“It is God’s punishment…”
[Original title: Verdens Undergang]
[aka The Flaming Sword aka The Last Judgement]
Director: August Blom
Starring: Olaf Fønss, Ebba Thomsen, Johanne Fritz-Petersen, Carl Lauritzen, Thorleif Lund, Alf Blütecher, Frederik Jacobsen, K. Zimmermann
Screenplay: Otto Rung
Synopsis: An itinerant preacher (Frederik Jacobsen) arrives in a mining town on the coast of Denmark. At the same time, the mine owner, Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), arrives in town on business: though he owns a house there, most of his time is spent in the city. The mines are managed by a man called West (Carl Lauritzen), a widower who lives with his two daughters, Dina (Ebba Thomsen) and Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen). Upon arriving home, West greets the preacher, who has come to call upon him, and invites him in to dine. The girls greet the men but hurry through their domestic duties, as there is a dance that evening at the local inn. The stern Mr West is hesitant to give permission, but the kindly preacher persuades him. Dina is engaged to a mine worker called Flint (Thorleif Lund), who calls for them. The dance is a community affair, held on the grounds outside the inn, and attracts a large gathering, including Stoll. Immediately upon her arrival, Stoll is struck by Dina, and inquires her identity from his companion. Soon afterwards, he makes a point of introducing himself and asking her to dance: Flint is not happy, but Dina willingly agrees, causing notice and gossip from the other dancers. Soon, however, Stoll persuades Dina to slip away from the crowd. Once they are alone, he begins assuring her of his love… Meanwhile, Edith has met Reymers (Alf Blütecher), a young man she has known since childhood. When their dance ends, they meet up with the disgruntled Flint. Edith dances with him, to cheer him up. Later, when it is time to go, the three look for Dina, but are unable to find her; Reymers walks Edith home, where she is disturbed to find that her sister is still out. Dina, meanwhile, is being persuaded into running away with Stoll: though she makes no definite promise, he tells her that he will have a carriage waiting for her at the edge of the town. He then walks her home, not observing that the furious Flint is nearby. Inside, Mr West waits with the preacher: as soon as Dina appears he abuses her angrily, demanding to know why she did not return earlier with Edith. Then Flint, too, bursts in, asking where she has been? Dina manages to slip away, but the confrontations have decided her: packing a few possessions into a bundle, she sets out to meet Stoll. The lurking Flint sees her and tries to intervene, but after a brief, violent struggle, Stoll and Dina drive away… Time passes, and the already wealthy Stoll becomes a force on the stock exchange. All that he has gained may be for nothing, however: his cousin, the scientist Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), has discovered a new comet—which is heading directly for the Earth…
Comments: Prior to WWI, Denmark was – at least in terms of artistry – one of the leaders in world cinema; although even before the conflict broke out in Europe, it was suffering not only from international competition, as more and more countries transitioned into making feature-length films, but from an unwillingness to experiment with subject matter.
Ironically, the circumstances of the war itself forced a positive change upon some within the Danish film industry. The country itself declared neutrality in the conflict, and by way of maintaining it issued its artists, including its film-makers, with a long list of prohibited topics: any attack on royalty, the government or any public institution, including the army and the church, was strictly forbidden; so too was anything considered too “nationalistic”; and, rather strangely, historical dramas. Instead, film-makers were encouraged either to go on producing the kind of low-key domestic dramas that had gotten the local industry into trouble in the first place, or to find a “gimmick” to build a story around.
The latter suggestion had unexpected consequences. Prior to this edict, there had really been no fantastic cinema at all made in Denmark; though August Blom had (sort of) dabbled in the disaster movie with 1913’s Atlantis. However, at this point a few of the more talented Danish directors realised, as others in other countries would do after them, that “unrealistic” genres such as science fiction could be an extremely effective vehicle for dealing with realistic topics, forbidden or not. All one had to do was ensure that the “gimmick” was big enough to provide the necessary distraction.
And as far as big gimmicks go, they don’t get much bigger than the end of the world.
