In this sci-fi film, a scientist invents a prescient machine that can tell people when they will die. Oddly enough, the people do not want to know and therefore begin to riot…
With capital supplied by the unscrupulous banker Emil Lasser, Dr Jean Durand succeeds in creating a machine that can predict, to the nearest minute, when an individual will die. A ruthless man facing financial ruin, Lasser intends using Durand’s invention for a crooked life insurance business, but the scientist refuses to go along with the scheme, even though he is in love with Lasser’s daughter, Marie‐France. Subjecting himself to Durand’s machine, Lasser learns he has only a few days left to live. He ends up committing suicide, after leaving a note to his daughter warning her to stay away from Durand. As Marie‐France embarks on a new romance with Durand’s best friend Dr Gérard Gallois, Durand begins capitalising on his invention and soon has a steady stream of clients eager to know the exact date of their demise. The implications of Durand’s discovery soon hits home when people, knowing they have only a short time to live, begin behaving in an irresponsible manner. Durand realises too late that he has created a monster…
Sci‐fi is not a genre that is well‐represented in French cinema, and until recently it was practically non‐existent, and this in spite of the fact that France had a crucial part to play in the origination of science‐fiction, through the novels of Jules Verne. The number of French sci‐fi features made before 1950 barely makes it into double figures, and most of these are creaking potboilers that are hardly worth the trouble of watching. Richard Pottier’s Le Monde tremblera (a.k.a. La Révolte des vivants) is one of the few pre‐WWII sci‐films that stands up reasonably well today, although it is more a melodrama‐cum‐morality piece with sci‐fi trimmings than a fullblown sci‐fi movie in the traditional sense. For non‐sci‐fi addicts, the film’s main appeal is its exceptional cast, which includes Madeleine Sologne and Erich von Stroheim, who would be memorably reunited in La Foire aux chimères (1946).
Right from the off, it’s pretty clear that Pottier, not the most inspired or original of filmmakers, is taking his cue from an earlier sci‐fi classic, namely James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). There’s a driven young scientist (Claude Dauphin at his creepiest) who sacrifices love for his demonic researches, a laboratory generously fitted out with gizmos, flashing lights and buzzing electrical discharges, and a monstrous creation that ruins lives and threatens to overturn the social order without meaning to. The ultimate fate of the scientist and his monster mirror those in Whale’s film, with the unwashed masses rising up in their ‐ er ‐ dozens, to thwart the evil that has been unleashed on the world (hence the film’s alternative title).
Yet Le Monde tremblera is more than just a crafty homage to Universal’s Frankenstein movies; it is actually a canny reworking of the themes underpinning Mary Shelley’s famous Gothic novel ‐ the morality of scientific endeavour and man’s striving to claim mastery over his own destiny. The film looks as if it was based on a novel by H.G. Wells but in fact it is adapted from a work (La Machine à prédire la mort) by a lesser known pair of writers, Charles Robert‐Dumas and Roger‐Francis Didelot. Misguided scientists abound in science‐fiction and, like Dr Frankenstein, the protagonist of Robert‐Dumas and Didelot’s novel is another vain Faustian fool who sells his soul in the pursuit of what we would now term ‘irresponsible science’. Compared with the film’s other scientist (Roger Duchesne’s nice Dr Gérard Gallois), who prefers healing sick children to telling people when they will die, Dr Durand is positively evil.
Now that analysis of a person’s DNA can give an accurate predictor of his or her life expectancy, the premise of Le Monde tremblera is no longer the stuff of fantasy but has become a very real possibility. The moral concerns that the film raises are now real concerns that have far‐reaching consequences for both individuals and society, if not humanity. Indeed, this could well be the most significant development in human history, knowing at birth the date on which an individual is most likely to die. Pottier’s littleknown film never had a greater resonance than it has today, and many of the moral issues relating to predicted life expectancy are effectively addressed in the course of the film.
Made on the eve of WWII, Le Monde tremblera has an unmistakeable aura of apocalyptic doom about it, very similar to what we find in William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936) and Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1938). When the implications of Dr Durand’s revolutionary death predictor start to become apparent, the mood of the piece darkens considerably ‐ it shifts abruptly from dark melodrama to desperately bleak film noir (a transition that seems to be a hallmark of H.G. Couzot, here employed as a screenwriter).
After a brief comic interlude in which Armand Bernard, unhappy at being told he will live to a hundred, tries in vain to kill himself, there is a frenzied descent into chaos as the world’s stock markets come crashing down and everyone rises up against Durand and his diabolical contraption. The Luddite spirit saves the day in the end, but just four months after the film’s release in May 1939 the world really would shake… Le Monde tremblera is a film that now seems eerily prophetic, offering a glimpse perhaps of the nightmare that is yet to come.
— James Travers (lefilmguide.com)
Subtitles:English (muxed & srt)