The Mystery of Two Oceans

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Jules Verne meets James Bond in this 1957 Soviet spy-fi film. The two-part colour movie concerns the hunt for spy aboard a Russian super-submarine. It’s not bad, but at 145 minutes it’s simply too long and sluggish for its own good. 5/10

The Mystery of Two Oceans. 1957, USSR. Directed by Konstantin Pipinashvili. Written by Vladimir Alekseev, Nikolai Rozhkov, Pipanishvili. Based on book by Grigori Adamov. Starring: Sergei Stolyarov, Igor Vladimirov, Sergei Golovanov, Pyotr Sobolevsky, Sergei Komarov, Antonia Maksimova, Igor Bristol. IMBb: 6.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Set in contemporary 1957, or a “near future”, The Mystery of Two Oceans (Тайна двух океанов) is one of the very first movies to kick off the second coming of Soviet science fiction films. Two ships, one Soviet and one French, explode under suspicious circumstances, one in the Atlantic, and one in the Pacific. Super-secret Soviet submarine Pionyer is order to set out to investigate. But prior to this, a secret meeting takes place at the house of a high-ranking commander, as a mysterious man, whose face we never see, and the commander, send a secret message to the “enemy”, that they are about to infiltrate the crew. When the authorities arrive, the commander takes his own life and the mysterious stranger disappears out the five-story window with a nifty spy-fi gadget. Back at marine headquarters, brass discuss the incident, but conclude the mission is too important to postpone, even with a mole on board. So now it falls to Captain Vorontsov (Sergei Stolyarov) to not only solve the mystery of the two oceans, but also catch the impostor on board the super-sub before he can complete his mission, whatever that may be.

Most of this two-part movie, well over two hours in total length, takes place aboard the super-submarine Pionyer. Here we meet, among others, the jovial but suspect chief engineer Gorelov (Sergei Golovanov), the handsome officer Skvoreshnya (Igor Vladimirov), the absent-minded professor Nikolayevich (SF darling Sergei Komarov) and physician Antonina Maksimova (Olga Bystrykh). We also get acquainted with the Pionyer, this new wonder of the deep. The massive submarine can dive to unfathomable depths and can achieve the speed of a freight train. It is equipped with state-of-the-art sonar, a bathyspace of the kind seen in the Disney’s previous year’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1956, review), and diving suits which also seem inspired by the American blockbuster – but the ones on the Pionyer are high tech deep sea suits, and motorised. And yes, it also carries giant torpedos, as well as a new superweapon, which I interpret as some sort of ultrasound cannon.

Igor Vladimirov his diving suit and Sergei Stolyarov as the Captain.

Some ways into the movie, the crew pick up the lone survivor of a scuttled Soviet ship, a pre-teen kid called Pavlik (Igor Bristol), whom the shifty Gorelov takes under his wing – and has him spy on the Captain’s cabin under the pretence of a game. Meanwhile, back on dry land, the intrepid Soviet police are following up on the nightly meeting of the commander and the mysterious stranger, as well as the secret message sent and intercepted. Here unravels a highly contrived story of a vast “enemy” spy network, a Soviet exchange student, blackmail, photo forgery and an evil twin brother. Likewise on board the sub, Captain Vorontsov is trying to figure out who the traitor is, and who he can trust. Is the spy his old friend, chief engineer Gorelov, or the new recruit Skvoreshnya? Is it physician Maksimova, who spent time in enemy land, or is it old professor Nikolayevich? The film seems to point to Gorelov, but does it in such an obvious way, that it could well be a red herring. The finale of the movie turns from slow-moving spy drama to all-out James Bond, with a dramatic underwater fight, and a secret, automated enemy base straight out of a pulp fiction magazine.

At the entrance of the secret spy cave.

