Queen of Atlantis (1921)
Hi, everybody, it’s Pam, doing another solo review. The movie I’ll be reviewing is Queen of Atlantis, originally known as L’Atlantide, to date the oldest movie MMT has reviewed, and the only silent movie so far. It’s based on a 1908 novel by Pierre Benoit, which has been translated into English and is available on Project Gutenberg, for those who are interested. It tells the story of a lost civilization somewhere in the Sahara desert. This lost civilization is ruled by an ageless Queen who is so fatally attractive no man can resist her charms, and who is in the habit of kidnapping men, keeping them around as long as they appeal to her, then killing them. Some of you may notice a resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s She, and you’re not the only ones who did. Pierre Benoit was sued for plagiarism after his novel was published, and he lost. If you’re wondering where the “Atlantis” part comes in, it seems this isolated spot in the Sahara is the only part of Atlantis that didn’t sink. But I’ve already given away most of the plot, so let’s go on to the movie.
But first let me warn you that the screen caps are going to be more scattershot than usual, as my DVD copy is beyond lousy. So I've pulled caps from various sources across the internet to illustrate the story, if not the actual movie. Best you're going to get...
The movie starts in the Sahara desert, where a party of French soldiers come across a French army officer, nearly dead from thirst and exposure. How did the poor man come to be in this state? As it happens, it’ll take the rest of the movie, all two hours and 43 minutes of it, to find out. Warning for those who plan to watch this movie: it’s very slow-moving. Not only that, the film quality of the DVD I’m watching is fairly poor, and as far as I can tell, there aren’t any better versions available. The story is narrated in a convoluted fashion with lots of flashbacks, but I’m going to take pity on my readers and be more straightforward. For now, suffice it to say the unfortunate man is Lieutenant Saint-Avit, who is rescued, conveyed to a hospital on a stretcher strapped to a camel’s back (!), and nursed back to health.
Consulting his GPS.
Be patient, all will be explained in the end. We’re going to proceed to the main plot, which starts some time before Saint-Avit’s near death in the desert. When the main story starts, Captain Morhange, a friend and comrade-in-arms of Saint-Avit, has been jilted by his girl and is now nursing a seriously broken heart. In fact, he’s planning to become a monk, but before he abandons the world forever, the French Army has one last mission for him and Saint-Avit. A number of men have gone missing in a certain area of the desert, and the pair is being sent out to find out what’s going on. As they set off, you can see Morhange has accessorized his uniform with a rosary worn openly around his neck. Apparently nobody has a problem with this non-regulation addition. Or in 1921, were members of the French Army allowed to wear religious jewelry if they so desired?
Poor lighting in this movie.
So they set off, mounted on camels and accompanied only by a faithful native guide, to see what they can find. They come across a cave with an inscription in Greek letters: ANTINEA. They’re greatly puzzled as to what this could mean, especially since Greek inscriptions have never been found in this area. Their cogitations are interrupted by a feeble cry for help, and when they run to see what’s up, they find an unfortunate man who says he was attacked and had his camel stolen. They carry him into the cave that contains the mysterious inscription and revive him with some water. He tells them there are other caves in the area with similar inscriptions and offers to take them there.
To me, this sounds interesting but doesn’t really have anything to do with their mission, which is to find out why all those men are going missing. Their native guide isn’t too thrilled, either. He doesn’t trust the stranger but refuses to say why until they camp for the night. You can probably guess what happens next. Yes, after they’ve set up camp and try to talk to the guide, he keels over at their feet, moribund from some poison. It seems to me there’s only one suspect, unless you assume the guide decided to commit suicide, but Morhange and Saint-Avit don’t seem disposed to mull over the reason for the guide’s demise, let alone attempt to bring the culprit to justice (after all, the guide was just a NATIVE), and they set off under the stranger’s guidance.
