Incidentally, it seems to me that Eastern Block comedy of the Soviet era is never quite free of visible anxiety: as if the actors are constantly in terror lest they be sent to a Gulag for not being funny enough. They try very hard, and this is not always conducive to the relaxed atmosphere in which comedy blossoms. But it does seem entirely appropriate to a film about a stolen nuke, in which everybody save the oblivious hero and heroine is lathering in sweat at the thought of the stray Doomsday Device at large in their city.)
The best of the gratuitous moments that fill the middle forty-five minutes comes when the hero wanders into a cinema foyer and peruses the lobby cards. As the soundtrack filters out from the auditorium, we get a little fumetti version of the movie-not-quite-within-movie, with lifelike screams and gunshots accompanying the rapid turnover of frozen images.
The film's conclusion reveals the filmmaker's lifelong love of easy allegory, and perhaps the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the arms race in a communist dictatorship. The bomb is broken down into little pieces, and the fragments distributed among a crowd composed, significantly, of all the races of mankind. By stepping on the little atomic particles, the people can scoot all over the city at incredible speed (to achieve this, the film fulfills its destiny by finally turning into animation). A gangster who tries to load his fragment into a pistol is swiftly suppressed. The hero and heroine plant their little uranium seed in the earth of the vast plain seen earlier, and flowers bloom universally. It's pretty fatuous, but it's worth remembering that the west's own stolen bomb comedy, The Mouse that Roared, made two years before, likewise suggested that the answer to the threat of nuclear proliferation was to distribute the warheads evenly among the nations of the Earth.
Contemporary thinking tends to disagree with this assessment.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.