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Abel Gance's La fin du monde (The End of the World) is a difficult movie to see in its original version. The Daily Variety review from February 11, 1931 judged it a complete artistic and commercial disaster and placed the blame squarely at the feet of its 'overreaching' director. The movie was in production for almost two years, cost five million francs and became the first all-talking French feature film. Gance spent a fortune developing a stereophonic sound system, hoping to widen the aural experience in the same way that he spread out his masterpiece Napoleon onto three screens. It's uncertain if the film was ever exhibited with a stereo track.
We don't know how long La fin du monde might have been had Gance been allowed to finish it, but it was taken away from him and cut to 105 intriguing minutes. The only version released in the United States is a drastically hacked 54-minute 1934 cut that eliminates the major character played by Abel Gance almost completely. Other sources say that this shorter version The End of the World begins with a lengthy filmed lecture on the heavens by an astronomer, and makes no sense whatsoever.
La fin du monde was the Heaven's Gate of its place and time. Variety implies that Gance's financiers seized the film and released their own version because they thought he was an irresponsible megalomaniac. Other sources say that upheavals in the French stock market forced the investors to pull the plug. Still, the image of Gance as an egotistical loose cannon is borne out by the film's original French title, which translates as The End of the World, Seen, Heard and Rendered from an Idea by Camille Flammarion, by Abel Gance. Everything about the film communicates Gance's conviction that the world is coming to a political and moral apocalypse, and that his duty is to use his cinematic art to direct the hearts of the world toward spiritual values. The investors must have been shocked to see Gance cast himself in the role of a modern prophet pointing the way to humanity's salvation. The film initially lets us believe that the director is playing Christ, until the camera pulls back and reveals that he's an actor in a Passion Play within the film.
Abel Gance enthusiast and silent screen expert Kevin Brownlow used a few tantalizing excerpts from La fin du monde in his documentary on Silent European Cinema, Cinema Europe: interesting special effects of a bright heavenly body approaching Paris, and highlights of a wild orgy scene. Savant wrote about La fin du monde in a 1999 web article called Those Astral Collision Movies. I've only recently seen the original full-length film, in French with Italian subtitles for an Italian television broadcast. It's been suggested that apocalyptic Science Fiction films relate to the 20th Century resurgences of Christian revivalism that accompanied the introduction of radio and television. La fin du monde not only supports that theory, it aids in understanding the religious-political hysteria behind later films like Red Planet Mars.
Because La fin du monde is at present so difficult to see, I've included a detailed breakdown of its highly melodramatic storyline:
Jean comes to the aid of a young woman being abused by her parents. Accused of rape, Jean is mobbed and critically wounded by a blow to the head. To Isabelle's displeasure, Schomburg accompanies Genevieve to a fancy party, takes her back to her apartment and rapes her. In his observatory high atop Pic du Midi, Martial detects the Lexell Comet in the constellation Gemini and computes that it is on a collision course with the Earth. The world will soon end.
Jean has already predicted the coming apocalypse, and prophesizes that the cataclysm has arrived to 'save the hearts of man.' Doves alight on Jean's bed as he asks Martial to swear to keep Lexell a secret, and to use the opportunity to teach men to love one another
Martial confides to his colleagues that the comet will strike in 114 days. They confirm his findings and honor his pledge of secrecy. After Jean is taken to an asylum, Martial and a despondent Genevieve listen to the phonograph records he's left behind. Genevieve is instructed to abandon her worldly life and help Martial inaugurate a new World Government. Jean's voice tells them they must marry and become the shepherd and shepherdess of humanity. Genevieve sees a vision of Jean as Christ.
With 92 days left, a major war scare develops. Schomburg invests heavily in armaments. Martial goes to the rich Werster and tells him that the world will end. Motivated to help, Werster pulls out of his stock market deals with Schomburg and gives Martial a fortune to buy a newspaper and a broadcast station. Genevieve has remained single but helps to organize Radio Martial Novalic's broadcasts of peace bulletins. Martial's loyal confederates jam official radio news, blocking warnings that war mobilization is imminent. Then Martial announces the coming End of the World. Stock markets plunge around the globe but Schomburg continues to buy; exhausted, Genevieve wishes she were back with Schomburg.
732 hours to go. De Murcie and Schomburg accuse Novalic of kidnapping Genevieve and using the Comet as a hoax to destroy the economy. A government minister orders the exchanges closed and the arrest of Martial and Werster. But Martial's agents learn of the arrest warrant with a hidden microphone. The newspaper is confiscated and the radio station destroyed, and Martial and Werster escape.
The government suppresses the truth and the stock market recovers. Schomberg holds a huge party on the night Martial claims that the Comet will become visible. The war profiteer tells a group of gangsters that he'll pay a million Francs if Martial and Werster are found dead before morning. Genevieve has returned to her father and joins Schomburg to neck in the garden; the jealous Isabelle runs to warn Martial Novalic. At the party, everyone sees the Comet!