The stranger directs them into another cave, improbably well-lit with a bright yellow light (the film stock was tinted in places, which was common for silent movies), while he stays outside and builds a fire that produces a lot of smoke. Green wood in the desert? No, it’s more sinister. Morhange and Saint-Avit begin staggering around and looking woozy, although they manage to spot another inscription that looks very much like the one they saw in the other cave. The stranger has spiked his fire with hashish, and Morhange and Saint-Avit shortly pass out, are loaded onto camels, and are taken deeper into the cave and through a large portal.
Impressive set design.
They wake up in well-furnished rooms with no idea of where they are or how they got there. The native servants smile at them but refuse to answer any questions. A glance out the window shows they’re still in the desert, but since there are a lot of date palms around, there must be an ample supply of water. The servants help them into fresh uniforms, and they’re fed but left to their own devices. A few excursions outside their rooms show they’re in a very large, very lavishly decorated structure of some kind that even has a sizable library crammed with books. However, nobody speaks to them. Morhange’s boredom is temporarily relieved when he goes for a stroll around the palace or whatever it is and comes across an old friend of his, one of the men who had gone missing. The man, though, appears drugged and pays no attention to Morhange. Morhange returns to his room and shortly thereafter is horrified to see his friend plunge past the window to fall to his death on the ground below.
Morhange and Saint-Avit, who have up to now been kept in separate areas, come across each other in the library. Shortly thereafter, an elderly man who is evidently the librarian comes in. At first he won’t say anything either, but after Saint-Avit tries to strangle him (!), he finds it within himself to answer their questions.
It turns out they are now in the sole part of Atlantis that didn’t sink beneath the sea during the ancient catastrophe. The old man isn’t very clear on why it’s in the Sahara desert, but let’s chalk it up to climate change and move on. But why have they been brought here? Well, it seems the remnants of Atlantis have a Queen whose name is – wait for it – Antinea! And Antinea likes men. But not the same man for very long. Antinea is a fickle lover, and no man stays in favor with her for more than a short time. This is why the men keep disappearing in this neighborhood: Antinea constantly needs a fresh supply.
She could use some conditioner.
So after she gets tired of one man, does she throw him out in the desert to die like an unwanted animal? Of course not, would a lady do that? No, she immerses his body in a “galvano-plastic bath” (your guess is as good as mine) which somehow turns him into a gold statue, which, once a card with the gentleman’s name and date of death is affixed, is tastefully put on display in Antinea’s throne room. There are quite a few of those decorative objects lined up, 26 to be exact, and the latest one is Morhange’s very-recently-deceased friend. It must not take long for that bath to convert human flesh to gold.
Where is Indy?!?
Saint-Avit asks the old man why the men don’t run away, since Antinea makes no effort to hide what happened to their predecessors. Ah, it seems Antinea’s charms are so great that once you go Antinea, you never go back, and the discarded lovers generally commit suicide. Morhange’s friend actually did escape, but so addicted was he to the beauteous Antinea, he couldn’t stay away. However, time hadn’t reawakened Antinea’s desire, and when he was rejected anew upon his return, he threw himself from a window in despair.
So what does this irresistible siren look like?
Yes, I know. I don’t understand, either. She’s obviously very rich, maybe it’s that. But the movie’s only half over, so try not to think about it.
So Antinea proceeds to exert her charms on both Morhange and Saint-Avit, although she seems to find Morhange the more attractive of the two. Saint-Avit succumbs almost immediately, but Morhange remains true to his holy calling and resists her (although he’s no longer wearing his rosary). A good portion of the rest of the movie is given to showing Morhange standing around looking indifferent while poor Saint-Avit sinks deeper and deeper into obsession. However, Saint-Avit receives a little (platonic) consolation in the person of Tanit-Zerga, Antinea’s private secretary. Poor Tanit-Zerga comes from Gao in what is now Mali. Raiders attacked the city when she was a small child, and those inhabitants they didn’t kill, they sold into slavery. Antinea bought her and won’t let her go home, although she seems to treat her decently. Tanit-Zerga’s exact age is not given but she’s not an adult, something the actress who plays her has unfortunately chosen to demonstrate by bouncing around like a flea a good part of the time. That’s not the worst thing about the actress they picked, though: a girl from Mali would be black, of course, and in a flashback we see that Tanit-Zerga’s family was in fact black, but for some reason Feyder thought it was a good idea to select the French actress Marie-Louise Iribe for the part, a woman who was not only lily-white but who was 27 and looked even older. Tanit-Zerga hangs around Saint-Avit a lot, maybe because she’s sorry for him because he’s locked up here and can’t leave, but also, as we will see, because she has an ulterior motive.
