Made a few years before the Soviet Aelita – in which a heroic Russian engineer visits Mars and foments a Revolution – this heavily pacifist, utopian Danish film was released in early 1918, when its anti-aggression sentiments must have seemed welcome. Scripted by Sophus Michaelis (adapting his own novel) and Ole Olsen, it’s an intriguing mix of for-the-time hard science, surprisingly credible astronaut psychology, and fairytale wish-fulfilment – and holds up remarkably well as entertainment a full century on. At the Trieste S+F festival, a screening was accompanied by a live music from godblesscomputers which perfectly matched the slightly new agey vibe of the enterprise – resisting a temptation to make fun of outmoded effects or onscreen attitudes with mickey mousery, and delivering the proper touch of awe at scenes which must have been as unprecedented and wondrous to their initial audiences as anything in, say, Avatar.
Stargazing boffin Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam) inaugurates a private Mars mission to be commanded by his daring aviator son Avanti (Gunnar Tolnaes), and drums up support for the construction of the spaceship (himmelskibet) Excelsior, despite the constant mockery and carping of bearded jealous rival Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen). The crew of the Excelsior consists of daring volunteers – including a representative of ‘the East’ who has slicked-back hair and stage Chinaman manners but isn’t a slit-eyed caricature and blustery, big-bellied, big-hatted David Dane (Svend Kornbeck), who might be a typical American but refers to himself as ‘European’ when arguing with the oriental (he might mean ‘white’). Despite Dubius showing up at the launch site with a joke letter to Venus, the Excelsior takes off and takes six months to near the Red Planet. The ship is all whitewashed steel plate and rivets, more like a charabanc with tiny wings and an undercarriage than any other screen rocket, and the crew wear nifty leather outfits, including oxygen masks they turn out not to need. The major peril of long-haul space flight here comes not from meteorites or cosmic rays but privation, bordeom, men being cooped-up together, and crotchetiness – Dane reverts to alcoholism and tries to foment a mutiny, and disaster is only averted when Mars hoves in view.
Landing on the planet, the Earthmen discover a civilisation of white-robed welcoming vegetarians who act like a cross between classical Athenian aristocrats and counterculture drop-outs. Their idea of fun is a ceremony called ‘the Dance of Chastity’ and they stand about an open hillside around a white pyramid structure in a way that shows director Holger-Madsen might have had an influence on successors as varied as John Ford and Ingmar Bergman. Avanti takes the fancy of Marya (Lilly Jacobson), daughter of the Martian wise leader (Philip Bech). The newcomers commit the faux pas of illustrating what’s in their food cans by shooting down a bird (the only nonhuman Mars fauna we see). When that causes a lot of upset, they reach in panic – we’re looking at you David Dane! – for their stick grenades and blow up a few robed extras (future Man in Half Moon street star Nils Asther is the main casualty), precipitating a crisis – as Marya dons the robes of mercy to plead their case – that shames the aggressors into repentence. Lesson learned, it’s time to return in triumph – seeing off that nasty Dubius, who is so angry that he falls off a cliff – so co-pilot Krafft (Alf Bluetcher) can reunite with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen) and Avanti can help Marya spread the message of love and brotherhood and not being a dick like David Dane around the world. Hooray.