This dystopian-inspired version of a psychological Russian space epic (1970’s Signale, 1972’s Eolomea, 1980’s The Orion Loop, 1983’s Moon Rainbow) produced for German theatres in the wake of the ‘70s Star Wars-inspired production boom also appeared on German and European television as Heroes: Lost in the Dust of the Stars. Courtesy of the burgeoning home video market, Operation Ganymed appeared a few years later on U.S shores in a limited/low-key, admittedly patience-trying and poorly-executed English dub under its theatrical title on defunct Marathon Video (Atlantis in the U.K).
The now ultra-rare tape sought by VHS/Beta collectors doesn’t even appear in U.S tape guides. (How rare is the tape? A VHS is currently for sale on eBay for $78.00 . . . sigh, that’s the copy/version I rented from Tapes n’ More so many years ago!) The film was popular enough in Europe to warrant DVD reissues dubbed or subtitled for various markets—but are barebones VHS rips. And beware: most of those are DVD-Rs (but don’t complain and just be happy the film is at least digitally preserved).
Recognized as a winner of a few Euro-science fiction film festivals, the film earned a domestic stateside-release when star Jürgen Prochnow impressed U.S audiences with his break out rolls in Das Boot (1981) and Dune (1984). Astute post-apocalypse fans will instantly notice those U.S-issued VHS tapes were most-likely plundered by the producers of the less intelligent Canadian exploiter Def-Con 4 (1985) and the South African gimp-clone Survivor (1987). If there’s ever a film that deserves a full-blown digital restoration from its original 35MM print—which was bestowed this year by Arrow Video to Def-Con 4—then Operation Ganymed is the film.
The long-awaited, inferior DVD currently in the marketplace came as result of respected German actor Deiter Laser (who I remember from the obscure and equally rare VHS The Elixirs of the Devil, a 1976 German take on the ‘70s Euro-horror nasties The Devils and Mark of the Devil) achieving his first taste of worldwide fame with his turn as the mad Dr. Heiter in Tom Six’s art house stomach churner, The Human Centipede (2009).
The remainder of us video and genre fringe geeks will recognize the third-billed Horst Frank, who became a go-to bad guy for spaghetti westerns (1968’s Django, Prepare a Coffin; with George Eastman and Terence Hill), Euro war epics (1964’s Mission to Hell), and Italian Gialli (1971’s Cat o’ Nine Tails for Dario Argento). The other two explorers, portrayed by Claus Theo Gardener and Uwe Friedrichsen, built extensive German-based resumes, with the late Friedrichsen in 121 projects and Gardener moving into directing.
As with the Russian you-either-love-it-or-hate-it epic-mindbender Solaris (1972), Operation Ganymed is an introspective, metaphysical journey concerning a United Nations-sponsored team of three Americans, two European, and one Russian who return from their four-year (left in 1985 and returned in 1989, according to the video box description; in the film it’s 1991) catastrophic mission to Jupiter’s moon in which, while they discovered rudimentary, primitive life (they pontificate on the foolishness of spending $38 billion for one tube of green slime), it was at the cost of 21 crew members, including two that perished on Ganymede’s surface.
What’s unknown to the crew: Earth lost contact with them 900 days ago (just over 2 1/2 years)—and considered Ganymed 2 lost. No one is waiting for them; no Earth-orbit rendezvous is prepared. Unable to establish radio contact, and with 21 hours of oxygen left and no mission control to guide them, the astroquintet decides to make an emergency ocean landing off a rocky desert coastline that may be Earth—possibly Mexico—or a strange, new planet.
As they begin their trek across the desert towards what they hope is the U.S, they come to believe the Earth was decimated by a mysterious, cataclysmic ecological event or nuclear war. Their lines of reality begin to blur as hunger, dehydration, possible radiation sickness, and long-stewing inter-ethnic tensions lead them to madness, murder, and cannibalism—real or imagined.
The film’s first 30 minutes are impressive in adapting Apollo-era technology, suits, and tech-jargon for a Jupiter mission (that’ll leave a sci-fi buff pining for another watch of the 1978 Apollo-Mars pot-boiler Capricorn One), and the later, frequent flashbacks to the crew’s spacecamp-training sessions on Earth, and the sequences on Ganymede, which details how the two crew members died, also exceed the film’s budgetary constraints—limitations not experience by the likes of Star Wars and Capricorn One, even the cheesy Italian pasta-space opera, Star Crash. So if you’re looking for a big-budget production with flashy models, blinding laser beams and drooling, human-crunching aliens, this film isn’t for you.
Regardless of those reservations, let it be known that respected and successful German film and TV director Rainer Erler delivers a product far more engrossing that most post-2000 CGI failed-mission-discovers-life-on-a-distant-planet romps, such as the fellow Euro-produced Stranded, Europa Report, and Last Days on Mars.
Since this is a psychological, post-apocalyptic journey through man’s “inner space,” be warned: Operation Ganymed takes its time and you’ll be left with more questions than answers: Were the astronauts crazy. Were they on Earth. Did they warp to another planet. Does the Earth even exist. Were they even in Mexico. Did their fellow crew members really die on Ganymede. Did they all die on Ganymede—and this is all a hellish penance. Are they guinea pigs in a test set up by the corporation that sent them into space?
Find out for yourself by watching the full movie for free In English (at 1:33:00) and the uncut German version (at 1:53:00; with no subtitles) on You Tube. The DVD is available as part of a German-issued Rainer Erler Kultfilme (Cultfilm) 6-pack. There are more current, professionally-packaged, non-USA Playback Region 2 DVDs at Amazon (Caveat: know your regions!), along with the older DVD-issues at Amazon (you can sample those DVD images with the two video-clip trailers provided in this review).
You can catch up on the wide array of post-apocalyptic adventures with B&S Movies’ “Atomic Dust Bins” Part 1 and Part 2 featuring 20 mini-reviews of movies you never heard of, along with a “hit list” featuring all of the apoc-flicks we watched for September 2019’s Apoc Month.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.