Spectacle, Apocalypse and the Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars

A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2010), 107–15.

Atlantis (August Blom Denmark 1913). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 20fps. Verdens undergang (The End of the World; August Blom 1916) and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars; Holger-Madsen Denmark 1918). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 17fps and 20fps, respectively.

For half a decade, beginning in 1910, Denmark was the most influential film-making nation in Europe after France. Of more than two dozen production companies, many of which lasted only long enough to make a handful of films, Nordisk Films Kompagni was the most successful.[1] Established in 1906 by cinema-owner Ole Olsen, it quickly became the second largest European production company, after France’s Pathé,[2] making, for example, over 140 films in 1915 alone. Indeed, Nordisk’s fame and influence was such that the Hungarian theatrical actor and film director Miháley Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz – visited Denmark to study their filmmaking systems and techniques.[3] Nordisk ceased to make films in 1917, and when production recommenced after World War One, its global position was lost. Its German market was undermined by the establishment of Ufa, Germany’s state-owned studio, and Nordisk’s increasing focus on literary adaptations proved a less-successful export strategy than Germany’s development of expressionism into a cinematic mode.

Spectacle
c64e29ec5045f5683442973117c20c6f
In 1910, actor August Blom joined Nordisk’s 1700 staff as a director.[4] He soon became the studio’s leading director, shooting more than a hundred films by 1924. While Olsen preferred single reel films (up to sixteen minutes long), which had to sell about twenty prints before turning a profit, Blom wished to make longer films. After his racy three-reel melodrama Val Fœngslets Port (The Temptations of a Great City; Denmark 1911) became an international hit, selling nearly 250 copies, he increasingly got his way. Although largely forgotten nowadays, Blom was a major figure in the development of what we now think of as feature-length films, both in Denmark and internationally. He was best known for literary adaptations, including versions of Robinson Crusoe, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a Hamlet shot at Elsinore, and for social melodramas, which depicted temporary mobility between social classes before conservatively reasserting the natural order of social hierarchies (Mottram 135–6). In 1913, he adapted German Nobel prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel Atlantis, following its narrative very closely. It was a prestige production over which Hauptman retained considerable control; but despite the novel’s rather modern perspective, its story of the self-exiled, proto-existentialist Dr Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) resonated strongly with the melodramatic form Blom favoured. At eight reels (nearly two hours), it was the longest Danish film – and one of the longest films anywhere – to that date. It was another international hit, with prints prepared specifically for Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian language markets (there were two Russian versions, one with a much more tragic conclusion which is included as an extra on this DVD). For its US release, it was cut down to six-reels. According to Mottram, the excised scenes almost certainly included von Kammacher’s side trip to Paris and his brief shipboard affair with a Russian Jewess from steerage, and probably the two-shot sequence which gives the film its title and its few moments of more-or-less direct interest to readers of this journal: von Kammacher’s dream/vision of Atlantis.

Nearly halfway through the film, the overwrought von Kammacher retreats to his cabin on a liner crossing the Atlantic to the US. In his sleep, he meets a dead friend, with whom he walks through the streets of Atlantis. While Blom succeeds in giving this sequence an oneiric quality, the lost continent is rather obviously just a Danish town. This tension makes it appear oddly prescient of Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic use of Scandinavian settings in a film such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries; Sweden 1957), but it is profoundly at odds with the rest of the film’s realist aesthetics. In Blom’s defence, the equivalent brief passage in Hauptmann’s novel seems just as odd.

Perhaps, then, of greater interest than this fantastic element is the film’s investment in spectacle, which is increasingly treated as a defining characteristic of sf cinema. In addition to specially-filmed establishing shots of Manhattan, location shooting in Berlin (including striking material filmed from moving cars) and shots of magnificent landscapes and seascapes, there are three sequences that even more specifically evoke the cinema of attractions associated with early cinema.

First, when von Kammacher, distressed by the rejection of his revolutionary bacteriological research and by the need to commit his insane wife to an asylum, takes a holiday in Berlin, his friend Hans Füllenberg (Miháley Kertész) invites him to the debut of Ingergerd Hahlstrom (Ida Orlov). Her dance – a vaguely allegorical performance called ‘The Spider’s Victim’ – not only fills him with a desire for her against which he will struggle for the rest of the film, but also abruptly terminates narrative momentum in order to insert what is, in effect, a two-minute-and-forty-second butterfly dance film. Such short films, which featured the hypnotically swirling skirts and sleeves (often hand-painted frame by frame) of such performers as Annabelle Moore, were immensely popular in the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth century (various sources claim that they constituted between 30–80% of all films made before 1910).