Can't be comfortable to wear.
It appears that Antinea might actually have fallen in love with Morhange, a state she expresses by writhing around on a pile of pillows and chewing on one. You can tell she’s suffering because this one man (who really is handsome, I must say) is completely indifferent to her. What’s a girl to do? Well, there’s Saint-Avit, who is now totally under her spell and has shown he’s bitterly jealous of Morhange. He’s prepared to do almost anything for her, and “almost anything” becomes “anything” once she gives him a funny-looking cigarette to smoke. It’s no trouble at all to convince him it’s a good idea to sneak up on Morhange and hit him on the head with a hammer. This he does, and his aim is good. Morhange lives just long enough to reject Antinea yet again and forgive Saint-Avit, then he gives up the ghost.
To show her love for the departed Morhange, instead of turning him into gold and putting him on display, Antinea orders him buried the way he would have wanted. He gets a grave with a cross at the head, and his rosary is draped over the cross. Once that’s done, Antinea appears to regain her spirits rather quickly, something which is helped by the arrival of a large shipment of French fashion magazines and cosmetics, including a big box clearly marked “Guerlain.” So this supposedly completely isolated palace, unknown to the rest of the world, gets regular shipments of the latest French goods?
At least it's not Gawker.com.
Saint-Avit, of course, is consumed with guilt for killing his friend, and his state of mind is not helped by the fact that Antinea appears to have lost interest in him. In fact he tries to stab her, but her guards stop him and drag him away. It’s then that Tanit-Zerga comes to his rescue. She’s wanted to go home for a long time, and now she asks Saint-Avit to help her. He agrees, but it seems Tanit-Zerga doesn’t need much help, and she may be the one helping him out of the kindness of her heart. She’s acquired a camel and rope to escape out a window, and he’s handicapped by a broken arm, an injury he received during his attempt to kill Antinea. She’s immobilized his broken arm, lowered him out of a window, and climbed down herself, when additional aid appears in the person of the mysterious stranger who got Morhange and Saint-Avit into this mess. I had assumed his story about being robbed was a lie to get them to help him, but it seems he really was robbed and left to die in the desert. He feels he owes Saint-Avit a debt of gratitude and gives the pair help in the form of a map that guides them along the only path where they’ll be safe from bandits and will be able to find enough water. Too bad he didn’t show his gratitude by not taking them to Antinea in the first place!
Blue filter equals nighttime.
However, things don’t go well for our pair. First their camel dies, so they have to walk to the next well, only to find it’s dry. Then Tanit-Zerga dies from heatstroke. Saint-Avit continues to stagger along as best he can until he finally collapses, and this is where we came in.
In the desolation.
The rest of the story is quickly told. Saint-Avit regains his health and goes on an extended leave to Paris, including its nightclubs. This is where we learn that in 1921, French women didn’t shave their armpits even when they wore sleeveless dresses. But all the night life in the world can’t erase Antinea from his heart, and the movie ends with him back in Algeria, meeting up with the mysterious stranger again, and setting off for Antinea’s palace.
Spending his money.
The number-one problem I had with this movie is Antinea herself, both her looks and her acting ability. Morhange and Saint-Avit are both good-looking, as far as the poor film quality permits us to see. Antinea is not. It seems Stacia Napierowska, the woman who plays Antinea, was a famous dancer of the time. From what I’ve read, it appears she performed exotic and daring-for-the-time dances, rather like Mata Hari. Jacques Feyder related later that he’d seen her on stage about a year before he began filming this movie, decided she’d be perfect for Antinea, and offered her the part. It was December when they met for her to sign the contract, and she was wearing a heavy fur coat that concealed her body completely. When filming began shortly thereafter, Feyder was more than a little put out to find she’d gained a good deal of weight and was no longer the sylph he remembered. Not only that, but instead of going on a strict diet during the filming, she proceeded to eat heartily and gain even more weight. Her costumes are revealing, and closeups show small rolls of fat here and there.
