A Trip to Mars


(7/10) Himmelskibet, released in 1918, is he first serious movie to deal with a trip to a distant planet. Poetically filmed and featuring lavish Martian designs, this Danish space opera is at heart an endearing pacifist message in a time when the first world war was ravishing Europe. 

A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet). 1918, Denmark. Director: Holger-Madsen. Writers: Sophus Michaëlis, Ole Olsen. Starring: Gunnar Tolnæs, Alf Blütecher, Lilly Jacobsson, Nils Asther. Produced by Ole Olsen for Nordisk (Great Northern). IMDb score: 6.5

Attack of the Martian hippies from outer space!

Attack of the Martian hippies from outer space!

This almost forgotten little gem of a film is actually one of the most important science fiction films between Georges Méliès’ 1902 short A Trip to the Moon (review)and Yakov Protazanov’s influential Soviet space fantasy Aelita (review), made in 1924. Although not generally known for their huge contribution to science fiction, Denmark was actually the frontrunner on an international scale for serious sci-fi films in the early days of the genre – first with August Blom’s impressive post-apocalyptic epic The End of the World (review) in 1916, and the following year with Holger-Madsen’s interplanetary pacifist pamphlet A Trip to Mars.

What is telling is that both these films were made when World War I was raging in Europe – and it is quite a small miracle than Denmark – bordering on Germany – was able to keep up the production of several costly film productions throughout the war. Eventually the problem for the company Nordisk (today Nordisk Film, or Great Northern) became that they had too many films on their hands, and couldn’t sell them fast enough in a Europe ravaged by war. By the end of the decade Denmark suffered such a bizarre thing as movie inflation, which caused the Danish movie business to all but collapse under its own weight. It is telling that Denmark didn’t produce another sci-fi film until 1961 and Reptilicus after A Trip to Mars.

When the apocalyptic The End of the World (Verdens Undergang) told the story of two pious and moral human beings being the only survivors of a disaster brought on by a passing comet, A Trip to Mars has a more optimistic view on life, depicting an expedition to Mars, where we find a utopian society based on pacifism. This, by all means, was a pamphlet and a message of hope for humanity during the great war. This is both the film’s strength and its weakness.

Dr Krafft and Avanti Planetaros in ÜBERCOOL aviator uniforms.

Dr Krafft and Avanti Planetaros in ÜBERCOOL aviator uniforms.

It is clear from the beginning that this film is not to be taken completely at face value – not when we are introduced to characters with names like Avanti Planetaros, his father Professor Planetaros, his sister Corona Planetaros, her fiancée Dr Krafft and the dubious Professor Dubius. It becomes even clearer that this is a symbolic parable with the overly dramatic Delsarte Method (hand-to-forehead acting) used by the actors, and the melodramatic language of the inter-titles.

Sea captain Avanti Planetaros (star actor Gunnar Tolnæs) returns from a great adventure and seeks … new adventures! at which his father, the professor (Nicolai Neiiendam), informs him that the next great discovery lies … out there! “In space, there are thousands of mysteries… planets that we long for, and that long for us!” we are told. This fires up the good Avanti – that much is obvious, as he lunges into a frenzy of energetic pointing toward the heavens, not just with his hands and arms, but with his entire body and soul! As another reviewer points out, one can only hope that with the advent of the talkies, someone found Tolnæs a job pointing at things, because he is really good at it (in fact he got so rich by playing maharajahs that he retired of his own will in 1929 . His friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher) joins forces with him to build a craft that can fly all the way to Mars, while the ”friend” Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen) is doing all in his power to ridicule the idea.

Behold the mighty winged sausage!

Behold the mighty winged sausage!

Undeterred our heroes soldier on, and after two years they can reveal the magnificent craft, with the name EXCELSIOR in giant lettering on the side. A modern viewer cannot help but giggle at the sight of the ungainly and rickety object that looks like a cross between a dirigible and a sausage, equipped with biplane box wings and a hilariously small propeller at the back – mirroring the fascination with aviation at the time. But it sure does fly, and with an international crew assembled, they take off to the skies. Although it is unclear how the craft flies through the vacuum of space, and why the absence of gravity doesn’t seem to affect the crew, we do get a bit of realism when the film then fast-forwards six months, and reveals a crew that is becoming increasingly grumpy about not yet having reached their destination. Led by a burly American alcoholic by the name of Dane (Svend Kornbeck), most of the crew decide to stage a mutiny, and just when it looks as if things are about to go sour, the ship is suddenly grabbed by the Martian tractor beam.

