The End of the World

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(6/10) In a nutshell: Danish moral story and apocalypse film about the coming of a comet, The End of the World (1916), has stunning special effects and some interesting drama, but is bogged down by too many subplots and unexplored themes. 

The End of the World (Verdens Undergang), 1916, Denmark. Written by Otto Rung. Based on the novel La Fin du Monde by Camille Flammarion (uncredited). Directed by August Blom. Starring: Olaf Fønss, Ebba Thomsen, Johanne Fritz-Petersen, Frederik Jacobsen. IMDb score: 6.3

The Maiden and the Church at the End of the World. Yes, he is waving to Adam. Seriously.

The Maiden and the Church at the End of the World. Yes, he is waving to Adam. Seriously.

Danish August Blom is unfortunately one of those early film pioneers that don’t get much recognition these days. If remembered, it is chiefly for Atlantis, his ambitious film about the sinking of a large passenger ship – released in 1913, just a year after Titanic had gone down. Among film buffs he has a reputation for developing the genre of the erotic melodrama, and for being an early pioneer for cross-cutting of scenes for dramatic effect. Among fans of sci-fi, though, he is remembered for making the first post-apocalyptic science fiction film, Verdens Undergang, or The End of the World, made in 1916.

If Atlantis can be faulted for something, it’s that we never get a shot of the actual sinking of the ship, or even decks filling with water. One moment she is floating perfectly straight while people climb into life boats, in the next shot only the stern protrudes above the water line. Blom did not make the same mistake in The End of the World, depicting a comet brushing the Earth. Here we get superbly exciting scenes of burning meteorites scorching the landscape, houses on fire, explosions and water flooding buildings with people inside. With this film, Blom has captured an apocalyptic event on a truly epic scale, and the films deserves at least as good a reputation as Atlantis.

But this is no simple crash boom bang film, on the contrary. The director’s trademark was inhabiting his films with a multitude of characters, all involved in intricate plots. This is also true for The End of the World. In a nutshell it goes like this (as much as you can put this in a nutshell):

In a poor mining town lives a father and his two daughters. Both are set to be married, one with a mine worker, the other with a sailor. The owner of the mine falls in love with the girl who is promised to the miner, and swoops her off to the City with promises of wealth and luxury. The mine owner (named Stoll) knows an astronomer (Wiseman) who predicts that a large comet will brush past Earth, causing devastation over the whole of Northern Europe. This he tells Stoll in confidence. Stoll then uses this knowledge, and the fears and hopes of the public, to manipulate the stock market, making himself the richest man in the world. When disaster strikes, he leads the world’s economic elite to his villa in the mining town, set out to hide in a secret tunnel.
But it doesn’t end there. The betrayed husband-to-be (the miner) channels his anger against Stoll into the class struggle, leading to an attack by the proletarians against Stoll’s mansion and the social elite on the eve of disaster. Everyone is killed, except Stoll and his bride who hide in the caves – but an ironic twist of fate brings a sad ending for them.

But – we also have the good daughter – we know she is good because she sticks to her man and listens to her father and the travelling vicar. Yes there is one of those too.

The vicar saving the girl in one of the clumsiest hero moments of film.

The vicar saving the girl in one of the clumsiest hero moments of film.

After disaster strikes, three people survive – the poor, but moral couple, and the vicar, who also saves the helpless girl from a flooded rooftop. The surviving man and woman find each other when she rings the bell of a church high on a hill, undamaged by the wrath of god, and they embrace when the sun rises on a new morning. Truly, the meek shall inherit the world.

Yes, the religious cheese factor in this one is pretty high. But it’s not really until the final fifteen minutes or so that the religious overtones become unbearable, and up to that they are present, but not overbearing.

The problem, as you may see from above, is that this film, nearly two hours in length, has a bit too many subplots (those above are just the most prominent). Sometimes we lose track of certain characters for almost half the movie and when they reappear one tends to forget who they were and what they were up to. Another problem is that the generic men’s fashion and hairstyle of the era makes it a bit difficult to discern who is actually in the scenes sometimes – some characters could have used some more differentiation.