Thanks to Isabelle, Martial again escapes and learns that full war mobilization will soon be announced. He and Werster rush to destroy the government's radio antenna in the Eiffel Tower. Schomburg and his gangsters arrive corner the hero saboteurs high above the city. Genvieve tips off Martial by telephone that Schomburg and his killers are ascending in an elevator. Werster warns Genevieve to stay on the ground and uses a cutting torch to sever the elevator cable. But Genevieve has taken the elevator as well and is killed with the rest.
Humanity can now see the Lexell Comet with their own eyes, and Radio Novalic resumes broadcasting. Martial calls for the first convention of the "General States of the Universe" on August 5, the night before the collision. The world prays - Christians, Muslims, natives in Africa. The Comet looms larger in the sky and extreme weather ensues -- blizzards, storms, tidal waves. With 32 hours to go, riots and pandemonium break out. Wherever liquor is available, a giant party begins. A thousand elite revelers bring musicians into a great hall for a feast and orgy. Monks carrying candles interrupt the orgy and lead the group in prayer.
As the orbits of the Comet and the earth converge, Martial Novalic addresses the One World Congress, which unanimously agrees (including the U.S.A.) to unite all governments into a single harmonious entity. The Lexell Comet narrowly misses the earth. Much of the world has been reduced to rubble, but life will go on.
Even at its full 1931 release length, La fin du monde is a delirious misfire. On the technical level, it has all the flaws of a first talkie effort. Most dialogue scenes are one or two-take static setups interrupted by mismatched cutaways. Gance's action scenes have the feel of silent serials from the 'teens, with the hero Martial Novalic invariably being warned just before the authorities can arrest him. The film has a reasonable scientific attitude and the special effects are quite good. When the Lexell Comet is finally visible in broad daylight, the illusion is excellent.
Evidence of drastic cutting appears from the start. The title music cuts off rudely and is replaced by another cue just as the first scene begins. We hear several mentions of anti-war demonstrations but see only a fragment of a scene with a large crowd, indicating the possible elimination of a lengthy montage. The fierce storms and crazy weather that mark the approach of the Comet are accomplished with acceptable miniature effects, but seem to be severely edited as well. Two scenes use the signature flutter cutting seen in other Abel Gance silent films. In the final World Government meeting, Gance distorts the images weirdly, as if the influence of the Comet were affecting our vision. The montages that haven't been altered are excellent, but the continuity is severely damaged in the scene of the elevator crash. We never see Genevieve enter the elevator car, yet lines of dialogue hint that she is inside when it falls. Somebody apparently decided that they didn't like that scene, and mangled it with a re-cut.
Most reviewers criticize the acting, when the players actually aren't bad at all. Victor Francen fares particularly well in a difficult role. The problem is a naïve, emotional script that rushes from one sensational or miraculous scene to another like a Biblical epic by Cecil B. De Mille. The male characters are divided into noble heroes -- the ones that follow the lead of the prophet Jean -- and dastardly villains like Schomburg, who wants to profit from the war scare and rape both the country and the leading lady. Gance's daring passion play scene fumbles his real point, that the church audience couldn't care less about religion. Schomburg wants to date the actress playing Mary Magdalene. Jean Novalic's play inspires lust, not spirituality.
The female characters are even more thoughtlessly imagined. Jean's mother is an idealized stereotype while the raven-haired Isabelle and her friend 'the princess' are mindless playgirls mooning over Schomburg, the richest man they know. Gance has his women change character on a whim, as when Isabelle warns Martial in fit of jealousy. Perhaps poor continuity is at fault, but Genevieve is ridiculously inconsistent, swearing to serve Martial and then rushing back at the worst possible moment to rejoin the rapist Schomburg. Genevieve's contradictory actions serve only the convenience of the jerky plot.
The film is hysterical pacifist propaganda that extends the comparatively reasonable thesis of Gance's earlier J'Accuse!, a horror movie where the dead of WW1 refuse to stay dead because Europe has not taken the proper steps to insure a lasting peace. La fin du monde would appear to be a response to a number of late 1920s phenomena: the resurgence of Christian revivalism on the radio, major stock crashes and news of corruption and financial scandals in the French government. Jean speaks in humanist-spiritual terms and never mentions Jesus or God, but the message is clear. He is of course a literal Jesus figure, accompanied by doves and preaching the spiritual salvation of mankind in The End of Days.
The ideas in the film are both grandiose and simpleminded, and permeated with the notion that vast problems can be solved with simple solutions. Novalic has only to jam the government's radio broadcasts to delay a declaration of war. Frankly, I'd think that many 1931 audiences would find the whole theme, including Gance's dress-up masquerade as Jesus, to be in perfectly lousy taste. A montage of religious services around the world (often imitated in later apocalyptic epics) is marred by showing African natives speaking with accelerated 'Micky Mouse' squeaked voices. Perhaps by the producers added that detail, and not Gance. The producers did not excise a shot showing that Jean Novalic is inspired by the teachings of Kropotkin, the theorist who proposed Anarchist Communism as the perfect framework for society.
