Woman in the Moon (1929)

Fritz Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies.

Woman in the Moon was his follow-up to the tremendously successful (and comparatively low-budget) Spies. It finds Lang back to his UFA studio-bankrupting ways; it’s considered one of the first truly serious science-fiction movies I guess Metropolis wasn’t?), and that don’t come cheap.

Industrialist engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch, the star of Spies) visits his old friend Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) an astronomer who was disgraced thirty years earlier when he announced that there was gold on the Moon to a roomful of serious men with eccentric facial hair. Helius feels he is right, and is, in fact, about to embark on a voyage to the Moon to prove that point. Manfeldt excitedly insists that he must come with, but also warns his young friend that shadowy figures have been trying to acquire his research papers.

600_444828611Helius is also in a funk because his best friend Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) was faster on the draw to proposing marriage to the forewoman of the factory, Friede (Gerda Maurus, also from Spies – Lang was no fool). That personal problem recedes into the background when Helius is waylaid by an attractive woman (she had Louise Brooks hair, and was obviously trouble, but he ignored my shouted warnings), who steals Manfeldt’s papers; he returns to his apartment to find his safe cracked, and all his blueprints, files, even the scale model of the rocket he is building, have been purloined.

Turner (Fritz Rasp) is a representative of the Five Richest People in the World, and they want to control the gold on the Moon. Unless Helius allows Turner to accompany him, Turner’s minions will destroy the nearly-complete rocket. Helius eventually gives in, after reconciling somewhat with Windegger and Friede, who will join him, Turner and Manfeldt for the trip.

1929_frau_im_019It isn’t until almost halfway through the movie that we finally get our rocket launch, but it’s time pretty well spent. Based on the work of  Hermann Oberth, who literally wrote the book on rocket travel while he was working as a high school teacher, much of the launch sequence is prescient, and familiar to anybody who’s followed NASA through the years: the rocket drawn by tractors from its enormous hangar, the countdown (invented for this movie as a dramatic device, but oh so practical!), a multi-stage propulsion system. Lang had cut his teeth on miniature work with Metropolis, and that pays dividends here – those are astounding shots.

Lang also deals with the concept of zero-gravity – presented as a very short period of time on the trip – pragmatically, with straps hanging from the ceiling and leather loops on the floor for feet. It’s all very well-thought out and satisfying.

Then we actually land, and you can forget about all that science nonsense.

"What idiot designed this? Was it you?"

“What idiot designed this? Was it you?”

I can forgive the rocket cockpit, which has instrumentation that was not designed for ease of use during the crush of G’s Helius knows will happen during the first minutes of launch – that’s for dramatic effect. “That’s for dramatic effect” will cover the remainder of the movie.

Earlier, while the Five Rich People are going over Helius’ stolen files, they watch a film made by an earlier rocket that circled the Moon with robot cameras (good work again, Herr Oberth), and mention that on the Far Side of the Moon, there appears to be atmosphere, and possibly swarms of insects. There is definitely atmosphere, our astronauts find.

I moan and groan, and then remember being thrilled by tales of the Blue Area of the Moon, which is where The Watcher lives, you know. So I can’t kvell too much about that.

screen shot 2013-10-04 at 2.37.32 pmOh, the fact that Manfeldt then pulls out a divining rod to find water, that I’m going to moan about plenty. Instead he finds gold, and falls into a ravine when he tries to hide it from Turner. Turner goes off the rails and tries to hijack the ship, though to what freaking purpose because he has no idea how it works. This results in the shortest gunfight in history, and Turner’s errant bullet hits the oxygen tanks, resulting in there only being enough oxygen for the return trip if somebody stays behind – even if two of the crew are now dead.

This leads to a drawing-the-short-straw scene worthy of a movie almost three hours long, as the cowardly, brittle Windegger overacts mightily and thereby convinces Friede she picked the wrong guy. Then again, Helius is being a dick about the whole thing because he knows and we know that he is going to be the one to stay behind in any case, after drugging Windegger and Friede and letting Gustav launch the ship.

Woman-1Oh, did I not mention Gustav? He’s a science-fiction reading kid who stowed away on the ship (apparently one of the SF stories he read was not “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, where an astronaut’s girlfriend stows away and she has to be jettisoned because there isn’t enough fuel for her added weight). Gustav also does all the heavy lifting getting the supplies and a tent out of the ship for a base camp to accommodate whoever stays behind. In this case Helius and Friede, awwwwww.

There was a ton of supplies in that ship, too, against all rationale. Good thing, too, because the flight only took 36 hours – that’s half the time Apollo 11 took to get to the Moon – but they’re going to have to build a new ship to rescue our lunar lovebirds.

Willy Fritsch said in a recent interview that everybody knew there was no air on the Moon, and the sole nod to lighter gravity is everybody wearing platform shoes that were supposed to be lead, but were actually cork, but as I say: dramatic license. The Moon set is pretty impressive otherwise, with over forty truckloads of sand brought in from the Baltic.

5024topFrauIf Lang could have kept up the dedication to actual science, this movie might have supplanted Metropolis in my rankings of his movies, but the third act becomes wearisome with melodrama and nonsensical plot machinations. Really, the stuff preceding that is so technically competent that the Nazis took it out of circulation in the 30s through the 40s because the rocket was too similar to the V-2 missile… made by men building upon the refinements to rocketry designed by Oberth… and paid for by the advertising budget of Woman in the Moon.

Let’s watch that launch (the ship is being lowered into water because “it is too light to stand by itself.”):

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