(8/10) A forgotten German educational film with strong SF elements, Wunder der Schöpfung takes us on a ride in a spaceship to visit the planets and the stars. Director Hanns Walter Kornblum worked with nine animators and six cinematographers to create astounding special effects that hold up to any other masterpiece made in the twenties.
Our Heavenly Bodies (Wunder der Schöpfung). 1925, Germany. Directed by Hanns Walter Kornbum. Written by Hanns Walter Kornblum & Ernst Krieger. Starring: Theodor Loos, Margarete Schlegel, Margarete Schön, Oscar Marion, Paul Bildt. IMDb score: 6.8. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
This is one of the very, very few documentaries that I’ll review on this blog. I’m making an exception for two reasons. One, because of the way in which this film superbly pioneers special effects techniques to an effect that very few films would even come close to before the heyday of sci-fi movies in the fifties, and even then only a handful of movies could compete with Our Heavenly Bodies. And, two, because the film actually does contain science fiction within its documentary frame.
Our Heavenly Bodies is a German film originally released as Wunder der Schöpfung, which translates as Wonders of the Universe, or literally Wonders of Creation. In essence, it is Carl Sagan’s astounding TV show Cosmos, only condensed into an hour and a half, and released in 1925. This epic documentary takes the viewer all the way from the history and fundamentals of astronomy and explains things like the tides, night and day, the changing of the seasons, etc. The movie gives an explanation on how life started and evolved on Earth, and then takes the viewer on a sprawling tour of the solar system in a spaceship, visiting not only the moon and all the planets, but also different stars. Finally the film speculates on the destiny of Earth as the sun cools and dies: will it freeze, burn, collide with some other heavenly body, or all of the above?
About two thirds of the movie consists of special effects work, for the most part made with meticulously made stop-motion animation, but pretty much every trick available at the time was used at one point or the other, such as claymation, black screen replacement shots, double exposure shots, rod puppets, stop-trick photography, traditional animation and forced perspective photography. There’s also a number of impressive miniature shot and live-action special effects. The last segment of the movie rivals any disaster film from the era and the sets could be taken from costly historical dramas or sci-fi epics. There’s also live-action recreations of famous scientists having their great breakthrough discoveries, as well as the afore-mentioned celestial exploration and speculative future scenes. The only feature film at the time that came close to the sheer quantity and quality of effects work was Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (review), released the same year, and containing the superb stop-motion dinosaurs of Willis O’Brien.
Our Heavenly Bodies didn’t come out of the blue. It was directed by Hanns Walter Kornblum, who had previously been the director for the educational film department at the German Film Society Deulig. In the 1910s, Germany’s educational film (or Kulturfilm as it was commonly called) was still in its infancy. Film companies mainly produced short films, sometimes on relatively simple matters such as the flowers and birds of Germany or simple scientific topics such as were taught in elementary school. Mainly, however, Kulturfilms were designed to spread progressive ideas in society, so the bulk of the educational films dealt with matters like the organisation of work or the importance of personal hygiene. And this was the reality in which Hanns Walter Kornblum got his idea to make a feature-length documentary film about Einstein’s theory of relativity. The massive undertaking, which would require numerous special effects and absolutely scientifically precise animation felt like a daunting task for all of Germany’s established film companies, all of which turned down the project. So with the help of a number of people in the scientific community and friends of Albert Einstein, Kornblum founded his own film company Colonna.
In private Einstein expressed his enthusiasm for the film. However, his theory of relativity was highly controversial within certain conservative and right-wing groups. Einstein, who sympathised with the moderate socialist movement, was accused of having concocted his theory in order to undermine traditional notions such as Christianity and nationalism by claiming that our sensory perceptions are all relative. By these factions, the film project was seen as political propaganda, which is why Einstein distanced himself from it in public, in order not to have his science dragged even deeper into the political quagmire.
Die Grundlagen der Einsteinschen Relativitäts-Theorie premiered in 1922 and became a resounding success. Unfortunately about two thirds of the film is lost today, but its content has been relatively well recreated on paper thanks to the numerous newspaper articles written about it. Seeing how a costly educational film like this could indeed be a commercial success, Germany’s dominant movie giant Universum Film AG, UFA, suddenly showed interest in co-producing another similar movie, and with their backing Kornblum and Colonna set out to tackle an even more ambitious project: explaining the creation of the universe, life, the basics of astronomy, as well as speculating in extraterrestrial life and space travel. Kornblum set to work immediately, and worked for two and a half years on Our Heavenly Bodies.
Perhaps most impressive of all in the film are the numerous scenes in which stop-motion animation is used to show all of the solar system in motion, moons and all. As this was a time before computers, robotics and automated dollys and slaves, work that was put into getting all the heavenly bodies to move in their exact orbits at the rights speed with the meticulous stop-motion technique must have been absolutely mind-boggling. At some points Kornblum places the audience on the surface of one of the planets, and has the other ones move above and past. Not only this, he even syncs the lighting as the show the passing of the sun at its correct angle and speed. In order to get the science right, Kornblum hired a whole bunch of scientific advisers. This was not as difficult as one might imagine, as UFA’s film studios were located in Babelsberg on the outskirts of Berlin, the site of the Babelsberg observatory. In a commentary on the film, renowned astrophysicist Bob O’Dell notes that pretty much all the science in the movie is correct, with one notable exception: it breaks the elementary scientific theory that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
This is done in one of the cleverest episodes of the film, as the filmmakers are trying to explain the concept of light speed and relativity. Toward the latter part of the movie, we see our intrepid space explorers move away from Earth faster than the speed of light, while they are watching moving images from Earth being fed to the space ship television(!) via a live feed. As the travel, they see the Earth’s history playing out in reverse on their screen, as the “film” goes further and further back in history. This is a brilliantly hands-on way to explain the fact that when we see light from distant stars, we actually see light that was emitted thousands of years ago. In the same way, if we could look at a live-feed from the Earth from a distance of 2000 light years away, we would see life play out in ancient Rome, as it would take 2000 years for the light from Earth to reach our television screen. But of course, in order to make this sequence possible, Kornbluth must have the space pioneers travel faster than the speed of light away from Earth. Bob O’Dell figures that it is an oversight, as most of the film’s scientific advisers were classical astronomers, who might not have been well-versed in astrophysics. However, considering that Kornblum had just spent years making a film on the theory of relativity, I doubt that this error would have gone unnoticed by him. I am guessing that Kornblum knowingly broke the rule on light speed in order to demonstrate the theory of light speed.
Of course, much of the scientific content is outdated today, most notably as our understanding of the universe has expanded. O’Dell points out that the film was made at an interesting point in time, as it was released just a few years prior to some revolutionary discoveries about the universe. At the time the film was made astronomers still thought that the Milky Way was literally the whole universe, and that the stars and planets were fixed in their positions relative to each other. A few years later as telescopes and measurements got better, it was discovered that some of the dots of light we thought were stars were actually whole galaxies, far, far away. Then came the revelation that the stars were moving away from each other, giving rise to the Big Bang theory.
The film does not give an actual explanation of the birth of the universe, but the latter part of the film briefly skims over the creation of stars and planets from dust. Perhaps weary of not upsetting conservative Christians too much, the “time travel” segment includes a brief shot of Moses with his stone tablets, and alongside the numerous Goethe quotes, the film also illustrates parts of the proceedings with Bible verses.
While the documentary stuff is both impressive and interesting, it’s the speculative stuff that is the most entertaining to a modern viewer, and here we have five special points of interest: 1) the space ship, 2) Mars, 3) the asteroid belt, 4) Jupiter and 5) the end of the world.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t get into the particulars of space travel. I say thankfully, as we would later get a host of films beginning with a lecture of rocketry. The movie simply asks the viewer to accept that we are now on-board and space ship, and briefly mentions that it is powered by electric motors, without exploring the subject further. It could very well have delved into the idea of rocket space travel: the three leading rocket scientists of the day were American Robert H. Goddard, Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and German Hermann Oberth. In fact, in 1923 Oberth published a book about rocket travel into outer space, and he later advised on the rocket science of Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon (review). But Kornblum apparently didn’t make his space ship primarily rocket-driven. The space ship is elliptical, sort of like a short and fat submarine, and on take-off and landing seems to be surrounded by a gyroscope-looking frame, perhaps some sort of anti-gravity device. It’s a very unique design that doesn’t look like anything else in sci-fi movies until we get to the seventies and the Star Wars age. Sans the gyroscope-thingy one can see that it might be inspired by the space dirigible of the pioneering Danish sci-fi movie A Trip to Mars (1918, review).
The similarities with the Excelsior of A Trip to Mars get even clearer as we move inside the space ship, only Kornblum’s version looks slightly better and is infinitely better filmed. But like its predecessor, the ship seems to be piloted by looking through a porthole and pulling big levers. And unlike A Trip to Mars, Our Heavenly Bodies does bring up case of weightlessness in space. The interior of the ship is filmed, so to speak, from the rear, with the actor playing the pilot apparently strapped to the ceiling or sometimes at a 90 degree angle from the wall. Kornblum turns the camera upside-down, or at a 90 degree angle so it appears as if he is sitting on a chair, and the other crew members are walking on the walls or in the ceiling. At one point one crew member even flies weightlessly in the air, an effect that seems to be accomplished through rod work: it looks as if he is attached to the end of a lever, but filmed at such an angle that it is hidden behind him. Several commentators have pointed out the shot’s similarity to that of Stanley Kubrick’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and it is probably a safe bet to guess that the famously obsessive researcher Kubrick would have sought out this film in preparing for his epic masterpiece. Apparently Kubrick liked the segmented tunnel-like look of the spaceship’s interior, as so many of the hallways in his films look very similar, and in turned inspired a whole generation of science fiction visuals. The way the astronauts (teutonauts?) walk in the ceiling and on the walls also bears a strong resemblance to some of the shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, this is one of the best weightlessness scenes put on film prior to Kubrick’s movie.
