Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang Film/UFA, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I spent most of the night in our room watching Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond), Fritz Lang’s 1928 sci-fi epic (his last silent film) dealing with a trip to the moon. It’s yet another extraordinary movie — so far I’ve seen every film in a quite extraordinary stretch Lang made from 1922 to 1937 that includes Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, Woman in the Moon, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Liliom, Fury and You Only Live Once. With the possible exception of Kriemhild’s Revenge (part two of Die Nibelungen and based on a part of the legend Wagner didn’t use in the Ring cycle) there isn’t a clunker in the bunch, a period of sustained artistic creativity and commercial success virtually no other filmmaker of Lang’s stature ever enjoyed.[1] (Alfred Hitchcock’s record between the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Notorious was almost as strong, but it only lasted 12 years rather than 15 and it had a few substandard pieces in the mix: Jamaica Inn, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Lifeboat.) Woman in the Moon is quite a long film (169 minutes in Kino’s DVD) but it never seems either padded or dull (the two most common defects of unusually long films). It does change tone and theme quite often, but perhaps that was just the way Lang and his scenarist (and then-wife) Thea von Harbou (who, as she’d done with Metropolis and Spies, published the story as a novel simultaneously with the release of the film in one of the earliest examples of synergistic marketing) decided to keep it interesting.

Woman in the Moon begins with grizzled old scientist Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), discredited 32 years before for giving a lecture in which he speculated that there was gold on the moon (the newspaper clipping, which he’s kept all these years, is headlined, “Narr oder Schwindler?” — “Crazy or a Crook?”), living in a hovel and receiving his one friend, airplane manufacturer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch). Manfeldt gives Helius his old paper on the moon and Helius agrees to build a spaceship that will take them there. The film then takes a quick turn into the territory of Mabuse and Spies as a cabal of industrialists described in the credits as “The Brains and Checkbooks” (Tilla Darieux, Hermann Valentin, Max Zilzer, Mahmoud Terja Bey and Barwin Walth) hire an agent to pose as an American named “Walter Turner” (Fritz Rasp) and steal the plans for Helius’s spacecraft. They not only do so, they threaten to blow up his factory if he doesn’t allow them to put “Turner” (the character is actually identified in the credits as “The man who calls himself ‘Walter Turner’”) on the ship. Then, as soon as Helius has yielded to their demand, the film changes tone once again and becomes straightforward science-fiction, as the rather motley crew — Helius, his good friend and engineer Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), Hans’s fiancée Friede (Gerda Maurus, whose presence reunites the romantic leads of Spies), Dr. Manfeldt and a prepubescent stowaway named Gustav (Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur) whose regular readership of Nick Carter novels about space travel has made him want to do it for real — take off on their rocket to the moon. When they actually get there Lang and von Harbou have one more shift in tone awaiting us — the film then becomes a space-opera version of a desert-island tale in which the bad guys attack, the good guys kill them but in the process accidentally destroy a good chunk of their oxygen supply, so one of the surviving astronauts is forced to stay behind on the moon while the others take the spaceship home. And as if that weren’t enough, overlaid on top of this is a romantic-triangle plot between Hans, Friede and Helius, who finds himself falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend and ends up (a twist that, as Charles pointed out, you could pretty well have guessed at from the title) joined by Friede in their moon redoubt as Hans and the kid leave for Earth.

What makes Woman in the Moon most interesting is the surprising accuracy of its science. Given that 1928 audiences probably had no idea that anyone would still be watching this film after humans had in fact traveled to the moon and back, and therefore we’d actually have a real knowledge base to compare it to, the fact is that the number of things Lang and von Harbou got right is pretty astonishing. It’s a bit less so when you realize that their scientific advisors — Professor Hermann Oberth and (uncredited) Willy Ley — later became part of the German rocket program during World War II (which probably explains why the unmanned “H32” probe they send up as a test before risking a manned flight looks so much like a V2) and still later part of the U.S. rocket program after the war. The spaceship in Woman in the Moon is rocket-powered (unlike the silly lunar cannon from H. G. Wells’ novel and film Things to Come — a cannon-powered moon shot had been just barely believable in the 19th century when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon but by 1936 it was flatly ridiculous); the rocket is built in multiple stages, with each stage jettisoned as it burns out so the next one can be fired; the necessary escape velocity and the effect of acceleration (the most physically dangerous part of space flight, assuming the containment holds up and the astronauts aren’t exposed to the immediate death of losing all their air instantly) are depicted accurately; and there’s even an attempt to dramatize weightlessness, though since there apparently weren’t any wire workers at UFA in 1928 the astronauts themselves don’t float in mid-space (the floor of the spaceship is adorned with leather straps into which they insert their feet so they won’t lose contact with the floor even in zero gravity); and the ship lands on the moon by firing retro-rockets to slow its descent until it can touch down safely. All these aspects were part of the actual manned lunar flights as well. About the only major scientific boner is the assumption Lang and von Harbou incorporated in their story that, though the familiar side of the moon is in a vacuum the then-unseen “dark side” does have air. They find this out when professor Manfeldt goes out in a spacesuit (another accurate call, though it’s surprising that in a film which had a major budget for spectacular sets and special effects, the “spacesuit” is all too obviously a recycled diving suit with oxygen tanks stuck on back — though give Lang and von Harbou credit for yet another good call: this was 18 years before Jacques Cousteau invented SCUBA gear) with a pack of matches and strikes about four of them; when they ignite, this proves that the lunar air contains oxygen and is therefore breathable by humans.

