If you hang around the fringes of fandom... or are a frequent reader of BoingBoing... you are doubtless familiar with the term steampunk. Steampunk is best defined as nouveau Jules Verne, modern science fiction set in the late 19th to early 20th century. From the Earth to the Moon, with it's astronauts fired from a giant cannon (that's repeated as late as 1936 in Things to Come), the deep-sea diving suits adapted to an airless Moon in First Men in the Moon. That gorgeous and deadly Nautilus.
Himmelskibet (Literally, Sky Ship, or more poetically, Ship to Heaven; less poetic but more pragmatic A Trip to Mars ) is sometimes referenced as a "steampunk epic", though one wonders if that term can truly be applied; it's unlikely Verne sat at his writing table and thought, "Aha! Time to write another steampunk masterpiece!" But as one of the best Lovecraft adaptations to date, The Call of Cthulhu, was conceived as a period-appropriate silent movie, so too might it be presumed that a tale of journeying to Mars in the year 1918, even made today, might also be made "mitout sound".
Himmelskibet was believed to be by and large a lost film for many years, until the Danish Film Institute located a fairly complete copy and set to restoring it, finally re-releasing it in 2006, nearly ninety years after its initial appearance. This new version, though far from flawless, is nonetheless astounding in its clarity, and those fine folks are to be thanked for rescuing this gem of early science fiction.
Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolenaes) - yes, that is his name - is a sea-faring man who has just returned from commanding an expedition to ... um .... Somewhereistan. He is greeted joyously by his sister Corona (Zanny Peterson), and his father, whose first name is apparently Professor (Nicolai Neiiendam). Dad is an astronomer, the sort of perfect Edwardian scientist who has an observatory in his house, and he tells his son that any new frontiers to conquer will only be found... out there! "In space, there are thousands of mysteries... planets that we long for, and that long for us!"
Bereft of new frontiers, Avanti learns to fly a plane, and then inspiration hits. Recruiting his sister's fiance, Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher), Avanti figures to do no less than build a craft capable to flying to Mars. Hurrah! This announcement is greeting by raucous laughter from Dad's friend, the amusingly-named Professor Dubius (Frederick Jacobsen), who will become the closest thing Himmelskibet has to a villain.
Avanti and Krafft work for two years on their ship, and when it is ready, a meeting is called at the "Scientfic Society", so Avanti can ask for volunteers to accompany them to Mars. Professor Dub ius shows up, of course to scoff, and wearing his finest scoffing duds, at that. To their credit, the assembly scoffs right back, and Avanti soon has his crew, including David Dane (Svend Kornbech) , a loutish American "who has come a long way to volunteer", and an Oriental chap ( who is about as Asian as I am): "The East slautes you and sends me as its member in the great voyage!"
The evening before the departure, everyone gathers for a formal champagne toast, which may be one of the truly steampunk moments in the movie; I find it charming that all these proto-astronauts from all over the globe bothered to bring their tuxedos (and its bloody white tie formal, at that!). Dane proves his loutishness by sticking around for a second glass of champagne, the lovers Krafft and Corona share their first kiss (note from 2008 - !!!!!), and there is a tearful farewell between father, son and sister.
With daybreak, we finally see the Sky Ship, the title character itself, and it is amazing. It's like a shortened dirigible with the box wings of a Spad, and its name - EXCELSIOR - written in huge letters across the side, and a rear propeller. Prof. Dubius shows up to mockingly request that Avanti deliver a letter for him - to Venus! MAH HAH HAHA! Dubius also climbs a hill just to have the pleasure of shaking his fist at the departing Excelsior.
Now, in a startlingly forward-thinking bit, we advance six months and the ship still hasn't made it to Mars. The crew is starting to get antsy, and Dane has broken into his hidden stash of wine... though where he hid the wine in such a comparatively small ship is a good question - and begins fomenting mutiny. In another nice bit, it's the Asian guy who warns Avanti and Krafft of the upcoming takeover, and just when it looks like somebody's gonna get shot, Martians notice the ship creeping its way toward them, and cause it to approach and land much more quickly, because they're advanced and stuff. The mutiny is quickly called off, and the crew prepare to land, first by putting on oxygen masks, then ditching them because "we can easily breathe in this atmosphere!"
