Explore and survive: expedition filmmaking

Mit Sven Hedin durch Asiens Wüsten (1929) exemplifies the format of the expedition film, which is markedly different from the more varied travel reporting Colin Ross did.

Sven Hedin, the picture’s star, was a fellow travel writer at publishing house Brockhaus whose sales figures in the 1920s far surpassed Ross’s. Cinematographer Paul Lieberenz joined Hedin and his international crew in 1927-1928 on a meteorological, topographic, and archeological expedition from Peking through to Ürümqi in northwest China.

While the distinction between different forms of travel filmmaking was not clear-cut in the 1920s and 1930s, the expedition film provided a distinctive template that was occasionally set apart from the travel film in a more narrow sense. (See Is Colin Ross advertising for tourism?) Characteristic elements include the clear structure afforded by the itinerary of the expedition and the high dramatic stakes (sandstorms hit the camp, camels starve or freeze, and an ailing Hedin has to be carried), as well as a stress on the presentation of scientific procedures in action (weather balloons, exploration of murals). Ross sometimes toyed with the dramatics of the expedition film (see Dallying with danger in the outback). But from the mid-1920s on, he firmly presented himself as a reporter rather than an explorer. This becomes explicit in a portrait he wrote of Hedin in 1925, calling the 60-year-old man “the last explorer” and seeing the white spots on the maps disappearing fast: “Because of the new modes of traffic and communications: automobile, caterpillar, airplane, radio, the development of hitherto hardly accessible areas has arrived at a new stage”.1

Joachim Schätz

Rudolf Bierbrach, Paul Lieberenz. Mit Sven Hedin durch Asiens Wüsten
Germany - Sweden: Paul K. Lieberenz - AB Svensk Filmindustri; 1929.
b&w | silent | 101’

Topic: Weltverkehr
Case: Oceania-Asia trip 1928-30


1 See: Colin Ross. Der letzte Forscher: Zu Sven Hedins 60. Geburtstag. Vossische Zeitung: 1925 Feb 18; 82 Morgen-Ausgabe; 5. See Library.

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