Monday, 28 February 2011

Woman in the Moon (1929)

It’s common knowledge that Fritz Lang was by far the most important early pioneer of the science fiction film, but when most people think of Lang and science fiction they almost certainly think of his 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. This was not however his only science fiction movie, and it was arguably not his most influential. That title belongs to his 1929 production Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond).

The backstory behind this move is as interesting as the movie itself. In the early 20s Hermann Oberth had published a book outlining a scientifically plausible plan for using rocketry to reach the Moon. Lang read the book and was mightily impressed. Impressed enough to want to make a feature film utilising Oberth’s ideas, and Woman in the Moon was the result.

UFA Studios thought it would be a great publicity coup for the film if they spent part of their advertising budget funding Oberth’s researches. Which they did. This was the beginning of serious research into rocketry in Germany. One of Oberth’s students who was involved in the project was a young man named Werner von Braun. Many years later von Braun was to design the Saturn V rocket that took the first US astronauts to the Moon. So it could be argued that Fritz Lang played a crucial early role in the Apollo program to put men on the moon!

The film itself falls into three parts The first part is typical Langian intrigue and paranoia, with the idealistic scientist Dr Helius being manipulated by a sinister cabal of businessmen and financiers who want to use his lunar exploration program for their own commercial ends (driven by rumours of vast gold deposits on the Moon).

The second part involves the actual journey to the Moon, and it’s this second part that qualifies Woman in the Moon as the first science fiction movie to deal with hard science and the first to deal with a realistic and scientifically plausible method of space travel. Dr Helius has designed a three-stage liquid-fueled launch vehicle which is pretty much an early prototype of the actual Saturn V rocket used in the US space program. Escape velocities, the overlapping gravitational fields of the Earth and the Moon, the problems of weightlessness, the need for retro rockets to allow a soft landing on the lunar surface - it’s all there and it’s more realistic than most 1950s space travel movies. Lang even came up with a ingenious solution for weightlessness - the ceilings and floors of the spacecraft are covered in leather straps allowing the astronauts to manoeuvre themselves about inside during periods of weightlessness.

The third part of the movie abandons hard science and becomes a rather far-fetched but exciting adventure melodrama.

It sounds like an uneasy mixture but despite a rather lengthy running time it’s an entertaining movie with major plot elements that ended up being recycled in countless science fiction movies. Land co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Thea von Harbou, based on her novel of the same name. Hermann Oberth was also involved in the writing of the parts of the screenplay dealing with the lunar voyage itself.

Willy Fritsch makes an engaging hero as Dr Helius, ably supported by Gustav von Wangenheim as his not-so-heroic astronaut colleague Hans Windegger and Gerda Maurus as female astronaut Friede Velten (the woman in the moon of the title).

There are some spectacular special effects involving models, animations and some impressive sets. The movie veers between a very realistic and a very stylised and artificial look, a combination that probably only a German film-maker of this era could have pulled off successfully.

The Eureka Region 2 DVD includes a brief but fascinating documentary, and is apparently vastly superior to the Kino Region 1 DVD.

A strange movie in its way, and despite some dark moments one of Lang’s more emotionally warm films. A must for any science fiction movie fan. This, rather than Metropolis, is where movie science fiction really begins.

1 comment:

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Doom - I have the Eureka disc of this and its a superb print. I agree with almost everything you say about the film. I like it a lot more than METROPOLIS (though I would argue that METROPOLIS is marginally the better film). However the running time is a bit of killer.