Le monde tremblera [The World Will Tremble] (1939)

There are a lot of obscure — and often borderline — science fiction films from before the 1950s I still haven’t gotten around to watching.  Sometimes it’s because they can be very hard to find, and sometimes it is just because I decided to watch something else instead.

But if there’s anything that will get me moving, it is the sudden discovery that once again Janne Waas of Scifist (perhaps the best online science fiction film reviewer out there) got ahead of me again.

Take Le monde tremblera, for example: I heard about this one some time ago, and may even have seen copies of it floating about (as there often are before you finally decide to watch a film) but never was interested enough to watch it until…

Darn it, Janne got ahead of me again.

Now, not only weren’t there too many science fiction films made in France before the Sixties, but there weren’t too many science fiction films made in France period.

But, even if that isn’t enough to attract your attention, Le monde tremblera was also written by the great French director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, not long before he made the film which cemented his place in French film, Le Corbeau, and many years before he made the film for which he is best remembered, The Wages of Fear.

A young scientist, Jean Durand, has finally finished the invention he’s been working on for years, a machine which can determine when someone will die, right down to the hour and the minute.

And, of course, he plans to use it to get rich.  And powerful.

His backer, played by legendary silent film director, Eric von Stroheim, has far more prosaic plans: rather than the private, exclusive clinic Durand has in mind, he plans to use it to help insurance companies make more money.

But, as we soon learn, knowing when you are going to die can have serious consequences.

Then Durand, free from any restraints, carries out his test on more and more people, the results are devastating, and soon threaten to destroy the country — and perhaps the world…

The machine is pretty much what you’d expect from a movie made in the Thirties: a huge bank of dials, switches and levers, with plenty of flashing lights.  It doesn’t look quite as good as anything that Ming the Merciless used, but you can see the family resemblance.  When it scans someone, it records the test on a photographic plate which actually has to be developed before it can be analyzed.  There’s something very grounded about this detail, and it makes it seem far more real.  I suppose they were thinking of x-ray machines when they designed it, but it is a nice touch.  It’s also a nice touch that the “interface” looks suspiciously like an electric chair, although the components surrounding the patient’s head, which light up when it is in use, remind me just a little of Metropolis and the creation of the false Maria.

Despite the whole story of the machine, and the devastation it causes, the main story here is a romantic triangle.   More than anything else, it reminds me of some of the German science fiction films being made around this era like F.P. 1, Der Tunnel, Der Herr der Welt [Master of the World] and Gold, which all featured a big piece of near-term science fiction in a story which was primarily about the people involved, a story which is generally overly emotional, if not outright melodramatic.

Perhaps this resemblance wasn’t entirely accidental as several of these movies filmed a French version at the same time as the German version.   But it seems strange, when we look back at it from a time when theatrical science fiction movies have moved increasingly towards the big, the bombastic and the overblown with hardly a scientific thought in sight, that these films were moderately successful even though they were serious, deliberately paced and mostly realistic dramas with a few intriguing inventions thrown in.

Le monde tremblera can’t even rely on shots of incredible nuclear reactors (as in Gold), or futuristic trains and mining machines (Der Tunnel), or Aircraft flying off a giant airport in the sea (F.P. 1).  Instead it has lots of crowd scenes, newspaper headlines — and, I suspect, a bit of stock footage — to show the terrible results of so many important people suddenly discovering they didn’t have long to live (although there’s a funny bit with a hypochondriac who learns he’s going to live to a ripe old age, despite all his imaginary illnesses, but isn’t exactly happy at the prospect).

I can’t say that I like Le monde tremblera as much as I do some of the other similar films of the Thirties.  Mind you, it’s not as dry as the English remake of Der Tunnel (Transatlantic Tunnel), but that isn’t saying much when you remember we are talking about a film which includes several lengthy speeches by famous actors playing politicians, about how wonderful the tunnel project is.  Perhaps it will appeal most to those who are fans of films from the Thirties, particularly those made in France.  It handles its speculative elements well, and the resulting disasters all seem entirely reasonable.  We can easily imagine people reacting in these ways, or doing some of the devious things Durand does.  While this film will seem terribly old fashioned to some of you (I mean, it is in black and white, after all!) if you can overlook its age, you might notice that it is a modestly entertaining little film which looks reasonably good and is remarkably well made for the era.

It is also one of the “missing links” of science fiction cinema, as it was made during an era when there wasn’t much science fiction available other than those old Flash Gordon serials.

And Le monde tremblera even tackles a difficult science fictional problem without flinching.

We all know just how rare that is…

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And the coming of Space Monster Wangmagwi!…

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