Aside from the science, Woman in the Moon is quite well-paced dramatically and gives us characters we care about. We’re pretty sure from the get-go that Helius and Friede will end up together simply because they’re the best-looking people in the film (and, of course, because they were the romantic leads of the preceding Lang-von Harbou film, Spies) and that the oily character played by Fritz Rasp[2] will get his comeuppance — which he does in a series of highly dramatic lunar confrontations in which he follows Manfeldt to the lunar gold fields, watches as Manfeldt falls down a pit clutching an enormous gold stalactite, then gets shot by Hans in a gun battle (a stray bullet from this match hits the regulators on their oxygen supply and sets up the ending). Woman on the Moon may not have the mythic power of Nibelungen (especially part one, Siegfried), the awesome scope of Metropolis or the sheer energy of Spies, but it too was a major influence on films to come as well as on the real-life dramaturgy of space flight. While preparing the launch scene, Lang asked Oberth how the early rocket experimenters gave the signal to fire. “We usually count to 10 and launch on 10,” Oberth said. “That doesn’t sound very dramatic,” Lang replied. Then it struck him: “Why don’t we count backwards?” The film shows a sequence in which the number on an intertitle dissolves from six seconds to five, four, three, two, one — and at zero the title immediately cuts to the rocket going up: the first countdown. No film would deal this seriously with space travel until Destination Moon 22 years later, and the makers of that one — scenarist Robert Heinlein, producer George Pal and director Irving Pichel — would rip off quite a lot of this one, including the assertion that private rather than public interests would fund the moon shot; the sinister cabal trying to derail the project (identified, subliminally rather than explicitly, with the Soviet Union in the later film); even the final suspense gimmick in which the ability of the astronauts to get back to Earth is jeopardized by the lack of a key component (though in Destination Moon it’s fuel, not oxygen). The other interesting thing is that Woman on the Moon is one of the few science-fiction films ever made by a top-flight director; the sci-fi films to come were mostly directed by hacks (Irving Pichel, Byron Haskin, et al.) and, aside from the involvement of Howard Hawks with The Thing, and the young Robert Wise’s original The Day the Earth Stood Still, a director of top reputation didn’t make a sci-fi film again until Kubrick did 2001. — 2/1/05


I screened Charles and I a movie I’d been curious about re-watching ever since last weekend’s Vintage Sci-Fi showing of Destination Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey: Fritz Lang’s pioneering 1928 film Woman in the Moon (an odd title: the original German name is Frau im Mond, “im” can mean either “in” or “on,”  and Woman On the Moon would actually make more sense as an English translation of the German title). This time around it didn’t seem as good to me as it had when Charles and I first got the Kino on Video DVD (released in 2004 with a new synthesizer-and-guitar musical score — apparently, unlike the original scores Gottfried Hüppertz composed for Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, the accompaniment actually composed for this film didn’t survive even though there’s an enigmatic credit on for a song that supposedly appeared in this silent film and was sung by its leads, Gerda Maurus and Willy Fritsch, suggesting that the original prints presented it as a non-dialogue sound film but only the silent version survives) along with some other Lang material they released. The print quality of Woman in the Moon is excellent — either they had unusually good sources, the folks at Transit Film and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation did an especially good digital restoration, or both — but the Kino DVD is 169 minutes long and, quite frankly, this is a film that could have used some cutting. Indeed, what’s surprising about it is that very little of it is actually about the trip to the moon: it begins with a prologue that lasts nearly an hour and is about the skullduggery between the good guys — aircraft factory owner Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), his engineer Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), and Windegger’s fiancée Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus), with whom Helius is in unrequited love; also Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl in a way overacted performance that makes Wallace Beery’s acting in a similar role in the 1925 The Lost World seem restrained by comparison), who’s spent 32  years working out his theory that humans not only can go to the moon but should because the moon’s mountains contain far more gold than those of earth — and the bad guys, a mysterious syndicate of businessmen represented by a character referred to in the credits as “The Man Who Calls Himself ‘William Turner’” and is played by Fritz Rasp. The syndicate wants either to take control of Helius’s moon rocket and grab the riches of the moon for themselves — they are shown at a secret meeting at which one of them insists that the moon’s wealth should belong to businessmen, not “intellectuals and visionaries” — or, failing that, to destroy it. Rasp is clean-shaven but his hair is combed down so far over his forehead it’s hard not to think that Lang deliberately meant the character’s appearance as a caricature of Adolf Hitler, who was five years from taking power in Germany when this film was made but was already a celebrity as the leader of a Right-wing political movement that got stronger every time the German economy got weaker. 

