#9 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
I have a huge soft spot for movies that at least seem to attempt to take space travel seriously. Woman in the Moon is just that kind of film, except it was made in the 20s, more than thirty years before the Mercury missions or Yuri Gagarin. This creates a wonderfully eclectic mix of prescient views of how space travel will work with deliciously anachronistic touches along with genre defining production design (that cheap B-movies would copy to no end through the fifties). It also shifts from a spy film (a better spy film than Spies, by the way) to an outright science fiction film to a boys adventure story, all while providing the kind of solid emotional throughline that everything hangs on. This may not be great cinema, but I do have a great time with it.
The whole action of the film, an effort to reach the moon to discover the hidden gold deposits hidden there, unfolds because Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) is heartbroken. The girl he secretly loves, Friede (Gerda Maurus) has agreed to marry Wolf’s friend and fellow engineer Hans (Gustav von Wangenheim). Smarting from their soon to be marital bliss, he searches out his friend, Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) and tells him that he’s going to build the rocket that will take Wolf to the moon to prove Manfeldt’s laughed-at theories of gold in the moon correct. The problem is that the five people who control the gold deposits on Earth know of the theory and Wolf’s plan, and they send the man who calls himself Turner (Fritz Rasp) to bring Wolf under their thumb. They won’t have a sudden influx of gold from the moon to dilute their power, so they are making it so that they control what gets found.
Really, if Lang and Thea von Harbou had retitled this The Spiders Episode 3: Woman in the Moon, it would have fit in rather perfectly with the earlier entries in the aborted serial.
For the story that follows, is all of this spycraft necessary? The sneaking into Wolf’s apartment through the back way, the stealing of his plans, the use of a disguise by Turner to trick Wolf’s maid? Probably not, but, you know what? It’s actually pretty tense stuff. When I say that this is a better spy movie than Spies, I really mean it. The objective is clear from both perspectives. The action is well-defined. It’s focused, and it works. Perhaps it’s overlong for what the film eventually becomes, but in the moment I really don’t mind. It’s really solid stuff.
Anyway, Turner gets Wolf under his thumb, and we move quickly to the launch. The mix of prescience and anachronistic starts here. On the one hand, you have a rocket assembled in a large warehouse wheeled to the launching pad, the rocket is multi-staged, and there’s a countdown (invented for this very movie). On the other hand, everyone is dressed like they’re going to get into a single-engine airplane and cross the Atlantic like Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, and the only place to sit in the space craft are cots, including where people are expected to control the ship while under tremendous G-force that will extremely limit movement. It’s a combination of a clear-eyed view of what science will bring with simply accepting norms of the time without much question, and it tickles me.
The launch is a great example of silent era special effects (I adore the huge miniatures of the launching area that actually had me fooled for a few seconds), and it’s an exciting sequence on its own with a very clear sense of danger and a makeshift countdown clock in the form of the spaceship not being able to go too fast or everyone dies. Once up, I was surprised to find a real sense of awe and wonder at the sights. It seems like a small detail in what is ultimately an adventure story, but having the characters look out a window in awe at the sight of Earth growing smaller behind them is wonderful, reminding me, in smaller form, of the feelings I have when I watch The Tree of Life.
Once they get to the moon, though, my feelings for the film dip a small bit. The special effects remain wonderful with huge sets and background paintings that match shockingly well to create a large sense of isolation and desolation. However, it feels generic like it could have been scripted as the group finding a remote, uncharted island in the South Pacific and little would have needed to change to make it work in that environment. Aside from some early dialogue, even, there’s no need for space suits. Yes, that’s right, the moon has a breathable atmosphere and even open water sources. I’ll give the film credit for even talking about the need to ensure that there’s a breathable atmosphere, but come on. The moon is a glorified rock in space. What scientist, even in the mid-20s, thought there was a breathable atmosphere up there?
There’s an old man going mad, Turner pursuing him with nefarious purpose, the discovery of gold driving everyone mad in ways that reminded me of the later The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and it feels so generic. It’s really standard adventure stuff, and it doesn’t feel like the right way to end this film. Fortunately, that’s not how it ends, though. When a threat is dealt with, there’s limited oxygen and someone must stay behind for it all to work. This gives our hero a chance to be heroic. It may not be the ending of a hard-science fiction tale (where, um, people can breathe on the moon), but it’s really nice to see a hero being all heroic and self-sacrificial and even being rewarded for that.
Really, this movie is two things in the main. The first is a triumph of production design. After the smaller production of Spies, Lang was able to command much more in creating the special effects of this trip to the moon that often recalls Melies’ own Voyage to the Moon, but far less fantastical. The second triumph is the very basic storytelling elements, in particular around the characters, that bring the audience along. It’s not just amazing, silent-era sights. It’s that, but we have people we like and care about along for the ride as well.
The Kino release of Lang’s silent films includes an essay by Tom Gunning, and he describes the “destiny-machine” that Lang returns to repeatedly in his work. It’s most evident in Metropolis, but I get what he’s talking about here as well. The mechanical nature of the spacecraft drives humanity forward, but that drive requires sacrifice on a human level that Wolf is willing to accept. In the face of that progress, we must find ways to retain our humanity. I think it’s a very informed way to look at Lang’s German work, and it’s something I keep in the back of my mind as I go along.
Great to look at, solidly built narratively, and an extension of Lang’s own thematic ideas, Woman in the Moon is a very entertaining adventure tale that may not quite hit the heights of something like Die Nibelungen: Kriemheld’s Revenge, but is very much of the same school of filmmaking as Metropolis.