Wednesday, March 30, 2016

WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929) aka FRAU IM MOND

Fritz Lang, 1929
Starring: Klaus Pohl, Willy Fritsch, Gustav von Wangenheim, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp

By 1929, director Fritz Lang was winding towards the end of his prolific period of silent filmmaking for UFA in the Weimar Republic. He had already explored a number of genres, including fantasy (Halbblut, Der müde Tod, and Die Nibelungen), adventure (Die Spinnen), romance (Harakiri, Das wandernde Bild), and crime thriller (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler). His most famous film from this period is undoubtedly Metropolis (1927), a science fiction epic that has overshadowed the much neglected Frau in Mond (1929), or Woman in the Moon. Kino Lorber recently rescued this gem from obscurity with a lovely high definition Blu-ray treatment coinciding with a similar release of Lang’s Spione (1928), aka Spies.

A man named Helius (the popular Willy Fritsch) is interested in traveling to space and contacts eccentric Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who believes there is a reservoir of gold on the moon. Together, they develop plans for a rocket. Unfortunately Helius is competing with powerful, greedy businessmen, who want in on the trip and blackmail Helius into taking along their representative, an American named Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp, possibly the most prolific villain of 20th century German cinema). In addition to Helius, Mannfeldt, and Turner, the other travelers on the ship include Helius’s assistant Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his fiancee, Friede (Gerda Maurus), Helius’s second assistant with whom he is secretly in love.

One of the first serious science fiction films ever made, particularly in regards to its space travel themes, Woman in the Moon is every bit as strangely prescient as Metropolis, M, or Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films. Eerily, elements of the film — including the rocket launch sequence — are closer to news broadcasts of the ‘60s than to Georges Méliès’ early silent films like A Trip to the Moon (1902). Lang essentially invented the countdown (instead of counting up from “one”) that precedes a rocket launch and all manner of other scientific launches. These surprisingly accurate elements and great special effects keep the film fascinating nearly a century after its production.

An avid reader and researcher, Lang was fascinated by science and kept a collection of science fiction books and magazines throughout his life. For Woman in the Moon, he consulted with one of the fathers of modern rocket science, German physicist Hermann Oberth who was later an active participant in the Nazi space race and a mentor to V-2 rocket creator and infamous Nazi scientist Werner von Braun. Like Lang, Oberth came to science through a fascination with science fiction stories and actually designed the rocket that appears in the film, something that would ultimately help popularize rocket science in Nazi Germany. Oberth intended to build a functioning rocket to launch at the film’s premier (!), a plan that was sadly scrapped, though — in a bizarre case of life imitating art — the film’s logo was allegedly painted on the base of von Braun’s first successful V-2 rocket, launched in 1944.

Though Woman in the Moon was based on a novel, The Rocket to the Moon, by Fritz Lang’s wife and frequent screenwriter Thea von Harbou, it marks another important though brief collaboration, one with Croatian actress Gerda Maurus. Lang discovered her and cast her in her first role in Spionen, and the two began an affair that would lead to his divorce from von Harbou. Here Maurus plays Friede, Helius’s assistant (she’s described as a scientist, though it’s never overtly demonstrated) and unrequited love. Woman in the Moon’s romantic subplot is often criticized, though I would actually argue that the melodramatic plot does not bog down the science fiction elements, but elevates them and also humanizes the film. It’s hard to deny that this has one of the most romantic endings of any of Lang’s films and it’s possible that this was influenced by a director in love. When it becomes clear that only two people will be able to take the rocket back to Earth, Helius prepares to sacrifice himself and sends Friede and her fiancé, Windegger, back by themselves. At the last minute, he realizes she will remain with him on the moon and he runs towards her welcoming arms.

It’s hard to deny that the film has some flaws, namely a few elements that will seem campy or ridiculous to modern viewers, such as the idea of secret moon gold and scientists on the moon dressed as mountaineers. Any actual travel to the moon doesn’t occur until the second half of a very lengthy film — the running time is nearly three hours long — but it’s glorious and is well worth the wait. The film is effectively split into three acts: Helius’s plan to travel to the moon and Turner’s attempts to get control of the rocket, the construction of the rocket and space flight, and a suspenseful final section on the moon where everything is resolved. 

More restrained and personal than Metropolis, The Woman in the Moon is a bittersweet tale of discovery, love, and longing that deserves a wider audience and better reputation. Kino Lorber’s lovely looking new Blu-ray will hopefully help with that. In addition to a digitally restored print, special features include the 15-minute segment, “The First Scientific Science Fiction Film,” which explores the research behind the film and Oberth’s influence.

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