L’Inhumaine/The Inhuman Woman (1924)

‘Your humanity leaves me cold. Only superior beings interest me.’

A famous singer plays with the affections of the notable men of the day, remaining aloof, despite many offers of love and marriage. Her latest admirer is a handsome young engineer, and when she rejects him, he declares his intention to commit suicide…

This highly unusual French silent picture was a showcase for the groundbreaking techniques of director Marcel L’Herbier. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an early filmmaking artist at work, even if the story aspects of the finished work can’t match his vision.

As famous for her exclusive parties as her vocal prowess, world-famous chanteuse Claire Lescott (Georgette Leblanc) is the target of many of the most famous men in the world. However, she seems content to rebuff their advances with a smile. The latest gathering at her mansion includes business tycoon Frank Mahler (Fred Kellerman), the Maharajah of Nopur (Philppe Heriat), radical philosopher Kranine the Apostle (Leonid Walter de Malte) and several other famous men from the world of science and politics.

And what a party it is! Dinner is served at a table floating in the middle of her lounge’s indoor pool, which comes complete with ducks! The servants wear identical uniforms and papier-mâché heads, complete with grinning lips and narrow eyes, and Leblanc holds court in a spectacular creation of veils and feathers. However, there’s an empty seat at the table, thanks to the late arrival of handsome young engineer/scientist Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain). It turns out he’s just as keen on Leblanc as all the other guys, and he throws himself at her as soon as he gets the opportunity, even though this tactic hasn’t worked for anyone else. Leblanc meets his advances with the same amused ridicule with which she greets every other proposal, although it’s clear from her body language that she’s more interested in him than her other suitors.

Distraught at her refusal, Catelain declares his intention to take his own life and storms out. Shortly afterwards, his wrecked car is found at the bottom of a cliff, and it seems he has made good his threat. Leblanc is grief-stricken at the young man’s death. Tormented by guilt, she visits the mausoleum where his recovered body is resting. But it’s then that she finds out things aren’t always what they seem.

The latter days of European silent cinema are rightly celebrated for their technical accomplishments and artistic virtuosity, and here we have another fine example. The first hint we get that this is something different is there in the opening scenes in Leblanc’s mansion. The massive interior was a set designed by painter and sculptor Fernand Leger and helps give the film a very different look, which is strangely reminiscent of the pop art production design of the 1960s, yet still retaining its own unique identity. This mixture of Art Deco and Cubism means that the square is a recurrent design motif throughout the film, with buildings comprised of blocks and lines cut straight and true. Later on, some curves and circles intrude with the devices housed in Catelain’s laboratory, but there’s still a strong sense of mechanics and efficiency. This is a world fashioned by man into the shapes that he has chosen.

This extravagance is matched by the daring of L’Herbier’s filmmaking choices. Early on, we see a miniature of Leblanc’s house from a distance. It’s not particularly convincing, but the model work looks far better when we see a car approaching. When the vehicle stops and someone gets out, the shot seems animated, and, again, it’s pretty impressive. But then the lackeys standing like statues at the front door begin to move, and we realise that the scene is actually live-action. It’s a seamless transition that makes the viewer question the judgements he made about the previous shots in the sequence.

L’Herbier also chooses to shoot the entertainers at the party in a radically different way. When they perform a fire-eating act, he has the camera looking down on them from way overhead, probably the studio rafters, which, again, reinforces the sheer scale of Leblanc’s home. He’s also very precise in his use of colour tinting. We see Leblanc and Catelain conversing in an indoor garden seemingly populated by giant paper flowers, and all the scenes that take place here are tinted green. Similarly, the brief sequences featuring radical philosopher de Malte and his acolytes are rendered in scarlet. The director also employs surprisingly fast cutting for a film of the period, which helps a good deal with the pacing. Unfortunately, this is necessary, given the slight nature of the story and the film’s two-hour length.

