d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 169 mins.
Alt: "Woman in the Moon"
Note: The following review discusses key elements of the film's conclusion.
Frau im Mond is not cinema's first dramatized depiction of man's journey to the moon (see: Georges Méliès), but at its time it was the best that had been done. We'll begin with the science, which, for 1929 standards, isn't as bastardized as it could be. For this science-fiction tale of the first manned-mission to the moon (the title is translated: "Woman in the Moon"), Lang and his screenwriting collaborator Thea von Harbou brought in two noted scientists — writer Willy Ley, who become an émigré and help shape public policy for the U.S. space program; and Hermann Oberth, a mentor to Werner von Braun and one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. The move was crucial to lend the film a sense of authenticity. The two thinkers correctly predicted the sort of force that would be necessary for man to break through Earth's atmosphere and into orbit, the G-force that would affect humans inside a space craft, and the trajectory that would be required to make it to the moon, using the gravitational pull of the latter to "sling-shot" the rocket back toward Earth.
Of course, they got some things wrong as well, beginning most notably with the supposition that the moon would have a stable, oxygen-rich atmosphere and people could run around without any helmets or suits. (To be fair, the movies were still getting that wrong well into the 1950s.) There was also a small glitch in a key element of the film's plot: the moon is not some vast reservoir of gold deposits, but it is precisely that wealth that drives us into the heavens in the film.
The scientists should be commended, as should Lang, for their aspects of the film are perhaps the only reason it's interesting today. The plot is so bungled and trite in Frau im Mond that it is the science that drives the narrative, that makes the scenes interesting from moment to moment, up until its rather unexpected ending. When the plot turns away from the science, Frau im Mond is exposed for what it is really is: a minor Lang film with second-rate love story advised by first-rate thinkers.
The film is a hybrid of Lang's two favorite silent genres, the espionage thriller and the fantasy. A leading space scientist named Helius (Willy Fritsch) is in the process of developing man's first trip to the moon under the advice and counsel of his mentor, Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl). But Helius's research is stolen by thugs who demand to be taken to the moon, where caves of gold are thought to exist. A criminal mastermind working with the thugs plots the trip and forces the participation of professor, Helius, and Helius's partner, an engineer named Windigger, who brings his scientist fiancée, Friede, for whom Helius has unspoken love.
After building Metropolis and watching the city in the film reach the brink of destruction, perhaps the moon was the only place left for Lang to go. Much like the former, Frau im Mond is a study in the fateful overreaching of mankind and the disastrous consequences that lay ahead. It should not a surprise to anyone vaguely familiar with Lang's cynical worldview that this trip to the moon cannot be called a success. The passengers' inner demons begin to get the best of them: the professor goes a little crazy when the discovery of lunar riches is correct. Windigger's fear of dying begins to creep into his consciousness and makes him become progressively unraveled, and the criminal mastermind who has prodded the whole flight also suffers a meltdown and pierces a vital oxygen tank with a bullet. This leaves the rocket capable of returning all the survivors sans one, and the men draw straws to see who stays behind on the moon. Naturally, that role goes to our valiant hero, Helius. (Eat your heart out, Michael Bay.)
Lang films aren't known for their happy endings. When the young man and young woman are united in Der Müde Tod, it is only in death; and when the two classes seem to have found their perfect mediator in Metropolis, the film nonetheless ends on a spooky note, a feeling of cyclical class warfare still looming on the horizon. Frau im Mond possesses the same vital nationalism that seemed to fuel Die Nibelungen; Helius is the sacrificial Aryan hero within the context of the film, a cog in the machinery who does his part not only for his surviving comrades but Germany. (We can't have man's first mission to the moon be a failure, of course.) It shouldn't be surprising that, like the rest of Lang's films, Adolf Hitler was quite smitten with Frau im Mond; and it shouldn't be surprising that, like the rest of Lang's films, Frau im Mond presents a surface that is thematically undercut by a pessimistic subconsciousness.
By staying on the moon, Helius is essentially sentenced to death, although not, as we think, alone. Once the ship has taken off we suddenly realize that Friede has stayed behind for Helius, the two finally united in love and without that pesky partner/fiance making the situation awkward. The revelation of Friede technically makes the ending "happy" and "romantic" — the man and woman meant to be together finally can be. And yet it also undercuts the supposed nationalism. Helius' sacrifice is altruistic for the others and for his country, but Friede's sacrifice is purely selfish and done for the benefit of her and Helius. It is fleeting glory at the sake of a larger cost, destined to fail even if it is a temporary success — much like, we can see, the entire moon shot inside the film.
But the film as a whole fails to come together as powerfully as its final statement. At nearly three hours Frau im Mond is far too long, particularly as the first hour is a miniaturized spy film where the driving narrative force is discovering who has stolen secret documents. (They're always secret documents in a Lang silent thriller.) The journey into space comes too late and ends a bit too easily, making the film ultimately a minor work not only within Lang's oeuvre but also within the realms of silent cinema and science fiction. The science makes it a curious artifact, and the ending is perhaps the shrewdest of Lang's silent films, but Frau im Mond falls short.
20 July 2009
d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 169 mins.