Review: Fly Rocket Fly
by Marina Richter
- Oliver Schwehm presents an electrifying, if somewhat incomplete, documentary on the life of pioneering German rocket scientist Lutz Kayser
“Two years ago, I was offered $1 billion to build a launch site in Saudi Arabia. But I wouldn’t have survived that, and I wasn’t interested anyway.” So says pioneering German rocket scientist Lutz Kayser, interviewed on his private Pacific island of Bikendrik in Oliver Schwehm’s documentary Fly Rocket Fly. His casual tone is understandable, given the number of similar offers he has received since the initial success of his aerospace company OTRAG (Orbital Transport and Rockets), the first-ever commercial business of its kind, which he established in Stuttgart in 1975. And yet Kayser never crossed the crucial line of turning his knowledge into a weapons-manufacturing business. Schwehm’s documentary, about a man who was something of a 20th-century Elon Musk, has just had its world premiere in the Spotlight section of the Munich Film Festival.
A highly controversial figure, Kayser was attacked by the media and politicians alike, but was strongly supported by a group of scientists who eagerly worked with him on developing rocket technology using affordable materials. Schwehm goes into extensive detail, chronicling Kayser’s path from nerdy student to successful rocket scientist with a talent for trouble. Shortly after OTRAG’s birth, prevented by law from testing his rockets in Europe, he signed a contract with the military dictator of Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mobutu Sese Seko, for the unrestricted use of 100,000 km² of Congolese territory for the purposes of rocket testing and launching.
Structured in chronological order using private videos, voice-overs and archive footage combined with contemporary interviews, Schwehm’s approach sticks to fairly conventional standards. The film raises questions of right and wrong in a scientific discipline deeply influenced by politics, and the world surrounding Kayser offers exemplary proof of hypocrisy. When he founded OTRAG in the midst of the moon-landing craze, the rumour spread that his small, independent German company was developing its own rockets. Still scared of anything potentially explosive coming from Germany so soon after World War II, the outside world started to panic. At the same time, two leading German rocket scientists whose roots could be traced back to the Nazi era, Wernher von Braun and Kurt H Debus, creators of the notorious V-2 flying bomb, became pillars of the US space programme for the US Army and NASA – and they were involved in OTRAG at the same time.
Among those involved in Kayser’s rocket-building adventure from the very beginning was aerospace engineer Frank Wukasch, who chronicled all of Kayser’s embryonic projects with his Hasselblad camera. It is his fascinating footage from the golden era of OTRAG – most notably from Zaire – that gives Fly Rocket Fly its electrifying quality. Praise is also due to the editing skills of Helmar Jungmann, whose elegant work occasionally turns the movie into a thriller-feature experience. Schwehm is wary of passing judgement, despite his clear sympathy for the scientists’ achievements. It is also revealing that he concentrates only on certain periods of Kayser’s life, leaving out his 28-year residence in Libya and his friendship with former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Shortly after the film was completed, Kayser passed away.
Fly Rocket Fly was produced by Germany’s Lunabeach TV und Media GmbH in co-production with Germany’s Radio Bremen and SWR, and Belgium’s RTBF Unité Documentaire and Novak Production. Magnetfilm GmbH is handling the international sales.
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