Travelling deep into the North Africa desert, two French explorers discover the lost continent of Atlantis, which is ruled by a beautiful queen. Romantic complications arise when one of them falls in love with her, but his feelings are not reciprocated. lnstead, the Queens falls in love with his friend, who couldn’t be less interested if he tried.
Pierre Benoit’s 1919 novel ’L’Atlantide’ was an instant hit with the public, notwithstanding the book’s obvious faults. lt had an implausible premise, a paper-thin plot, an absence of drama and a turgid wealth of encyclopaedic background detail. The serious and melodramatic tone was perfect for silent cinema though and the epic adaptation ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921) followed, clocking in at almost three hours.
For some reason, famous German director G W Pabst thought the story would work over a decade later as a ‘talkie’ and recruited big star Brigitte Helm for the title role. In order to sidestep the non-existence of subtitles and the resulting difficulties with sales in foreign markets, the film was shot simultaneously in three different languages; English (released as ‘Mistress of Atlantis’), French (L’Atlantide’) and German ‘Queen of Atlantis’). The same crew was used and the same cast, where their linguistic abilities allowed. This was a short lived practice, probably because of the costs involved.
Although the German cut is not readily available, watching the English and French versions confirm that the same footage was used where possible, and most of the camera set ups are identical, meaning that scenes were probably simply shot one after another; just shuffle in the new cast where necessary and switch languages. Unfortunately, the results are unsuccessful on many levels. The story manages to be muddled, and it’s hard to see what Pabst was trying to achieve.
In the greatest departure from the novel, Queen Antinea is not the hereditary leader of Atlantis at all, but the offspring of a Can-Can dancer and a Taureg chieftain, whose meeting is shown in a particularly misjudged flashback. She also doesn’t have a temple full of mummified ex-lovers, and the lost kingdom is merely a series of caves, with the notable exception of a huge stone head of Helm, which is the most impressive thing about the film. It’s almost as if Pabst was trying to play down the Atlantis angle as much as he could.
Early scenes feature a female reporter, who travels with our heroes for a short time. Although the scene was excised in the English release, the French film sees her typing in her tent whilst chatting with one of the explorers. This seems to have fuelled the belief of some commentators that everything which follows is the explorer’s mad ravings, influenced by the story she is writing. It is possible, as there seems to be no reason for her presence in the film at all, although it would render the rest of the story completely pointless. Curiously, it’s hard to establish just who is playing the role of this newshound, the likeliest candidate being a woman named Rosita Severus Liedernit, but she is listed as playing ‘Herself’, and has no other film credits. Perhaps the whole thing is an in-joke of some kind, the meaning of which has been lost in subsequent decades.
But what really derails the project is the snail’s pace. Once John Stuart and Gustav Diessl (Pierre Blanchar and Georges Tourreil in the French film) arrive at their destination, the film grinds almost to a halt, not assisted by the lack of a musical soundtrack. The only real selling point is the presence of the luminous Helm. lt’s not hard to understand why some of our heroes are besotted with her. Her dialogue is fairly minimal, and occasionally delivered when she’s out of the frame so it may have been that she was not entirely comfortable with the languages, but she certainly speaks clearly enough, and her English accent is fine. It would be interesting to view the German film to see if she was given more dialogue in her native language. She’s mesmerising anyway, and the scene where her and Stuart play chess hints at what the film could have been.
Apart from Helm, though, there’s little to recommend the picture. Other performers are stilted and unconvincing, and the English cast display the kind of reserve that is somewhat at odds with the Gallic temperament of the French soldiers they are supposed to be. It’s also strange how unimpressive the production design is, given that this obviously a high budgeted affair. It was the one aspect that ’L’Atlantide’ (1921) got exactly right.
High profile ‘quality’ projects made in the early days of sound cinema often lurched into overwrought melodrama; striving for a more naturalistic approach but with one foot still stuck too firmly in the overdone theatrics of the past. This is a prime example, and, given the shortcomings of the source material as well, it all proves too much for these talented filmmakers to overcome.