And it’s that story which proves to be the film’s major weakness. It’s simply insufficient to sustain a film of this length, and, whereas there are always technical aspects to admire, the film fails to make any real emotional impact. The romance between Leblanc and Catelain fails to resonate because they are broadly unsympathetic characters, driven by selfish desires and self-absorption, rather than more relatable qualities. Leblanc is also decked out in a series of wild, bohemian outfits and incredible hairstyles, which might be interesting visually, but doesn’t help with the emotional grounding of the story. The film isn’t particularly good at establishing the nature of their relationship either. She’s invited him along to her party, and he already seems madly in love with her before he arrives. But have they ever met before? Any shared history, however brief, is never mentioned.

Things do improve when the film (finally) enters the science fiction arena in the third act. Here we get an extended look at Carelain’s laboratory, which, of course, he fails to keep up to applicable Health and Safety standards in the grand tradition of movie scientists ever since. The purpose of his inventions are somewhat vague at times, too, with even the man himself admitting that he doesn’t know what his latest device will do, despite its production of ‘a force of unexpected effects.’ However, he does hijack listening devices worldwide so everyone can listen to Leblanc sing, which is a strange foreshadowing of live streaming via the Internet today. The fact that he and Leblanc can watch the reactions of listeners sitting around in their homes is a little less believable, though.

But, outside of our main couple, some of the broader themes are certainly of interest. This is a film that enthusiastically embraces the machine age to come, a very forward-looking point of view at a time when mechanical innovation was typically viewed with suspicion. But it also seems to suggest that technology has a transformative and humanising effect on individual people. It’s an interesting notion, but one that seems hopelessly naive and simplistic, given developments in social media over recent years.

L’Herbier came to film during military service with auxiliary units during the First World War. His first significant production was the propaganda piece ‘Rose-France’ (1918) which was notable for its innovative camera techniques. This led to a six-picture deal with Gaumont, but the studio was often unhappy with his experimental tendencies and his handling of budgets. By 1924, L’Herbier had formed his own company to ensure a level of artistic freedom, but the venture had foundered by the end of the silent era. This was despite some commercial and critical acclaim for the films that resulted. Nevertheless, the director adapted well to the talkies and continued making films until the 1950s, and with some success. However, it appears those projects were often guided by commercial considerations rather than artistic ones.

If the story fails to engage, the settings and techniques should. They combine to deliver a highly individual and captivating viewing experience.

L’Atlantide (1921)

L'atlantide_(1921)‘But never has a Greek inscription been discovered at such a low latitude!’

The new commanding officer of a remote desert outpost relates the story of how he and a colleague discovered the lost kingdom of Atlantis deep in the Sahara, and how events took a tragic turn when they became involved with the ruling Queen.

Pierre Benoit’s 1919 novel was a smash hit in Europe, despite its obvious resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s 1905 classic adventure ‘She’. Several critics were unkind enough to point out the similarity, and an incensed Benoit sued one of them for libel…and lost. As a novel, it hasn’t stood the test of time either; being light on plot, character development and action. What it does have is lots of stodgy detail; mainly concerning French contemporary politics, philosophers, the history of expeditions in Africa, and the customs of obscure desert tribes. The central premise is also a tad implausible. Perhaps the only real virtue of the book by modern standards is that it’s fairly short.

So, how on earth can you take a book like that and turn it into a silent film that lasts almost three hours? How? By faithfully filming every single incident in the story. For a start, this French-Belgian film retains the novel’s ‘layered’ approach. This structure was popular in literature at the time and means that the audience gets flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. The only other well-known example that springs to mind is the Humphrey Bogart WWII epic ‘Passage To Marseilles’ (1944), which was based on a similar literary source. It’s not confusing here, but it is clumsy.

Our heroes are two French Legionnaires; worldly-wise Morhange and his youthful companion St. Avit. They are only recently acquainted, but have become friendly enough to take a trip together, which gets side-tracked when the scholarly Morhange hears about some strange graffiti in remote caves. Their guide dies on the way, almost immediately after they save the life of a mysterious nomad. A quick interface with some hashish later, and they’re waking up in Atlantis! These things can happen after a night with the lads gets out of hand. The kingdom, left in the desert after the flood waters receded, is ruled by Queen Antinea, who goes through lovers at an alarming rate. It’s especially alarming for them, as they end up as mummified corpses or committing suicide when she discards them. St Avit falls head over heels for her, but Morhange remains impervious to her charms. Unfortunately, he’s the one that Antinea realty wants and she’s not accustomed to being turned down.