The explorers arrive on a Mars that looks suspiciously much like Earth, only like Earth of ancient Greece (actually it is a quarry outside Copenhagen). It is inhabited by a race of humanoids dressed in white togas and silly hats who are in fact telepathic. A whole horde of them seem to have just been casually strolling the grassy hills when the earthmen arrive, and greet the travellers heartily. Our heroes are invited to dinner (still standing in the hills) and are surprised that the Martians are strictly vegetarian. Avanti sends for some canned meat and wine from the ship, at which the head Martian (Philip Bech) – a wise man, we are told – sniffs disapprovingly and asks how the meat is ”procured”. The man of action that Avanti is, he promptly whips out his revolver and shoots down a bird that just so happens to fly overhead – and it is a mighty huge whopper of a duck that THUMPS down right by his feet. We all see where this is going – this is a big no-no among the highly evolved vegetarians. At the sound of the first gunshot on Mars for a thousand years, the Martians naturally grab Avanti and his comrades, who panic and one of them decides that throwing a hand grenade into the crowd will surely improve their standings. Not so much, as one of the Martians is seriously injured, and the Earthlings are taken to The House of Judgement. Sidenote: the injured Martian, (who survives, we see later) is played by Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther, who would go on to become a major Hollywood star in the Twenties.

Nils Asther second from left.

Nils Asther second from left.

Once at this solemn House, the wise Martian’s daughter Marya (Lilly Jacobsson) feels compassion for the barbarian men, and wants to act as their counsellor. In a pretty impressive special effects shot, she shows them a movie scene on a big screen TV, that tells the story of how the Martians were once barbaric too, but have later come to their senses and are now pacifists. It seems that the House of Judgement is basically a Catholic confession box, and one only has to repent and change one’s way to be cleared of all charges. This is enough for the Earthlings, who immediately see their own folly and renounce their warlike ways.

A great feast is naturally thrown – and what would a feast be without The Dance of Chastity? This dance is inter-cut with clips from Earth, where partying hordes indulge in wine, violence and vulgarities, starkly contrasting the moral superiority of Mars. And while watching The Dance of Chastity, Avanti is stricken by Marya’s beauty and confesses his love for her. But, hold on to your hats; there is a waiting period for these kinds of things, Marya informs him. First he must sleep by The Tree of Longing – and if she fills his dreams, she will be his forever. Naturally, Avantis dreams are filled with the image of Marya, which seals the deal. She then meets him in The Forest of Love, with a smoking altar and glowing flowers, where they kiss and embrace in a wonderfully sweet scene, with some not so chaste boob … well not grabbing, but gentle patting.

Back on Earth all is not as well. Professor Planetaros and his daughter Corona (Zanny Petersen) are beside themselves with fear and worry, and are not at all helped by Professor Dubius gloating over the press, who are calling the expedition to Mars the greatest failure of scientific history. Rather than live with the knowledge that he sent his own son to his death, Professor Planetaros prepares to drink poison. But just at that moment, word comes by news leaflet (the Twitter of the age) that flickering lights have been seen on Mars! Charging to the telescope, the professor and Corona make out seven lights forming the symbol of the big dipper – known in scientific terms as – Corona! Yes, indeed, Dr Krafft has signalled to his beloved fiancée that he is alive and well!

The re-used telescope from Verdens Undergang.

The re-used telescope from Verdens Undergang.

Here’s one for the movie buffs: The telescope and observatory in the Professor’s study are actually the same ones that were used for The End of the Word (Verdens Undergang) a little over a year earlier.

The explorers are by now homesick, and the adventurous Marya decides to tag along to Earth – a very good decision, her father agrees, as she can then spread the philosophy of peace among the barbarians. Anyway, he was getting ready to die as it was. Our heroes are then hurried back to Earth with the aid of some super fuel provided by the Martians, and Professor Planetaros greets his new daughter-in-law: ”In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich!”
Some none-Scandinavian reviewers have been amused by the end credit proclaiming SLUT – the Danish word for END. Almost as funny as the airport trains in Stockholm telling us when we have reached the Slutstation.

Forget the science and logic in this film – it makes no sense. Rather, it is a parable for a new hope and a philosophy of a better world when WWI was still raging in Europe, and as such the film wins over the viewer’s heart in all its endearingness. It is clear this film was not cheap, and the money shows in the impressive Martian sets and costumes. It is by and large very well filmed, with some quite stunning poetic imagery, especially during the romantic scenes in the Forest of Love. Avanti sleeping by The Tree of Longing could have been shot by Ingmar Bergman himself, and the surreal Forest of Love, with its mystical altar and great, white, glowing flowers has a distinctly Fritz Lang-ish feel. As a matter of fact, one can’t help but wonder if Bergman wasn’t a fan of old Danish cinema, since both this film and Verdens Undergang contain shots which seem to have been directly lifted into The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957).

The Martain utopia could have used more images like this to spice things up, since a good deal of momentum is lost after the heroes pass the test at The House of Judgement. There is a reason as to why there was a snake in paradise, as the Bible would have been a pretty lame book without it: Adam and Eve would have lived happily ever after, doing The Dance of Chastity. End of story. This is why utopias on film always have a snake, or have one introduced from the outside. Peaceful coexistance simply doesn’t make for good drama. This is not bad enough to bring the whole film down, though, but it does slow it down considerably.

