The pioneering and influential space travel silent classic is a mixed bag of melodrama and innovation.
Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) has often been described as the first ‘serious science fiction film’, but anyone expecting ultra-realism might be a little disappointed. Certainly, compared to most silent sci-fi, where the Moon might be portrayed as a smiling face and where the whole idea of space exploration was still little more than an absurdist comic fantasy, then yes, this is the height of seriousness. But given that the film features spacemen and women running around the Moon’s surface sans helmet and finding large gold deposits, then we should perhaps remember that ‘serious’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘realistic’ or even ‘sensible’.
Still, this is epic stuff for the time, and at almost three hours long, it’s also rather bloated. In fact, for the first hour or so of the movie, it feels like a bit of an ordeal to sit through quite frankly, as the film explores the intrigue, double-crossing, spying and general shenanigans surrounding a planned mission to the Moon. Helius (Willy Fritsch) is a would-be space travel entrepreneur, who teams up with Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), a would-be space traveller who is attempting to travel to the Moon in search of the gold he is convinced is up there rather than for any higher purpose. Also interested in Mannfeldt’s plan is a cartel of corrupt businessmen, led by the grubby American Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp). This leads to much melodrama but very little action, as Helius has his plans stolen and is forced to accept Turner as part of his mission. Also along for the ride are his assistants Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Friede (Gerda Maurus), who have become engaged, even though Helius is secretly in love with the woman.
This might well be an essential narrative set-up for the adventure ahead, but quite frankly, it’s dreadfully dull stuff featuring a collection of one-dimensional characters running about for no good reason other than to look sinister or distraught and generally marking time that the film hardly needs to include. I’ll be entirely honest – this first hour is so dull that it had me seriously considering writing the film off. Only my commitment to reviewing it and the knowledge that Lang was a seminal director who surely was going to come up with the goods sooner or later kept me watching.
And indeed, he eventually does. That the opening act is so plodding is a real shame, because if audiences can stick with it to the point where the science fiction actually kicks in, the film improves considerably. First of all, it takes on a grand scale that even now looks impressive, the spaceship and the preparations for launch being genuinely spectacular. It doesn’t quite predict how manned space flight would occur – here, the rocket, too heavy to stand upright, is floating in a giant tank of water – but it definitely looks good and seems considered. Lang had certainly done some research into the practicalities of space flight.
Things get a bit silly when, soon after take-off, the crew discover a young boy, Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur), who has stowed away on the rocket with a collection of sci-fi pulp comics in the hope that the moon will prove to be as exciting in real life as it is in his stories (and to be fair, I would’ve sacrificed some seriousness for a film about Moon Vampires myself). Meanwhile, tensions mount amongst the crew, with Windegger proving himself to be a rather hysterical coward. This all reaches a frantic level when they land on the Moon and everyone gets into quite a panic, except for the Professor, who makes his way outside, and after striking a match to check the oxygen quality, whips off his helmet and sets off in search of gold.
The rest of the crew finally leave the ship and set out in search of the professor, who indeed has found gold. Turner finds this out and determines to hijack the rocket, though quite why is unsure, as he doesn’t seem to have taken very much of the precious metal to return to Earth with. In a struggle, he shoots an oxygen tank, and the crew soon realise that there isn’t enough air to last them all on the trip home. Someone will have to stay behind (I would’ve picked Gustav, who had no right to be there in the first place)…
Frau im Mond certainly looks fantastic when it finally gets going. Sure, the Moon is clearly a sandpit, but the sets are pretty grand in scale, the caves of gold impressively constructed and the spaceship itself a genuinely vast and striking structure. Certainly, you can see how this film influenced later Moon trip movies, not only visually but in style (the whole ‘not enough oxygen/power to return to Earth’ story would be used by a number of films over the next few decades).
The performances are, perhaps inevitably, somewhat hysterical, even by silent movie standards. Everyone seems to be thoroughly worked up for much of the movie, and the emphasis is very much on melodrama here. It doesn’t help the story, to be honest, especially in the first hour where the film has little of the style you might associate with Lang.
In the end, this is perhaps a film that is more admirable for its importance than enjoyable for its content. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the history of science fiction cinema and the films that marked its development, but it’s not up there with the best of Lang or the best of the genre, truth be told.
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