(9/10) In a nutshell: This is one of film giant Fritz Lang’s sillier movies, about a party going to the moon in 1929 looking for gold. If you’re not sitting around just waiting for the moon stuff to happen, the spy-themed build-up is sheer cinematic delight, with Lang clearly having loads of fun. The impressively scientifically accurate moon trip served as a blueprint for every rocket launch film since.
Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929). Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou. Scientific material written by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp, Gustav von Wangheim, Klaus Pohl, Gustl Gstettenbaur. Produced by Fritz Lang for UFA. Tomatometer: 71 %. IMDb score: 7.4
Frau im Mond (1929) has a bit of a patchy reputation – some regard it as one of Austrian cinema legend Fritz Lang’s masterpieces, others see it as a short bit of sci-fi excitement sandwiched between over-long schmaltzy melodrama. I am almost inclined to agree with the first assessment, but I can certainly understand the latter. However you look at it, no-one can deny the impact it had on latter moon launch films, nor the film’s astounding visionary scientific accuracy.
Frau im Mond, or Woman in the Moon, sometimes referred to as Girl in the Moon or By Rocket to the Moon was made two years after Austrian demon director Fritz Lang had made his genre-defining sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927, review). Originally the script for that film had an ending which saw the protagonist flying to the stars, but that was scrapped and reworked by his wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou into yet another novel to be put on the screen, just as with Metropolis. But the book wasn’t enough. Lang himself was extremely interested in space and space technology, as well as science fiction, and was convinced that the technology to make a trip to the moon was within reach in the coming few years – he had hoped to send off a liquid fuelled rocket on the day the film premiered, but the project didn’t come to pass. But in theory he actually got most of the science and technology right in his film, in large part thanks to technical advisor Hermann Oberth, the father of German rocketry and mentor of Dr. Werner von Braun, creator of the V-2 ballistic missile and later head of the Saturn rocket program. As technical advisor Lang hired Willy Ley, later one of the architects of the American space program.
It may be difficult today to understand the novelty of this film when it came out. But as a matter of fact, in the 34 year long history of cinema up to that point, only two original moon landing films had been made. The first one came in 1902, and that was Georges Méliès legendary A Trip to the Moon (review) and the second one was the British 1919 film First Men in the Moon (sadly a lost film). The first was a burlesque fantasy loosely based on Jules Verne’s A Voyage to the Moon, with elements of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. It spawned quite a little industry of mimicry after it came out. The second was more or less completely based on Wells – but this was also complete fantasy. Verne had his rocket shot out of a cannon and Wells invented the gravity-defying alloy Cavorite. No-one had ever described space travel or moon landings with such a realistic and detailed approach in fiction before. Most people simply didn’t have the money to hire a bunch of rocket scientists and astronomers to aid them. It wasn’t until 1951 and producer George Pal’s expensive space film Destination Moon (review) that any Western filmmaker attempted anything similar. The Soviet Union did, however, produce a fairly accurate moon saga, Kosmicheskiy Reys (Cosmic Voyage) in 1936.
Fritz Lang wasn’t known for making films that were short and to the point. His 1924 epic Die Nibelungen was nearly five hours long, his best known film, Metropolis, nearly three hours, and Frau im Mond clocks in at over 150 minutes. It is roughly divided in two parts: one involves a spy drama on Earth, the other the actual space flight and hunting for gold on the moon. It takes a whole 73 minutes before we get to see the moon rocket, and some critics have found the build-up slow going. I, for one, do not.
The film starts with Helius (Willy Fritsch), a successful young flight engineer who seeks out his old mentor and friend Professor Mannfeldt, wonderfully played by a spirited Klaus Pohl. Decades ago Mannfeldt presented his theory that on the dark side of the moon there was a breathable atmosphere, and more importantly, that the mountains of the moon were filled with gold. Laughed out of the scientific community, he now lives in a small attic with no-one but a house mouse to keep him company, and the occasional visit from Helius. The first scene between the men sets the tone for the film – and is filmed with such ingenuity, attention to detail, humour and numerous small quirks that immediately presents far more about the characters and their relation than what is said in the title cards – that it is hard to understand how people find all of this boring. The film opens with a bang – a furious Mannfeldt kicks an intruder down a flight of stairs. The tall, well-dressed man flails as he lands straight in the arms of a surprised Helius. Leaned double over the railing is the infuriated Professor, shouting and ranting: ”Let that leech break his neck, Helius! Here I have been living like a dog because of my ideas for thirty years, and now this trickster wants to profit from my misfortune – and buy my manuscript as a curiosity!” the intertitles tell us – in German, in the copy I have seen. After calming the Professor, Helius finds a calling card the trickster has left behind – ”Walt Turner, Chicago” is all it says.