I have found little information on the background of the movie or its production. It is based on a 1939 novel by Ukrainian author Grigori Adamov with the same title as the film, Тайна двух океанов (Taina dvuh okeanov) or The Mystery of Two Oceans. One peculiar oddity I have encountered is that on IMDb the “original title” of the film is given as “Ori okeanis saidumloeba”. I pondered this for days, as the phrase is absolute gibberish in Russian (of which I speak a little), and Google didn’t recognise the it as any other language either. But then I read that the director Konstantin Pipinashvili was Georgian, and the film was made in Georgia, at the time part of the Soviet Union. So I looked up a Georgian online keyboard, tapped in the Latin letters, and got back, in Georgian script: “ორი ოკეანლს საიდუმლოება”. I then ran this trough Google Translate, which informed me that it means “Two oceans of mystery”. Allowing for some grammatical error in Google’s translation, “Ori okeanis saidumloeba” thus seems to be the Georgian translation of Тайна двух океанов, or The Mystery of two Oceans. The movie title is generally translated as “The Secret of Two Oceans”, but since most translations of the book title uses the word “mystery”, I am going with that as well.

Original poster.

According to Russian Wikipedia, the film follows the general plot of the book, but has a few major and many minor differences. In the book, there is no mission to investigate any exploded ships. Instead the “mystery” of the title refers to the super-submarine itself, and very much like Jules Verne’s afore-mentioned submarine novel, much of the novel is really an educational journey in oceanography, with added SF elements and a propagandistic spy yarn. Neither is the automated enemy base present in the novel. And in the book, the crew is all-male, while the filmmakers have added a female doctor. Another change, albeit small, is the fact that in the book, Japanese and American intelligence services were named as the villains, while in the film, released at the height of the Cold War, the “enemy” remains unnamed, just like in most American films of the era. The super-automated spy base is also absent in the novel.

Up from the water.

Soviet juvenile spy fiction was born partly out of a realisation that kids will be kids and they want fun and adventures, and will find it where it exists. Thus, in the early days of the Soviet Union, kids turned to American adventure, detective and spy novels for their entertainment. The so-called Pinkerton novels, based loosely on the real-life Pinkerton detective agency, were hugely popular. However, most Western spy and detective novels were to a lesser or greater extent anti-communist or anti-Russian, or at least espoused a capitalist world view that wasn’t seen as acceptable for young Soviet citizens to be exposed to. There were those in power who wanted to ban escapist juvenile fiction altogether, as it was seen as having a negative effect on young minds. However, argued others, young people are going to read detective and spy fiction no matter what, and if they do, it is better that they read ideologically approved Soviet fiction than European or American. Thus was born what has become labelled the “Red Pinkerton” subgenre. In the same way, fantastic fiction in literature and on screen was, if not encouraged, then at least not prohibited in the early decades of the USSR. The Twenties, in particular, saw a handful of experimental and interesting science fiction films coming out of Russia, until Stalin started viewing the genre as potentially subversive, and with the exception of a couple of carefully monitored propagandistic films, the thirties and forties saw almost no SF output from the Eastern bloc. And it is probably no coincidence that Russian SF on screen didn’t start thriving again until after the death of the dictator in 1953. Not only one, but two marine-themed SF movies were produced in 1956 and 1957, The Mystery of the Eternal Night and The Mystery of Two Oceans.

On the deck of the Pioneer.

At the time, Soviet cinemas were filled mainly with light fair, such as musicals and comedy, as well as the occasional war drama, historical film or the bombastic explorations of the Soviet spirit and/or the Russian people. However, in general, the technical and artistic quality of Soviet films were high, and the Communist Party fed considerable resources into the movie industry. Against this background, the technical qualities of The Mystery of Two Oceans are so-so. Compared to the beautiful set design of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the interiors of the submarine in the movie are rather bare and underwhelming. The special effects of the submarine travelling under water and the divers moving round in their diving suits look “miniatury”, and have the feeling of a Gerry Anderson film, rather than a live-action spectacle. The secret spy base is genuinely impressive, but here director Pipinashvili isn’t able to create a very satisfactory ending from an action point of view, partly because the hero is encumbered by his deep-sea diving suit which severely restricts his ability even to walk properly — an adherence to realism that severely hurts the drama. On the plus side, the film is in colour, albeit somewhat murky, and it doesn’t feel cramped or limited by budget restraints.