It seems the entire Martian nation turns out to greet the Earthmen, and like all peaceful, advanced races, they wear flowing gowns and strange headdresses. They are also telepathic, or as Avanti puts it, "...we understand everything they say without words. They have found a language we have been fumbling for: the mutual language, understandable for all souls." They are then taken to the dining garden, were Avanti is surprised that all the Martians seem to eat is fruit. He has some wine and canned food brought from the Excelsior, and the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech) seems bemused by the wine, but repelled by the canned goods. "Dead meat? But how did you procure it?" Man of action that he is, Avanti demonstrates by whipping out his pistol and shooting a passing bird ( and damn, but that is a huge goose to bring down with a pistol!)
Anyone with an ounce of sense should know that is the wrong sort of thing to do in front of a race of advanced, peaceful vegetarians. At the sound of the first gunshot heard on Mars in thousands of years, Martians start racing toward the garden. The Earthmen panic, and throw one of their grenades, which brings down one of the natives (a pretty lame grenade, if you ask me), but that brings everyone to a halt. The Wise Man points at the Earthmen saying, " War and sin! Blood and Killing! This must be atoned for! Take the sinners to the House of Judgement!"
The House of Judgement is a pretty austere place, and outside, the Wise Man's daughter Marya (Lilly Jacobson) begs to be allowed to help the visitors. She is wrapped in a black robe and enters the House of Judgement, where she shows the Earthmen the History of Mars on a big screen TV. This is actually a very nice technical shot, combining double exposure, a camera push and an irising-out of the secondary footage, a very impressive sequence for 1918. The Martians, we see in several sequences, were barbaric and warlike, just like Earthmen, until a guy shows up in the costume we've seen on the wise guys outside, and told them to knock it off. Ever since, we are told, Mars has been a paradise.
Well, that's enough for the Earthmen, who throw away their guns and grenades and swear to never take another life. Oh, and the injured Martian will be okay, too. That's what I call a hell of a revival meeting. Avanti and Krafft are given "The robes of innocence", which are basically white capes to wear over their leather flightsuits. The other crewmen are apparently given sullen expressions to wear through the rest of the movie. Also, Avanti is very struck by Marya's bearing and beauty.
In the days to come, his fascination deepens, and it is brought to a head when the Earthmen are invited to witness the Dance of Chastity (which sounds like no fun to me, but then I'm a child of the 60s) . Another forward-thinking moment here, as the Dance of Chastity is perfomed on a platform with lights underneath, showing up onto the dancers, presaging the disco dance floors of the late 70s. Avanti admits his love to Marya, but is told he must first sleep beneath the Tree of Longing where "If your longing for me fills your dreams, then I shall be yours!"
Well, he does, of course, so they retire to the Forest of Love (those Martians have thought of everything), a clearing with a smoking altar and illuminated plants, where, I suppose, they declare their love for each other. It is a surprisingly sensual scene, yet somehow... well, not chaste, but sweet. In contrast, back on Earth, Corona and Professor are going nuts from uncertainty. Krafft, missing his chaste lover, begs the elders to help him send a sign to Earth, that Corona might know he's still alive. That night, huge flashes go off in the sparse buildings of Mars, forming the Big Dipper, or as Planetaros explains, "...the seven shining spots from the constellation of Corona... your name! They are alive!"
Krafft decides it is high time to get back to Earth and his beloved, but Avanti decides he will remain on Mars, as he has found his soul mate at last. Marya, however, apparently is his soul mate, as she, too, has an adventurous spirit and will go to Earth. Her father the Wise Man thinks this a good idea, as she can bring the Martian way of Peace to Earth, and besides, he was getting ready to die, anyway.
I'm not kidding about that last part. The Martians get together to celebrate his life (in a silhouetted procession that echos a similar scene in The Seventh Seal) , then he gets on a boat and rides to the Island of the Dead, where the spirit of his dead wife beckons him.
As I believe I have mentioned, it is a very different culture.