This adaptation is really a mixed bag for the modern day audience. On the one hand, technically is quite impressive. The sets and production design do convey a pleasing sense of the scale of the lost kingdom, and of cultural achievements now in decline. The desert landscapes are also impressive, and authentic. Unfortunately, the decision to film every last page of the novel and create a film of such staggering length is a serious error. Do we really need an extended flashback of servant girl Tanet Zerga’s life story? lt adds nothing to the drama, and it arrives when the film should be building up a head of steam toward the climax.

L'atlantide (1921)

‘Do I make you horny?’

Performances are acceptably generally, but it is seriously hard to believe in Stacia Napierkowska as the obsessive object of every man’s desire, notwithstanding that concepts of beauty may have changed over the intervening years. She also overacts quite atrociously by modern standards, and the film threatens to lurch into comedy whenever she’s on screen.

What is most interesting now are the two places where the film differs from the Benoit’s novel. Morhange and St Avit are separated on arrival in Atlantis, and the older man seems interested only in their reunion. Ok, so it’s easy to understand why he has no time for the faintly ridiculous Napierkowska but her actual character is supposed to be irresistible. The reason provided by the film (not present in the novel) is that Morhange is a devout Christian, and indeed we are given a scene where Antinea is tormented by the symbol of the cross, which is a further addition by the filmmakers. There is little biographical information on Benoit, beyond the fact that he was a Nazi sympathiser, and there are certainly no overt references to homosexuality in the novel, but it seems to have been enough of a possibility for the decision to provide Morhange with some alternative motivation.

The other change from the original story is the addition of some doped cigarettes, likewise to provide one of the main characters with motivation for actions which could have alienated audience sympathy. This was the first of several adaptions of Benoit’s novel; all of which struggle to overcome the obvious shortcomings of the source material. A more reasonable length would have helped here, but it’s still mildly interesting for several reasons and the production design remains superior to any subsequent version.

In recent years, the film has been retitled ‘Missing Husbands’ – somewhat nonsensically as we have no information about the marital status of any of the male characters, even the mummified ones!

Himmelskibet (Heaven Ship) (1918)

Himmelskibet_(1918)The Danes go to Mars!

A young aviator builds a spaceship and flies to Mars, despite opposition from the scientific establishment. As the weeks pass, his crew threaten to mutiny, and when they arrive on the red planet their actions aren’t too clever either. Luckily, it takes more than a few crude earthlings to upset the indigenous population.

At a length of approximately 80 minutes, this Danish picture is quite possibly the first full-length feature ever made that portrays space flight and landing on another planet. Inevitably, the science is pretty wonky with our vehicle looking like a cross between a shed and a sea plane and likewise horizontal flight to escape Earth’s gravitational pull is rather quaint. The interior of the ship resembles a submarine, which is understandable given the technology of the time, and at least there is some effort to make it look functional with various dials and switches.

Our young, ambitious hero Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) recruits his father to help out with his interplanetary project as somewhat conveniently he happens to be a scientist/astronomer. His sister’s boyfriend is also one of the white-coated brigade, and is happy to come along for the ride. Unfortunately, the rest of the crew are a motley bunch of volunteers and includes Dan the Dane, who’s a big, rough looking chap who likes his ale. I couldn’t help but wonder what his actual duties were on the ship. Anyway, our Earthbound villain is Professor Dubius, who is err… a bit dubious about the whole thing, and doesn’t mind letting people know about it, both at meetings and in the newspapers.