There’s also a segment where the astronauts travel beyond our solar system out into the great big unknown, and the screen shows the view ahead of the spaceship as the stars whirl past, which also feels like an inspiration for Kubrick’s psychedelic montage in the film: and like Our Heavenly Bodies, 2001: A Space Odyssey is divided into chapters. In Wunder der Schöpfung this chapter is called “At the Gates of Infinity” and in 2001 it is called “To Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”.
The astronauts then set out to visit the heavenly bodies of our solar system, excepting Pluto, which had yet to be discovered, and then again undiscovered. They touch down on Mars, and we see them outside their spaceship for the first time. Mars is curiously designed, as the ground is “layered” in a way that it looks like an elevation mad rendered in a computer program. In a similar fashion we later see the ground of Uranus covered with spiky, crystalline formations. This is certainly more science fiction than science fact, but I suppose that people simply knew very little about the planets at the time. On Mars the astronauts give proof of the planet’s weaker gravitation, as they make “five metre leaps of joy” into the air. The sequence is well filmed, with the actors jumping on trampolines, filmed in slow-motion. It does look exactly like actors jumping on trampolines, filmed in slow-motion, but again this a level of sophistication in the effects is something that would be rarely seen, even in the fifties.
The next stop is the asteroid belt, here still called “the planetoids”. Our intrepid explorers don’t set down here, since they are informed by an intertitle that the “planetoids” are unable to sustain life. However, the intertitles continue, if people could live on the “planetoids”, they would be very small of stature due to the low gravity. Hence, if an Earthman would land on a “planetoid” he would be like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. The movie then goes on to show Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians in two scenes. In one Gulliver is sitting behind a sand dune, laughing at tiny people scampering about on the hillside. In the other he is standing right next to them, blowing them over. The first shot is created with black-screen replacement photography, and the second with a simple forced perspective shot. These are on the simpler scale of the George Méliès-styled trick shots, but nevertheless well executed.
And finally we set down on the surface of Jupiter, which in this rendition looks a bit like a quarry. Here we see one of the astronauts struggling to crawl up a hill, unable to move because of the massive gravitation on the planet. The intertitles explain that if humans were able to live on Jupiter, which according to the film is not at all impossible, they would have to be very large and extremely strong. Cue a very large and extremely strong Jupiterian in a loincloth who helps the astronaut out by grabbing him by his pants and throwing him up the hill. No trick film is needed here – Kornblum just found a very big actor to do the job.
So, as stated, the special effects, the visual effects and the design of this film is absolutely spectacular for the time it was made in, and it’s no surprise that it was a huge hit. Of course the effects seem crude compared to what is possible today, and there’s quite a bit of jerkiness in some of the stop-motion animation, even some glitches where the the planets hop around a bit. But considering that they would basically have had to build everything from scratch, and they probably pretty much had to figure out how to do the effects by themselves, this film is a remarkable achievement, and one that I would put up there with the likes of pioneering films like The Lost World and King Kong (1933, review). As a film, the movie is still beautiful to look at today for those who appreciate this kind of craft.
The actors all do a good job in the film, even if they are secondary to the effects. Kornblum didn’t spare expenses, but hired a bunch of professionals, some of whom were among the top tier of German film actors. There’s people like Theodor Loos, one of the greatest character actors of German silent cinema, who had prominent roles in classics like Homunculus (1916, review), Die Niebelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927, review) M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). There was Margarete Shcön who played the female lead in the Die Niebelungen films and Margarete Schlegel who played second lead in Berlin-Alexanderplatz (1931).
Set decorator Walter Reimann is a legend in German cinema. Reimann was art director on the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He worked on the classic The Plague in Florence (1919), the sci-fi films Algol (1920, review) and Destiny (1928), as well as Ernst Lubitsch’s Eternal Love (1929) and Richard Oswald’s sound remake of Unheimliche Geschichten (1932).
For many years Our Heavenly Bodies was only available in truncated form, but it has since been reconstructed to near original form from copies found in different parts of the world: the original intertitles were discovered at the Finnish Film Archive in my hometown of Helsinki. It’s a very text-heavy film, and the original titles use a rather flowery script-like typeface. While I’m fairly proficient in German, I sometimes found it difficult to get through all the text. There’s a DVD available which has all sorts of great extra material, including the remaining parts of the Einstein film. There’s also an option to have the intertitles narrated in English. Like so many other silent German classics, including Homunculus and Algol, Our Heavenly Bodies was magnificently reconstructed by the great Stefan Drössler.
Our Heavenly Bodies (Wunder der Schöpfung). 1925, Germany. Directed by Hanns Walter Kornbum. Written by Hanns Walter Kornblum & Ernst Krieger. Starring: Theodor Loos, Margarete Schlegel, Margarete Schön, Oscar Marion, Paul Bildt, Willy Kaiser-Heyl, Walter Reimann. Set decorator: Walter Reimann. Produced for Colonna, Ufa.