Verdens Undergang – The End Of The World – was supposedly based upon an original screenplay by Otto Rung; but while that is probably true in the strictest sense, it is important to grasp that this film was preceded by a full hundred years’ worth of end-of-the-world prophecies and apocalyptic fiction, basically dating from Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s novel, Le Dernier Homme, published in 1805. (The reason for all this doom and gloom is far too immense a subject to get into here, but it’s a fascinating one.) Comets, meanwhile, for thousands of years considered a harbinger of disaster, were a subgenre of their own, both in the real world (for example, the hysteria surrounding the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1835) and on the page. In context, a key work was Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion, published in 1839, in which a passing comet destroys the world by sucking all the nitrogen out of the atmosphere.
The critical work of fiction, however, was probably La Fin du Monde, published in 1894 by the French astronomer and author, Camille Flammarion (and later translated into Engliah as Omega: The Last Days Of The World), a work of science fiction that considers the long-term consequences of a comet striking, though not totally destroying, the Earth.
One of those inspired by Flammarion’s novel was Abel Gance who, in 1913, wanted to make a film in which a comet could act as a metaphor for the war-clouds that were gathering over Europe. He was unable to secure the necessary backing at that time, and was forced to put his idea on the back-burner—until 1931, when the war-clouds were gathering again. Whatever Gance had intended in the first place, by the time he made La Fin du Monde he had evidently seen and studied The End Of The World. The two films, though broadly dissimilar in approach, do have several points very much in common—not least their contention that, even when faced with the end of the world, capitalists are gunna capitalist.
La Fin du Monde – the book – may not have been a direct influence upon The End Of The World: it was hardly needed. The preceding thirty years had witnessed a series of extreme natural disasters, from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; while on the comet front, the Tunguska Event of 1908 preceded the return of Halley’s Comet in 1910—which this time passed much closer to the Earth, raising fears of what its poisonous tail might do. Public expressions of concern over this provoked another outbreak of global hysteria, everything from massive church services to a wave of suicides.
As the hysteria receded, film-makers reacted—usually by turning the panic into a basis for comedy: several such short films were made, including one that may have been made by the pioneering female director, Alice Guy-Blaché. The year 1910 itself, however, also saw two serious takes on the situation produced. In one of these the comet does not hit; but the other, an impossible-to-see short film called simply The Comet, allegedly has a comet striking the Earth and causing devastation; and if so, it may be the first genuinely apocalyptic movie.
But there is no question about the standing or importance of The End Of The World—although those coming to it for its apocalypse will first (as my synopsis makes clear) have to sit through a great deal of family angst and social drama first. While this section of the film does serve a purpose, it is also possible that it helped to soothe the censors with the seeming promise of the kind of domestic tale that dominated Danish cinema.
This opening stretch of The End Of The World offers nothing new on the drama front – certainly not its blonde / brunette, good girl / bad girl dichotomy – but even at this point, anyone familiar with the cinema of this time must be struck by the artistry of these scenes: the location shooting (some of which, curiously enough, seems to have been carried out in Sweden), the cinematography and lighting effects of Louis Larsen, and the striking compositions of August Blom.
With only 75 minutes at their disposal, perhaps August Blom and Otto Rung (like the rest of us) were eager to get to “the good bit”; but even so, this opening sequence is rather absurdly truncated. We are given no idea why Dina is engaged to Flint, for whom she obviously doesn’t care; and the rapidity with which Frank Stoll sweeps her off her feet is completely unconvincing; as indeed is his instant obsession with her. Part of this is a familiar issue: Ebba Thomsen was a big star, but as was not uncommon in film at this time, she’s really too old for the part she’s playing; and while tastes change, of course, we’re unlikely to find Dina as dazzling as she needs to be to explain Stoll’s instantaneous passion.
The social commentary aspects of The End Of The World will become increasingly important; though that said, I’m not sure what to make of how, given later events, Mr West is presented here. He welcomes the preacher into his home eagerly enough, but then has to be reminded to say grace before eating; while later, when Dina belatedly returns home, he interrupts a bible-reading to abuse her as a harlot!
This last is what makes up Dina’s mind: she packs up and sneaks out of the house without speaking another word to her father or sister. Flint sees her hurrying towards the spot where Stoll is waiting for her, and catches up with them just as Dina climbs into the carriage. There is a struggle between the two men, which ends when Stoll lashes Flint across the face with his whip. Flint is left to shake an impotent fist in the carriage’s wake.
