The Mistress of Atlantis
Atlantis as a movie subject gets perhaps surprisingly short shrift. Even on TV, it has tended towards the attenuated of association rather than a full-on depiction (The Man from Atlantis, Stargate: Atlantis). Of course, now we have Aquaman, but for all the energy of James Wan’s envisioning (albeit, via Zack Snyder’s imprimatur), there’s something rather plasticised and rote about the DC Atlantis – even if it’s leaps and bounds beyond the recent MCU equivalent – as much as the Doctor Who-does-Crete “extravaganza” in The Time Monster. Disney did their big animated movie version, but it proved a costly failure (although, not enough that they aren’t planning a live-action version, which is actually most likely why the original didn’t land: wrong form). Distinctive takes conceptually are few and far between, which is why The Mistress of Atlantis stands out. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s especially good.
Director GQ Pabst career spanned the early-20s until the mid-50s, taking in a stint for the Nazis (notably Paracelsus). His heyday was the silent era, however, most notably Pandora’s Box with Louis Brooks. Here, faced with the advent of sound, he takes the same approach as for several pictures: three versions in three different languages, German, French and English (the following year’s Don Quixote was also made this way). The subject matter, Pierre Benoît’s 1919 novel L’Atlantide (Atlantida) had previously been adapted, near-enough straight off the bat, in 1921 (the movie was a hit, as was the novel before it).
Benoît, the son of a colonel, was schooled and did his military service in Algeria (his father was earlier stationed in Tunisia). The country and its tales were his claimed the inspiration for the novel, that of Tuaregs (Berber inhabitants of the Sahara) and a French mission to the centre whereby only one of the two returned. He disputed that he had been influenced by Rider Haggard’s She (also featuring an all-powerful woman in a lost kingdom in the African interior).
The distinctiveness of L’Atlantide comes not from just any lost city, though, but from positing Atlantis itself in the Sahara. Per Wiki, the Richat Structure – more commonly referred to as the Eye of the Sahara – first received western attention during the 1930s and 1940s. Cited by some as a remnant of Atlantean civilisation – tellingly, Wiki only references the Eye as a redirect – or Atlantis itself – per Bright Insight and their comparison to Plato’s description – and others (killjoys and tedious literalists) as a natural rock formation, its curious that Benoît should have had the drop on it.
Saint-Avit: That man is right. Perfectly right. Atlantis is covered by the sands of the Sahara.
I’ve been there, I have seen it.
Alas, any exoticism inherent in the subject is rather bled dry in Pabst’s film. French lieutenant Saint-Avit (Heinz Klingenberg) recounts how he has been to Atlantis, where he killed his best friend Morhange (Gustav Diessl). A flashback shows them sent to feel out the political inclinations of Tuareg nomads. They happen across an area of the desert featuring mountains that aren’t on their maps; promptly abducted, they are taken to a mysterious settlement/ secret stronghold. It’s closer to the kind of sand-blasted survival-first environment of Tatooine than the legacy opulence of an advanced civilisation. Saint-Avit is given the lowdown by permanently pissed Count Bielowsky (Gibb McLaughlin), “a real Parisian” by his own estimation, who has lived there for two decades and spruced up the catacombs where most of the action takes place.
Count Bielowsky: A goddess? But are not all women in some way divine?
Saint-Avit isn’t allowed to see Morhange, but he is granted an audience with ruling matriarch Antinéa (Brigette Helm of Metropolis fame), “a magnificent woman” whose allure has already sent Swiss detainee Torstensen (Mathias Wieman) off the deep end. Antinea plays chess with Saint-Avit (“You may win your freedom”) and wins, and it seems with victory secures Saint’s insane infatuation for her. She has little interest in him, though; rather, she has the hots for Morhange, who ironically and chastely spurns her. In rage at the rejection, she allows Saint-Avit his lusty desires and instructs him to “Kill him! Kill him!” A task he quickly and efficiently performs with an ornate block hammer. Eeeesh!
All this happens after sozzled Bielowsky has intimated that Antinéa is, in fact, the daughter of a Parisian chorus girl Clementine (Florelle) and a Tuareg prince who took a fancy to her (this comes via a bizarrely full-on can-can sequence that would have had the Hayes Code taking to the hills in fright, had they been around at that point).
Tanit: The prophet allows his followers once in their life to put pity before duty.
So you put all that together, and you have an Atlantis that doesn’t really scrub up very well along with the alleged descendant of the civilisation’s rulers who may be nothing of the sort. The actual story of obsession is mildly passable but nothing more, and the performances, aside from McLaughlin, who’s cranked up to eleven, don’t really grab the attention. Brigitte Helm is very Teutonic, boasting the kind of chiselled features giant head sculptures were made for. Hers isn’t as central a role as the title might suggest, however; she has a few scenes staging her as “alluring”, but there’s probably more screen time for her great plaster noggin. It’s certainly awarded the final shot, after Saint-Avit, having been rescued by Tanit Serga (Tela Tchaï), becomes listless/ haunted and wanders off into a sandstorm.
Perhaps the most interesting part of The Mistress of Atlantis is the opening, in which a radio presenter details his conviction regarding the legendary civilisation’s location in the manner of Amazon Women on the Moon’s Bullshit Or Not? It is, we are told. The “ancient dream of a lost continent whose techniques and culture are said to have reached mythical dimensions” while namechecking Egyptians and Phoenicians (what, Miles Mathis’ “Phoenicians”?) In support of his case that something is afoot, he references planes, people and caravans disappearing without a trace. Further still, and most Henry Silva of all, “When I make the statement that Atlantis was not submerged in the ocean, but lost in the airy tracts of the southern Sahara, it would appear to be an actual fact”.
Which seems perfectly reasonable. Maybe not the entire civilisation, but plausibly an offshoot. While any such notion is officially poo-poohed, it seems declassified CIA files – yeah, I know, why should they be considered in any way authentic/ legitimate/ accurate? – reference a 1967 survey of geomagnetic anomalies that included the Eye. They note “While the scientific aspects of this survey are totally unclassified and available to the worldwide scientific community…” but then redact the next half page (I don’t have an original source for that reference, so I’m taking it at face value for now). Could it be they saw Brigitte Helm’s big marble face staring up at them and were entirely unnerved? She can have that effect.