Film Review: Woman in the Moon (1929)

alt

Frau im Mond (1929)
(Woman in the Moon)

directed by Fritz Lang
Frames in this review are taken from the Kino DVD which is © 1929 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, renewed by Notice of Intent to enforce a Copyright 1996 under the Uruguay Round Agreement Act by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung successor of UFA, English Translation © 2004 Kino International Corp, Licensed from Transit Films GMBH on behalf of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, Wiesbaden

To catch misspellings in web searches: Frau im Monde

 

More Science than Science Fiction

German director Fritz Lang is known for one particular science fiction film: Metropolisalt. Elements from that that futuristic masterpiece can be found in many later works, such as Blade Runneralt (the androids), The Fifth Elementalt (that breathtakingly frenetic futuristic city traffic), and 2001: A Space Odysseyalt (the theme of man and machine's symbiotic development). There are Biblical and classical allusions aplenty, as well as some of the most startling imagery to come out of the silent film era. And there’s also a bit of lost-and-found cachet from having been cut to pieces and then painstakingly put back together again decades later.

Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) is one of Fritz Lang’s forgotten films.  Never finding the critical acclaim that other Lang pictures did, this film has mostly been relegated to the annals of historical rocketry films, sandwiched between Georges Méliès' whimsical A Trip to the Moon and the post-V2, pre-Sputnik Destination Moonalt, penned by science-fiction great Robert Heinlein.  Woman in the Moon is perhaps best-known for having popularized the 3-2-1-liftoff countdown.

Strangely enough, it consists of one great piece of visionary cinema, sandwiched between a rather pedestrian plot.  I guess you can’t make money in 1929 with a film that deals only with spaceflight.  The meat consists of the launch and flight to the moon, scientifically accurate to the limits of 1920s knowledge, almost documentary in nature.  The viewer runs through the whole sequence of emotions that accompanied the Apollo moonshots of the 1960s and 1970s: thrill in anticipation of the launch, wonder at weightlessness, and wistfulness as the pioneers watch the earth grow smaller.

Watching Woman in the Moon is likely to send shivers up the spine of the space enthusiast.  The science depicted in the film has an impressive pedigree — the technical sections are attributed to Dr. 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.

Fantastic visuals and prescient footage

The climax of the film is the rocket launch.  This is rather early for a climax, but it’s also rather late considering how uninteresting the framing plot actually is.  (Which is why I’ll describe the launch first and the rest of the plot later.)

Just before the launch, we get to watch along with the captains of industry as they screen three minutes of spy footage depicting an unmanned test launch.  There is even a neat animated schematic diagram, complete with a rotating earth, an orbiting moon, and a rocket that is launched with a slight lead so that it intersect the moon’s position after the three-day journey.  With Jon Mirsalis' unabashedly cosmic score playing in the background, you feel like a president or a prime minister being shown the future of humanity.  Remember, this footage was produced forty years before man landed on the moon.

The launch sequence itself is breathtaking in conception.  Imaginative ideas include a skywriting plane, juxtaposed with overview model shots showing the view from the plane, complete with rolls, pans, and tilts as the plane traces out its message.  The similarities to real space missions thirty years later are prescient.  There's intense newspaper and radio interest, an Eric Severaid/Walter Cronkite-like announcer, a gigantic vehicle assembly building from which a gantry-laden crawler slowly emerges, and throngs of crowds gathered to watch the event, with the lucky ones in viewing stands.  Reminiscent of Yuri Gagarin at the launch of Vostok 1, the German spacefarers have a round of heartfelt goodbye handshakes to comrades inside the assembly building, before climbing up the ladder to the spacecraft.

It is all very thrilling, especially because of the lack of precedent.  Certainly a long step from the simple cannon of Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon.  The model shots are beautiful and of high technical quality, albeit with depth of field too shallow for verisimilitude.  The fine detail on the crawler is particularly notable, with spiny gantries of exposed steel.  The spaceship, however, looks a bit too smooth, without the ice formation and imperfections that would make it true-to-life.  The depth-of-field is also too shallow, so it clearly looks like a model.

There are equally impressive visuals in space — the standard closeups of the moon, the lonely sight of the earth disappearing behind the lunar horizon as the spaceship passes to the far side.  There is meticulous attention to detail — for example, the stirring sight of the sun emerging from behind the earth is made possible because the spaceship launches at night.  Many later films would choose beautiful visuals which work out to nonsensical flight paths; here, it actually has a scientific basis.  The one shot of a lunar model during the earthset sequence is not quite right, though.  The moon can look very curved when you're at high altitude, or the craters can look very sharp when skimming along at a few miles above the surface, but not both at the same time!

There's also an effective score by silent-film accompanist John Mirsalis on the Kino DVD, making for an engrossing silent film experience that deserves to have a glittering proscenium arch over it in a movie palace.  In space, Mirsalis' astronomical score conveys mystery and wonderment, with vocal and instrumental accompaniment (both synthesized) providing an effective backdrop to Mirsalis’ own piano playing.  And in the build-up to launch, the score blasts out triumphantly with drums and brass.

Limits of 1920s scientific knowledge

Many of the mission details differ from the actual Apollo missions, largely due to the limits of scientific knowledge at the time.  The amount of space in the spacecraft certainly is overoptimistic, although this can be attributed to production needs.  It is rather strange that the spacecraft launches from a water tank, but I speculatively attribute that to a mistranslation in the English intertitles (see below).  There's talk of having one side of the spacecraft be light and the other one dark, so as to control solar heating.  This sounds logical enough, except that Apollo actually rotated ("barbeque mode") to distribute the solar heating.  Here, basic science doesn't foresee later engineering cleverness.