In the second half of the film, von Kammacher’s fellow voyager, the armless performer Arthur Stoss (Charles Unthan), performs amazingly dexterous acts with his feet. Again, the action halts – for three minutes – to present a sequence that resembles a short film recording of a popular variety act: Stoss plays a trumpet; shuffles, cuts and deals a pack of cards; lights and smokes a cigarette; opens a wine bottle with a corkscrew, pours and drinks the wine; types a letter and signs it with a pen.[5]

August Blom - Atlantis.avi_003806250In between these two ‘attractions’ lies the film’s most spectacular sequence, in which the liner hits a derelict ship and sinks. Some sources state that Hauptmann’s novel was published four weeks before the Titanic disaster, others that the novel was inspired by it; but regardless of this, the film adaptation a year later again evokes a genre of the cinema of attractions: the record of a catastrophe (typically opportunistic, often reconstructed or otherwise fraudulent) and the specific cycle of films purporting to contain actual footage of the Titanic sinking. Blom’s resolutely unspectacular visual style lends a sense of greater realism to shots of barely-choreographed extras milling about on the ship, of others leaping twenty feet or more into the sea and of the actual sinking of a large-scale model/set of the ship.

Apocalypse
VerdensUndergangPoster
Of more direct interest to the readers of this journal is Blom’s Verdens undergang (The End of the World; 1916), in which a comet – or its debris – strikes northwest Europe. It was shot in Sweden and Denmark while memories of the 1908 Tunguska event (probably the airburst of a meteoroid or cometary fragments) and 1910’s two major cometary visitations – Halley’s Comet and the Great January Comet, also known as the Daylight Comet – were still relatively fresh, and while World War One was consuming men and matériel in unprecedented quantities. That a residual sense of such celestial phenomena being ill omens persisted is indicated by a New York Times article on the Great January Comet, which displaces such concerns onto other peoples: ‘its appearance is reported to have caused extreme terror among the Russian peasants, who regard it as the precursor either of a great war in the Far East or of the end of the world’ and ‘warnings have been issued as to the effect it is likely to have upon the populations of North Africa and India’ (Anon). However, despite Nordisk making a number of pacifist and explicitly anti-war films, Blom ignores the potential in his material to develop such a connection with the Great War. Instead, he chooses to construct another social melodrama, which escalates as the comet draws nearer (in this, it has much in common both with the overwrought familial and homosocial melodrama of Deep Impact (Leder US 1998) and Armageddon (Bay US 1998), and with the low-key mapping of social difference in Last Night (McKellar Canada/France 1998)).

When Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), a wealthy industrialist, comes to a remote town to inspect his mine, he promptly falls for Dina (Ebba Thomsen), one of the daughters of its manager, West (Carl Lauritzen). She feels stifled by the strictures of her conservative, religious father, and when Stoll declares his love for her, she abandons her home and her fiancé, a miner called Flint (Thorleif Lund), for a life of luxury in Copenhagen. Several years later, Stoll’s financial machinations have made him an even larger fortune on the stock exchange. When a comet is spotted approaching the Earth, he manipulates his cousin, Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), into revealing to him the Astronomical Society’s findings about the likelihood of a collision, which are supposed to be kept secret so as to avoid panic. Having already purchased stock at rock-bottom prices when news of the comet prompted a crash, Stoll forces a newspaper editor to print a false report that it will pass by harmlessly. Public confidence – and stocks – rise, enabling Stoll to sell at a massive profit before the truth comes out. He then returns with Dina to his mansion near her home town so as to shelter in the mines from the coming conflagration. On the eve of destruction, he – presumably not being familiar with Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – throws a party for his wealthy friends, instructing them ‘Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it will be we who will found the new world, and be its masters. We will salute the rush of the meteors towards the Earth with a feast. Tonight, when the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us.’ Meanwhile, Flint, intent on revenge 13081308083615263611459952against Stoll, incites the miners and townsfolk to riot. As flaming debris fall from the sky – the combination of model work and location shooting remains quite effective – and as Dina performs an erotic dance for Stoll’s guests, the common people, armed with tools and guns, converge on the mansion. Class warfare erupts (in one remarkable shot, the camera looks past the workers, through a hole they have torn in a door to where Stoll’s guests return fire). Stoll hustles the injured Dina through a secret passage into the mines, pursued by Flint. She dies from her wound; Flint and Stoll, overwhelmed by toxic gases released by the comet’s impact, die; in fact, everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, but Dina’s virtuous sister, Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen), rescued from the sea’s VerdensUndergang3inundation of the land by a priest (Frederik Jacobsen), who then disappears, and her fiancé, Reymers (Alf Blütecher), the only survivor of his wrecked ship. She makes her way through the post-catastrophe desolation to a church tower.[6] Reymers hears the sound of church bells ringing, and the lovers are reunited, a new Adam and Eve.

