Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Doctor at sea… Atlantis (1913)

Olaf Fønss in Berlin
This is another pre-war Danish film that defies expectations in terms of technique and structure. The remaining print is also in exceptionally good quality – it really is hard to believe that it’s a century old.

Directed by August Blom, the story is based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel - a prescient tale of a tragic Atlantic crossing which pre-dated the Titanic tragedy by weeks. It feels very much like an adaptation with a lot of detail crammed into the two hours with a number of fleeting characters. This was Denmark’s first full-length feature film and maybe they thought the whole book needed to be told. Or maybe Herr Hauptmann exerted too much of an influence… he certainly helped chose one or two of the cast…

Broadway makes a surprise appearance
Abetted by cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne, Blom directs with verve, shooting scenes from on-board lifeboats, strapped onto cars and on the side of snowy mountains. There are also some amazing shots of New York City – teeming with motorised traffic amongst the already sky-scraping skyline.  He cuts quickly to move the story at a pace as well as developing linear narrative in a very Griffiths-ian way (new word alert).

What I feared might be stodgy… remains an impressive film in spite of some story flaws and one really bad dancer…

The family of Dr. Friedrich von Kammacher
The tale starts with at the home of Dr. Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) and his family. The Doctor is a biological chemist with some “revolutionary” ideas he is hoping ot have endorsed by the University of Berlin.

He lives with his parents, his three children and his mentally-frail wife, Angele (Lily Frederiksen).
Life turns sour when the academics refuse to accept his ideas and then Angele attacks him with some scissors. Whilst she is sent away to a sanatorium, the exhausted Frederich is persuaded by his mother to tour Europe and recouperate.

Man about town
We are shown some wonderful views of pre-war Berlin as Frederich is driven around – a vivid window on a lost world: the “slow-glass” of film.

Frederich decides to view a theatrical matinee and the course of his life and the film is changed by a woman dancing round a flower.

The floral dance...
Having recently watched Sumurun with two professional dancers in the form of Pola Negri and Jenny Hasselqvist, it’s a bit painful to watch the dancing of Ida Orloff as Ingigerd Hahlstroem, “artistic dancer “. She too had worked professionally when as a lithe 16-year old cabaret performer she had had an affair with Herr Hauptmann – well over twenty years her senior.... As she was the inspiration for her book’s character, the author rather insisted she was cast in the film…

Olaf Fønss and Ida Orloff
Whilst some may complain about her acting, looks and prancing…it’s all in the eye of the beholder and tastes change. She’s certainly does a good enough job as a girl who can’t – almost – say no. Continually keeping her options open, she drive Friedrich mad and he all but gives up on his pursuit when he hears that she and her father are headed to her debut performance in New York.

He resolves to follow them and to continue his interest on board the passenger liner, Roland. Yet on-board, Ingigerd is as surrounded by admirers as on land and Friedrich struggles to keep her attention. Continually rebuffed by her mass of male companions he almost succumbs to the charms of an attractive Russian passenger(Alma Hinding)  sent to him for medical help.

Olaf Fønss and Alma Hinding
If you weren’t already a little unsure about the good Doctor, this betrayal of his patient’s trust seals the deal. He is indeed a peculiar kind of hero: leaving his sick wife for a tour of Europe and heading off the America in pursuit of another woman.

He always seems to be reacting to circumstances and not forging his own direction like heroes usually do… But maybe this is Hauptmann’s point? We don’t hate Friedrich we just wish he’d stick to something and someone....preferably his wife and children.

Submerged subconscious
The film flips into over-drive as the fog-shrouded ship hits a wreck and starts to ship water… Friederich is dreaming of being in the sunken city of  Atlantis, walking with his friend Dr. Schmidt (Carl Lauritzen). Maybe it’s a premonition or just the realisation that his feelings have been submerged? Either way he is rudely disturbed and told that the ship is sinking.

A large-scale model with 100s of extras were used for the sinking
Blom handles the sinking magnificently and cuts quickly from various vantage points to show the chaos and the fear as different elements play out their part from the stokers, bravely carrying on to the captain resolved to going down with his ship.

Apparently over 500 extras were involved in these scenes as the director cut from a large scale model to life-sized lifeboats full to the brim as they crash into the sea. The scenes in the lifeboats are particularly effective as desperate survivors try to climb aboard as the ship sinks in the background.

Stunning camerawork in the boats...
Frederich and Ingigerd are rescued but her father perishes. She finally falls into her hero’s arms as they head for the safety of New York.

As their rescue ship approaches dock, there are some jaw-dropping shots of Manhattan as it was… so many elegant sky-scrapers even in 1913. Worth the price of admission alone.

New York City, 1913
In New York Frederich stays with some artists who are friends of a friend. These include a friendly sculptress Eva Burns (Ebba Thomsen).

Meanwhile, Ingigerd reverts to type and loses interest in her rescuer. At the same time she is mired in misfortune as it turns out that her performing contract has some irregularities…

Dedicated location work!
An exasperated Frederich is urged to head out to the country to regain his focus and re-apply himself to study. He heads up to the frozen north to stay in a lonesome log cabin where, it is to be hoped, he finds some truth.

Frederich experiences waking dreams of his friends playing cards and his lost loves. When told that his wife has passed away he breaks down and becomes very ill.  But help is on hand and Eva Burns comes up from New York to nurse him back to health and happiness…

Ebba Thomsen and Olaf Fønss on ice
The ending feels rushed but Blom tries to pack in so much of the story that this is inevitable. The script could have done with some more editing but, heck, this is ground-breaking stuff!

There are good performances from most in the cast and Olaf Fønss is excellent as the directionless Frederich.

There’s trivia too as Hauptmann’s second choice of cast member was the amazing Charles Unthan who plays armless virtuoso Arthur Stoss. Unthan had also inspired a character in the book and having been born without arms developed an incredible dexterity of movement in his legs. The inspiration for Lon Chaney’s Unknown perhaps?

Blom also enlisted the help of an assistant director called Mihály Kertész, who found great fame in Hollywood as Michael Curtiz.

I watched the DFI 2005 restored edition DVD which includes a  two-minute alternative un-happy ending originally filmed for Russian audiences (the existence of which had to be kept secret form the author) as well as the surviving 15-minute fragment of August Blom’s and Holger-Madsen’s 1914 film Liebelei.

Available direct form the DFI where it is far cheaper than Amazon...


  1. Hi,
    I don't know if you can help me, but in the movie "Atlantis" there is a moment during the scenes of the ship-sinking when there's a quote on the screen (not on a black screen between the scenes as the other lines, but with a scene in the background), in Danish. I would like to know what it says - can you help me? I'll be very grateful!

    1. That's a tricky one! I can't quite make out all of the letters in the script used but it's something along the lines of "As the ship sinks beneath the ocean... something, something... forgotten city".

      The following tile card is about the doctor's dream in Atlantis so the connection is made first in the Danish text.

      Frustrating! Sorry I couldn't translate it fully.