The film was something of a great white whale for many decades, as it was thought to be lost. But in 2006 the Danish Film Institute found a nearly complete copy, which was then beautifully restored, and rightfully so. As mentioned before, this was the first time in cinema that space travel and alien encounters were depicted in a serious movie. It is easy to laugh at the ridiculous space craft, but one should also remember that the great H.G. Wells in his 1936 film Things to Come (review) – that strived for scientific accuracy – still sent rockets into space by means of cannon.

The title Himmelskibet actually means Sky Ship, Heaven Ship, or more poetically, Ship to Heaven. For many years the international title was also Heaven Ship, a name that portrays the dualism of the Danish title. For some reason, though, both IMDb and Wikipedia now list the international title as A Trip to Mars, and therefore, so do I. It is certainly an accurate title, and goes well with Jules Verne-ish sci-fi trips to the moon and centre of the Earth and so forth.

This is not the Dance of Chastity. Lilly Jacobsson and Gunnar Tolnaes.

This is not the Dance of Chastity. Lilly Jacobsson and Gunnar Tolnaes.

Some not so well informed sources claim that the script was based on Danish poet and author Sophus Michaëlis’ novel. In fact, Michaëlis’ wrote the script along with one of the founders of Nordisk, Ole Olsen. Three years later he released a novel with the same name, loosely based on the film. Director Holger-Madsen was one of the most prominent film makers in Denmark during the golden age of Danish cinema, a time when Denmark was one of the most prominent film producers of Europe, and there is no doubt that his films inspired visualists like the aforementioned Bergman and Lang.

As a science fiction space opera, this film certainly has its share of flaws. But the naive idealism of it all, combined with the sincerity of the actors and the beautiful imagery makes for a very likeable and endearing film.

Interesting faces in the cast include Norwegian hunk Gunnar Tolnæs in the lead, one of the big stars of Nordisk at the time. Tolnæs was a trained actor with an extensive stage background in Oslo, and made films for pioneers like Swedish Victor Sjöström and Finnish Mauritz Stiller (the only Finn with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) before relocating to Denmark, where he became especially known for his numerous roles as maharajahs in drama films. After he had made a small fortune, he retired in 1929, saying he was tired of making ”sheik films” – although the death of the silent film might also have had something to do with his decision. Lilly Jacobson (as Marya) was a Swedish actor who was one of nearly 6 000 contestants when Nordisk were choosing a new diva. She won the contest and debuted for Nordisk in 1917 in the hugely successful Maharadjahens Yndlingshustru (The Maharajah’s Favourite Wife), naturally with Gunnar Tolnæs in the lead. She later reprised the role in

Nils Asther and Greta Garbo in The Single Standard.

Nils Asther and Greta Garbo in The Single Standard.

a sequel. She was one of the most popular actresses of Nordisk until she retired after her marriage in 1919, only once again taking to the big screen as Ophelia in a much talked about rendition of Hamlet (1921), with featured a female Hamlet. In the bit part as the injured Martian we have one of the big stars of Hollywood in the silent era: Swedish heart-breaker Nils Asther, who would go on to play leading men in a string of films opposite Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Pola Negri. Most notable are perhaps The Cardboard Lover (1928), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Wild Orchids (1929), The Single Standard (1929) and Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). He was a controversial figure, described as self-centred, difficult and self-destructive. It was a well known secret in Hollywood that he was bisexual, which put strains on his US career after the 1930 Hays Code, that prohibited any allusion to homosexuality in film. His accent also made it hard for him to get big roles after the advent of talkies, but he was however fairly successful until becoming blacklisted in 1934. He is maybe best known for his role as the Chinese warlord Yen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Capra thought it was one of his best films, but it was controversial at the time because of its depiction of interracial love. Asther moved to Britain after being blacklisted, but returned to the States in 1938. His career unfortunately took a steady decline and he ended his second Hollywood stint as a truck driver, and moved back to Sweden, where he apperad sporadically in films. Despite his later bad luck in Hollywood, he does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Another curiosity involves actor Birger von Cotta-Schønberg, who had a bit part in the film. He is most famous for being sentenced to 3 years in jail in 1947 for his aid to the Nazis in WWII.

A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet). 1918, Denmark. Director: Holger-Madsen. Writers: Sophus Michaëlis, Ole Olsen. Starring: Gunnar Tolnæs, Alf Blütecher, Lilly Jacobsson, Nils Asther, Zanny Petersen, Nicolai Neiiendam, Svend Kornbeck, Philip Bech, Frederik Jacobsen. Cinematography: Frederik Fuglsang, Loius Larsen. Art Direction: Axel Bruun. Production Design: Carlo Jacobsen.

Produced by Ole Olsen for Nordisk (Great Northern)

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