Just how much Lang’s departure from Germany when Hitler took over in 1933 was a principled statement against fascism (as he, of course, portrayed it) and how much was simple fear that the Nazis would discover he had a Jewish mother is something his biographers are still arguing over; it is known that when Lang made his two-part film of Die Nibelungen in 1923-24 he was publicly identified with the German Right, but later in the U.S. he was a financial supporter of various Left-wing causes and, if not outright blacklisted, was at least grey-listed: the man who in Germany in the 1920’s had made epic spectaculars like Die Nibelungen and Metropolis eked out a living in the U.S. in the 1950’s directing low-budget films noir while other directors (including fellow German expat Henry Koster, who’d established his reputation in the 1930’s with Deanna Durbin’s musicals but was out of his depth in big movies) got assignments like The Robe and The Virgin Queen. It’s also true that because Lang fled the Nazis while his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, stayed and worked in the Nazi-controlled film industry, later critics have tended to give him credit for all the good aspects of their collaboration and blame the bad stuff — the sentimentality and almost child-like moralizing — on her. (Von Harbou also got a bad rep from the way Metropolis was cut up for years; since her name was on the screen as the writer, she got blamed for plot holes and dramatic lacunae that had been coherent and made sense in her original version but didn’t in the cut-down prints from Channing Pollock and others who mangled the original film.) For much of the first hour of Woman on the Moon we watch tales of greed and unscrupulous among Earthlings and wonder, “When will we get to the moon already?” Also, it’s surprising that these scenes are mostly photographed quite dully (though the cinematographer, Curt Courant, later worked with Alfred Hitchcock and did a magnificent job shooting the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) and only an occasional shadowy, oblique, chiaroscuro composition reminds us that Lang, more than any other individual, invented film noir

Once we actually get to the moon rocket, which Helius has named Friede both because it’s the name of his crush object and it’s the German word for “peace,” the film is stunning not only in its visual acumen (even though the long shot of the factory and its environs is one of the most obvious models ever put on screen in a big-budget movie) but its scientific accuracy. Lang’s and von Harbou’s astronauts go to the moon in a multi-stage liquid-fueled rocket (just like their real-life counterparts did 41 years later), and this was the film for which Lang invented the countdown. He asked his scientific adviser, Dr. Hermann Oberth, how they signaled the launch of one of their experimental rockets. “We count from one to 10, and launch on 10,” Oberth told him. “That doesn’t sound very dramatic,” Lang said. Then an idea hit him; Lang told Oberth, “Why don’t we count backwards from 10, and launch on zero?” After Woman on the Moon came out, real rocket researchers started counting down the way Helius and his fellow astronauts do in the film, and eventually the countdown became one of the defining rituals of the space program. (Oberth and his uncredited colleague, Willy Ley, later worked as part of the team that developed the V-2 rocket weapon for the Nazis, then got to come to the U.S. after the war and work for NASA.) Even though this is a silent film, the countdown — with big numbers flashing as titles on the screen until zero is reached and the rocket goes up — is exciting and dramatic. The moon voyage itself is depicted more or less accurately, and Lang got his actors to look credible undergoing acceleration (the increase in gravity that makes going up into space a painful experience until escape velocity is reached). His depiction of weightlessness is a bit more hit-and-miss — though the Friede’s capsule comes equipped with leather straps, some hanging on the ceiling and some bolted to the floor, to give the astronauts something to hold on to so they don’t just float around the interior, there are all too many scenes of them walking normally in the spacecraft. Still, it’s nice to have at least one space-travel film from the silent era that acknowledged weightlessness instead of ignoring it completely like the Republic serials! 

