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November, 2008 : Essay:

In The Silents No One Can Hear You Scream

SF From The Days When Spaceships Didn't Make Any Noise

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—although it appears to be known under the titles In the World of the Stars and Our Heavenly Bodies as well). We know so little about silent film. The vast majority of silent films no longer exist—and many of the survivors are little more than fragments of the originals. Some of the most respected films of the age survive as scraps: a scattering of contemporary reviews, a blurb in a company catalog, a handful of stills, or a magazine serialization. The old nitrate film used back in those days burns ferociously: much of it went up in flames and poor storage did in even more of it. What's left has started to decay and the nearly unseen snippets still left in the archives won't last much longer.

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—at least for science fiction aficionados—was the surviving section of The Mechanical Man, a 1921 Italian film reminiscent of Feuillade's Fantomas serials. It featured a massive robot that looked like something The Mysterious Doctor Satan might have built if Republic's Lydecker brothers had had a bigger budget—and it appeared five years before Metropolis gave the world the "first" screen robot.

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—including its planetary vistas—reminded the reviewers of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The one available photo showed the ship's circular interior, with the crew walking up its walls.

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—perhaps the Russian classic Aelita, Queen Of Mars or Lang's even more ambitious Frau Im Mond.

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—many of them little more than copies of Melies' film—rushed to the screen.

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—1912's The Conquest of the Pole (probably the first monster movie) appeared the same year as the first feature film: the three-hour Italian epic Quo Vadis?

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 Luneand later made a few official adaptations of Verne's work (some claim that Verne visited the set of Melies' 1902 film). Jules Verne remained a favorite of filmmakers throughout the Silent era: an ambitious 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea presented the first underwater photography seen in a feature film (although, sadly, their efforts to obtain a real Holland submarine failed). Its follow-up, 1929's The Mysterious Island (one of the most trouble-plagued films to ever reach the theaters) added fish-men, an underwater kingdom, battles with a monstrous octopus, some very fine model work, two-strip technicolor and a few sound sequences to more underwater footage by the Williamson brothers.

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—twenty-four years before Karel Capek coined the word).

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—such as Destination Moon or 2001but it appears as early as 1922 in the Bray Productions' short animated film, The Sky Splitter (The Stellar Express). While played for comedy, it offers quite a few scientific ideas—the inventor finds that his space ship's rudders will not work in the vacuum of space, for example, and when he reaches a planet fifty light years away, he uses a massive telescope to look back at his own childhood. The director based this film on the ideas of astronomer T.J. Norton. (Two years later, Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer animated another space trip for Bray, All Aboard For The Moon. It starred a radium powered rocket whose gimbal mounted engine predates Kraft Ehricke's real-world invention by forty years.)

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—such as submerging the rocket in water before launching (an idea he would revisit in his later, more serious work)—the film's spaceship scenes are thoroughly convincing. Until, that is, his explorers land on the Moon and find water and a breathable atmosphere. At least he didn't fire them out of a giant cannon, as H.G. Wells and William Cameron Menzies did eight years later in Things To Come.

The last—and perhaps most accurate—silent spaceflight reached the screen long after the silent era had ended. Made in 1936, Kometchesky Reis (a.k.a The Space Ship, The Cosmic Journey) offered Soviet audiences intricate miniatures and flawless stop-motion animation (in one scene they used it to capture the otherwise impossible low-gravity antics of the cosmonauts on the Moon). K.E. Tsiolkovsky, the theorist Russians consider the father of spaceflight, served as technical advisor on the film (sadly, he died before its release). Kometchesky Reis was an incredibly ambitious and expensive production—which makes their decision to film it without sound almost inexplicable. Unfortunately, while it was clearly a landmark SF film, it does not seem to have made much of an impression outside the Iron Curtain. Few western film historians have noticed it—and those few haven't had much to say. However, the film still survives and played at film festivals in 2006. One can only hope that it will get a DVD release.

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 Charleston—allures him so much that he takes her back to civilization with him). There was even a silent 3-D monster movie, 1922's Radio Mania (later released as M.A.R.S. and Mars Calling). The only category that seems to be missing is the alien invasion film—and for all we know someone might unearth one from the ruins (Pathe actually started making such a serial in 1921—The Man Who Stole The Moonbut the producers couldn't accept the idea and the Martian invader became an earthly hero. Along the way, they changed the title to The Sky Ranger).

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—and even they might not know which dimly remembered movies inspired their own work.

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)—have on later films like Metropolis? Did the strange Constructivist sets and costumes of Aelita inspire the creators of the Flash Gordon serials? Did Roland West's strange light that made men invisible in his lost film, The Unknown Purple, have any influence on The Invisible Man? Did anyone at Hammer Films remember the society of stranded mariners living on the ships trapped in the seaweed-choked Sargasso sea of The Isle of Lost Ships when they made The Lost Continent? Was there any connection between the space launches of Frau Im Mond, Kometchesky Reis, or the Bray animated shorts—and later SF films that tried to give us an accurate vision of spaceflight?

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—and that of other, long lost films like Algol (an SF Faust story featuring glimpses of a bizarre alien world created by Walter Reiman, who also designed The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari's surreal sets)—will spur new interest in the silent age. Perhaps there are other, still greater treasures out there, waiting to be found.

I for one certainly hope so.

Works Referenced

Menville, Douglas and R. Reginald. Things To Come: An Illustrated History Of The Science Fiction Film (Times Books, New York, 1977).

Miller, Ron. "Silent Space Cinema: From Melies To Fritz Lang" (Filmfax Magazine, March/April 1995). The Dream Machines: A Pictoral History Of The Spaceship In Art, Science And Literature (Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar Florida, 1993).

Joyce, Steve. "Science Fiction And Silent Film" Website (http://www.silentsf.com).

Erickson, Glenn. Savant Revival Review of "Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya novella (Cosmic Voyage)" (October 19, 2006; http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s2151reis.html).

[Author unknown]. Review of Wunder Der Schopfung on Bonner Kinemathek Website (http://www.film-ist-kultur.de/filme/wunder_der_schoepfung/wunder_der_schoepfung.htm).

Paijmans, Theo. "The German Star Trek—1925" (article on The Black Sun blog, July 28, 2007; dieschwarzesonne.blogspot.com).

Heiss, Lokke. "Far Away, So Close: The 22nd Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film (2004; http://www.silentera.com/info/articles/heiss-pord2003.html)


Copyright © 2008, Mark Cole. All Rights Reserved.

About Mark Cole

Mark Cole writes from Warren, Pa.

You can read his short story, "Reverse Engineering" at Flash Fiction Online.

COMMENTS!

Nov 4, 07:52 by IROSF
Thoughts on silent SF films?

Article is here.
Nov 4, 09:40 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Interesting. Here's another source for information on forgotten and/or lost early SF films:

Variety's Complete Science Fiction Reviews, edited by Donald Willis, Garland Publishing, 1985.

It cover 1907-1984. Alas, it doesn't include my "for the record" review of "Aelita, Queen of Mars" done several years later.
Nov 14, 15:07 by Nader Elhefnawy
Good piece; I found it a brisk and engaging round-up of the topic.

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