Despite all these problems the expedition finally reaches its goal, helped over the last few yards by the Martians themselves. These prove to be a bunch of insufferable old hippies, who hang around in flowing robes and carry tree branches. Mars is a utopia (’Heaven’ possibly?) where no one actually does any work and the young girls do the ‘Dance of Chastity’ (stop sniggering at the back, it’s actually rather cute). Scenes of this rural idyll are intercut with scenes of life back on Earth, mainly featuring drinking, violence, inappropriate dancing, and other sinful pursuits. ‘Love is what you call God’ the Martians sing, making us quite grateful that this is a silent movie.

But, despite all this loveliness (or perhaps because of it) the crew want to go back home. This Martian utopia looks all well and good, but of course it’s not exactly a thrill a minute. Our hero has fallen in love with the Headman’s daughter (the angelic Lilly Jacobson) which complicates things a tad, until she decides return with him to spread the word of the Martian’s creed of love and peace. Good luck with that!

Himmelskibet_(1918)

‘For God’s sake, reconfigure the lateral sensor array!’

This film is actually most interesting for its pacifist stance. Produced towards the end of the Great War in Europe, the slaughter in the trenches must have had a profound effect on society; so much so in fact that everyone waited a whole 20 years before doing it all over again. But, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve and the Danish filmmakers do it unapologetically here. It may seem a little naive and dated to a modern day audience though.

As a drama this is so-so stuff, but it does have some noteworthy aspects. And obviously meteors had yet to infect interstellar space in the overwhelming numbers that were present during the 1950s.

Worth a look if you are interested in the early evolution of cinematic science fiction.

Alraune (1928)

Alraune_(1928)‘I, as his own handiwork, shall have my revenge on him.’

A brilliant scientist uses primitive genetic engineering methods to create a new born baby, using a woman of low character as the mother, and a murderer’s seed. He adopts the child and raises her as his own so he can monitor the results of his experiment. His assistant fears that the girl has been born without a soul, and, when she grows into a beautiful young woman, she does prove to be a bit of a handful…

Adaptation of a curious folk tale that was filmed several times, particularly in the silent era, but also as late as 1952 in a German production with Erich Von Stroheim. It’s unusual mythology; the story being that a mandrake root will grow in the soil beneath a gallows from the semen of a hanged killer. The root is then supposed to have magical, life giving properties. You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding all that from just watching this film, and being a little puzzled as to how the good professor brings his creation to life. Perhaps the tale was more popular back then so no further explanation was necessary, or, more likely, it was simply not the done thing to allude to such unpleasantries at the time.

The lead role of the Professor is played by Paul Wegener and it’s good to see him for a change without the ’Golem’ makeup that made him famous. His scientist is a cold, clinical figure at the start of the picture, creating ‘Alraune’ (’Mandrake’ in German) just because he can, rather than for any useful purpose. Unfortunately for him, his arrogance has dire consequences when Alraune grows up to be the lovely Brigitte Helm, who had made such an impression in her debut role as Maria in ‘Metropolis’ (1927). She is wilful, rebellious and, unashamedly liberated. She cheeks the nuns at her convent school and runs off with a local boy, who has fallen for her undeniable charms. Together they join the circus where pretty soon every man is under her spell.

Alraune_(1928)

You want some? Yeah?

This is an interesting picture on several levels. Superficially, we see a man brought low by his desire to usurp the role of God. Wegener’s creation is never under his control, Helm causing chaos wherever she goes. Understandably, men can’t resist her considerable charms, and she manipulates them mercilessly, leaving wrecked lives in her wake. In one memorable scene she even stares down a cage filled with lions!

By the time she links up with the old Professor again toward the end of the film, she’s honed her flirting techniques to perfection and he is helpless to resist. Obviously, his physical desire for her opens a whole new can of sub-text and his obsession with her leads to the tragic climax.

On the other hand, if looked at from the point of view of Helm’s character, it’s a whole different movie. What is she really doing except asking for her rights as an individual and as a woman? Yes, she’s a naughty girl, but ultimately it’s the menfolk who attempt to cast her in fixed, conventional roles; the dutiful daughter, the whore, the virtuous wife. It’s the men who lack strength of character, rather than her. All this seems to inform the resolution of the story, which is pleasingly modern, rather than the corny melodrama that might have been expected.

