A band of intrepid dreamers design and build a spaceship with the goal of an exploratory mission to Mars. What they discover is a shockingly peaceful culture for a planet named after the god of war. This pacifist film is often called the first space opera.
Peace out, bro.
In 1918, Europe had been at war for four years. The senseless conflict inspired waves of propaganda pictures from Hollywood and this cry for peace wrapped in science fiction trappings. While the film was intended to spread a naïve message of love through the magic of cinema, it also accidentally invented many elements of the space opera as we know it.
Using science fiction to discuss modern social problems? Oh, the scandal! (Seriously, does anyone else find it hilarious when people complain about social issues in Star Trek? Dudes, that’s a feature not a bug!)
There are several possible approaches to reviewing this film. Should we look at it in the context of European or Scandinavian film? Or should we approach it as science fiction fans? I’m feeling a bit spacy so I’ll take the latter!
The hero of the picture is the gallant Captain Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs, probably best known here for Sex in Chains). He has been granted a year of leave from the navy to work on a project of his own. His father, Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam) suggests that space travel is the most worthy goal and Avanti agrees. He is assisted by Dr. Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is dating Avanti’s sister, Corona (Zanny Petersen). All the while, the obnoxious Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen) heckles and mocks and generally does his best to make trouble for the scientific team. Yes, I am afraid that this is one of those symbolic name movies.
The spaceship is called the Excelsior but it looks more like a fat little airplane. Avanti assembles a crew of volunteers, dresses them in enough leather for an entire season of Farscape and blasts off for Mars but the long voyage proves to be arduous. Progress is slow and it looks like a mutiny is inevitable when the Martians, who have been watching the Excelsior’s approach, use their superior technology to reel the ship in.
The crew of the Excelsior are cautious at first, wearing oxygen masks and such, but they soon discover that Mars has a breathable atmosphere and the natives speak the “pure language of the heart” so there is no communication barrier. (Hey, it’s no sillier than Star Trek’s universal translator or, you know, the Force.) The Martians offer their visitors a meal of fruit, the only food consumed on the planet.
When greeted by a few thousand fruitarians in diaphanous robes do you:
- Say that fruit is delicious and leave it at that
- Say you eat different things but don’t go into details
- Offer them a big honkin’ can of Spam
Why yes, Avanti does take option C and it goes about as well as you might expect. The Martians ask where they procure dead meat and Avanti decides to demonstrate by killing a goose with his pistol. Sigh.
The gunshot sends the crowd running to investigate, the rest of the Excelsior’s crew panics and they throw a grenade, which strikes and injures a very young Nils Asther. Tensions are high! What will become of the crew? As it turns out, they get a stern lecture about being nice, are told to say they are sorry and then given the robes of innocence, which gives their uniforms a rather Flash Gordon look.
It seems that Mars was once warlike but then some guy showed up and said, “Hey, what if we make love and not war!” and everyone decided it was a swell idea and they have been peaceful ever since. (Star Trek fans will want to compare how first contact with the Vulcans is treated as similar sea change for earth.)
The Excelsior’s crew is properly chastened and they decide to stay on Mars for a while. Back on earth, Professor Planetaros is being taunted as a fraud who sent his own son to his death. Both the professor and Corona are losing hope that the explorers are still alive.
Back on Mars, Avanti has fallen for a Martian chick, especially after her dance of chastity. She tells him to sleep under the tree of longing and if their love is to be, he will dream of her. My eyes of rolling were on full display by this point.
The rest of the crew, particularly Dr. Krafft, is eager to return to earth but there is the question of Avanti’s romance and whether earth is ready to hear the Martian message of peace, love and flowers.
Okay, that was a bit of an oddball. First, the positives. The spaceship is a chunky little sucker with airplane wings but it’s still better than that initial design for Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, I rather liked the cramped sets as they seem more realistic than the wide, luxurious hallways and quarters so often shown in space operas. The cinematography by Louis Larsen is of the very best with lingering shots of a bucolic Mars and moody silhouettes back on earth. Director Holger-Madsen handles the crowds with confidence and Mars feels like a big place without losing its tranquility. Yep, Himmelskibet is gorgeous on every level.