Back in the silent era, European cinema — German in particular — was fond of making movies in several parts, sometimes, as in the case of Homunculus (1916, review) adding up to six hours of film in total. But as audiences grew more accustomed to watching long movies, there was no point in cutting up a 180-minute movie in two 90 minute episodes. At the same time, the rising production costs of making movies, it became less and less feasible to tell in 5 hours a story that could economically be told in 2. A peculiarity of Soviet cinema was that it didn’t quite abandon the custom, and still made films in several parts as late as the 50’s. The Mystery of Two Oceans was made as a two-parter, totalling 2.5 hours of film. The movie is nearly impossible to watch in one sitting, and I realised after watching the first 83-minute episode that I had to leave the second part for the next day. There really is no reason why this film would need to be this long. The subplot with the intelligence agency working on dry land to uncover the spy aboard the vessel probably worked well in its original literary setting, but in a film about a super-submarine, the land-based segments mainly work to bog the movie down. On the other hand, the land-based story also has some of the most exciting action sequences. There’s quite a nifty car chase, a cool repelling with a really original spy gadget down several floors of an apartment building, as well as some great trapeze moments in a circus, which are, oddly enough, pertinent for the story.

Pyotr Sobolevsky (left) as the First Mate and Sergei Stolyarov as the Captain.

There is something that I find quite appealing in these old Soviet colour movies — it’s a kind of murky realism. And it’s not just the murky colours of the 50’s, there’s something sweaty and gritty about the whole atmosphere — going back, I suppose to writers like Dostoyevsky. I can’t find any information on what colour film or technique was used for The Mystery of Two Oceans, but in all likelihood, it was the so-called Sovcolor system, which was the most widely used technique in the post-war era. Sovcolor was based on the German Agfacolor technique, which, thanks to the annulment of German Nazi-era patents after WWII, also formed the basis of Fujicolor and American Anscocolor. The Agfacolor technique was a huge improvement on pre-war Soviet techniques that, like Technicolor, relied on a two- or three-strip technology. Agfacolor, and Sovcolor, on the other hand, like Eastmancolor, relied on a single colour negative, rather then the subtractive multi-strip technique. Two major factories, Svema and Tasma, provided the film stock for colour film made in the Sovcolor technique for much of the Comecon era — for example, many early colour films in Finland were made in the Sovcolor technique, which I suppose is partly why I associate old Finnish films with the same kind of aesthetic. One peculiarity with Svema and Tasma film stock was that the development left a particular greenish tint, which is why everything looks so washed-out and lackluster in old Soviet photographs. However, despite the cold war, Soviet filmmakers were able to import high-quality Eastmancolor film from the US, which was used for some high profile movies. I doubt that The Mystery of Two Oceans qualified for this, though.

Igor Bristol with Sergei Stolyarov.

The story is a rather odd blend of hard-boiled spy fiction, juvenile adventure story and pulpy pop SF, and it is a blend that doesn’t mesh as well as it could. The Doppelgänger motif comes a bit out of the blue and seems both unlikely and like a deus ex machina. I do like, however, the way the script toys with audience anticipations, setting up an obvious candidate for the villain, so obvious that the audience isn’t quite sure if it is a red herring, or if the filmmakers want the audience to believe it is a red herring, and then, towards the end, turns the tables around and then back again. Involving the kid as an unwitting accomplice gives the plot some emotional punch, as we don’t know if his inadvertent sleuthing is part of the spy’s plot or part of a plot for catching the spy. The acting is fine without impressing overmuch.

The Mystery of Two Oceans was hugely successful at the Soviet box office, becoming the 6th most viewed movie of 1957. It also proved highly popular on TV in later years, and is today fondly remembered as one of the many rather wholesome adventure movies of the 50’s and 60’s. It received, and continues to receive, mixed reviews. In an article from 1967 decrying the poor state of the Soviet science fiction films, SF scholar and critic Vsevolod Revich wrote: “Today, it is difficult to imagine that the viewer perceives a film about even the most powerful submarine as science fiction. Sensing this, the screenwriters decided to give it additional interest by introducing into the script an absurd detective story associated with a certain circus performer, completely absent from the novel. Ultimately thus ruined the film, turning it into a primitive action movie.”

The crew.

