Der Tunnel (1915)

I suspect that Der Tunnel may have been the first feature length science fiction film.  Certainly I don’t know of any that have survived that are older.  Whether there are any lost films out there I’m not aware of is another question.  After all, it is estimated that something like Ninety per cent of silent films are now lost.

It is surprising that someone made such a film in 1915, however, as the first feature film, Quo Vadis?, came out only three years earlier.

Mind you, Science Fiction did have a surprisingly strong place in silent film, and the next year would see: a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; the Danish trip to Mars, Himmelskibet; Harry Piel’s futuristic robot comedy, The Big Bet; and an epic, six-hour serial, Homunculus.

The film is based on a 1914 novel by Bernhard Kellermann, which would get remade as a German/French dual production in 1933, and as the British film Transatlantic Tunnel in 1935.  I find this rather strange as the story is basically a fairly simple melodrama with the massive transatlantic tunnel project as its setting.

Now, in the Thirties, we saw quite a few of these sorts of near-term science fiction films, like Master of the World, Gold and F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer.  Perhaps those making these films thought they would be more accessible to audiences than more fantastic notions like space travel or future worlds.  At the time Der Tunnel was made, very few science fiction books had been published.  But those few did include novels by both Verne and Wells.

You’d think they could have found something better.

A brilliant young engineer named Mac Allen develops a plan to run a railway tunnel beneath the Atlantic, which will allow travelers to cross it in 24 hours.  He forms a syndicate with the help of the richest man in the world, starts building from three sites at once — Paris, New York and the Azores Islands and is most of the way across when tragedy strikes.

This destroys the company and Mac suffers a devastating personal loss.  His old backers desert him.

But a man like Mac isn’t about to give up until he does what he set out to accomplish…

That’s about it.  There’s more, but not that much more.

Somewhere I read that this film had been praised for its sets.  As I’d seen the later British version, which featured impressive miniatures, full scale vehicles and large sets, I assumed that this referred to the tunnel, and that perhaps, as was true of many of the later German Expressionist era films, they’d built some huge, imposing sets of their future world.

Not even close.

In fact, the tunnel and construction scenes are shot in factories, mines, gravel pits, and even actual railroad tunnels.

Which pretty much look like factories, mines, gravel pits, and railroad tunnels.

Now I need to point out that I am a big fan of silent film.  I know that a lot of modern moviegoers are shocked by films which are merely in black and white and would find it difficult to imagine going to see a movie which is silent as well (not that all silents are in black and white).  However, this would definitely not be the movie to pick as your first silent film.  It’s rather talky (although light on title cards!) and the story isn’t all that exciting.  While the editing and cinematography are passable, it lacks the visual panache of the Expressionist era and spends far too much time on large crowds rushing about — particularly the seemingly endless scene which follows an explosion in the tunnel.  One shot in particular, of a large crowd looking up, gets recycled repeatedly.

Now Transatlantic Tunnel was a seriously dull film, and I have to say that isn’t true of this version of the story.  It moves reasonably well, even if it bogs down now and then.

And you don’t have endless speeches by well known actors pretending to be the President or the Prime Minister.

It’s not bad, but I think it would be better to file it under the heading of a historical curiosity and leave it to those interested in silent film or early science fiction.

After all, there were other, better science films made during the silent era…

(My thanks to Jon Whitehead of Rarefilmm for making this one available!)



Check out our new Feature (Updated June 11, 2020):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



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