The Woman in the Moon

The German film director Fritz Lang made a number of spectacular and influential silent films - I wrote about Spione in an earlier post - though after he moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s he was never as effective. His last silent film, Frau im Mond (1929) (The Woman in the Moon) has now been released on DVD by Eureka Video.

It's in many ways a clumsy film, and very slowly paced (running 2 hours 43 minutes). The first hour and a quarter are taken up with the plans for the spaceship being stolen by a consortium who wants to gain control of the gold the voyagers expect to find on the moon, and their forcing the scientist, Helius (Willy Fritsch) to accept their dubious representative 'Turner' (Fritz Rasp) on board. There is also a love triangle between Helius, his assistant engineer, Windegger (Gustav von Wagenheim) and Windegger's fiancee, Friede (Gerda Maurus).

The next forty minutes detail the preparation and firing of the rocket, and the space flight. Lang, who also co-wrote the script with his wife, Thea von Harbou, had the co-operation of a rocket scientist, Hermann Oberth, and though rocket science was very much in its infancy the scientific background was carefully researched. The result is surprisingly prophetic, with a three-stage rocket lifting the moon-landing module very much as in the real moon landing forty years later: there are some understandable errors - the rocket is partially immersed in water before takeoff to increase stability (it would surely have made the stability worse); and the take-off is sudden - no-one could have foreseen the sight of a Saturn rocket standing on its tail and lifting slowly. A reasonable shot is made at representing weightlessness on the voyage; the controls are more reminiscent of an electricity generating station than a spaceship, but again given the period this is reasonable enough.

There are tensions between the crew - Helius and Windegger, both in love with Friede, who has insisted on coming, an elderly scientist, and Turner, the slimy representative of the consortium - and the discovery of a stowaway, a small boy with an obsession about space travel gained from cheap comics. Despite some variable special effects, the landing is shown convincingly (if rather fast - the speed of landing would have smashed the module) and the lunar surface is represented by hundreds of tons of sand imported into the studio (though the backdrop of the mountains does look rather like something out of Méliès).

Unfortunately as this point the film takes a lurch away from scientific accuracy into comic-book melodrama with the discovery of a breathable atmosphere. Lang must have know the moon was airless, but I suppose the main problem was the difficulty of having everyone in spacesuits. There is a good deal of over-acting: Windegger becomes more and more cowardly and hysterical: he fights with Turner, who is killed but who damages the oxygen reserve with a pistol shot. As a result someone has to stay behind: Windegger is chosen by lot but reacts so hysterically that Helius drugs him and (leaving the boy to pilot the ship) stays behind with a tent and supplies in the hope of being rescued: he discovers that Friede has also stayed.

All arrant nonsense, but still enjoyable; the film really stands on its central section, which introduced, for purely dramatic reasons, the count-down which has become standard on all rocket launches. The film also had an unintended effect: Oberth had been unable to get funding for his experiments, but the interest provoked by the film gained him enough funding to carry out serious developments (among his assistants was a young Wehrner von Braun). Eight years later the Nazis suppressed the film because it was too close for comfort to the ballistic rocket weapons they were developing, which became the V1 and V2 rocket bombs of 1944/5.

Eureka's print is excellent, crisp and detailed and with remarkably few marks: the piano score is just barely adequate, though I wish they'd tuned the piano better - perhaps someone thought silent films ought to be accompanied on a tatty piano. Eureka know better than that.

Posted: Mon - February 25, 2008 at 08:50 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM