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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Danish Silent Classics: 'The End of the World' & 'A Trip To Mars'" " (August Blom, 1916 & Holger Madsen, 1918)

There is a tendency among certain cinephiles (an understandable one given the defensive they are so frequently put upon by ostensibly normal people who will on occasion drop pithy idiocies along the lines of "I don't like black and white movies" and expect to be congratulated for that) to be a trifle overprotective of the cinema's past, to the extent of seeming to do special pleading for anything that's old. And of course, the old do deserve special treatment; everything that can be preserved ought to be preserved; film history is neither a closed circuit or even a vaguely closed book and hence there's nothing in it that ought to be dismissed.

But this is not to say that everything the past brings us is actually, you know, good. Or, for that matter, classic. It certainly depends on what your definition of "classic" is. I value the two films on this all-region disc from the Danish Film Institute not because they are great films, but because of what they represent not just in and of themselves but thematically. Space travel and the apocalypse: two tropes that have animated blockbuster commercial cinema pretty much for the length of its existence. The two pictures included here: 1916's The End of the World, directed by August Blom, and 1918's A Trip To Mars, directed by Holger-Madsen, are two early, but hardly the earliest, cinematic treatments of these concepts, and here they are coming from Denmark at a point when that country was in fact a world cinema powerhouse.

It's certainly easy to sit back and laugh at the film's rather rudimentary visualization of space travel:

Even more peculiar, though, are the particulars of the storyline, which have to do with estranged lovers and the strain of being forced apart for the duration of such a long space trip. And the negotiations with the rulers of Mars, whose robes suggest a more peculiar religious cult than any earthly ones I'm familiar with. We can chuckle, sure, but have our own depictions of the physics of space travel, or the forms of extraterrestrial life, really progressed that far?

Once again a passage from Terry Eagleton springs to my mind: "to imagine [God] as some kind of rational or moral being [...] is rather like picturing aliens as green-coloured, sulphur-breathing humanoids with triangular eyes but (sinisterly enough) no kidneys. All this testifies to is the paucity of the human imagination. Even the utterly strange turns out to be a thinly disguised version of ourselves." In the beginnings of cinematic sci-fi, the disguise, as we see, is thin indeed. We also see that this Mars does not need women; as the top screen capture attests, they are there, and they are eager.

One of the charms of looking at older depictions of what have become common blockbuster scenarios and scenes is their relative naiveté, technical and otherwise. I've always loved the scenes in Feuillade's Judex in which its hero leads a pack of justice-dispensing dogs around various locations. In a contemporary film the dogs would be well-matched to each other, likely a more or less identical pack. And they'd be sleek and well-trained. In Feuillade's film there are afghans and labs and big poodles even, a real motley bunch. And while they more or less do what they're told, sometimes there'll be one looking conspicuously at something out of the frame, or at the camera, or some such. To my mind, this sort of thing can in fact enhance the intended effect; in any case, it always enhances my admiration for the filmmaker. I thought of that scene watching the apocalypse tale The End of the World, and watching as the young woman and the young boy in the foreground of the above shot try very hard not to look into the camera. The spectacle here is of cinema itself, "learning" how to do these things, as it were.

And by the same token there is much here that is plain and listless that did not have to be. This "end of the world," like so many fictional depictions of it, closes on a hopeful note, as the new, modern-dress iterations of Adam and Eve find each other and thank their maker.

I was a little staggered by just how flat the film's closing shot, reproduced above, turned out to be. Nothing in the way of dramatic lighting. The couple could have been posed in an attitude similar to that of Millet's Angelus; the slight obliqueness of angle might have contributed pictorial interest. But no, the man and woman are asked to face the camera squarely, head on, expressions of banal humility on their faces. This is also miles off from the "simplicity" represented in Bresson's visual style. It's not plain or eschewing overt artfulness so much as it is dull. It demonstrates how much more, and in what areas, film had yet to learn.

One can't hold these film's conventional failings at all against them though, and the pictures are fascinating discoveries worthy of multiple viewings; the grapplings of nearly a hundred years ago are always engaging signposts to where we ended up. The pictures are very handsome digital restorations with optional English intertitles. A fascinating, essential historical window.

The error has been corrected.
In the few Danish silents I’ve seen, what’s really astounded me has been the chiaroscuro photography. At a time when most film looked very contrast-y, films like Haxan or The Parson’s Widow have surprisingly rich grey range. The above photos make these look more conventionally shot, though—-is that about right?
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silent movie double bill :)

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