Saturday, February 4, 2012

Himmelskibet, aka A Trip To Mars (Denmark, 1918)

If Reptilicus had been Denmark’s only contribution to the science fiction genre, that might well have been enough. Few countries, after all, can boast of producing a film in which a prehistoric dragon is represented almost exclusively by a vomiting puppet head. But, of course, I kid. Not only did Denmark make another contribution to the sci-fi genre, but that contribution was also among the earliest cinematic depictions of space travel. The Danish film industry was, in fact, pretty robust during the teen years of the last century, with receptive audiences throughout Europe and a reputation for a high level of craftsmanship, of which Holger-Madsen’s 1918 film Himmelskibet (or Sky Ship) offers a fine example.

Himmelskibet begins with Navy Captain Avanti (Gunnar Tolnæs) returning from the Great War in search of new ventures. His father, the great astronomer Professor Planetarios (yes, it’s that kind of movie), introduces him to the concept of space travel, lighting a fire within the lad that can only be expressed by lots of overwrought gesticulating toward the heavens. (Hopefully, once the talkies came along, actor Tolnæs was able to find a job pointing at things, because he’s really good at it.) Avanti recruits his sister’s suitor, Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher), to assist him in building a spaceship capable of reaching Mars, and the call soon goes out for volunteers to make up the ship’s crew. Throughout this process, the only obstacle to our heroes’ progress is that posed by Planetarios’ arch rival, Professor Dubius (again, that kind of movie), who makes a project out of heckling them at every step of the way.

Two years later, Avanti and his team have succeeded in building the Excelsior, a spaceship that, with its vestigial wings and protruding wagon wheels, is at once ungainly and perilously rickety looking. Yet fly it does, and soon Avanti, Krafft and a crew that includes a hulking alcoholic by the name of Dane are winging their way to Mars. Unfortunately, even at this historical remove from actual space travel, the makers of Himmelskibet were aware that getting to Mars would take an awful lot of time, and that, in addition, spending that amount of time in quarters as cramped as those within the Excelsior would take a grave psychological toll upon its astronauts. Thus, six months in, Avanti and Krafft find themselves with a mutiny on their hands under the leadership of the boozy Dane. Fortuitously, it is at this moment that the Martians choose to send out their tractor beams and gently waft them down to the surface of their planet.

The Martians turn out to be a highly enlightened race who spend their days sitting around in white robes while being unnervingly serene. Obviously, we humans have a lot to learn from an encounter with such a race, but even a film as idealistic as Himmelskibet has the common sense to realize that we would fuck it up. After sampling the Martians’ vegetarian diet, Avanti send one of his crew back to the ship for some canned meat and wine. Asked by the Martian elder how the Earthlings are able to obtain “dead meat” for their consumption, Avanti enthusiastically demonstrates by whipping out a revolver and blowing a passing bird out of the sky. In response, the outraged Martians fall upon the group and, in the ensuing melee, one of the crew members throws a grenade that seriously wounds one of the Martians. It’s pretty bad.

Because the Martians’ is one of those vaguely atavistic utopian societies in which there is a “the something” of everything, Avanti and his men are sent to “The House of Judgment”, where, after a presentation on how the Martians overcame their own warlike past, they are encouraged to “judge themselves”. They gain some assistance in this from Marya, the Elder’s beautiful young daughter, who takes pity on the Earthmen and decides to act as their counsel. With her guidance, the humbled Earthmen collectively lay down their arms, swearing off violence forever, and are in turn rewarded with the honor of wearing “The Robes of Innocence”. Marya and her fellow Martian maidens then subject these long isolated males to a performance of something called ”The Dance of Chastity”, which is just as airy fairy as it sounds, contrasted with scenes of bad behavior back on Earth that involve unruly beer halls, rowdy mobs mocking the infirm, gambling, and lovers necking in darkened dance halls.

Perhaps as a result of all this in-your-face chastity, Avanti finds himself taken with Marya. A formal courtship ensues that involves Marya leading Avanti to “The Forest of Love” and then “The Tree of Longing” (and ultimately, one hopes, to the “The Well Hidden Grove of Surreptitious Boning”, though, to be honest, that is neither depicted nor implied). Eventually, Avanti takes Marya and, with his newly reformed crew, heads back to Earth, only to face a violent storm upon reentry into our atmosphere. The odious Professor Dubius, watching from the ground, is felled by a serendipitous lightning bolt, happily leading our way into a hopeful conclusion. Once they are safely on the ground, Professor Planetarios tells Marya and Avanti that he hopes theirs will be a new generation who will, by embodying the Martian example, set the human race on the right path. Then a title reading “SLUT” appears on the screen. Which is apparently Danish for “The End”.

Though I myself would hitch a ride on the next piece of flaming space debris to get away from those Martian hippies, I have to admit to being moved by the sweetness at the core of Himmelskibet. That in the immediate aftermath of humanity’s horrific introduction to modern warfare on a near-genocidal scale, its makers could even conceive of a society as enlightened and peaceful as that pictured here is something of a human achievement in itself. And the naïve special effects and rickety spaceship only serve to make it that much more endearing. Set aside, of course, that the bloodless, endlessly lounging lifestyle of the Martians seems like a specific hell of its own, and that, with all of those white robes and bleached Roman edifices dotting the Martian surface, it all seems a bit queasily Arian. The main point is that Himmelskibet, in showing us its epic depiction of man conquering the heavens, had the humble goal of making us all just a little less shooty with each other. It’s hard to find fault with that, really.


Idrian said...

Nice review. Gives you an idea of how pretty "progressivist" (belief in human progress) and idealist and innocent-thinking early movie sci-fi was. It' also interesting as a document of public thinking immediately after that war.

Michael Barnum said...

I remember reading about this film back when I was a never occurred to me it would now actually be available for viewing! The things I find out here!!

Todd said...

Thanks, Idrian, Michael. A Facebook friend of a Facebook friend hipped me to this even earlier Danish sci-fi film, The End of the World (Verdens Undergang), from 1916 -- which, like Himmelskibet, was restored and released on DVD by the Danish Film Institute in 2006.

memsaab said...

Awwww...I want to see this!

Todd said...

Hey, there's at least a dance number.

Cheap flights to Kuwait said...

The man who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.

Anonymous said...

I spent 6 months in Denmark on exchange in the 1980's. Given the Danish word for "dune" is "klit"; the poster for the David Lynch version with a giant worm presented a very different movie.