Aircraft are among the most photogenic objects you can put onscreen—they’re beautiful, they move in a realm humanity always dreamed of entering and convey power, force and excitement—and few flying machines were as stunning to behold as the Graf Zeppelin. This German airship is the star of Dutch documentarian Ditteke Mensink’s “Farewell,” an account of the first airborne circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial craft, in August of 1929. Anyone with a soft spot for these giant silver cigars will positively swoon for 90 minutes at the sight of the LZ-127 making its way from New York to Germany, over Russia to Tokyo and then to an unscheduled stop at an uninhabited Pacific atoll before alighting in Los Angeles on its way back to New York.
“Farewell,” which is showing at the Los Angeles Film Festival and whose title unfortunately doesn’t begin to suggest its full nature, scope or size, is a wonderful found-footage documentary. But not content to have made simply been a spectacular looking historical travelogue, Mensink has been able to invest her film with an unanticipated dramatic and emotional dimension with the overlay of personal journal entries by the only woman on board, whose boss and fellow voyager happened to be her secret lover.
Most people recognize Zeppelins primarily from newsreels of the crashing and burning of the Hindenburg (or the LZ-129, the second of the two passenger-carrying behemoths) going up in flames as it attempted to dock at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, a tragedy that put an abrupt end to the era of the gas-filled leviathans of the air.
The original Graf Zeppelin, however, enjoyed a perfect safety record, flying 34,000 passengers more than a million miles over the course of 590 flights between 1928 and 1937 (the Graf was returning to Germany from South America at the time its sister ship perished, news of which the captain withheld from the passengers until it arrived at its destination; a third such vessel, which had nearly finished construction at the time of the accident, was scrapped).
“I am the luckiest girl in the world,” Lady Grace Drummond-Hay says at one point in her journal extract, and in a professional sense this was certainly true, as she was selected by the flight’s co-financier, publishsing baron William Randolph Hearst, to be the sole female journalist among about 30 men. (The film’s commentary fails to mention that she had traveled on the ship’s maiden transatlantic voyage in October, 1928.) A 34-year-old English widow who normally wrote about fashion and society, Lady Grace was entrusted by Hearst to file a constant flow of stories about the voyage, dispatches which hugely hypoed newspaper sales during the three weeks it lasted (actual flying time only occupied 12 days).
Lady Grace took her responsibilities very seriously, as her journal entries reveal constant fretting about living up to what was expected of her. But at least an equal preoccupation was the unexpected presence on board of Karl Henry von Wiegand, Hearst’s chief foreign correspondent and, technically, Grace’s boss on this assignment. Just six months earlier, Karl had broken off their adulterous affair and, while he is quoted as insisting that their relationship onboard must be kept strictly professional, the prolonged proximity and unresolved feelings on both sides made that impossible.
With pangs of emotion leaking through the pristine prose and upper class enunciation of Grace’s journal entries (read by Poppy Elliott), “the greatest air adventure in history” proceeds. Spectacular footage covers the flight in its many details: the elaborate preparations for takeoff, the ship’s majestic passage over Manhattan and the Atlantic and arrival at Land’s End in England two days later, the mix of international journalists in the stateroom, the sight of large German neighborhoods still in ruins 11 years after the end of WWI, the arrival in a German town of a trainload of Nazi recruits (an unexpected sight in 1929), a palpable sense of the “dark mood on board” as the ship (which bypassed Moscow at the last minute, incensing Stalin) traverses the seemingly endless Siberian forests, a glimpse of a Russian Pacific Coast town reserved exclusively for criminals and political undesirables, the discovery of a teenage stowaway determined to get to Hollywood to become a film star, color footage of the unprecedented reception accorded the travelers in Tokyo (where it is implied Grace and Karl renewed their intimacy), the treacherous typhoon-provoked beaching of the craft on a Pacific isle, the scenic amble down California from Monterey to Los Angeles (where Karl’s mentally unstable wife awaited) and finally the return to New York, where a fantastic parade ensued, a public celebration undercut by the continuing uncertainty concerning Grace and Karl’s relationship.
The newsreel and official footage is in largely splendid shape, showing off the film’s airborne star to great effect as it majestically dominates any scene it’s in and offering bracingly unfamiliar looks at diverse parts of a jittery but nonetheless peaceful world just two months before the stock market crash. The contrast between the emphatically public images, filled out by vast expanses and teeming humanity, and the pointedly private narration, marked by the tension between Grace’s professional and private impulses, provides both a dramatic core and a source of melancholy that resonates with the tragic fates one knows await the Zeppelin project specifically and the world (so serenely viewed from the air) in general over the next 16 years.