Although a little stately. for modern tastes, the film was so popular that Helm did it all again two years later in a sound version, although the rest of the cast was different and Henrik Galeen was replaced in the director’s chair by Richard Oswald.

Helm was a luminous presence in everything she did, but did not enjoy acting, or the trappings of fame. She reportedly turned down a request from James Whale in Hollywood to appear as ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the mid-1930s, she quit her homeland and moved to Switzerland where she died at the age of 90 in 1996. She always refused interview requests and never talked about her film career.

Hoffmanns Erzählungen (Tales of Hoffman) (1916)

Tales_Of_Hoffman_(1916)These glasses show all dead things to be alive!’

The young poet Hoffmann runs away from home, and goes to live with a dancer and her husband. When she dies, he goes travelling and meets alchemists Coppelius and Spalanzani. He falls in love with Spalanzani’s daughter, not realising that she is an automaton…

Early silent German version of Offenbach’s opera, which takes us through all three acts of the work with Hoffmann unlucky in love on three separate occasions, due to the machinations of his enemies Dr Mirakel and Count Dapertutto.

Offenbach died before this work was ever performed, which has given rise to a number of different interpretations over the years. The fact that each of the three acts is a pretty much a separate story has meant that the second and third ones are often reversed. The argument is that the original second act is stronger musically and therefore makes for a better finale. This is also the case here, although, as it’s a silent film, the logic seems a little hard to understand. Sure, the first and third acts tell very similar stories, but the climactic duel of the second act could have made a far more dramatic end to the picture.

Tales_Of_Hoffman_(1916)

His violin playing bored her to death.

Of course, this is fairly primitive work, given the year of production, and it still seems a strange idea to make a silent film of an opera! Yes, I expect there was an orchestra playing along at shows, but did they have the opera singers there as well?!  On the technical side, the highlight is one striking transition between a street scene and an interior, accomplished with a black curtain! Although it’s undoubtedly a crude device, it really fits in with the sensibility, and the look, of the film.

There is little evidence of the school of German Expressionist filmmaking, which dominated in the 1920s after the release of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919). But, having said that, a couple of the background props do look a little misshapen, and yes, that’s Caligari himself, actor Werner Krauss, in the role of Count Dapertutto. You’d never recognise him, though, he’s playing his own age here (mid-30s), rather than in old man makeup.

On the acting side, proceedings are dominated by the very creepy Friedrich Kṻhne as Coppelius, but special mention must be made of Alice Scheel-Hechy in the role of Olympia, the automaton. Her depiction of a human wind up doll is quite frankly brilliant, but sadly all too brief. Main man duties fall to Erich-Kaiser-Titz as the older Hoffmann but he has little more to offer than his rather superb name.

As with many films of this vintage, it has some points of interest, but is a little hard going for a modern audience.

Der Herr Der Welt (Master of the World) (1934)

Der_Herr_Der_Welt_(1934)A madman living in 1930’s Germany plans to take over the world…

A mad scientist murders his partner using the giant robot they have created in their laboratory, passing it off as an accident. The scientist plans world domination, but a mine engineer and the murdered man’s widow determine to thwart his nefarious schemes.

Ponderous and stilted early science fiction from Germany, which is only interesting when placed in the context of the era when it was made. Of course, everything that came out of Germany in the early 1930s is viewed in relation to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, whether parallels were intended or not. But here we have an evil madman bent on taking over the world so it’s rather hard not to make the connection.

It does seem curious subject matter. Many creative people had already departed for friendlier shores and the regime banned science fiction films entirely shortly afterward, making this the last produced in Germany until well after the war. Whether this film was the cause of that ban, or contributed to it, remains unrecorded.

Sadly, there is little entertainment value here if simply viewed as a dramatic film. Aside from one early scene in the darkened lab, it’s relentlessly talky, with little action or story development. The heroic engineer and the widow meet due to a mishap with a ball game, and this provides some momentum to the plot, but Siegfried Schürenberg and Sybillle Schmitz have very little on-screen chemistry, so there’s little audience engagement. The production design tips the hat to Ken Strickfaden and the electrical gadgets he created for ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and the robot is quite impressive, if not tremendously mobile. Things work up to a dramatic climax with lightning bolts galore but it’s hardly engrossing. Technically, there’s little to get excited about either, although a shot that cuts together a chessboard and a speeding train is undeniably quite effective.

