A silent, German Star Trek?
Well, anything's possible, I thought as I read about a newly re-discovered and restored German Film, Wunder Der Schöpfung (Miracle of Creation—
In the last few years, various groups have made heroic efforts to salvage and restore these forgotten treasures. In the process, they've uncovered quite a few extraordinary films, including a few which have blasted holes through the accepted film histories. Perhaps the most interesting of these finds—
The few available facts about Wunder Der Schöpfung suggested that it, too, might rewrite the standard histories. Made in 1925 by Ufa studios for the then-enormous sum of 700,000 dollars, its success persuaded the studio to attempt its most ambitious project ever, Fritz Lang's epic SF masterpiece Metropolis. Wunder Der Schöpfung employed a horde of scientific advisors to ensure its accuracy. Parts of the film—
And, yes, someone compared it to Star Trek.
The older histories of science fiction on film tended to start with Georges Melies' 1902 Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), then proceed directly to Metropolis before skipping ahead a decade to Things To Come, often mentioning one or two other films along the way—
But the efforts of film historians have added greatly to that picture. Melies and his imitators produced hundreds of short trick films featuring fantastic camera effects. Absurd fantasy and science fictional elements abounded along with silly sight gags and Professors with goofy names. With the success of Le Voyage Dans La Lune, dozens of journeys to other planets—
Yet the history of SF film need not have started that way. In 1894, British film pioneer Robert W. Paul teamed up with H.G. Wells to develop a film experience based on his novel, The Time Machine. It would have combined slides, colored lights, film, air currents and audience movements with realistic surroundings to create the illusion of a trip through time. They also anticipated much of the basic technical language of film: cutbacks, close-ups, dolly shots, fades and dissolves. It sounds remarkably like the modern attractions found in Universal Studios and other theme parks today.
Sadly, they couldn't find the money needed to construct their Past-Present-Future Machine and Paul decided not to complete his patent application.
Nonetheless, cinematic science fiction eventually got serious. In 1908 George Booth directed a short film known variously as Battle in the Clouds, The Aerial Torpedo and The Airship Destroyer. In it, an inventor uses an "aerial torpedo" to destroy an attacking fleet of airships. He followed this up with two other serious SF films, The Aerial Submarine and The Aerial Anarchists. Other films soon appeared, including The Flying Torpedo, a rip-off of Booth's earlier film by none other than legendary director D.W. Griffiths. Melies continued to make his whimsical films for another four years, but they played to dwindling audiences. A Cambrian explosion of film storytelling had transformed the industry and his greatest late film—
As strange as it may seem to us, many of the SF films from the silent era were adaptations of written works. Melies himself stole liberally from Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and others in films like Le Voyage Dans La Lune—
Other classic works to reach the screen included a 1910 Edison film company adaptation of Frankenstein (long believed lost, it can now be seen on Google video, see also Daniel M. Kimmel's article from March); the 1925 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, with its herds of Willis O'Brien stop-motion dinosaurs; and a 1919 British production of H.G.Wells' The First Men on the Moon.
More remarkable was the number of current science fiction stories turned into film during the silent era. I doubt if film and print SF have ever been as closely linked as they were in their primitive stages.
Sophus Michaelis wrote the screenplay for a Danish adaptation of his 1916 novel Himmelskibet (Heavenship). Oddly, it abandoned his spherical ship, powered by the "radio spectrum" of Mars for a propeller-driven cigar with stubby wings. This film later appeared in the U.S. as A Trip To Mars. Only a few tantalizing snippets survive. To the best of my knowledge, the Danes did not attempt another feature-length SF film until 1961's Reptilicus. It wasn't worth the wait.
Bernhard Kellermann's 1913 novel, Der Tunnel, with its epic story of the construction of a tunnel connecting Europe and the United States, inspired two minor classics of the early sound era - the 1933 German sound adaptation and its 1935 British remake, Transatlantic Tunnel. However, it first appeared on the screen in 1915, in a version praised for its impressive sets.
In the Soviet Union, Alexei Tolstoi had at least two of his SF novels adapted to film. In Aelita, Queen Of Mars, the first rocket to Mars brings the revolution to her oppressed workers. The Hyperbolid Of Engineer Garin became the serial Luch Smerti (The Death Ray).
In 1929, Pemberton Billing's play, High Treason became Britain's answer to Metropolis, complete with impressive miniatures of a future neo-Gothic London. Technically, it isn't a silent as they released it in both synchro-disk sound and silent versions.
Perhaps the most tantalizing literary adaptation of the silent era was the first of three films based on Richard Ganthony's enormously popular 1899 play, Message from Mars. Not only was it filmed in New Zealand, but newly discovered records suggest that it might have been as early as 1902. That would make it a contender for the title of first science fiction film (although some would champion earlier Melies films with SF elements, such as his lost 1897 film, Gugusse Et L'Automate (The Clown And The Automaton). Surviving descriptions suggest it brought the first robot to the screen—
Wunder Der Schöpfung reflects another unexpected element of silent science fiction in its attempts at scientific accuracy. This is something we tend to associate with a few much later films—
German Rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth provided the scientific details for the flight to the moon portrayed in Fritz Lang's 1928 Frau Im Mond. As part of the publicity campaign surrounding the film, Oberth also attempted to construct an actual liquid-fueled rocket (he failed because he and his assistants had no experience with real rockets). While Oberth envisioned a few eccentric technical details—
A quick overview of the silent era reveals films in nearly every recognizable sub-category of science-fiction, from the prehistoric epic, complete with dinosaurs and cavemen (such as D.W. Griffith's 1912 Man's Genesis) to the post-apocalyptic survivalist movie (already ripe for parody by 1927, when Jean Renoir's short, Sur Un Air De Charleston presented a Europe buried under a new ice age. An intrepid African explorer in the ruins of Paris discovers a "primitive" white girl. Her strange "native dance"—
The greatest unanswered question about the silent era is whether these forgotten silents affected later films. Most filmmakers since the first generations of experimenters have grown up watching movies. Those first impressions obviously shaped their own ideas of what a film should be—
Some of the influences are obvious: Lang's Metropolis inspired film architecture in movies as diverse as The Wizard Of Oz, Blade Runner and Joe Versus The Volcano. James Whale's Frankenstein borrows heavily from The Magician. The 1916 serial, Homunkulus Der Führer, about an artificial man who tries to conquer the world, pioneered many of the elements of German Expressionist film.
But some questions may never be answered. How much influence did the first SF spectacle - Harry Piel's 1916 robot comedy Der Große Wette (The Big Bet)—
And more to the point, is there any chance that Stanley Kubrick (or his crew) ever saw Wunder Der Schöpfung's startling images of the planets? Is their resemblance to his later imagery mere chance? We may never know.
I eventually found a much better description of Wunder Der Schöpfung, written by a reviewer who had seen it at a recent silent film festival. Rather than a straightforward science fiction film, it was a densely packed educational film, with a delightful space trip thrown in to illustrate the wonders of the Solar system. In other words, it sounded more like Carl Sagan's Cosmos than Star Trek.
Yet it still sounds undeniably fascinating, a remarkable, almost completely forgotten relic of an age only a few obsessive people know. Perhaps its rediscovery—
I for one certainly hope so.