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.
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 triangle between 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 that!
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 nuggets. 1
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:
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.