What is far more fascinating is to speculate on the intention of the filmmakers. Director Harry Piel was also an actor, and had risen to fame in his native land due to action movies with explosive climaxes. These were furnished by his acquaintance with a demolition expert, who allowed Piel to film him at work, inserting the resulting footage into his films. More interesting is the fact that Piel was an enthusiastic member of the SS, something that seems at total odds with the subtext of this film. Perhaps he wasn’t that bright, or had little sense of subtlety, who knows? I would like to think screenwriter Georg Mühlen-Schulte put one over on him, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.

Der_Herr_Der_Welt_(1934)

Robby the Robot was having a bad day.

Piel eventually fell out of favour with the ruling regime during the war, as they weren’t pleased with his film ‘Panic’ (1940-43), which showed German cities as vulnerable to airborne bombardment. They banned the film and Piel’s career was effectively over, but, in the long run perhaps this was no bad thing as he escaped serious punishment in the years after Germany’s surrender.

Female lead Schmitz was not so lucky. As she carried on working throughout the war, she was ostracised by the film community afterward, and her life descended into a battle with alcoholism. Eventually, she committed suicide in 1955, although there were strong suggestions that she was helped on her way by her lesbian lover and her doctor.

The film reaches the conclusion that technology and man can work together in harmony, although the rural countryside is seen as the ideal, rather than the mine and its machinery. Perhaps this was the intended message of the film, rather than the need to face down the intended tyranny of a mad dictator. If so, it’s a far more understandable production, but it’s difficult not to make the other interpretation.

Mildly interesting as a historical artefact.

The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle (1912)

Conquest_Of_The_Pole_(1912)‘A delegation of suffragettes sought in vain to interrupt the serious work of the Assembly.’

After considering a number of schemes and suffering an interruption by suffragettes, a group of scholars throw their weight behind Professior Maboul’s expedition to the North Pole. He proposes to reach the roof to the world by aeroplane. After a long and difficult flight through the heavens, he achieves his goal. Unfortunately, a giant of the Arctic snows takes offence at his presence…

Things were not going well for film pioneer Georges Méliès by 1912. His short subjects had defined the early days of cinema and he’d enjoyed constant international success for over a decade. But he’d made a very bad business deal with Pathé Studios in England and his brother had returned from a filming project in Africa with only damaged footage, incurring considerable financial loss on the his studio. But, more importantly, tastes were changing. Méliès’ fantastical subjects had been eclipsed by more realistic material, and his box office was suffering. So what was the answer? A bigger and better film in the trademark Méliès style, of course! And that film was ‘The Conquest of the Pole’ (1912); a half hour epic that harked back to Jules Verne, and one of Méliès’ biggest triumphs: ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902).

The film opens with the meeting of eminent scholars. They consider the best method for reaching the pole; train, motor car(!), or balloon. Eventually, they pin their colours to the flying ship of Professor Maboul, played by Méliès himself. It’s a surprising decision, considering the vehicle resembles a box with wheels that has a bi-plane’s wings attached and a large figurehead in the shape of a bird of prey. But no matter! Rival explorer’s protest and decide to pursue their chosen methods anyway. And then the meeting is invaded by plaque waving suffragettes, desperate to get in on the action. This could be a concession to ‘modern’ times, of course, but l suspect it’s more of an effort at witless comedy.

Conquest_Of_The_Pole_(1912)

The giant wasn’t happy about his early morning alarm call.

Méliès’ flying box/plane/bird departs for the pole, encountering lots of celestial bodies along the way, as usual in the form of smiling young women playing stars in the night sky. When they eventually arrive at the pole, our intrepid explorers encounter a snow giant, whose head and arms rise above the ice. The picture’s best sequence is the battle that follows. Rather pleasingly, afterwards they climb the actual North Pole before it falls over and deposits them in the icy water.

Technically the film is quite an achievement for 1912, particularly the snow giant. Méliès could not be accused of failing to put his budget up there on the screen. Unfortunately, despite the length of the film, is still doesn’t have the strong narrative thread that audiences were beginning to demand. lt’s still a triumph of style over substance, and nothing that audiences hadn’t seen from Melies before. In other words, more of the same, just bigger and better.

The film was not a success. Méliès lost control of his studio to Pathé. The Great War that would shatter Europe was just over the horizon. The party was over. Méliès never made another film.

A Trip To Mars (1910)

A_Trip_To_Mars_(1910)The first American Science Fiction movie…

A scientist discovers a substance in his laboratory that reverses the effect of gravity. Covering himself with it, he floats off into the sky, eventually reaching the planet Mars where he meets its giant inhabitants.

This 10 minute short is America’s first ever science fiction film, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s studios. It was released in the same year that they gave the world the first ever cinematic interpretation of ‘Frankenstein’ (1910). Unsurprisingly, it’s heavily influenced by the pioneering work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, with whom everyone active at the time really has to be compared. The basic plot also borrows from H.G. Wells to some extent, with the magical anti-gravity material reminiscent of ’Cavorite’ from his novel ‘The First Men In The Moon’ which was published 9 years earlier.

The effects and design are acceptable, given the vintage of the film and the primitive techniques employed. However, it does lack the Gallic charm of Méliès’ best work, especially if it was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek fantasy in the same mould. That seems likely as it’s hard to credit the finished film as serious science fiction speculation, given that the hero simply floats off to another planet. We don’t see a lot of the red planet actually, save for the giant plant-like creatures that live there, one of which picks up our hapless hero for a closer inspection.

A_Trip_To_Mars_(1910)

‘Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…’

Facially, the Martian somewhat resembles a satanic caricature, and it’s possible there may have been an intention to draw a religious parallel concerning the inadvisability of space travel (and meddling in things that man should leave alone). Of course, it’s impossible to be sure about that over 100 years later, although that general theme was the cornerstone of nearly every fantasy film to come out of Hollywood in the ensuing decades. The Martian dispatches our hero on his way, and he returns to Earth perhaps a wiser and less adventurous man.

Of course this is all very basic stuff; baby steps in the early days of science fiction. But, based on this evidence, it does appear that the Americans had some serious catching up to do, Méliès work had far more flair, visual sense and invention than that displayed here. Narrative films of greater length had already been created in the U.S. by the time of this production; some to massive box office success such as ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903). But science fiction was a latecomer to that party, to some extent inevitable with the technical limitations of the time.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

Saturnino_Ferandola_(1913)Farandola against Fileas-Fogg!

Saturnino Farandola is shipwrecked on a desert island as a baby and raised by a group of monkeys. When he grows to maturity, he is rescued by a ship, and becomes a naval officer. Some serious globetrotting and wild adventures follow.

ltalian silent comedy, which riffs heavily on Jules Verne’s ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ (1873) and throws in a dash of Science Fiction at the end. Based on a novel with an even longer title by Albert Robida, it’s pretty obvious from the start that we’re not to take all this very seriously. The monkeys who nurture our hero through his formative years are obviously actors in black body stockings with stuck-on tails and holes cut for eyes, nose and mouth.

After that, in a random, scattershot approach, the film crams in a bewildering succession of exotic and melodramatic situations; which include a search for the source of the Nile, an attack by pirates, an army of women (quite funny, apparently), an escape in barrels that apes ‘The Hobbit’, casual racial stereotyping (not too offensive), and a battle fought by troops wearing diving helmets.

There are some underwater sequences, featuring a giant whale, and these are pure Georges Méliès. Ironic, given that the French master had made his last ever film, ‘Conquest of the Pole’ (1912), barely a year earlier, and was now financially ruined. Intriguingly, in this film it looks as if there are real fish swimming in the foreground of the shots in the aquatic sequences, probably meaning they were filmed through a glass tank. This may be the first instance of that particular special effect.

Saturnino_Ferandola_(1913)

The party had got a little out of hand…

Director Marcel Perez also stars, and his tall tale is entertaining enough, if a little unevenly paced. The Science Fiction element arrives at the end, with a battle fought by protagonists in hot air balloons. Most of the unfriendly fire comes courtesy of hand-held revolvers, although one cannon has actually been mounted on the top of a balloon. Aerial warfare was strictly fantasy at the time; with planes in World War I initially intended for reconnaissance only, but obviously that was soon to change.

Bearing in mind the age of this film, it’s a mildly entertaining experience, but the satire and silly comedy make for little emotional involvement with our hero and his gal, who lurch from one ridiculous scenario to another. At the end of the film, one of the monkeys sits back in a rocking chair and enjoys a quiet cigar. Job done.

Der Tunnel (The Tunnel) (1933)

Der_Tunnel_(1933)A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

An engineer conceives of a tunnel running under the Atlantic Ocean which will link Great Britain with the United States of America. After some dodgy financial dealings and boardroom manoeuvres, the project finally gets underway, but there are more problems to come…

A young blonde girl introduces this film straight to camera. She’s probably explaining why it has German actors portraying heroic Americans and Englishmen. Why do I think that when I only know a few odd words of German? Well, because she finishes her little speech with a quick ‘Heil Hitler’, and the swastika logo at the start of the film was a bit of a giveaway. Yes, folks, we’re in the murky world of the Nazi film industry. Or, at the very least, the murky world of film reissues during the Nazi regime.

This futuristic drama is based on a novel of the same name written in 1913 by Bernhard Kellermann. This is the German language version (without English subtitles) which was filmed at the same time as a version in the French language. This was a brief, but fairly common, practice in the early days of ‘talking pictures’ in Europe. The idea was to overcome the language barriers of different markets. A film. would be shot simultaneously in different languages on the same sets, sometimes with different cast members depending on their linguistic abilities. This has given rise to some confusion over this film, some sources also mentioning a version in English. However, this is very likely to be a reference to ‘The Tunnel’ (1935) directed by Maurice Elvey, which was based on the same source material. Having seen both films in short order, I can confirm that they are completely different productions, the English film being far more ambitious and, somewhat surprisingly, vastly more technically proficient.

Indeed, it’s interesting to compare the two films in terms both of technical achievement and in the way they reflect national attitudes of the time. The German film centres on the men who are actually digging the tunnel, and we see their appalling working conditions and strong indications that they are poorly paid. The financiers and the engineer in charge of the project attend ritzy parties in nightclubs and these scenes are intercut with the workers lifting out rocks by hand whilst standing waist deep in muddy water. ln the British version, the emphasis is on the engineer in charge of the project. He’s the hero who does all the hard work here, and sacrifices everything for the good of all. The work crews here are just an incidental blur in the background; quick to turn into a mob and easily swayed by some smart rhetoric by our fearless hero. The absence of English subtitles in the German film make it hard to be sure, but it’s easy to assume that it’s very critical of the pecking order within English and American society. On the other hand, of course, it’s also easy to read ‘propaganda’ into everything produced in the German film industry at the time.

Der_Tunnel_(1933)

‘You talkin’ to me?’

All this is far more interesting than the film itself; which is a flat and lifeless production. The glory days of 1920s German Cinema and the great UFA Studios seem a distant memory. Whether this was for economic reasons, or because the leading lights of the industry had already fled abroad to escape the Nazis, is a point of debate. But there’s no denying that this is pretty feeble stuff in comparison with homegrown product of the previous decade.

The director here was Curtis Bernhardt, who joined the exodus from Germany shortly afterward, narrowly escaping the Gestapo to reach France. His directing career in Hollywood included the lacklustre Bette Davis vehicle ‘A Stolen Life’ (1946), the strong Joan Crawford noir ‘Possessed’ (1947) and the disappointing ‘Conflict’ (1945) with Humphrey Bogart.

An interesting reflection of the time and circumstances under which it was made, but no more than a curious footnote in the history of German film and Science Fiction cinema.