We live, as the eminent philosopher Louis CK has noted, in an age of wonders, and films long thought lost or available only in badly deteriorated form are now restored to almost pristine condition.
One year after D.W. Griffith made Birth Of A Nation in the U.S. (and American audiences blithely bought into the ballyhoo that he had invented the language of cinema and creature the feature length film format), the Danes opted to end the world with a film called — surprise, surprise — The End of the World (Verdens Undergang).
Before we proceed, a bit of historical context:
From 1914 to 1918, Europe was up to its neck in a little number called World War One.
It severely disrupted all the European nations involved in it, killing millions of people (mostly young men), and bringing much of those nations’ pop culture (read “movies”) to a screeching halt.
The United States, sitting safely on the other side of the Atlantic, was able to stay out of the first half of the war and kept cranking out big budget, high polished films that dominated the international market.
With virtually no home grown movies of their own (and the few that were made reflected the Spartan resources and budgets available), the European film markets eagerly lapped up the Hollywood product.
Even after the U.S. entered the war, our nation was never under direct threat, much less attack, and so was able to continue making highly polished big budget films.
Hollywood had no competitors in the world at that time…
…except for Denmark.
The Danes took a look at the gawdawful bloodbath going on just south of them and said thanks but no thanks, we’re sitting this one out.
As a result, they were able to make some truly astonishing movies, films that could — and did – compete head to head and nose to nose with the best American products.
While they made movies in a variety of genres and styles, I’m going to focus on two big budget (for the era) science fiction films they made (although the term “science fiction” wouldn’t be coined until almost a decade later).
The first was the above mentioned The End Of The World, a pretty straight forward tale that also clearly reflected Danish anxieties about the hell breaking loose just below their southern border.
Written by Otto Rung and directed by August Blom, it’s a story about a near collision with an asteroid causing worldwide havoc.
It pretty directly influenced the latter French film La Fin du Monde (1931) and both directly and indirectly (through adapted source material) the American productions Deluge (1933) as well as the opening chapter of Flash Gordon (1936).
Those films in turn influenced When Worlds Collide (1951) which in turn influenced both Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, and those films influenced a shipload of crappy direct-to-video disaster-from-space movies.
Not too shabby for a 77 minute movie you never heard of before, eh?
While The End Of The World has a compact cast, it makes an effort to provide as impressive a spectacle as possible. An elaborate village miniature was built and destroyed in a hail of smoky comet debris, terrific storms (stock footage and tank work) flood the countryside, and in a poignant ending, the heroine wanders through a now desolate and decimated village that has been reduced to utter ruins.
The movie clearly reflects the Danes’ then anxiety about what was happening south of them, as well as their fears they would get swept up in it (they didn’t…in that war; World War Two did see them overrun by the Nazis).
Two years after that, as World War One was finally winding down, the Danes tried an even more ambitious science fiction project, A Trip To Mars (a.k.a. Himmelskibet, Excelsior, and Das Himmelschiff in various markets).
Adapted from Sophus Michaelis’ novel by screenwriter Ole Olsen and directed by Holger-Madsen, A Trip To Mars is the space opera genre delivered full blown, with all the trappings we’re familiar with.
While the spaceship, the Excelsior, is somewhat fanciful, it’s based on aviation technology of the time and compared to the tiny cabins of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers’ rockets, certainly looks like it could be a functioning spacecraft.
It may be the first time spacesuits were depicted in a film, and the actual trip itself takes place over a several month-long flight.
But the most impressive part comes when they finally reach Mars.
Although the Martians are depicted as being identical the humans — specifically Danish humans – there are hundreds of them on screen in various scenes, all in full costume. An elaborate set was built for the Martian city, and unlike most films an attempt is made to show how Martian civilization differs from humanity’s attempt at the same.
What’s missing is the slam bang violence that’s the hallmark of American sci-fi films. The Danes, clearly appalled by the carnage they’d seen unleashed beside them, stressed a pacifist message, and after an initial conflict between the human crew and the Martians, peace is made and the daughter of the Martian leader opts to come to earth with the returning crew to help spread the message of love.
While Danish cinema continued on, it lost interest in science fiction themes and, coupled with the impact of World War Two, the country did not produce any more science fiction films until Reptilicus in 1961 and Journey To The Seventh Planet in 1962.
Despite being in color and sound, neither measures up to either The End Of The World and A Trip To Mars, both of which have been extensively restored by the Danish Film Institute and are available for viewing on YouTube.