The following scene is a beauty to watch in all its simplicity. The small run-down attic cubicle in which Mannfeldt lives tells a whole life’s story. As Helius unwraps a beer and a chicken dinner for himself we get sort of throwaway shots of accolades hung on the walls, that are covered in scribbled numbers and parables, there’s a desk and a telescope by the window. Lang takes joy in showing us details like Mannfeldt removing a stack off books from under a chair, where they serve as support in the absence of a leg, stacking them on the chair, dragging it to the small table for Helius to sit on, and slam the chair down as Helius asks for a loaf of bread to go with his dinner, after having painstakingly brushed the floor dust from his stylish, but badly worn dress. Next Mannfeldt slams a banknote on the table – ”I found this in my coat pocket after you were here last – buy bread with that, Herr Helius. Please spare me the disgrace of receiving alms from my only friend …”
Out of pride he refuses to even share a sandwich with Helius, as he himself sits on a potato box when Helius gets the big chair. To emphasise the different worlds of the two friends Lang even splits the screen with a wooden column right down the middle, with the wealthy, young Helius and his dinner one side, and the hungry and unkempt, but proud, Mannfeldt on the other. Of course when the whole scene is over, Helius ”forgets” to eat his dinner, and it gets eaten by Mannfeldt and his mouse – which is of course what Helius intended all along. Anyway, during this awkward dinner is when Helius tells Mannfeldt that he has decided to build a rocket to the moon to put Mannfeldt’s theory to the test – and naturally the good Professor is overjoyed, and insists on coming along. During the conversation we also get to know that Helius’ best friend and colleague Windegger (Gustav von Wangheim) will not be going along. He is about to marry Helius’ other assistant Friede (Gerda Maurus), who Helius is also secretly in love with. ”He won’t have time for the trip”, Helius bitterly says.
This scene just takes up ten minutes, but the sheer wealth of information we get in the scene, that never once feels like an exposition scene, is staggering. In fact, it is filled with humour, excitement, humanity and warmth, it sets up the plot, gives us an extensive portrait of two of the film’s main characters and introduces two more (actually three, if you count Turner). All this over a small chicken dinner, that is all filmed with the same passion and style as if it were the moon flight itself on screen. Such is the genius of Fritz Lang.
The plot itself really is not of much consequence. The next 60 minutes have two basic threads: Windegger and Friede convincing Helius that they are to come along on the trip, and Turner and his conglomerate of evil capitalists stealing the manuscript and blackmailing Helius to let Turner tag along for the ride. But is so beautifully filmed, with all the little quirks and details and humour laid out as candy before the viewer. Maurus plays a surprisingly strong female – something sadly absent from the sci-fi genre for many decades to come. She doesn’t move around the spaceship serving the men tea, as in many later films, but actually does scientific work (actually she seems to be the only one doing any scientific work as the team lands on the moon). Maurus plays her character with a great calm and seriousness, and although she is a joy to behold she is fortunately never reduced to eye-candy. Fritz Rasp, who we saw earlier as the evil henchman The Thin Man in Metropolis, relishes the role as the oily, devious ”the man who calls himself Walter Turner”, as the credits introduce him.
Halfway into the film we get to the real draw – the takeoff to the moon, and this is where Lang really comes into his own. Not only has he conceived of a three-stage rocket, later used in real life, but the whole takeoff scenario is eerily reminiscent of moon flights taking place 40 years later. First the building of the rocket in a gigantic hangar, and then rolling it out on a huge gantry on tracks, exactly like NASA did. We get a beautiful aerial shot of the takeoff area, a very realistic miniature, and it’s like your looking at Cape Kennedy. Lang also foresees the massive public interest with a live audience, worldwide media coverage and even a Walter Cronkite-like announcer. The unveiling of the rocket is an impressive sequence – an wide shot showing the outline of the craft slowly advancing from the hangar in the middle of the night, with searchlights waving to and fro, giving it all a very expressionist touch. We can forgive that the people in the foreground are clearly static miniature models. But since the whole sequence is nearly ten minutes long, this is the only place in the film where I’d actually have cut it shorter. Before the takeoff we get a nice feminist sequence where Helius begs Friede to stay behind and she scalds him for thinking of her as a woman first and an important scientist second. She is also clad in coarse trousers, a masculine shirt, a man’s tie and a waistcoat, as if to further point out that she is equal to the men, and all skills and no frills. (Although the universal gear of a knitted woollen sweater over shirt and tie does seem a rather impractical set of wardrobe for a lunar mission.)