Blom’s visual style in Atlantis and Verdens undergang exemplifies – some might say typifies – the Nordisk look, which strongly favoured a single camera set-up and deep focus composition, with multiple planes of action. This not only enabled an entire scene to be filmed in a single long take, but also helped to produce a film grammar less concerned with montage (as in the US) than with composition and spatial relationships within the mise-en-scene. Blom reduces the theatricality often associated with such a style by offsetting the camera so as to reduce the sense of frontality – unless frontality could be used to emphasise a character’s sense of social or psychological confinement – and by adopting (limited) panning and tracking so as to follow the action. There is little cross-cutting to build tension or parallelism between locations, and the actors, usually in medium shot, eschew melodramatic gestures, actions and emotions in favour of a more restrained, naturalistic style. Sets are well-dressed, often with very solid-looking furniture, and Blom is careful to imply the existence of real spaces on the other sides of doors and walls. He is not afraid of cramming twenty or more actors into a shot, and he is fond of mirrors as a means of extending visible space. For example, in Verdens undergang, a tableau of the lascivious but bored Dina features a mirror angled so as to depict part of the room that is out of shot, and the haste of the scheming Stoll’s return from the stock exchange is captured by thus showing him burst into the room (in the mirror) before he bursts into shot. Slightly more mystifying – at first – is the mirror that dominates one wall of West’s dining room, seemingly angled outward at the top merely to display the rug on the floor. Its true purpose is only revealed when flood waters pour in through the window, treating the viewer to a sight of the rapidly rising tide that swirls around Edith’s legs, adding to the sense of her peril without having to alter the camera set up or edit the film.[7]

Perhaps the most striking shots in Verdens undergang come when Stoll scouts out a hiding place in the mine, and later when, pursued by TOP_D_2014_Findumonde4Flint, he tries to bear the injured Dina to safety there. Each time, the characters descend into utter darkness, with only a single candle to light the way. Blom’s ingenious use of what appears to be a chest-mounted lighting rig gives halos of light to otherwise invisible figures shot from behind, and of mobile lights out of shot at the feet of the advancing characters produces moving pools of light and shadow, emphasising the deeper darkness into which they descend. There is nothing like it in silent sf – perhaps in silent cinema – until Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) pursues/rapes Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a torchbeam in Metropolis (Lang Germany 1926).

Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars
dk682_2b
Alongside Blom, Nordisk’s other major director in the 1910s was Forest Holger-Madsen, another occasional actor, who shot forty-six films between 1912 and 1936. His Nordisk films include three overtly anti-war films: Ned med vaabne (Lay Down Your Arms; 1914), scripted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from a novel by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner; Pax Aeterna (1917), co-written by Nordisk-owner Ole Olsen, the poet, novelist and playwright Sophus Michaëlis and Otto Rung; and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars 1918), adapted by Olsen and Michaëlis from the latter’s novel of the same name.

In Himmelskibet, sea captain turned aeroplane enthusiast Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) yearns for a new and worthy venture, something that will further the human spirit and the cause of peace. He finds inspiration in the work of his father, the astronomer Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and commits himself to building a ‘bridge between the planets’ – to constructing a spaceship and flying to Mars. He is joined in this endeavour by his friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is in love with his sister, Corona Planetaros (Zanny Petersen). After two years, Avanti announces the completion of the Excelsior at a meeting of the Scientific Society. A cigar-shaped craft with a propeller at the rear and biplane wings above the front of the fuselage, it has a revolutionary power source[8] that will enable it to travel through interplanetary space at 12,000kph. Despite Avanti’s impressive presentation (he is dramatically lit at a lectern at the front of the darkened room, with footage of the spaceship matted in beside him as if it is a film being projected), he is ridiculed by the demoniacally-lit – and appropriately named – Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), who denounces the venture as madness rather than science and calls for common sense to prevail.