Today the movie has a decent 6/10 audience rating on IMDb, based on less than 200 votes. Mikhail Ivanov on the now sadly defunct videoguide.ru called The Mystery of Two Oceans “a wonderful, cozy picture, a classic of the genre. Ideal for calming nerves and for lifting one’s mood.” Another lauded film critic and scholar, Aleksandr Fyodorov, wrote in a 2008 article, here re-published by Kino-Teatr, that “unlike the novel, the film proved popular”, and “remains relevant to audiences today”. It’s success, opines Fyodorov, had its basis in a successful synthesis of the detective and science fiction genres, as well as in good special effects and set design.

Not all contemporary critics are sold on the movie’s merits. Swiss critic Marco Spiess at Molodezhnaja gives it 2/5 stars, noting the lack of wonder about the underwater world, and mismatch between the spy and the SF themes. “Neither exciting nor visually stunning nor intelligent. Rather, a nice little film that keeps the nostalgics among us halfway happy with a solid pace and a few mediocre tricks. But if you’re looking for good Eastern SF cinema, you’ll be happier looking elsewhere.” In a user review at Letterboxd, “Kultgestalt” writes that The Mystery of Two Oceans is sluggish, lacks a clear protagonist, and doesn’t have much to offer either friends of cold war spy films nor science fiction fans.

Antonina Maksimova as the ship’s doctor.

And that’s pretty much it for reviews of this film. It’s a pity, really, that there is so little tradition of science fiction criticism outside the English-speaking (and German-speaking) world. You find several mentions of The Mystery of Two Oceans on Russian-language film sites, but few pages contain more than the film’s specs and a copy-pasted plot synopsis. It’s quite odd, considering this was one of the greatest hits of 1957 – it’s a bit as if there were no US online reviews of The War of the Worlds (1953, review). Mostly, there are more German-language reviews of, for example, early Latin American or Russian SF movies than there are in the languages spoken in the countries they were released. Film experiences rely heavily on cultural backgrounds and for a “westerner” it is extremely difficult to gauge how any particular film was received in the Soviet Union (or even just Russia) in 1957, and there are particulars and details that might have had som great significance that is completely lost on someone without a deep understanding of Soviet history, art and culture. Even if I have studied Russian, visited Russia and spent some time reading up on Soviet film history, I often feel a bit lost in reviewing Soviet movies without the opportunity to do a bit of reading about the film at hand. This is my normal modus operandi even with Hollywood films that I am very familiar with, and it’s doubly important for me to be able to do so with films, filmmakers and film cultures I am less knowledgeable about.

Grigori Adamov.

Author Grigori Adamov was born Abram Gibs in 1886 in Kherson, Ukraine, to a poor Jewish family, and in his youth he was swayed by the Marxist ideology and became a committed Bolshevik. He was twice arrested for his radical political activity in Ukraine, before moving permanently to Saint Petersburg, where he began writing for political journals and newspapers. In the late 20’s or early 30’s Gibs worked as a correspondent for a magazine following the industrialisation of the USSR. The work took all over the union, and this is when he became interested in new technology and their future developments. In the early 30’s he adopted the pen name Grigory Adamov for his fiction, and published his first short stories (non-SF) in 1931. Adamov’s first work of SF, a short story, came in 1934. Altogether he wrote three SF novels and around half a dozen short stories. Rooted in his interest for technology, his works can be classed as hard SF in the near-future subgenre. Several of his works deal with new energy forms, such as solar power and geothermic power, and he seems to have had something of an obsession with the idea of raising the temperature in the Arctic areas, for example through heating the Gulf Stream — an unlikely vision of a utopia today in the light of the fight against climate change. His books often had an ideological slant — he was, remember, a devout Bolshevik, so unlike many other writers, Adamov had little trouble with Soviet censorship. The Mystery of Two Oceans remains his most popular work, and the only one of his books that has been translated into other languages. Thus far, none of his books are available in English. Adamov’s son, Arkady Adamov, followed in his father’s footsteps, and became a prolific and successful writer of detective fiction, and was perhaps the best known Soviet detective book writer of the fifties.

Igor Bristol.

Georgian director Konstantin Pipinashvili is not counted among the greats of Soviet cinema. He co-wrote and directed eight films between 1941 and 1964. He started his career as an animator in Georgia in the early 30’s, before studying directing under Sergei Eisenstein in Moscow. Between 1948 and 1954 he worked as a dubbing director, and in 1967 retired from filmmaking when he got a position as film teacher at the University of Tblisi. The Mystery of Two Oceans is his best known movie.

