Sunday, March 4, 2012

Verdens Undergang, aka The End of the World (Denmark, 1916)

Back in the teen years of the last century, when others were taking more tentative steps into the world of feature film making, Denmark’s Nordisk Film Company repeatedly demonstrated a fearlessness in tackling grandiose subject matter. We’ve already seen this with 1918’s Himmelskibet, which depicted the first manned space flight to Mars, and here with director August Blom’s 1916 Verdens Undergang, which, true to its title, depicts fiery apocalypse at the instigation of an overly friendly comet. It had only been six years since Halley’s Comet had done its last drive-by, an event that occasioned not inconsiderable panic due to concerns that the gasses within its tail might suffocate every living thing on the planet. Verdens Undergang certainly reflects those anxieties, but, like Himmelskibet, seems to have at its heart more a despair over the ongoing world war and the apparent inability of mankind to just get along.

Despite the enormity of his subject, Blom wisely strives to keep his narrative small scale, telling his story from the perspective of one family in a small mining town, while still managing to span the wide class divide that fuels the movie’s conflicts. Said family is that of West (Carl Lauritzen), a manager at the mine who has two adult daughters, Dina (Ebba Thomsen) and Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen). During a swing through town to oversee operations, the mine’s wealthy owner, Stoll (Olaf Fonss), falls for Dina and does his best to sweep her off her feet. After some requisite hand wringing, Dina eventually decides to run off with Stoll to the big city, seeing in him the opportunity to escape from both her small town existence and the dominion of her stern father -- who, in an earlier scene, is seen accusing her of being a “harlot” for the crime of returning home from a local dance unattended. Meanwhile, the less restless Edith throws her romantic lot in with Reymers (Himmelskibet’s Alf Blutecher), a dependable young sailor with deep roots in the town.

Cut to a few years later, and Stoll -- who, in his towering top hat, couldn’t be a more efficient symbol of capital if he was the Monopoly guy -- has struck it rich on the stock market, enabling him to shower Dina, now a bored trophy wife held prisoner in their lavish mansion, with glitzy baubles. Unfortunately, it is right around this time that Stoll’s cousin, Wiseman, a renowned astronomer, discovers a new comet that is destined to travel very close to the Earth, the news of which triggers a market panic and corresponding dip in stock prices. Stoll then decides to use his inside line to the astronomy world to manipulate the market, but when the news from his cousin isn’t good –- it turns out that the comet probably really is going to destroy the world -- he lies to his newspaper publisher friend and has him publish a much more sunny projection of the outcome. As a result, the value of his portfolio is restored.

Soon after, Stoll returns with Dina to her hometown, where he reveals a scheme that sounds like one of Ayn Rand’s most fervid masturbatory fantasies. According to this plan, they will wait out the disaster within the presumed safety of the mine, after which Stoll envisions a scenario in which only the rich and powerful have survived, emerging from the rubble to create and master a new world, free of the impediments presented by all of those pesky worker types. (Gee, I guess those dishes really will wash themselves.) To celebrate this grand vision, Stoll throws a lavish party for all of his rich cronies on the very day of the projected disaster. Unfortunately, those pesky workers, lead by Dina’s spurned former fiancé Flint (Thorlief Lund), see this as an ideal time to get back some of their own, and attempt to storm the mansion at which the fete is being thrown. A gun battle ensues, during which Dina is mortally wounded, and, with her in arms, Stoll steals off to the mine, where both he and Flint, who follows him, will die horribly.

If you come to Verdens Undergang with the expectation of seeing some kind of steam punk FX extravaganza -- as I admittedly kind of did -- you may end up being mildly disappointed. So what, you may ask, are the effects of a comet’s passing too closely to our Earth, according to Verdens Undergang? Lots and lots of sparks, apparently. At the same time, Blom’s depiction of submerged houses, along with the scene in which Johanne Fritz-Petersen kneels atop a table, frantically crying to the heavens as her own home rapidly floods with sea water, are as realistic as could be. Three years earlier, Blom had directed Atlantis, a film inspired by the Titanic disaster whose effects were so realistic that audiences suspected he had sunk an actual ocean liner in order to get them. He didn't, but judging from what I saw here, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he had.

Being a child of the 70s, I’m well accustomed to the thuggish moralism of disaster movies, wherein, given that the destruction of the many is assured, the only suspense lies in seeing on whose side that particular movie’s version of a vengeful God -- or Irwin Allen, if you prefer -- falls down upon. As an early example of that tradition, Verdens Undergang helpfully has a preacher on hand to officially label the comet “God’s punishment” -- leaving open only the question of who will be spared its wrath. Will it be the poor workers, who doff their caps in humble prayer as the comet approaches, or the rich, who party like it’s 1999? (And, truly, every time Stoll opens his title-card-assisted-yap, you can practically see the Old Guy rubbing his hands together in anticipation of smiting him.)

Well, it turns out, somewhat refreshingly, that, at the end of Verdens Undergang, pretty much everyone has been equally on the receiving end of the big cosmic dump, which I imagine reflects the cynicism about human nature that the horrors of the First World War might understandably have inspired in Blom and his ilk. Aside from the preacher -- which is something of a gimme -- the only apparent survivors are Edith and Reymers, who are together Inarguably Verdens Undergang’s least interesting characters. Both sought neither to enrich nor to liberate themselves, but simply, one assumes, to quietly procreate and die within the stifling confines of the tiny town to which they were born. In return for this prize, the two end the film by falling to their knees in reverent thanks, as well they should.

1 comment:

Idrian said...

Nice review. Maybe you could dig up those movies that spoke of the influence of the First World War in them. So far , they've been Danish.