She reclines a lot.
I want to point out that in the movie, she’s only “Hollywood” fat and isn’t even what most people would call plump, and normally I’d say she had the right to eat whatever she wanted, but in this case, she was an actress and was being paid to look a certain way, so Feyder had some right to be annoyed with her. A good actress could have managed to look voluptuous and sexy, extra weight or not, but she wasn’t a good actress. She was so stiff and wooden I assumed this was the first time she’d done any acting, but IMDb shows she’d been in quite a few movies before this one. Les Vampires, a movie made in 1915, has been posted on Youtube, and it shows her performing a brief simple ballet-type dance. If this is a fair sample of her art, she wasn’t even a particularly good dancer, but she performed the dance wearing a skin-tight leotard, which could have been what drew the audiences of 1915. In this movie, all of her dresses are cut low, and one comes close to leaving her breasts bare, so it appears she wasn’t bashful about displaying her body, another reason she might have been chosen for the part.
For the men in the audience.
In addition, her makeup and many of her costumes are quite unflattering. White makeup was required for the film of the time, but hers seems exceptionally thick, and either it or the poor film quality makes her face look like a solid flat expanse of white in many shots. Possibly the heavy makeup was meant to hide the fact that the actress wasn’t a girl any longer. There are varying dates of birth given for her, but she was at least 30, maybe 36, when she was in this movie. I suppose the heavy black shadow around her eyes was inspired by Theda Bara, although by 1921 Theda Bara’s heyday was over, but it didn’t look good on Theda Bara, and it looks even worse on Stacia Napierowska. And that hair of hers has to be the worst perm ever! Her dresses are low-cut but tend to mash down her breasts in a way that’s not only unbecoming but looks rather painful. The flat-chested look was already popular in 1921, and dresses weren’t being designed for more amply-endowed women. I don’t know why Feyder didn’t make the best of it and make her look as good as possible, or just fire her and hire somebody else. This was the first major movie he directed, so possibly he wanted a famous dancer in the cast to help draw in an audience. This might also have been the reason for the seemingly bizarre choice of Marie-Louise Iribe for the part of a black girl. She was a well-known actress of the time, although part of the reason she was well-known is that she was the niece of the famous designer Paul Iribe.
She needs some water.
Stacia Napierkowska’s acting, as you may have gathered, was inadequate, but it’s only fair to say that nobody did much acting in this movie. Morhange mostly just stood around looking mournful. Saint-Avit showed more emotion, but since his main purpose in the plot was to be in love with Antinea and violently jealous of Morhange, his acting wasn’t much more than grimacing and tearing his hair.
And other dude.
And finally, some minor points I found interesting:
1) All the smoking! People were constantly lighting up. Remember the early days of MMT, when Nate totaled the number of cigarettes smoked during the movie he was reviewing? I was going to do that for this movie, but I lost track almost immediately. All I can say is, it was an awful lot of cigarettes.
2) Antinea has a pet wildcat named Hiram-Roi. I wondered how they made a wildcat behave during filming, but a closer look showed he barely moved in most scenes, so I suppose he was drugged. In the scenes where he’s walking, his head isn’t shown, but from the rest of his body, it’s obvious they used a dog as a stand-in.
3) The natives, of course, are treated as off-handedly here as they were in most movies and books of the time. By the way, Antinea has a number of servants who are naked except for loincloths and headdresses. They’re just menials and don’t get any closeups, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that some of them are women. I’ve watched a number of silent movies, and bare breasts do appear now and then, although generally they’re seen only in brief shots. It wasn’t exactly common to see topless women in silent movies, but compared to the zero times bare breasts were seen in mainstream movies between the time the Production Code went into effect and around the late 1960s, it’s striking.