“A few years” then pass, with Stoll “rising to power on the stock exchange”—as evidenced by his morning suit, top hat and chauffeur-driven car.
The relationship between Stoll and Dina is one of this film’s most puzzling aspects. We are left to infer that the two of them are living in sin; yet there seems no reason at all why they should not be married. Stoll isn’t hiding Dina away in some back-street: she is living with him, it seems, in his own house in “the capital”, surrounded by luxury and covered in jewels; so why isn’t she his wife?
The relationship puts a curious spin on the narrative in another way, too. Stoll is overtly this film’s villain, yet he remains difficult entirely to dislike—not least because of his behaviour towards Dina. His initial seduction of her is presented straightforwardly as love-at-first-sight on his part; and now an intertitle assures us that he has “been faithful to Dina, whom he still loves with blind devotion.”
In fact, it is Dina about whom the film is slightly ambiguous, so that it is unclear whether she is equally devoted, or whether we are to take her as something of a gold-digger. At the outset, when Stoll first approaches her, we are told that she is “tempted by a life of beauty and wealth”; though also that she is “moved by his assurances of love.” We see that, though she is happy enough in Stoll’s company – which may or may not have something to do with the lavish gifts with which he continues to shower her – when left alone, she broods upon her situation.
But though the film itself disapproves, even if she is not as sincere as Stoll, it’s hard to blame Dina too much for wanting to escape from the mining town—or from Flint. That is another curious touch here: though he occupies the dual positions of jilted lover and put-upon worker, Flint is thoroughly unsympathetic, and will become only more so going forward.
Anyhow—this is how things stand when The End Of The World abruptly switches gears.
At the observatory, Professor Wisemann – “the well-known astronomer” – has discovered a new comet, and continues to track it via the powerful telescope. By the following morning, having worked all night, the worried scientist has calculated that the comet will likely enter Earth’s atmosphere. Wisemann carries his data to the President of the astronomical society who, after some initial resistance, double-checks his figures and sees the growing danger.
Some hint of the situation leaks out into the press, and begins to cause a panic on the stock exchange. Stoll reacts differently from the rest of his colleagues: seeing the possibility for a financial killing, when everyone else starts to sell, he buys.
This financial manoeuvring is only the tip of Stoll’s plan. Next he rushes home, dismaying Dina by announcing that he must return to the mining-town on business and that, for reasons he currently declines to explain, she must come with him. We gather that neither of them has been back since their elopement: hardly surprising, if they are living in sin. Dina reluctantly acquiesces; but when Stoll has gone, she thinks unhappily about the father she left behind.
This touch is the cue for the film to shift back to the town, to catch us up with the other characters. In particular, Edith and Reymers have been pursuing a perfectly proper courtship; although the latter, a sailor, does not propose until he passed his first mate’s examination.
But amongst all the good news, Reymers has brought with him a copy of the newspaper carrying the story about the comet—which a cut outside, where the preacher is talking to a group of townspeople, shows us is now visible to the naked eye.
One of those who approaches the preacher is Flint, who invites him to accompany him to the Wests’. After greetings are exchanged, Mr West – whose hair has turned grey – shows the preacher the newspaper. Edith then calls out that the comet may be seen through their window. After gloomily confirming this, Flint and the preacher sit down again with Mr West. The latter has no doubt about the significance of the phenomenon:
Mr West: “It is God’s punishment.”
Meanwhile, a full meeting of the astronomical society is called. Professor Wisemann goes over his calculations, and the scientists debate the likelihood of disaster.
Here the second phase of Stoll’s plan to exploit the situation unfolds: Wisemann is his cousin, and briefly slips away from the meeting upon receiving a note from Stoll asking to speak to him. Stoll presses Wisemann for the earliest possible news of the meeting’s conclusions, and after some initial resistance, Wisemann agrees to send him word.
And the news is not good: there is finally agreement amongst the scientists, based upon Wisemann’s data, that the comet’s passing will mean catastrophe.