Others have seen Fascist tendencies in the film, reminding us that Gance's masterpiece Napoleon champions the emperor as a great Frenchman, negating the anti-nationalist message of J'Accuse. Martial's gift of enlightenment is definitely not democratic; just as Schomburg accuses, he seizes the leadership of the country with mass propaganda and by silencing the opposition. Martial murders his most important enemy in broad daylight. He galvanizes his supporters at a giant meeting that resembles the Nazi rallies to come. The strongest message in La fin du monde is that the masses should throw their support behind a strong leader with a righteous cause. Uh-oh.
The film's most famous scene is an enormous orgy. Kevin Brownlow reported that a great many costumed extras were hired, the music and champagne were laid on and the crowd was told to 'have at it' while the camera crane moved overhead. 1 Even when trimmed for the release version, the spectacle outdoes the Biblical romps in De Mille epics. One brief shot appears to show dozens of lovers lined up on a mat on the floor. Of course, just as things are getting interesting, hooded monks enter and everyone starts praying instead. 2
La fin du monde sees the threatening comet as the savior of mankind, just as weary diplomats and pundits periodically wish that one issue -- or enemy -- would appear to unite all peoples. The proclamation of a Universal Government as the city falls around them is crazy enough, but even sillier is the notion that such a pact would be honored when the sun rose again the next day. Gance instead chooses to end on a farm scene that demonstrates that 'life goes on.'
Gance undertook his first sound film standing at the forefront of French cinema, and came out almost ruined. The film ended Gance's freewheeling career and turned him back to 'safe' projects. It's considered his worst movie. In one of his essays, when critic Jean-Luc Godard wants to belittle Gance as an overrated loser, he simply title-drops La fin du monde.
La fin du monde clearly influenced Wylie and Balmer's novels When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, which take the same story and graft on a Roosevelt-like public works project to build a Noah's Ark spaceship to escape the cosmic cataclysm. The novels sublimate the revivalist theme by offering hope for survival (salvation) in the form of a new planet. Instead of a spiritual rebirth, the American books suggest that a technological elite will earn the right to survive because they worship science. The rest of the world, including what Wylie and Balmer consider 'inferior' races, are unworthy and must perish. In the American model too, religious fundamentalism eventually endorses fascist solutions. 20th century Sci-Fi is fundamentally political in nature -- and the statements it makes cover the whole political spectrum. 3
1. As it turns out, La fin du monde was the film debut for an electronic musical instrument called a Martenot. It is featured in the foreground of the first big party scene.
2. A 1930 18 minute film by Eugène Deslaw called Autour de la fin du monde (Around the End of the World) has seen screenings at film festivals lately. It reportedly collects screen tests and deleted or censored scenes from La fin du monde and may have been some kind of promotional effort. After a century's worth of cultural PR about the French being uninhibited, it would be interesting to see something that proves it. NOTE, 12.03.07: Kevin Pyrtle has located Autour la fin du monde and placed it online! It can be viewed at this URL.
3. Guy Maddin's six-minute short from 2000 The Heart of the World is a stylistic celebration of silent Soviet agit-prop cinema, but its theme and story are borrowed from La fin du monde. Two brothers, one a surrogate Christ figure, love an Aelita- like woman whose inverted telescope reports that the 'heart of the world' (a literal beating heart in the center of the Earth) is dying. She takes its place and becomes a humanistic Madonna, glowing with love that makes the world rejoice. The raw energy that fuels the Heart of the World is KINO ... cinema.
4. A note from Kevin Pyrtle, April 2, 2008:
Hi again, Glenn. I now have the American release version of La fin du monde. All I can say is that if the French theatrical version is a failure, then there aren't words quite low enough to describe what was done to it by American distributors. The whole thing plays with an inordinate number of intertitles explaining things that don't need explaining, with explanations that often don't make sense. My favorite of the moment is one describing the aftermath of the orgy scene: "But even here, suddenly and weirdly appear the monks to bless 'death'". What little dialogue there is left on display is in the original French, augmented with English subtitles that occasionally are actual translations and are, more often, utterly out of place.
Tack on to the 45 minutes of actual movie the obscenely long introduction by the supposed curator of Astronomy at the Museum of Natural History in New York and what you have is an utterly strange and nearly unwatchable 54 minute feature.
All is not lost, however. My suspicions were correct, at least in part. While the orgy itself is actually cut a bit in this version, both the lead-up to it and the subsequent scenes of cometary destruction are vastly extended over the Italian TV print. At least a few good minutes of additional footage are to be had here -- there may be other scenes that are longer as well, but a more in-depth comparison will be necessary to catch any of them. I imagine the ungodly amount of stock footage pumped into the American cut will make that more difficult than it need be.
That's all for now. I'll definitely be doing a composite of the two prints of La fin du monde and will let you know when it is ready. Kindest regards, Kevin Pyrtle
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