Monday, April 20, 2015

A Trip to Mars (Nordisk, 1918)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last film on Gerry’s program was also by far the most impressive: Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars), a 1918 production by the Scandinavian studio Nordisk and made by Danish director F. Holger-Madsen (who had also acted in some earlier films, including a series of one-reelers in which he played Sherlock Holmes!) under producer Ole Olsen (almost certainly not the later American vaudeville and Broadway comedian of that name!) in what was openly promoted as a spectacle film. The original ads read, “See the wonder play of the age with ALL STAR CAST, 5000 Actors, 50 Gorgeous Settings, $100,000 worth of mechanical devices” — and though the “all-star cast” may have been an exaggeration (though I have no way of knowing just how well known these actors were in Denmark in 1918), the elaborate sets and mechanical devices are there to be seen on screen. What’s most interesting about the Danish A Trip to Mars is that, like A Message to Mars, the script (by Ole Olsen and Sophus Michaëlis based on a best-selling novel, Himmelskibet, by Michaëlis) present the Martians as beneficent, peace-loving creatures who have important lessons to teach the war-mongering, violent Earthlings they come in contact with. The plot strikingly anticipates several later science-fiction and/or fantasy films from the silent era, including the 1925 film The Lost World and Fritz Lang’s remarkable 1928 Woman in the Moon — indeed the plot of Himmelskibet, especially in the first half, tracks so closely to Woman in the Moon I suspect Lang and/or his wife and writing partner, Thea von Harbou, had seen it. It begins with a sequence establishing that the young Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiidenham) has become convinced that space travel is possible despite the scoffing of his colleague, Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen). I found myself amused at how much Professor Planetaros was made up to look like Albert Einstein — and how much Dubius resembled Leon Trotsky; the idea of those two having an argument about space travel boggles the mind!

The film then flashes forward a couple of decades; Planetaros is now the proud father of Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnaes), who’s become the world’s number one record-breaking aviator and who is convinced he can build on his already formidable reputation and prove his dad’s theories right by building a spacecraft (which looks like a giant torpedo with a biplane wing stuck on top) and flying it to Mars. He takes a crew of eight on the voyage, including his friend Dr. Krafft (Alf Blütecher) — who’s in love with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen), though she’s stuck on earth and Prof. Planetaros’ displays of physical affection for her border on the incestuous — and an American stowaway named David Dane (Svend Kornbeck), who bears a striking resemblance to Jackie Gleason and who sneaks alcohol onto the spaceship (a plot device reused in Forbidden Planet, while the whole idea of a stowaway on a spaceship who screws things up turned up on the TV series Lost in Space) and at one point fosters a mutiny. Earlier Avanti has compared himself to Christopher Columbus, so it’s not that surprising that he lives out the Columbus legend on board his spaceship, the Excelsior (from a name like that one expects it to be made of packing material): the crew is about to mutiny when they finally arrive on Mars, courtesy of a Martian tractor beam that actually pulls them to the Red Planet about 10 times faster than their craft’s own engines could do it. When they get to Mars they find that Mars is a totally peaceful planet whose inhabitants don’t kill any animal life — needless to say, they’re vegetarians — and when the Earthlings offer the Martians some canned meat in exchange for the Martian foodstuffs they’ve been fed, the Martians ask just how the Earthlings can get dead meat in a can. Avanti demonstrates by pulling out a gun, aiming it at the sky and bringing down a large bird — only he also wounds a Martian (played, according to, by an uncredited Scandinavian actor who did achieve at least a certain level of stardom outside the region: Nils Asther), and the Martians think he’s killed him and are not at all happy.

Eventually the Martians let the Earthlings go — it helps that the wounded Martian recover — on the ground that they can’t be convicted of violating Martian law because they didn’t understand a planet and a culture that holds all life sacred. Avanti and crew are allowed to go home as long as they promise to bring the Martian message of peace, love and vegetarianism to their home planet, and Avanti is even allowed to take his Martian girlfriend Marya (Lilly Jacobson) to earth as the first interplanetary immigrant. The 1918 A Trip to Mars — I suppose I should call it Himmelskibet to distinguish it from the far less interesting 1910 Edison half-reeler with which Gerry opened his showing — is quite a good movie, though still not done with the creative angling and cutting that by then had become standard film grammar in the U.S. and Germany, and there are some shots that are quite astonishing from a technical point of view. There’s quite a lot of use of airborne cameras to show a spacecraft’s-eye view of the terrain as the astronauts leave Earth, come to Mars and return — and at least one sequence showing the astronauts moving about in the ship as scenery passes them was almost certainly done with an early version of the process screen, nearly a decade before Fritz Lang’s cameraman and effects genius Eugen Schufftan supposedly invented the process screen for Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. While the other two movies on Gerry’s program were interesting mostly for their historical value, Himmelskibet is a film that’s genuinely entertaining on its own merits as well as fascinating for its influence on subsequent filmmakers. The Danish restoration job is excellent (only a few fleeting scenes show tell-tale evidence of the nitrate burns that generally were the first stage in the disintegration of a film print), and the piano accompaniment is nothing special but at least works far better than the dire electronics the British preservationists stuck onto A Message from Mars — though one wishes the TCM silent-film-scoring contest people would get hold of Himmelskibet and get someone to create an adventurous, imaginative score that would be truly worthy of this remarkable film.