The scientists also agree, for the moment, to withhold this information from the press, in order to avoid – or delay – a panic. Wisemann had not anticipated this outcome; he nevertheless keeps his promise to his cousin and sends him a note which reveals the terrible truth:
Wisemann: “The comet, according to the calculations, will enter the Earth’s orbit on September 20th and a disaster, particularly in north-western Europe, can be expected.”
The message finds Stoll in the office of his friend, the editor of The Times, expounding to him his plan for exploiting the situation—
Stoll: “If it is possible to calm the public, so the stocks come up again, we will make millions!”
—and there is only momentary hesitation from him before he begins persuading the editor to print a lie: to tell the public that – “according to a reliable source” – the scientists have, in fact, declared there to be no danger from the comet. The editor is momentarily horrified – yeah, you’d hope – but then his greed gets the better of him. He and Stoll shake on their dirty deal.
(In an interesting touch, when the editor summons an underling to have the story Stoll himself has written printed, Stoll orders him to, “Use the largest font we have.” Does he own the paper, then? And, let’s see, an immoral media owner printing outright lies to deceive the public and make his own fortune, regardless of the consequences— Nahhh, that doesn’t remind me of anyone…)
The outraged Wisemann tracks his cousin to the stock exchange, where Stoll is selling off all his recently acquired holdings at a tidy profit. Stoll waves away the scientist’s condemnation and sense of betrayal – it isn’t clear whether, in doing so, he admits to anything – and has himself driven home—where, before entering the grounds, he pauses for a moment to gaze up at the comet, clearly visible overhead.
Stoll finds Dina is preparing for their journey. He boasts to her of the coup he has pulled off—though not, presumably, his methods.
In the mining town, public agitation is growing, as the comet self-evidently draws nearer: the preacher does his best to calm people. At this time, Reymers must depart on his first sea-voyage following his promotion. Edith walks with him to the docks, to see him off. While he begins his new duties, Reymers cannot help casting grim looks up at the comet—and also back at the dock, where Edith still stands, disturbed by the thought of something happening to her in his absence.
Evidently word has reached the mining town of the intended visit of Stoll and Dina; they are certainly expected, and with no pleasant feeling. As they draw near, Dina’s apprehension grows—and, as it turns out, with good reason. Over the preceding years, Flint has become a morose and even dangerous man, fixated upon his sense of wrong, and nursing a deep hatred of Stoll.
This is where The End Of The World takes a curious turn. Possibly the film-makers knew they wouldn’t get away with an outright bosses-vs-workers subplot, particularly one that seems to urge a workers’ uprising; but there is an extremely distasteful edge to the alternative, which finds Flint stirring up just such a revolt – and getting a lot of his fellow workers killed, among other people – purely out of a sense of personal grievance.
Nor does Flint pretend otherwise! Picking a moment when he and his fellows are comfortably full of the local pub’s best, he urges them to help him get his revenge against Stoll, who, “Has stolen the woman I loved from me!”
(…and never mind Dina’s eager dash for freedom…)
Meanwhile, though with no effect, Edith and the preacher are clearly trying to soften Mr West’s heart, which remains stonily closed against his erring daughter. They are interrupted by the sounds of raised voices nearby: Flint and his companions and the car carrying Stoll and Dina meet outside the house. Hearing of the arrival, Mr West is wholly on the miners’ side: he brushes off Edith and dashes out, where Flint is being held back from attacking Stoll physically. Mr West quells the mob with a word—but only to curse Dina for “disgracing your father’s good name”. (So clearly they aren’t married; why aren’t they married?)
Mr West then collapses, and is carried into the house; while the rest restrain Flint until the car is driven away. Shortly afterwards, with Edith and the preacher by his bedside, he dies.
Overcome by this scene, Dina must be assisted into Stoll’s house at the edge of the town—which if anything is more luxurious than his house in the capital. As Stoll tries to comfort her, through a window we see the comet hovering ominously in the background. Noticing, Stoll – like Flint – raises an angry but impotent fist, before hurrying away to put the next phase of his plan in action. Slipping into the next room, he lights a candle and opens a concealed doorway in one of the walls—revealing a passageway that runs deep into the mines. As he descends, he marks his way with chalk, to ensure that he can find his way back again.