So the Earthlings pack up to leave, filling the Excelsior with good Martian food, and, one hopes, a better means of propulsion. As they prepare to leave, Dane, no longer so loutish, looks about and says, "All the beautiful things I have seen here... have made me a better man." The Martians sing them off, a song with the refrain "Love is the force you call God."
Things aren't so rosy on Earth, where we are told "Fear and uncertainty have worn down Professor Planeteros." It certainly doesn't help that his "friend" Professor Dubius keeps dropping by with the latest scientific journals that call Avanti's expedition "The Hoax of the Century". At last, certain that he has caused his son's death with his wild exclamations of worlds to conquer "out there", Planetaros prepares to poison himself.
Except! At that very moment, the world's telegraphs begin to clack with news of the returning Excelsior! Hurrah! But first they must pass through a terrible storm! Oh no! Well, not to worry, as the now-reformed Dane tells a worried crewman, after seeing Marya pass - "Where she is, there will be no danger!" On the other hand, the hateful Professor Dubius, who has climbed that hill again, apparently to shake his fist at the returning Excelsior, gets struck by lightning. Take that, hayta!
The Excelsior makes it through, though, and all aboard are taken by horsedrawn carriage to Planetaros' home. The Professor looks upon his new daughter-in-law, and speaks the homily: "In you I greet the new generation - the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich!"
Firstly, it has to be said that as science fiction, Himmelskibet is fairly weak sauce; the propulsion for the Excelsior is dismissed as "a force we discovered" and there is the "easily breathable" atomosphere of Mars, its Earthlike gravity, the size of the sun, exactly how the Elders made the ship speed up to ten times normal ...
As ever, it is the context of a movie that must be considered - as mentioned before, even in 1936, H.G. Wells was still shooting spaceships out of guns, and at least the makers of Himmelskibet attempted some manner of environment suit for the presumedly hostile Martian atmosphere... though there is a simple, single door into and out of the ship. No mention is made of the vacuum of space, and in fact Avanti refers to this as "sailing through the stratosphere". It is as an old-fashioned "sense of wonder" story that the movie succeeds.
But the state of astronomy and space exploration in 1918 is not the only context to which I refer - it is more the social context, particularly what was going on in Europe at the time, and had been for years - The Great War. Himmelskibet was released in February of 1918, nine months before the cease fire with Germany was signed, which meant that for its entire shooting schedule, one of the most horrific wars yet seen was raging on with no signs of letting up.
Given that, the tenor of the story is perfectly understandable, and Himmelskibet works better perhaps as a parable than it does as a science fiction or cautionary tale. Cripes, who hasn't, at one time or another, wished that the Space Hippies would come and save us from ourselves?
The acting in Himmelskibet has come in for a good deal of animosity, being discounted as "the hand-to- forehead school"; and I am here to say that this is what the rest of the world gets when they do not major in Theater in college. The "hand-to-forehead" stuff is actually Delsarte Movements, which was a system which attempted to portray an actor's emotional state through stylized gestures. If Francois Delsarte were alive today, he would doubtless be bitching about how nobody "got it" and everyone was doing it wrong, but this was the accepted way of doing it in 1918, when it had, alas, devolved into mere melodramatic posing. There's a reason actors like Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Lionel Barrymore stand out - they aren't relying on Delsarte Movements to convey emotion.
There are some exceptionally pretty pictures in the movie, too. Director Holger-Madsen breaks out some beautiful scenes that often seem Pre-Raphealite, if those artists had chosen to work in black and white. There are also some aerial shots which likely wowed 'em back in '18.
Overall, I would have to say that Himmelskibet is a sweet movie, and not "sweet" in the postmodern Eric-Cartman-response-upon-seeing-a-head-blown-off way. "Sweet" as in the wistful-sigh-and-slight-smile way. Its message is simple and naive, but was also likely soothing as World War One stumbled to a halt. There were any number of terrible ways I could have seen, and my darker side expected, things to go - and shame on my darker side, and shame on me. Himmelskibet didn't deserve that; Like the relic from the past that it is, I fear the best way to regard it is from a distance, and not consider it too closely. It is fragile with age and cannot tolerate such rough handling.
Sweet movie. And save us, Space Hippies!
- August 31, 2008