Haunting apocalyptic scenes.

Haunting apocalyptic scenes.

The main subplot, which actually seems like the main plot for a long period of the film, is the manipulation of the stock markets by Mr Stoll – preying on the fears and hopes of humanity for his own good, and his relationship with the astronomer, who doesn’t agree with his plans. This is a very smart plot line, very well written and executed, and it is a shame that it is ultimately lost in the general commotion.

There are also a few strange elements to the film, most notably the vicar. He appears in the beginning of the movie and visits the father and his daughters, and you get the sense that he will play a significant role. But throughout most of the movie he just seems to sit at the father’s dining table nodding his head piously. This is goes on for 3/4 of the film, and several years storywise. Then, after the village is flooded he saves the girl from a rooftop in one of the clumsiest hero moments ever recorded on film (he simply doesn’t have a clue how to get his boat the the roof – this goes on for minutes), drops her on dry land, and just leaves her, passed out, without food or water, in a cave. Some hero …

Nevertheless, apart from a bit lackluster direction in the beginning of the film, it is as a whole quite beautifully filmed and the special effects of the apocalypse are simply stunning. Somehow Blom manages to rain burning bits of meteorite over a whole village (they used burning ”sparks”, presumably magnesium or some other highly flammable material) and creates large scale explosions and fires. In one scene he completely floods the set, with a woman sitting on top of a table. And after the disaster we get some absurdly haunting pictures of an actual flooded village, and a whole row of actually burned down buildings – those are not sets, that is clear. The post apocalyptic scenes on the southern sand dunes of Denmark are also quite beautiful.

Brilliant special effects.

Brilliant special effects.

The film itself was partly inspired by the passing of Halley’s comet six years earlier, and the onset of WWI created a need to tackle the war traumas in an abstract way. The war also plays as a background (though never mentioned in the film) for the moral tale, albeit a generic moral tale: greed is bad, power corrupts, and the humble and pious ones will prevail. Another significant theme is the class struggle, inspired by the rise of socialism and worker’s unions in Europe. Although August Blom clearly throws the bourgeois in a very bad light, he isn’t very kind on the raving hordes of revolutionaries, either. The betrayed fiancée is a grudge-holding, revenge-seeking and aggressive man who channels his own anger into a destructive and futile war against the rich, ultimately leading only to death and sorrow. Be content with your place in life, seems to be the moral punchline

The film’s basic premise seems to be inspired by French author Camille Flammarion’s novel La Fin du Monde (Omega: The Last Days of the World) – which also predicts the end of the world by the coming of a comet. I haven’t read the book, but apparently it also deals with the political and economical repercussions of the impending doom, and with those who see the situation as a possibility to manipulate the stock market. The book would later be turned into the film La Fin de Monde by French director Abel Gance in 1931.

Because of the superb special effects and the overall professionalism of the filming, as well as the great post-apocalyptic locations – added to the smart swindle-and-greed storyline, I would like to give this film more than six stars. But ultimately the film is half an hour too long and filled with too many disparate plots and themes that are never fully explored. Ultimately the moral tale is too obvious and becomes excruciatingly tacky in the end. A masterpiece of apocalyptic vision, unfortunately a clumsily handled drama.

The End of the World (Verdens Undergang), 1916, Denmark. Written by Otto Rung. Based on the novel La Fin du Monde by Camille Flammarion (uncredited). Directed by August Blom. Starring: Olaf Fønss, Ebba Thomsen, Johanne Fritz-Petersen, Frederik Jacobsen, Carl Lauritzen, Thorleif Lund. Produced by Ole Olsen for Nordisk films kompangi (currently Nordisk Film/Great Northern). Cinematography: Louis Larsen. Art Direction: Axel Bruun. 

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