Eventually Stoll returns to the distressed Dina, assuring her that he has a place where the two of them can wait out the disaster in safety.
Nor has Stoll quite finished defying fate: he invites all his fat-cat friends and their wives (mistresses?) to his house on the 20th September for a “comet party”:
Stoll: “Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it is we who will found the new world, and be its masters!”
He urges his guests to “salute the rush of meteors towards the Earth with a feast”, and then announces the evening’s entertainment: “When the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us!”
This would-be bacchanalian interlude provokes sniggers rather than shock these days, particularly the extremely peculiar stage-show, in which Dina participates; which (like the comet itself, come to think of it) is all rather Georges Méliès.
Still—you kind of have to admire the insouciance on display here; even if it is based on the arrogant assumption that they will, of course, be “saved”.
The party scenes inside Stoll’s house are juxtaposed with a gathering of the townspeople for what seems to have started as a funeral for Mr West, but which becomes a general service led by the preacher.
And as the service ends – as the party reaches its height – the first impact of the comet is felt…
Stoll and his guests are not the only ones to spend what might be their last moments defying fate. Flint was, we gather, imprisoned after his attack on Stoll (perhaps just to give him time to cool down); but as the comet’s fiery debris begins to smash into the town, he smashes his way out of his cell—using his freedom for one last hurrah:
Flint: “The world ends tonight! So let us take back what the rich have stolen from us!”
He has no trouble riling up the townspeople (many of whom, note bene, have just come away from a prayer-meeting); and as lightning slashes dramatically across the sky, he leads an armed assault upon Stoll’s house.
There are a few guns amongst Flint’s people, though most are armed with tools like pick-axes, or even just pieces of wood; while several handguns are distributed amongst Stoll’s guests, who also build a flimsy barricade inside the door of the “theatre”, where they are caught. As the attackers begin breaking through the door, Stoll announces, “I will shoot the first who enters!”
He does – they all do – Flint’s people fire back – and in the bloody encounter, Dina is wounded. The horrified Stoll, still firing, drags her away from the forefront of the conflict—and leaving his guests to fight the battle, carries her into the secret passage, and into the depths of the mine.
Flint, however, observes their exit: he too abandons his followers, to pursue them; and the guests and the townspeople, neither of whom have any real stake in what is actually being fought out here, are left to slaughter one another—at least until a comet strike finishes the job for both parties…
Though Dina is rapidly weakening, Stoll manages to drag her towards the refuge he has selected within the mine. Flint, meanwhile, has observed the chalk-marks along the way and grasped their significance: he continues to stalk his prey by flickering candlelight…
The End Of The World broadens its view here, cutting rapidly between Reymers on his boat, under fire from the falling debris, to Professor Wisemann at the observatory, which sustains a direct hit, to the town itself—which is devastated. The people flee, but they have nowhere to go.
By now most of the town is a smouldering ruin, but the West house is still untouched. Edith, alone there, watches in terror as the comet strikes draw ever nearer.
Down in the mine, Stoll and Dina share one last kiss before she dies; he cries out in his agony, shaking his fists upwards—at the comet, at Flint – at God – it isn’t clear.
As for Flint himself, he never does catch up with them: the shock of a surface strike releases a pocket of poisonous gas within the mine, and he is overcome. Stoll, grieving over Dina’s body, also collapses and dies…
On the surface, a new but equally destructive force then arises, with the raging oceans sweeping in to inundate what is left of the town. Fire has spared the West house, but water will not: it crashes in through the windows, as Edith recoils in fresh terror…
Reymers, meanwhile, is the only survivor of his boat: the captain, staying behind himself, ordered his crew off in a life-boat, but this does not save the rest. Alone with a corpse, without any way of rowing or steering, he can only await his own fate…
The breaking dawn finds Edith crouched on the roof of her house. The waters have ceased to rise, but lap only a foot or two below her. She cries out with new hope as a small boat appears in the distance. It rows towards her, and she sees that its occupant is the preacher. With great care, he manoeuvres the vessel towards her and helps her in. The two row to higher ground, and climb up over a rocky shore to a cave where Edith can rest, while the preacher presses on to look for other survivors.