Then we get the legendary 3-2-1-takeoff countdown, which Lang is said to have invented with this film, and the whole takeoff and space flight are extremely well researched. The passengers are strapped down for the G-forces of takeoff (lying and not sitting), two bicycle wheels serve as a gyrometer and the difficulty of manoeuvring and dumping the boosters under G-force distress is well played. This is also the first film to deal with weightlessness in space – mostly the cinematic headaches with this problem is solved by having all the floors covered with straps to stick your toes under when you walk. Although there is a pretty impressive shot of the stowaway boy Gustav shooting up through a manhole and hitting his head on the ceiling. If you stop the frame you can clearly see the wire, but it is such a quick sequence and the wire is cleverly placed close to the metal ladder that it is practically invisible if you don’t know where to look. There’s also the classic scene of drinking alcohol bubbles in weightlessness – although the bubbles are pretty crudely animated by today’s standards – the only special effect that really seems dated today. And the booze cabinet is one of the less realistic features on the spacecraft.
Oh, the stowaway? I have left out one of the main characters, namely the young boy Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur), sort of a protégé of Helius, who aids him in trying to catch one of the spies and has no higher passion in life than reading sci-fi pulp magazines. Of course he isn’t gonna get left behind when Helius goes to the moon. In a way one can see him as Fritz Lang’s alter ego in the film. Lang was not only obsessed with space flight, but also loved science fiction magazines. He had a huge collection of old magazines, that were all donated to a museum after his death.
On the moon all science disappear and Lang digs up his love for pulp stories. Prof. Mannfeldt does go out on the surface in a space suit that looks more like a deep-sea diving suit. Then he tests the atmosphere and decides it is breathable (by lighting a match) – and dashes off to the mountains with respectable speed for his age. In a cave he passes a bubbling pond of mud and – lo and behold – finds the mountains are stuffed with the precious metal. But, alas, as the story often goes, greed makes you blind, and the good professor meets the end of his days at the bottom of a pit, laden with enormous chunks of gold.
A drama ensues when Mr Turner tries to get rid of the other travellers and keep all the gold for himself. In a fight a stray bullet hits an oxygen tank, which means they only have air left for three passengers of the way home. Turner gets killed by Windegger, so that leaves for people alive on the lunar surface. Ditching the child or woman is – naturally – out of the question, so the men draw straws, and Windegger draws the short one. But the noble Helius puts sleeping potion in their last drink together, planning to sacrifice himself as the others are asleep, leaving the craft in young Gustav’s hands. As the rocket takes off, Helius destitutely sees his beloved Friede and his only way back return to Earth. He is alone, the last man on the moon. Until. He raises his eyes again. And there stands Friede with arms stretched out – the woman in the moon. They embrace and Friede comforts her man. Die Ende.
This has been described as one of Lang’s ”lesser” films, and in away it is. But just to the extent that Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays. A Lang film is always a Lang film. It is true that it lacks the gravitas of Dr. Mabuse, the epic quality of Die Nibelungen, the visual impact of Metropolis and the cinematic experimenting of M. But this film shows the other side of Lang, the playful Lang that relishes in the telling of small stories within the big picture, the Lang that loved entertaining spy novels and pulp magazines. This is the side he had earlier showcased in Die Spinnen and the visual fury of Spione – the ultimate spy film of the mid-twenties. He clearly had tons of fun while directing this – where he could have his actors do silly things completely unrelated to the plot. We have Professor Mannfeldt with his pet mouse Josephine that he insists on taking with him to the moon, Gustav and his pulp fiction, and a hilarious scene when Helius is using his neighbour’s phone, and we see him absent-mindedly fiddling with something off-screen. It turns out he has been using a pair of scissors to maul his neighbour’s potted plant. The film is crammed with these little details, making it a joy to watch.