The contrast between Dubius and his friend, Professor Planetaros, is articulated, as one might expect, through mise-en-scene. Planetaros is a stable, bourgeois patriarch, his observatory uncluttered, his home spacious and dull, with immaculate furniture that could be decades old. Physically, he resembles one of Boris Karloff’s white-haired scientists of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but while he shares something of their melancholy, he possesses none of their madness. Dubius, with his pointed beard, shock of hair, pince-nez and cheroots, more closely resembles the owlish Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (Lang Germany 1922). Indeed, in his rather cluttered office, strewn with books and papers, he even sits beneath a giant stuffed owl, symbolising a knowledge more arcane than modern science. He lives alone with his housekeeper; his clothes suggest vanity and he is furiously envious of Avanti. When the press turn against the expedition, Professor Planetaros, fearing for his son’s safety, is driven into physical and psychological decline by Dubius’ constant taunting. (Dubius is eventually driven mad by the expedition’s success and is struck dead by lightning.)

Among the volunteer crew Avanti recruits from the Science Society, two figures are particularly noteworthy. One is an unnamed Japanese, played by an uncredited European in yellowface with spectacles and smoothed down hair, who retains an air of formal deference despite his western dress. The other is David Dane (Svend Kornbech), a stout American adventurer with the build of a young Fatty Abuckle. He is uncouth – he enters the meeting smoking a pipe and wearing a stetson, with his jacket draped over his arm, only for one of the stewards to remove his pipe and hat and make him put his jacket back on – and, it soon transpires, a secretive alcoholic. This depiction of a modern Japanese obviously owes much to Japan’s surprise victory in the 1904–5 war with Russia and to its significant role in World War One;[9] a similar blend of modernity and orientalism is found in the Japanese of Spione (Lang Germany 1928). In contrast, Dane combines frontier accoutrements with crass materialism, unhealthy appetites and a bully’s swagger that turns out to be a coward’s front. Six months into the voyage, it is not the oriental who turns treacherous, but the American. Driven to despair by the ‘brooding darkness’ of space, Dane no longer attempts to conceal his heavy drinking and begins to plot mutiny. Only Krafft and the Japanese remain loyal to their commander.

Avanti self-consciously models himself on Christopher Columbus, talking to a portrait of the explorer that decorates his father home and copying its visionary subject’s heroic pose (Tolnæs’ overemphatic performance of heroic energy and messianic commitment is at odds with that of most of the rest of the cast; his excessive gesturality recalls Gustav Fröhlich’s often-criticised performance as Metropolis’ Freder Fredersen). And in an echo of the myth of Columbus’ voyage, it is just as the Excelsior is nearing Mars that the mutineers attempt to seize the spaceship. However, the Martian observers monitoring its approach accelerate the Excelsior to ten times its normal speed and land it safely on their planet.

imagesIt is on Mars that Himmelskibet’s pacifism comes to the fore. Martian civilisation combines elements typical of nineteenth-century utopian or lost-race fictions: pseudo-classical architecture, costume and customs; divine ancient wisdom; telepathy; social, psychological and physiological engineering, in this instance organised around a fruitarian diet; and a scattering of superscience technologies. Here, however, the emphasis is not on detailing eutopia’s radically different socio-economic structures but on the stately grace of the Martians, their social/religious rituals and the beauty of their landscape (which looks exactly like the Danish countryside, apart from the occasional ziggurat or giant flower). Premiering in February 1918, the film’s boldest move is overtly to transvaluate the God of War into the Planet of Peace.

The Martians greet the expedition with fruit, but disdain the wine they are offered in return and are repelled by cans of ‘dead meat’. Avanti shoots a bird from the sky to show the Martians that they, too, could easily add meat to their diet. The Martians, appalled by the sound of the first gunshot on the planet in thousands of years and by the murder of a living being, advance on the humans, and Dane throws a grenade, killing a Martian: ‘War and sin! Killing and blood!’ have come to ‘the planet of peace’, and ‘must be atoned for’.

