Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars)

Though unmentioned, the spectre of the Great War looms large over the 1918 Danish film Himmelskibet. Called A Trip to Mars in its English release, it begins as any self-respecting Scientific Romance ought: a daring adventurer sets out on a celestial expedition to Mars, facing down derision and disaster in his quest for scientific truth. When he and his crew arrive, they encounter a pacifist utopia custom-made to counteract the horrors of the conflict ravaging Europe at the time.

The hero of the story is Captain Avanti Planetaros, late of the marine corps who has taken up aviation as a hobby. His sister, Corona, is romantically entwined with Avanti's friend, the scientist Dr. Krafft. Their father is Professor Planetaros, an astronomer who gazes longingly at the Red Planet through his attic observatory. Their nemesis is Professor Dubius, friend of their father and inveterate cynic. While flying one day, Avanti is seized with the idea of creating a flying machine that can take him and stalwart crew to Mars. Other than Dubius living up to his name, nothing stands in their way and they are soon off on an expedition.

Six months out, while those left behind on Earth wonder if they have survived at all, the space madness infects the crew. Some have turned to drink and there is talk of mutiny to take control of the ship - named Excelsior - and turn it back around to home. Before they can affect their plan, a ray from Mars captures the ship and it is sped to the surface of the planet. There, the crew encounters a veritable paradise and its highly enlightened citizens.

In the distant, savage past, Mars was a place of unending war until a lone, Christ-like figure appeared to convince the Martians to lay down their arms. Whereas the Great War is only a shadow in the background, God is mentioned explicitly throughout the film in petition and prayer. The implication rests where it lay that Mars has become the sort of world that Earth might have had we actually listened to Jesus instead of crucifying Him. No doubt the hope of Sophus Michaelis, who wrote the original novel, and Ole Olsen, who wrote the screenplay, was that Earth may yet heed His words.

Most of the major points of a peace-loving society are covered by the Martians. They wear long, flowing robes and have discovered a quasi-telepathic "universal language," breaking down most barriers to communication. They are fructivores, living purely off the bounty of Mars, having long since eschewed the killing necessary to procure meat. A disastrous first encounter with Avanti and his crew demonstrates that the Martians follow a system of restorative justice... Punishment, for them, is a guilt-ridden conscience committed to change once it has been rationally shown the error of its ways.

There is no apparent economy to speak of, and those Martians shown to be occupied in any task are the scholars and scientists. Lust has been done away with; the ladies of Mars dance the Dance of Chastity, rather than the ribald parties that Avanti remembers from Earth. Marriage is handled by romantic visions under a dreaming tree, to ensure true love, and even death is a voluntary matter of semi-assisted suicide ending with a celebration of life and transition into the "happiness of death." When the humans depart Mars, it is to a hymn with the refrain "Love is the force that you call God."

Himmelskibet's prescription is unquestionably naive. It is most clearly so in the flashback scene when the Christ-figure stands over a warzone, says a pithy axiom, and everyone immediately bows. If only it were that easy. However, to a Europe caught in the midst of the most devastating war yet waged, even a naive hope is worth something.

For 90 years after its release, Himmelskibet was considered a lost film. But in 2006, a print was recovered, restored, and released by the Danish Film Institute. The DVD has, so far, only been released in Region 2 format, but digital copies are widely available online.

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