The moon itself is spectacularly well rendered, and it would take decades until such a well defined outer space world would hit the screen – the 1956 film Forbidden Planet is probably the first one to live up to the standard. And of course the moon flight itself has served as the blueprint for basically ever moon flight film since – and in some ways for moon flight itself. There are scientific flaws that people have pointed out. The rocket takes off from a water basin, there is no weightlessness in freefall in the movie, the rocket doesn’t orbit the moon before landing, the rocket itself seems to be steered with two huge levers, etc. But first of all – this was all highly speculative back then. And second – even realistic films like Apollo 13 and Gravity have taken liberties with reality, and this was ultimately a fantasy film.
This was Fritz Lang’s second-to-last silent film, he would follow it up with M in 1931, by many seen as his ultimate masterpiece, and the film he liked best himself. For more on Lang, see my review of Metropolis.
Willy Fritsch was a very popular leading man in German cinema from 1928 onwards, when he was paired with actress Lillian Harvey. He joined the Nazi party out of convenience, but did his best to stay out of propaganda films (despite popular misconception, other films than propaganda were made during the Nazi rule of Germany), and survived the Nazi period with his reputation fairly intact. He continued acting until 1964, when he started a career as a screenwriter, that lasted to his death in 1973. He had previously appeared in Lang’s film Spione, and had no other outings in sci-fi.
The beautiful blonde Gerda Maurus (born Gertrud Pfiel in Austria, present day Croatia) was a theatre actress who caught the eye of Lang in 1928 and also starred in Spione, after getting the lead in Frau im Mond and Hochferrad (1929, known as High Treason in English, but not to be confused with the British 1929 sci-fi film High Treason, which I cannot unfortunately review, since I cannot find it). Her star diminished somewhat with the talkies, and her career was more or less ruined after WWII because of a brief collaboration with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Klaus Pohl is described as ”a spindly Austrian actor, a busy supporting player of the 1930’s and 40’s. He tackled a multitude of diverse roles, some of his best work being for the director Fritz Lang”. Professor Mannfeldt is Pohl’s best remembered role, and he worked (uncredited) on Spione and M for Lang as well. It is odd that he never got bigger shots at acting, as his work in Frau in Mond is superb. In 1934 he appeared in a supporting role in Harry Piel’s sci-fi film Gold (review), about a mad scientist and his robot army). He was also a respected stage actor. Fritz Rasp had a long film career spanning from 1916 to 1976. He is best remembered from Metropolis, The Love of Jeanne Ney (with Metropolis co-star Brigitte Helm, 1927), Woman in the Moon, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and The Threepenny Opera (1931). He also starred in Spione and two versions of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of Baskervilles (1929 and 1937). Metropolis and Woman in the Moon were his only sci-fi films
Young Gustl Gstettenbauer had begun his acting career a year earlier in a little known film called Der Piccolo vom Goldenen Löwen, in the role of the piccolo, in 1928, and had a small role in Spione. His acting career took off after Woman in the Moon, and he continued to appear in films and TV until 1976, although he seems to have been banned for a few years after the Nazi regime. Gustav Wangheim (born Ingo Clemens Gustav Adolf Freiherr von Wangenheim) is best known for his role as Thomas Hutter (a renamed Jonathan Harker) in F.W. Murnau’s genre-defining Nosferatu (1922). He was a devoted communist and moved to the Soviet Union when the Nazis came to power. He continued to produce movies and was the head of a German cabaret in Moscow. He was later accused of denouncing two of his colleagues as Trotskyites (google it if you don’t understand), leading to one of them being executed. His son has later tried to clear his father’s name by explaining that his colleague was killed over the excuse that he had planned to kill Josef Stalin, and that Wangheim had stubbornly refused to confirm this suspicion, despite a long interrogation with the KGB. He returned to Germany in 1945, working as a stage director and producer. He is played by comedian and actor Eddie Izzard in the 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire, a fictionalised account of the making of Nosferatu.
Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929). Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou. Scientific material written by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp, Gustav von Wangheim, Klaus Pohl, Gustl Gstettenbaur. Cinematography: Curt Courant. Scientific advisor: Willy Ley. Art direction: Emil Hassler, Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht. Special Effects: Oskar Fischinher. Produced by Fritz Lang for UFA.