Marya (Lilly Jacobson), the daughter of the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech), appoints herself the expedition’s defender as the humans subject themselves to Martian law, which punishes them by giving them self-knowledge. They are shown scenes from Martian history – of the ‘killing with fire and iron’ that prevailed until the Wise Man brought peace to their world – and thus learn that ‘Blood screams in even the smallest murder and sin opens its gates of hell/The source of life is but pure and good, woven from every strain of blood’. The humans vow never again to kill any living creature and even Dane surrenders his weapons. Then, to their amazement, the dead Martian is revived.

Many elements of Himmelskibet remain quite impressive: the dressing of its bourgeois sets and the chiaroscuro lighting effects; the Excelsior’s interior design, its rivets, gears and wheels prefiguring the spaceship interiors of Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and Flash Gordon (Stephani US 1936); and the blend of effects shots and actuality footage, including aerial views of Copenhagen, worked into the Excelsior’s launch sequence.

However, its attempts to depict a truly spiritual Martian people have fared less well. This is perhaps most evident in the rather curious courtship of Avanti and Marya. When he declares his love at ‘the tree of longing’ and then enters the ‘forest of love’ with her, it is impossible to tell whether these terms are supposed to have symbolic meaning within the diegesis, are part of an exegetic double-coding to make it clear that they are about to consummate their love, or just really unfortunate phrasing. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of Avanti fondling Marya’s breasts, especially as the rest of their interactions seem so chaste and this scene comes just after a comparison has been drawn between the Martian ‘dance of chastity’ and scenes of terrestrial debauchery and violence. Indeed, the only time the images manage to convey any sense of poetic harmony are a handful of shots depicting terrestrial workers in the early morning light of which Humphrey Jennings would have been proud.

14697181688_4dcbc8e4b7Marya joins the Excelsior on its return to Earth so as to propagate her father’s ‘message of enlightenment’. Professor Planetaros, whose suicide is narrowly averted by his son’s homecoming, welcomes her with these words: ‘In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich’.[10] This hopeful address to the future must have seemed bitterly ironic in the closing months of a war in which nine million combatants, most of them young people, were killed. It is, however, perhaps too much to suggest that, in such hierarchical and patriarchal sentiments, in Planetaros’ reduction of a ‘superior’ woman to a literal and symbolic womb, and in the film’s Aryan vision of superiority, its fascination with uniforms, technology and messianic heroism, that the outlines of the Next Great War can already be glimpsed.

Works cited
Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Anon. ‘Not Much is Known of Daylight Comet’, The New York Times (30 January 1910): C3. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9400E7D61730E233A25753C3A9679C946196D6CF.
Mottram, Ron. The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988.

Notes
[1] The longest continuously operating studio in the world, Nordisk still makes 10-15 productions and co-productions per year.

[2] The first decade of the twentieth century was the only time imported films have dominated the American screen. By the autumn of 1907, Pathé alone ‘was selling on the American market between thirty and forty million feet of positive film stock per year, nearly twice as much as all the American companies combined’ (Abel 87).

[3] He has a role in Atlantis, but there is ‘no documentation … to support [the] claim’ (Mottram 9) that he was also its assistant director.

[4] For an overview of his films from 1910-14, see Mottram.

[5] One cannot help but wonder whether this sequence inspired Tod Browning’s The Unknown (US 1927), in which Lon Chaney performs equally remarkable armless feats.

[6] A Danish audience would presumably have recognised this as the Buried Church in Skagen, the most northerly point of Jutland, which was lost – with much metaphorical commentary – to the encroaching sands during a period of desertification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[7] Such attention to the contents and spatial organisation of the frame may have influenced Curtiz’s own distinctive mise-en-scene, perhaps best exemplified by the interiors of Casablanca (US 1942) and Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

[8] Although its engine room seems to contain only a small five-stroke motor.

[9] After the war, Japan was awarded a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and Saionji Kinmochi was seated with David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando at the Versailles Peace Conference, although his attempts to include a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty failed.

[10] Rather unfortunately for the Anglophone viewer, this sentiment is followed by an ‘End’ caption in Swedish, which is ‘Slut’.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s