Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fritz Lang's last silent film predicts the entire outer-space science fiction subgenre by over
twenty years. Lang and his scenarists (which included scientific experts later associated with
the real American space effort) invent most of the situations that would later become stock: The
reverse countdown to launch, weightlessness humor, technical troubles that translate
to tough decisions on who will survive and who will not. All of that takes up about forty minutes
of screen time, and the rest of Woman in the Moon is an unusually unexciting (especially
for Lang) melodramatic tale of intrigue.
Presented for the first time in a recently restored version, Frau im mond is an
impressive technical achievement and a slow-going drama.
Rocketship designer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) discovers that his plans and a confidential
document from Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) stolen by criminals unknown. Then, American
con artist and master of disguises Walt Turner (Fritz Rasp) shows up to announce a unique extortion
plot: Wolf and his partner, engineer Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) must allow an unnamed
consortium of five scientists and financiers to take over their planned moon mission, or the colossal
rocket will be sabotaged. Willy relents, and the moon shot goes forward with Turner an unwanted
fifth passenger. It's soon discovered that paperboy Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur) has stowed away,
making the passenger manifest an even six. A nervous and indecisive man on the ground, Wolf shows
the makings of a hero while resisting the temptation to embrace Hans' altruistic
fiancée Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus). Meanwhile, Hans reacts to every outer-space danger
with trembling cowardice and Professor Manfeldt goes batty in his search for gold on the moon.
Fritz Lang must have divided this film into halves, concentrating on the science fiction aspects
and abandoning the schmaltzy story written by his wife, Thea von Harbou. There's a big disconnect
between the first hour's draggy spy story, and the belated introduction of the magnificent space
rocket - Lang shows little interest in the plot mechanics that laboriously establish the love
hero Fritsch and his partner over the stunning blonde Gerda Maurus. With her bee-stung lips and
silvery eyes, Maurus is an impressively spirited first woman in the moon. Von Harbou's scenario
presents her as an ethereal, spiritual female not unlike Maria in
Metropolis, and most of her
expressionistic gestures seem woefully out of place in this fairly naturalistic story. She breathes
heavily and grasps her bosom to represent emotional stress, and smiles beatifically at Fritsch's
every word. At least she looks good.
The men don't fare so well. Hero Fritsch is a more handsome Fritz Lang clone, but his character is
an indecisive worry wart forever fretting over problems of romance and rocketry. Buddy Hans is all
smiles until the launch and then transforms into a craven fool. The nutty professor is a consistent
cliché and the beaming little boy scout Gustav is along for kid appeal. The only character
Lang seems to have an affinity with is Fritz Rasp's bad guy Turner, who does a clever quick-change
gag between disguises. Rasp played the grim security chief in Metropolis and has an arresting
presence with his very Hitler-like hairstyle. All the characters and acting styles must have seemed dated,
even in 1929.
Von Harbou's story wastes an hour setting up a situation that we'd expect Lang to knock off in
ten minutes. Big questions are left unexplored. We never have a clue to where Hans and Wolf are
getting the zillions of Reichmarks to build their colossal Weltraumschiff. The Al Capone-like
project takeover (Turner is from Chicago) is the work of five civilized international types in a
smoke filled room.
One can't help but feel that the space shot represents Lang's attitude toward the German film
industry, where his ambitious Metropolis was fumbled when American companies took financial
control of UfA. As interesting as the effects are in Woman in the Moon, the production isn't
a tenth as impressive as his previous gigantic futuristic fantasy.
Space fans who liked the retro-science in Disney's
Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland
Disney in Space and Beyond will be fascinated by the quaint but theoretically advanced 1929
German view of space travel. Even British and American reviews from the original release admitted
that the Germans had an obvious edge in progressive technology, and a lot of what experts Oberth
and Ley plot out for the space launch was never superceded. The giant rocket rolls out of a
hanger on a gantry platform, identically to American rockets. It launches half submerged
in a giant tank of water with the explanation that its structure couldn't stand without support - begging
the question, if it can't stand alone, how would it hold together during the stress of launch?
The astronauts rest in simple cots suspended on hammock springs, and clock runs backwards to
zero for the launch while crowds of onlookers and radio reporters wait anxiously.
The miniatures are beautifully done, even if not always well shot (scale becomes apparent through
focus problems) and I'm going to guess that animator Oskar Fischinger handled many of the space
scenes. In the actual launch the ship zips into space far too quickly, like a skyrocket. It's a
two stage rocket, by the way, as forseen by those German experts.
The details of the flight, the ship interior and the surface of the moon as seen from the rocket
(named "Peace") are well done. The failure of some retros results in a violent crash landing that
looks as though it should kill everyone instantly. Gee, the rocket was strong enough to withstand
There's almost nothing scientific or rational about the rest of the story. The moon has a sandy
surface and no vegetation but can boast a conveniently rich, breathable atmosphere and mild
temperatures. Hans complains that serious repair work is needed, but none of it ever gets done. They
lose most of their water and later, their oxygen but the ship is able to take off for the return
flight anyway. Meanwhile, the professor
and Turner walk through bubbling fumaroles and geysers to get to a cave studded with solid gold
The evil American Turner starts shooting for some undisclosed reason, and before you know it the cast
loses a couple of members. Von Harbou then revisits that perennial dramatic chestnut where one
crewmember must be left behind to conserve oxygen - I guess they just couldn't bottle up any of that
excellent lunar atmosphere. The melodramatics easily sort out the noble from the ignoble, and it has
to be admitted that the final moments do contain a bizarre surprise, that the movie never really
properly explains. As this is such a spoiler, I'll only discuss it in a footnote. 2
Kino's DVD of Woman in the Moon takes advantage of a sterling-quality German restoration
and presents it at full length. At 169 minutes it's a lo-ong picture; when released as
Rocket to the Moon in New York in 1931 (with poorly synchronized music) it was down to
95 minutes. The new score by John Mirsalis is quite good, especially around the big launch.
A nice touch is Kino's retention of original insert shots of letters, etc., with subtitles. At least one
dramatic animated intertitle is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Woman in the Moon rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: photo and art gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2004
1. Complainers also note
that the heroes feel no pain when they walk through the bubbling liquids ... perhaps they're bubbling
because of low air pressure and aren't really hot?
2. Big spoiler. The 'twist' ending works, if only by contrast
with the predictablility of the rest of the story. Coward Hans loses the lottery to see who
stays behind, but the self-sacrificing Wolf tricks everyone by staying behind instead. After the
space ship takes off Wolf has a moment to consider his suicidal decision. Then he finds out
that Friede has also elected to stay with him and they embrace. The reveal of her standing imploringly by
their little tent makes for a strong ending - the
surprise is handled well and the emotions pack a punch - but in hindsight it's as ludicrous as
the rest of the show. It's interesting that the first 50s space mellers used similar maroonings
and doomed lovers to goose up their conclusions; I'd think that the probably-forgotten
Woman in the Moon was a big influence on science fiction producers like George Pal.
you want to analyze the ending politically, it places two Aryan heroes in the perfect Nazi setting -
they're kings of a dead but beautiful world. It's also a sterile and pure setting for their deliriously
impossible romance, a Götterdämmerung for two.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.