This wasn’t really a bad movie, but it’s not great, either. It went on for too long, something that’s pretty common in the movies MMT chooses to review, and the plot required a lot of dialogue, which is not a good thing for a silent movie. The intertitles appeared so frequently they became annoying. The acting, as I’ve said, wasn’t that good. The décor in Antinea’s palace was meant to be impressive but didn’t seem to have been designed specifically to show up well in black and white. My opinion appears to have been shared by the movie’s original audience, who generally said that the desert was the best thing about this movie. I agree. Feyder could, and later did, do much better.
Camels need love, too.
This silent movie has been remade twice: in 1932, and in 1972. The remake in 1932 was directed by G.W. Pabst and was actually three remakes. In the early days of sound movies, when a movie was made for foreign distribution, it was common practice to shoot it in each language of the countries you wanted to distribute it in. It was felt that audiences went to sound movies to hear the actors, not to read subtitles, and dubbing was deemed too difficult because it was necessary to match words in the new language with the mouth motions of the actors. (Some people got pretty good at lip-reading in the days of silent movies, so they’d be able to spot places where the actors’ audible words didn’t match up with what they were really saying.) If the actors couldn’t actually speak the foreign language, they learned their foreign-language lines phonetically. Later in the 1930s, rising production costs ended this practice, but when this movie was remade in 1932, it was shot in French, German, and English versions. The French and the English versions have been posted on Youtube. I haven’t been able to find the German version online, and some sources suggest no copies of it exist.
They need an Xbox.
The French version and the English version of the 1932 remake are pretty much alike. The English version on Youtube is about 13 minutes shorter, but the cuts seem to be minor edits here and there, and the story remains the same. One of the parts that was mostly cut from the English version was a woman reporter played by Gertrude Pabst, the wife of the director. She has no plot function that I can see. Antinea was played by German actress Brigitte Helm in both versions plus the German version, and Jean Angelo, the French actor who played Morhange in the 1921 version, plays Morhange in both the French and English versions. I think they were speaking their lines in English in the English version, but their voices were dubbed over by English actors, unless they were both so fluent in English they could speak it without a trace of their native accents. The prints on Youtube are of better quality than the print of the 1921 movie, with the 1932 French version being much better than the 1932 English version.
Cheer up, dude.
The 1932 version of Antinea appears to have had to cut back due to the Depression. Her digs are not nearly as posh as Antinea 1921’s, although Antinea 1921 had only a wildcat for a pet and Antinea 1932 has a cheetah, so one up for Antinea 1932. But Antinea 1932 lives in what’s mostly a series of narrow corridors cut into rough rock and small rooms with a few crude furnishings, although she does have an interior decorator who has upgraded her personal living quarters with some rock columns and a big sectional sofa. The interior decorator, by the way, is a Russian who claims to be a hetman. He has an awesome waxed moustache but giggles way too much. Antinea 1921 had much classier servants, too. Antinea 1932 makes do with mostly locals wearing grubby native robes, and as a matter of fact, judging from their looks, they may not be her servants, they may be locals who just moved in and there were too many of them for her to kick them out. They don’t seem to do much of anything but sit around. Tanit-Zerga 1932 in both versions is played by a Russian actress, not an African woman, but at least she’s been made up with dark body makeup and isn’t glow-in-the-dark pale the way Tanit-Zerga 1921 was. Antinea 1932 is much better-looking than Antinea 1921, mostly, except for a time or two when the camera caught Brigitte Helm at the wrong angle, and ouch – she looked like a man, and not a handsome man. Antinea 1932 is also much more covered-up than Antinea 1921. Antinea 1932 wears voluminous floor-length dresses, and the most she reveals is her arms. Actually, all the women in the 1932 movie wear voluminous floor-length dresses. There are no bare breasts to be seen here. But the biggest change is that Antinea 1932 is not an ageless queen of unknown background, she’s actually the daughter of the interior decorator and a French can-can dancer! The dancer caught the eye of a Tuareg prince, who took her back to his kingdom in the desert, and was unaware of the true father of her baby.
Just a regular girl in the desert.
There have been a few changes in Morhange and Saint-Avit since 1921. They’re still French army officers, but now Saint-Avit 1932 wears a white uniform tunic with dark baggy trousers gathered tightly at the ankle, and sandals (!) Morhange 1932 has stuck to the standard white uniform tunic and trousers, and is also still wearing his rosary around his neck, but he’s added a sort of smock that looks something like a monk’s robe over his uniform. However, we see other French soldiers wearing a similar smock, so it isn’t a personal statement by Morhange. They, and the other French soldiers we see, ride their camels barefoot, which makes a kind of sense because their feet are resting against the camel’s neck. I’m wondering, though, if this is how French army officers in Algeria dressed in 1932, or if Pabst just couldn’t resist the temptation to make the French look a little silly.
Viva le France!
One thing that hasn’t changed is that Antinea 1932 falls in love with Morhange 1932, and he is still completely immune to her charms. I can’t figure out why she fell in love, since she saw him for only a minute or two, and since we aren’t given any back story to explain why Morhange would be so indifferent to her, I can’t figure out why he flatly rejects her. If he didn’t like her looks, wouldn’t he have wanted to play along anyway in hopes of a chance to escape? But instead of moping over a lost love, all Morhange 1932 does is demand to see Saint-Avit. Hmm, something has occurred to me that would explain his complete lack of interest in Antinea, but there’s no hint of that, either.
What are you looking at?
The rest of the 1932 movie, both versions, follows the plot of the 1921 version. Saint-Avit still kills Morhange at Antinea’s request. However, instead of being given a grave or even turned into a gold statute, poor Morhange 1932 is left to lie on the floor of an out-of-the-way corridor (how unsanitary!). Tanit-Zerga still helps Saint-Avit escape, but we aren’t given any explanation at all to explain why she wants to get away and is willing to help him escape, too. As in the 1921 version, Tanit-Zerga dies in the desert, Saint-Avit nearly dies but is rescued in the nick of time, and Saint-Avit runs back to Antinea after he’s restored to health.
Chilling in the palace.
There’s a general druggy theme throughout the action at Antinea’s 1932 cave. Saint-Avit smokes kif to distract himself from his unrequited love, and one of Antinea’s previous lovers was still around, obviously a drug-addled wreck. A number of the natives who are hanging out at the “palace” look stoned, and the interior decorator seems drunk or high most of the time. In fact, it looks as though it may be unlimited drugs and alcohol rather than Antinea’s charms that attracts the men. However, hardly any cigarettes are smoked in the 1932 version, unlike the 1921 version.
Try some Chantix, bro.
As for the 1972 version, it was a TV movie made in France. I can find only a 10-minute excerpt available for free (you have to pay to see the rest), but from what I saw in the 10 minutes, and from the stills available on the Internet, it was cheaply made and fairly bad. The actors who play Morhange and Saint-Avit sport ugly early-1970s haircuts and sideburns and look completely unsoldierly. The actress who plays Antinea is Ludmila Tcherina, a Russian ballerina who, according to IMDb, was 48 when she made this movie but appears to be about 10 years older than that. She’s decked out with an enormous jet-black bouffant hairstyle that Dolly Parton would envy, accompanied by a vast amount of black eyeliner and long thick fake eyelashes. Based on the stills I’ve seen, she, like Brigitte Helm, wears floor-length loose-fitting dresses with only her arms bare.
I like the 1921 version better than the 1932 version, which is really just a B-movie with good production values and good actors. Feyder got rather long-winded in the 1921 movie, but the 1932 movie is so sparse with details we learned nothing about the main characters or why they were doing what they were doing. The 1932 story has been cheapened, since instead of a mysterious woman who is not fully human, we have a spoiled rich girl who can’t handle rejection. Also, the décor in the palace of 1921 was much better than the décor in the 1932 version.
And finally, in none of the versions is anything being done about Antinea, even though men have been disappearing mysteriously, and Saint-Avit told his story to at least one person along with mentioning she’s killing people.
Antinea 1972 has had enough of this.
Written in January 2016 by Pam Burda.
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