01 August 2012

To the North Pole by zeppelin

At the weekend I saw a rare silent film in the New Zealand Film Festival, Luftskibit Norge’s flugt over Polhavet (The Flight of the Airship 'Norge' over the North Pole), which depicts the pioneering May 1926 aerial expedition of the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, over the North Pole icecap and south to Alaska. The expedition is expertly and artfully depicted by the documentary film crews that accompanied it, and the footage of the Italian airship that was purchased and renamed for Norway is often hauntingly beautiful. 

The film is particularly special because the 35mm print screening in the film festival is the only one in existence. The film was lost for many years and only recently reconstructed, and while there will no doubt now be multiple electronic copies for posterity, there is actually only one film version, and Norway has kindly lent it to New Zealand for these special screenings. Because it's a silent film with Norwegian captions, the screening was augmented with piano accompaniment and a local Norwegian-speaker translated the intertitles for the audience.

This clip illustrates some of the documentary's content, although it should be pointed out that the print we saw in Wellington was fully restored and therefore of a much higher standard than these grainy images. There was also rather less Pink Floyd involved.




The expedition departed from the icy and remote isle of Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen) in the Arctic Circle. The tiny Ny-Alesund station housed the crews and was the home for an enormous airship hangar constructed from scratch, with all the required material shipped in. In the film the hangar is a mammoth edifice reminiscent of the Jawas' desert-crawling behemoths from Star Wars, surrounded by snow and requiring dozens of rope-tugging navvies to push and pull the Norge in and out. Unfortunately following a search on Google Earth and Google Maps there seems to be no trace of that structure now, but one smaller piece of the expedition does remain - the airship docking tower near the bay:



Airship tower, Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, 2005 (via WikiCommons)

The Norge's trip over the pole itself occupies relatively little of the film's running length, and the jaunty atmosphere depicted in the airship gondola disguises the fact that the expedition was hugely dangerous. If the airship's engines or gas envelope had failed en route then all the men aboard would likely have perished. As it happens, following the brief ceremony in which the airship dropped the flags of Norway, Italy and the United States (in that order) onto the featureless ice of the North Pole, the riskiest part of the journey was the long slog to the north coast of Alaska over 2000km away. The Norge was meant to touch down in Point Barrow, Alaska, on the north coast, but a rising storm pushed the airship far off course. It was finally able to reach the tiny Bering Strait settlement of Teller, Alaska, some 750km further southwest. There the crew were able to radio for assistance and disassemble the Norge for shipping back to Europe.



The Norge may have got a little lost en route, but it also became the first aircraft to fly over the Pole from Europe to the Americas.



See also:
Nanook of the North (1922 documentary)
Airship R101 (1929-30) 
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