If the director is somewhat anonymous, at least two of the actors should be well-known to friends of early Soviet science fiction, Sergei Komarov, playing the dotty professor, and Sergei Stolyarov, as the Captain of the submarine.

Sergei Komarov (left) and Sergei Stolyarov (centre).

Sergei Komarov was never among the brightest stars of Soviet cinema, but a hugely respected character actor and occasional lead, who also taught filmmaking and directed two well-regarded movies. He was part of film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov’s famous experimental workshop in the 20’s, which is how he found himself playing one of the male heroes in Kuleshov’s kinetic SF experiment The Death Ray (1925, review). Also emerging from under the wings of Kuleshov were directors Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, who in 1926 directed the brilliant three-part action spy-fi serial Miss Mend (review), in which Komarov played the evil capitalist villain Chiche. A year later, Komarov teamed up with one of the serial’s stars, comedian Ilya Ilyinsky, this time behind the camera, to direct the film A Kiss from Mary Pickford, taking advantage of Pickford’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ visit to Moscow. As an actor, Komarov also appeared in such high-profile movie’s as Kuleshov’s By the Law (1926) and Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928), as well as Outskirts (1933). He made a triumphant return to science fiction in 1936, playing the hero scientist and astronaut in the classic Cosmic Voyage (1936), a role modelled on “the father of space flight”, rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

In a small role in Cosmic Voyage we also see a young Sergei Stolyarov, in what audiences would gave perceived as an oddly small part for such a famous star. In fact, the previous year, he appeared in a central role in in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s daunting subtle SF frontier movie Aerograd (1935, review). Because of the long post-production period of Cosmic Voyage, Aerograd was actually released before Cosmic Voyage, which meant Stolyarov had become a major film star when the film was finally released in 1936. Stolyarov supposedly went on to create a little bit of science fiction history in 1967 when he starred in his third science fiction film. The movie in question was Yevgeniy Sherstobitov’s The Andromeda Nebula, based on the novel with the same name by Ivan Yefremov. The film was moderately popular with audiences, but received mixed reviews, and plans for sequels were scrapped. However, the most interesting thing about the movie, in retrospect, is probably the fact that Stolyarov’s heroic character is called Dar Veter. It may just be one of those odd coincidences – but the similarities to Darth Vader are too close to ignore.

Igor Bristol and Sergei Golovanov as the Chief Engineer.

As far as other actors with SF connections, Sergei Golovanov, who plays the supposed-or-maybe-not red herring character in The Mystery of Two Oceans, also turns up in a small role in the Solaris-inspired Tainstvennaya stena (1967). Mikhail Gluzskiy voiced the Professor in the animated comedy Klop 75 (1976) and had a supporting role in the West German 1989 adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers’ novel Hard to be a God. The work of visual effects photographer Frantisek Semyannikov may be familiar to Western SF fans, as he was on hand for the Mission-to-Mars film Nebo zovyot (1959), which was edited by Francis Ford Coppola, on the behest of Roger Corman, into Battle Beyond the Sun (1962). He also created effects for Mechte navstrechu (1963), which, along with Nebo zovyot, was pilfered for special effects scenes to go into AIP’s Queen of Blood (1966).

Janne Wass

The Mystery of Two Oceans/Тайна двух океанов/Taina dvukh okeanov. 1957, USSR. Directed by Konstantin Pipinashvili. Written by Vladimir Alekseev, Nikolai Rozhkov, Pipanishvili. Starring: Sergei Stolyarov, Igor Vladimirov, Sergei Golovanov, Pyotr Sobolevsky, Vakhtang Ninua, Sergei Komarov, Antonia Maksimova, Igor Bristol, Leonid Pirogov, Mikhail Gluzskiy. Music: Aleksi Machavariani. Cinematography: Feliks Vysotsky. Editing: Ye. Bezhanova. Production design: Yevgeny Machavariani, Leonide Mamaladze. Costumde design: T. Kandat, Makeup: T. Ivashchenko. Special effects: Frantisek Semyannikov, et.al. Produced for Georgian-Film.

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