Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Atlantis (Denmark, 1913)

Atlantis proves that the whole "too soon" concept was as pertinent one hundred years ago as it is today, greeted by a wave of consternation upon its release for its depiction of a Titanic-like disaster only a year after the actual tragedy occurred. Norway even went so far as to ban the picture entirely.

Yet to say that Atlantis was "inspired" by the sinking of the Titanic is a somewhat dicey proposition, as the film was in truth based upon a novel by Nobel Prize winning author Gerhart Hauptman, which famously and uncannily depicted events very similar to the sinking a month before they happened. Whether real life occurrences had a hand in inspiring the selection of Hauptman's book as source material, however, is another matter entirely.

As Atlantis opens, distinguished bacteriologist Freidrich von Kammacher (Verdens Undergang's Olaf Fønss) is having a crap day. Not only has his new treatise been rejected by the University of Berlin, but his wife (Lily Frederiksen) has gone completely off her noggin, endeavoring, with wild eyed abandon,  to cut up everything in sight with a pair of sewing scissors, including, it seems, Friedrich himself. You see, this was back in those day when women would become unaccountably broken and have to be sent off to the brain doctor -- preferably one in as remote a European locale as possible -- for repair, which is what pretty unceremoniously happens to Mrs. Kammacher within the film's opening minutes.

Seeing that Kammacher has become broody and disconsolate in the wake of these events, his doting mother suggests that he leave his three children in her care and take a rejuvenating trip abroad. And so he does, heading off to Berlin, where he soon becomes smitten with famed "artistic" dancer Ingigerd Hahlstroem -- and this despite the fact that she looks like a dowager and dances with all the grace of an anesthetized polar bear.

Ingigerd is played by Ida Orloff, whose casting was insured by a clause in author Hauptman's contract that required that certain parts in the film be played by the actual people who inspired them. Orloff, a former lover of Hauptman's, may indeed have been an accomplished dancer at one time. But the fact that she was past her prime is clearly demonstrated by her one performance in the film, a number called "The Spider's Victim" in which she clumsily tromps around in a butterfly costume before being scared by a giant prop spider, then dies after badly pantomiming being trapped in a web. Another figure who won his role in this manner was Charles Unthan, an armless violinist who portrays "Armless Wonder" Arthur Stoss, a character whose contributions to the story in terms of either depth or agency are somewhat mysterious.

Since it's not cheating if your wife mistakes you for a textile, Kammacher sets himself to ardently pursuing Ingigerd, going so far as to book passage on the same ocean liner when she sets off for an engagement in New York. Providing an obstacle to his stalking is the dancer's entourage, which consists of her father, a handsome suitor, her agent, and an angry pet monkey that on several occasions appears to be actually biting Orloff (who does an admirable job of maintaining a cheerful demeanor regardless). Undeterred, Kammacher instead enjoys an aborted flirtation with a young Russian immigrant on board. However, his cruise on the Love Boat is to be an abbreviated one, as it is not long before the ship has collided with an unknown object while passing through a dense fog and begins to rapidly take on water.

Atlantis' depiction of the ocean liner's sinking is both spectacular and impressive, in itself enough to earn the film its place as a landmark in Danish cinema -- and in cinema as a whole, for that matter. It's easy to understand audiences of the time being both startled and disturbed by its realism, which was apparently accomplished by the use of a near full-sized mock-up of the ship, along with the employment of hundreds of extras to splash about frantically in Denmark's bay of Køge. Yet, as central to the film as that scene is, and as much as its reputation has eclipsed everything else about the film that surrounds it, it was not Atlantis' sole reason for being.

You see, Atlantis was made during a more primitive cinematic age, back before people knew how to build an entire movie around a sinking boat (oh, how much we have learned since then). Director August Blom would come within closer striking distance of the classic disaster movie template with his subsequent Verdens Undergang -- aka The End of the World -- but was here trying to tell a larger story of which disaster was just one small component. Not that it's always easy to keep a firm grasp on what that story is, mind you. Atlantis takes the job of being Denmark's first feature-length film seriously, clocking in at over two hours, almost all of which consists of scenes filmed in long, static, medium shots with a minimum of intertitles. Amid this, it's easy to get a sense of something in Hauptman's original book being lost, and perhaps also the sense that silent film was not quite as ideal a medium for the novelistic approach to story telling as would be the sound variety.

In any case, the shipwreck at least performs the utility of killing off Ingigerd's father, suitor, and monkey, thus leaving her fair game for Kammacher once the two of them finally make it to New York. Unfortunately, this also affords Kammacher the opportunity to sample in full Ingigerd's capacity for shallow vanity. Thus he fucks off to hang out with a bunch of arty types instead, whereupon he handily meets Eva (Ebba Thomsen, also of Verdens Undergang), a sculptress with whom he ignites the initial sparks of romance.

Meanwhile, we get a lot of intriguing period footage shot on location in Manhattan, as well as of a public exhibition performed by the "Armless Wonder" Stoss. This consists of Stoss/Unthan playing a trumpet with his feet, playing cards with his feet, lighting a cigarette with his feet, and, finally, uncorking and pouring a bottle of wine, also with his feet; in short: his entire performance in more or less real time. It's the kind of scene, like others in Atlantis, that leaves you thankful for those modern editing techniques that make it impossible to tell which robot is punching whom, or whether we're looking at Mila Kunis' ass or Justin Timberlake's. Moan all you want about the limited attention span of today's audience, but it was an earlier audience's development of a capacity to be bored with cinema's novelty that was a necessary and revolutionary step in the advancement of the art -- something you will be frequently reminded of while watching Atlantis.

Atlantis' final act involves the distraught Kammacher retiring to a friend's isolated mountain cabin (which is presumably supposed to be near New York, but looks like it's in Siberia) in order to mend his shattered nerves. The loneliness proves too much for him, however, and he soon starts to succumb to madness, and then illness. Happy tragic news eventually arrives in the form of a telegram announcing the death of his wife, after which Eva fortuitously arrives to pledge her devotion and nurse him back to health. Thus, after a full recovery, is Kammacher able to make a triumphant return to the homeland with a new mother for his children in tow. Hooray!

The DVD of Atlantis includes an alternate ending that was shot exclusively for the film's Russian release. Russian audiences accounted for a significant portion of producer Nordisk Film's foreign revenues at the time, and such changes were typically made due to a perception that said audience had a marked taste for tragic endings. (It's not for nothing that Gershwin wrote that line about seeing "more skies of gray than any Russian play can guaranty".) Thus was shot a conclusion in which Kammacher summarily dies immediately upon Eva's arrival, after which a "THE END" title card is hastily rushed on screen. It's hilarious for seeming every bit as cursory and tacked-on as the typical happy ending, and as a result makes the actual happy ending seem paradoxically hard won. I imagine the Russians would have been happier if they'd just ended with the shipwreck.

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