Lang’s and von Harbou’s biggest scientific howler is their assumption that while the side of the moon visible from Earth had no atmosphere, the “dark side” not only had breathable air but ice — when they get to the moon Prof. Manfeldt first goes out in a spacesuit (which looks just like a diver’s outfit at the time and almost certainly was a diver’s outfit sent up from the UFA costume department, though it has a portable air tank two decades before Jacques Cousteau invented SCUBA and divers started carrying portable air tanks for real), then lights three matches and they catch fire and burn, indicating that that part of the moon, at least, has oxygen-containing air and people can move around in it without the encumbrance of spacesuits. Once the astronauts get to the moon, Manfeldt discovers a patch of bubbling mud that looks like a tar pit, the villain (who’d insisted on coming along or his fellow conspirators would sabotage the flight) gets conveniently eliminated, but then they discover that because the landing was rougher than they anticipated, one of the ship’s oxygen tanks ruptured and so they don’t have enough air to get everybody home. Wolf Helius makes the noble sacrifice to stay on the moon — in the final shot he’s surrounded by a lot of food boxes, indicating that he’ll have rations for a few months, though one wonders how he will continually resupply himself (unless he brought plant seeds and can grow food à la The Martian) unless there’s a steady stream of new moon rockets re-provisioning him. Also, like Destination Moon — a film that copied a lot from Woman on the Moon (the flight is funded by the private sector instead of the government, the investors are attracted with a film showing how the trip will be made, there’s a sinister attempt to sabotage the project, and in the end the big problem turns out to be how to get back from the moon due to the loss of a key component), so much so I suspect Robert Heinlein or someone else on George Pal’s writing committee had seen it and was deliberately copying it — there’s a major disappontment at the end in that we don’t see the moon rocket actually return to Earth. Instead there’s a scene in which Helius sees the rocket fly off and gets ready for his new life on the moon — and, in a scene which Charles thought anticipated the ending of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco by two years, Friede turns out to have stayed behind as well and the two lock arms and lips for the final scene.

Woman on the Moon re-teamed Willy Fritsch and Gerda Maurus after Lang’s immediately previous film, Spies (a thriller which anticipated both Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond!), and according to Patrick McGilligan’s “black” biography of Lang — which was so nasty to him McGilligan could have called it Director Dearest — he said that Lang not only psychologically but physically abused Maurus during their two films together. Oddly, what comes across on the screen is an actress giving a diffident, restrained performance — Lang directed Maurus much the way Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich in their famous series of films in the early 1930’s — and Maurus, with her close-cropped, wavy hair and androgynous appearance (she spends the last two-thirds of the film in pants) and her enigmatic demeanor, also seems to anticipate the “Hitchcock blonde” of his later films. Though at least one movie before Woman on the Moon attempted a serious, realistic depiction of space travel — the 1918 Danish film Himmekskibet (A Journey to Mars), which contained what looked like process shots almost a decade before Lang and Eugen Schufftan supposedly invented the process screen for Die Nibelungen and MetropolisWoman on the Moon set the template for virtually all films about serious travel from then on and got copied a lot — the 1936 Russian film Cosmic Voyage almost counts as a remake and copies from Woman on the Moon the pre-pubescent stowaway who sneaks aboard the moon rocket (a gimmick also used in quite a few Republic science-fiction serials). Woman on the Moon is often slow going, but the parts of it that do work — notably the central section, with its quite accurate depiction of how humans ultimately would get to the moon — more than make up for the parts that don’t. — 4/18/18

[1] — It’s even more amazing that he sustained his creativity despite the wrenching biographical and historical events of the time — his falling-out with UFA that kept him idle from 1928 to 1931 and the rise of the Nazis, which forced him into exile and put him through two dodgy periods of relocation, to France in 1933 and the U.S. two years later.

[2] Incidentally, Rasp — who was also in the cast of Spies as well — though clean-shaven, wears his hair plastered across the side of his forehead the way Adolf Hitler did. Though Patrick McGilligan has pretty much laid to rest the myth Lang fostered in later years that he’d always been a principled opponent of the Nazis, it’s still startling to look at a film from the late Weimar era and see a villain with an apparently deliberate resemblance to Hitler.