Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Verdens Undergang (1916) and the Birth of Apocalyptic Film: Antecedents and Causative Forces

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Verdens Undergang (1916) and the Birth of Apocalyptic Film: Antecedents and Causative Forces

Article excerpt

The First Apocalyptic Film

On April 1, 1916, Verdens undergang (The End of the World), a 77-minute blackand-white silent motion picture, was released in Denmark to theatrical audiences. The film, with Danish intertitles, is acknowledged by film historians as the first apocalyptic feature film. The film, also known as The Flaming Sword, featured strong production values and Denmark's finest production talent. The film was produced by Nordisk Film Kompagni, directed by August Blom, written by Otto Rung, and starred Olaf Fenss and Ebba Thomsen. Verdens undergang depicts a worldwide catastrophe when an errant comet passes by Earth and causes natural disasters and social unrest.1 The film was a huge success across Europe, partly the result of great special effects for the period. When the motion picture toured German cinemas as The Last Judgment (Das jüngste Gericht) in November 1916 local media described the spectacular scenes of natural disasters, as "astonishingly technical accomplishments" doing so "with such elemental force" that it "almost surpasses the power of human imagination."2

Verdens undergang (1916): A Seminal Motion Picture

Despite being released in a small European country when the atrocities of the First World War were headlining newspapers and entertainment news was relegated to back pages, Verdens undergang was not overlooked by the movie-going public and became a highly influential work of art. The film is set in a small Danish mining town where two sisters, Dina (Ebba Thomsen) and Edith (Johanne FritzPetersen), daughters of the mine owner West (Carl Lauritzen) are romantically involved. The latter remains faithful to a childhood friend named Reymers (Alf Blütecher); the first falls for the promise of a wealthy life alongside miner owner Frank Stoll (Olaf Fonss) with whom she elopes, abandoning her engagement to worker Flint (Thorleif Lund).

Stoll benefits from the rumors of an imminent disaster caused by the passing of a comet when his cousin, the scientist who discovered the comet, orders the release of fake reassuring news, promising the newspaper editor a significant amount of money resulting from the complete sale of stocks. A wandering prophet (Frederik Jacobsen) arrives in the mining town at the very first scene of the film, signifying that the comet is "God's punishment." On the night of the comet, the poor pray on a hill while Stoll and the rich hold a lavish feast. While the comet is wreaking death and destruction across the countryside, Stoll, his wife, and the vengeful Flint (seeking revenge for his stolen love) find refuge in a cave where all succumb to poisonous gases saturating the mine shaft. Edith is rescued by the prophet while Reymers is saved miraculously from his mission on sea. The film ends with the young couple kneeling, thankful to God they were the few spared death.

From a technical perspective, Verdens undergang stands among the first films introducing a new (at the time) technique in lighting, specifically the enhancing dramatic effect of a protagonist struggling in the dark with a hand-held source of light, in this case a candle.3 The special effects set a new standard in technical craftsmanship. The dramatic on-location filming depicting the ocean rising and the strong winds battering the weather-beaten houses, are equally matched in their intensity by the display of fire sparks falling onto a miniature replica of the town. The effects convincingly depict the comet's devastation while reinforcing the meting out of Christian justice on a land plagued by sin as lust, betrayal, deceit and vengeance are all punished by death.

The motion picture is not only the first apocalyptic feature but is also notable for being the first full-length film to cast a globally destructive comet as a central plot element. The influence on other filmmakers is evident in the narrative similarities between Blom's film and French director Abel Gance's End of the World (French: La Fin du monde) (1931), both morality plays highlighting the excesses of capitalism, and each involving a comet hurtling towards Earth, manipulations of the media to capitalize on stock market volatility due to impending calamity, romantic intrigue, and a comet that causes near total devastation to the world's population. …

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