The performances are very… European, especially among the human characters. There was a tendency in European silent cinema to treat film acting as a series of poses, which leads to a choppy set of movements as the performers check items off the list. “Let’s see, I need to be excited then determined then indignant…” It’s not bad, it just takes some getting used to. In contrast, the Martians wander around with unfocused eyes and generally look stoned. However, I cannot blame the actors too much as they are called upon to play symbols rather than flesh and blood characters. When was that ever easy?
Himmelskibet doesn’t go exactly the way modern viewers would expect. In a modern space opera, the attempted mutiny and cramped spaces would be a prelude to more violence or a problem for the crew to overcome as they face obstacles together. Himmelskibet takes neither option. The ship can be seen as a symbol of earth itself with its people squabbling over petty grievances. The issues that the crew face on the trip to Mars are merely a way to illustrate the contrast between the earthlings and the Martians.
The first key problem with the film is that modern science fiction fans have seen this scenario before but always with a twist. Thousands of hours of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Ray Bradbury and countless sci-fi films have conditioned us to expect something dark lurking in the shadows. Are the Martians ruled by a malevolent energy being? An out-of-control super-computer? Are they all really dead and merely projecting images of their old world? Are the Martians okay but their peaceful culture doomed by contact with outsiders? None of the above. Mars in Himmelskibet is exactly what it says on the tin: a perfect and peaceful culture that has no downside.
The second key problem with Himmelskibet is that it never manages to convey the appeal of the Martian culture to the audience. Oh, there’s peace and tranquility but like so many images of heaven, you can’t really imagine spending a day there, let alone the rest of your existence. This tranquility must have been appealing to some in the wartime audience but I wanted a little more than just diaphanous robes of mercy, innocence, longing, whatever… Look, it’s a nice thought but just saying that love is all you need doesn’t cut the mustard, especially when no further details are offered. Modern viewers have decades of hindsight and the 1960s hippy movement in their memories. Turns out love is NOT all you need.
The sentiment is sweet, really, but just a little naïve for modern viewers to enjoy unabashedly. Georges Méliès already showed the dark shadow of colonialism inherent in space exploration in A Trip to the Moon. This film was made a decade-and-a-half later but seems like a step backward in narrative complexity. Perhaps it seems jaded but this film is more of a pacifist pamphlet than an actual narrative. (Spoiler) By the time Professor Dubius was struck by lightning, the film had lost me. Look, just because a fellow thinks a manned mission to Mars is impractical does not mean he is worthy of death. So much for pacifism, eh?
In many ways, Himmelskibet feels like the last gasp of any optimism for the twentieth century left over from the nineteenth. A member for the First World War generation once stated that he saw the end of the nineteenth century twice: once when the calendar changed and once when WWI began. The First World War was such a shock in its scope, brutality and sheer senselessness that one can hardly blame the producers of Himmelskibet for trying to imagine a happier world. (Modern filmmakers try to make WWI more palatable by portraying the Germans of the era as Nazis. I do wish they would stop. The First World War had no obvious heroes or villains, just piles of bloodstained idiocy.)
Further, the film chooses to dwell on some rather trivial matters to illustrate earth’s debauchery. We are shown women in restaurants, dancing the night away in floor-length skirts. The scandal! The horror! I get that perhaps dwelling on the raging war was not what the filmmakers wanted but surely they could find more frightening (and, frankly, less sexist) sins.
Himmelskibet is definitely worth a look for fans of science fiction and devotees of Scandinavian silent films. If neither topic interests you, it’s safe to skip. The film’s heart is in the right place but good intentions do not always equal great entertainment.
Where can I see it?
Himmelskibet was released on DVD by the Danish Film Institute. As you can see, the print is gorgeous. The film is a region 0 PAL so make sure you can play it before ordering. (I had no issues viewing it on my Windows 10 laptop with the VLC player.)