When Edith wakes, she stumbles outside to find the sun rising over a new world. The waters have receded, leaving behind a scorched earth and a town in ruins. She calls out, but no-one answers… Finally, she turns her steps towards the church, perched on a high eminence above the town. It, too, is badly damaged, but the belfry remains. Desperately, Edith sets the bell in motion, its solemn notes pealing across the deserted landscape.
Or—not quite deserted. We have already watched Reymers swim to shore and stagger up out of the water and across the new desolation of the land. Then he hears the sound of bells…
Though it is usually classified as science fiction, you can make a case for The End Of The World as the first fully-fledged disaster movie: it certainly throws itself with enthusiasm into the realisation of the disaster scenes towards which its plot so ominously builds, and which occupy a full twenty minutes of its running-time.
But while we may debate its genre classification, it is only too evident that August Blom and Otto Rung intended their film as an allegory of the war that was then in its second year, with no end in sight. To this end we have Mr West’s insistence that the comet is, “God’s punishment”, and characters displaying on a smaller scale the kind of behaviour that played its part in pushing Europe to the brink: greed, lust, anger, vengeance, selfishness, hypocrisy, manipulation, deceit; while even the scientists’ decision to keep their discoveries secret might have been intended as a criticism of those conducting the war—the first casualty of which, as we know, is always the truth.
In this context we can see Stoll and Flint as stand-ins for those (mis)managing the war: getting a lot of people killed on both sides, while settling nothing; while Stoll is the face of those ruthless profiteers willing to sacrifice even millions of lives to line his own pockets.
And as “an act of war” is exactly how the disaster is staged in The End Of The World: call it a comet-strike if you will, but no visual distinction is drawn between that and the brutal, indiscriminate devastation of a military bombardment. The scenes of Edith wandering through the ruins of the town are also very powerful; albeit that there is a slightly dishonest touch here: there are no bodies. (On the other hand, though the nature of it isn’t entirely clear, we should note the ominous “debris” in the water when Edith is rescued from the roof.)
Mind you, while I say “indiscriminate”… To my mind there is a problem with this reading of the film: namely – whether Blom and Rung thought so or not – it goes too far. The reunion of Edith and Reymers at the end is all very well (and, to be fair, quite beautifully staged), but what it leaves us with is the unconscionably cruel suggestion that “good” people will naturally survive the war; and furthermore, that only “good” people will.
Or perhaps it would be more correct to say, the meek.
I don’t know, though: this Adam-and-Eve stuff didn’t work out so well the first time, did it? (Ah! – of course what we have this time around is Adam and Eve and a preacher to marry them.)
You wouldn’t think that, in 1916, The End Of The World would have been the sort of film that audiences generally wanted to see – or its message one they wanted to hear – but surprisingly, it turned out to be a success across Europe – even in Germany – although contemporary reports suggest that what captivated viewers was not the allegory, but the special effects. And indeed, these scenes still have their impact, though it is now evident how they were achieved—including the building of a model reproduction of the entire town, just for the purpose of blowing it up and burning it down. However, the sunken set on which Edith’s rescue was filmed was and is a remarkable achievement.
But even in its straight dramatic scenes The End Of The World is visually striking, despite its ongoing battle against the restrictions of early technology. For example, though the camera is stationary, whenever possible August Blom fills the frame with movement, particularly in background, to offset this. He was also one of the pioneers of cross-cutting, and utilises it to good effect during the film’s climax. Another notable feature of Blom’s direction is the use of windows as a recurrent motif, from the early scenes at the West house through to Edith’s reunion with Reymers. We should also note touches such as Louis Larsen’s chiaroscuro, particularly during the scenes in the mine, and the belfry scene at the end.
Whatever viewers and critics of the time may have made of it, what the Nordisk Film company seems to have taken away from the success of the film was the idea that the tactic of burying a message in a fantastic story was one likely to yield more benefits. And if, in The End Of The World, the company inadvertently gave birth to the disaster movie, two years later it gave us what seems to be cinema’s first full-length space-opera…
Sources suggest that this set visitor is Holger-Madsen, who would later direct that aforementioned space-opera.