Of course, the rocket is launched in one piece to the moon.  Direct ascent was the obvious way of reaching the moon, the one that von Braun initially planned for with his humongous Nova rockets.  Lunar orbit rendezvous is actually a non-obvious engineering breakthrough that required difficult techniques to be worked out and practiced first.  Weightlessness is also a difficult concept to grasp.  Just like Jules Verne, Oberth forgot that free-fall also results in weightlessness, and so the diagram shows a weight-free zone at the neutral point where Terran and lunar gravity cancel each other out.  It is also stated in the film that more than 4 g’s of acceleration would be mortal to humans, but of course they did yet not have the experience afforded by high-performance jet aircraft.

For its time, the Oberth-penned sections of Woman in the Moon represent the forefront of scientific knowledge in rocketry and astronomy.  There is a reference to an earlier unmanned probe, which set off a giant magnesium flare on the moon to signal its arrival.  The American Dr. Robert Goddard proposed a similar idea in 1916, to much ridicule from the press.  The film gives the correct translunar velocity: 11000 meters/second.  The rocket is even a three-stage rocket, just like the Saturn V.  En-route course corrections are performed with the aid of two bicycle wheels arranged at right angles, serving as a gyroscope.

Weightlessness is fun.  One of the characters anticipates later space shuttle and space station antics by launching up a deck with one push of the feet.  There's also the standard trick of drinking up water globules in zero-g, done in an optical shot with meticulous animation, even having some of them spin around and merge together.  Unfortunately, the effect is clearly an animation and doesn’t look very real.  Knowledge of free-fall behavior was quite limited at the time, as propeller aircraft just didn't have the power to simulate zero-G for a reasonable amount of time.

 

I guess you could call it a plot

The rest of the plot was written by Thea von Harbou based on her novel of the same name (published in the English-speaking world as Rocket to the Moon).  It is very different from the Oberth sections, for the science is clearly nonsense, and the visionary documentary gives way to mere melodrama.  von Harbou was married to Lang at the time and was a frequent collaborator.  There are some parallels to Metropolis, which she also worked on.  Man, woman, machine. Man loves woman, technology stands in the way, humans lust for profit, but all with a happy ending.  But while Metropolis contrasted the spectacles of the city with the misery of the workers, Frau remains lighthearted throughout and can never really be taken seriously.

The plot is rather silly.  Promising young professor Manfeldt claims that the far side of the moon has an atmosphere and riches of gold (see, it's on the far side, so nobody really knows).  He is ridiculed and winds up destitute, but mentors young tycoon Wolf Helius, who is heading up a great aeronautical enterprise building a rocket to the moon.  Helius is in love with Friede Velten, a beautiful blonde studying astronomy at the university (though she never demonstrates her scientific knowledge on film).  But the most cinematic type of love is the unrequited type, so naturally Friede is engaged to Helius' engineering associate Hans Windegger (a hardheaded engineer, who becomes panicky after they launch).

For additional conflict, there are "five of the richest and cleverest heads who wish to keep the gold reserve of the earth under their control."  They learn of the project and send a representative, who "asks" to be added to the journey.  And, while we're at it, let's throw in a little boy who's "devoted [his] entire life to moon research" by reading comic books, and the professor's pet mouse, who naturally has to be taken into space.  After a bunch of predictable things happen to these caricatures, we are relieved to finally encounter the visionary part of the film, which  takes us from launching to landing.  On the moon, they find gold, and all the tensions erupt into a predictable climax and a rather fun denouement.

Lang doesn't try for a deeply psychological film here, playing much of the plot for comedy.  For example, the chicken dinner that Helius begins and the hungry Prof. Manfeldt ends up finishing.  Indeed, none of the conflict in the film produces much tension.  The bankers' agent may look big and sinister, but he’s actually rather mild-mannered.  The wisp-of-a-plot is treated by Lang as an excuse for sharp photography and gleeful moments.

Sharp photography, yes, but the plot moves along too slowly at 24 frames per second.  We don’t even see the rocket until an hour into the film, and this is about thirty minutes too long for the plot to hold together.  The camera often holds on the actors for long periods of time to get both the action and the follow-through, and it would’ve been much better to cut to intertitle to speed things up.  Fortunately, there is some eye candy for the viewers to look at while trudging through the plot.  The print quality is excellent, and the sets are tastefully decorated.  The characters are smartly attired and lit glamorously in classic studio fashion.

The lifelike frame rate does give us a chance to observe the actors, all of whom are relative unknowns outside Germany.  Several had long acting careers, in particular Helius (Willy Fritsch) and Prof. Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl).  Gerda Maurus plays Friede as a cool Hitchcockian blonde; in a simple yet elegant white dress at her engagement party, she looks very much like a Hitchcockian blond.  She calmly tells Helius that she will be going along on the spaceflight, which puts the men very much off-balance.

The Kino DVD


The spectacular source print shows through to the Kino DVD.  The interlacing is somewhat annoying, and there is some chroma noise around the text edges.  The rainbow effect comes through particularly strongly in the animated schematic of the spacecraft trajectory, as well as other places where digitally-generated subtitles are superimposed over original film footage.

The English translation was done by Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart, who is very active on New York's film scene and is a board member of the Anthology Film Archives.  The translation reads quite smoothly and naturally.  However, she is clearly out of her element when it comes to engineering terminology, translating it word-by-word and not making very much sense:

  • The earlier unmanned rocket is referred to as a "register" rocket, with "register" cameras.  How about a "survey" rocket instead, with "recording" cameras?
  • The recording camera are linked to a "clockwork" and has three "mirror teleobjectives."  Isn’t this a "chronometer" and “objectives for a reflecting telescope?”
  • "Mysterious, monochrome plains" on the moon are better described as "featureless plains," considering that the footage is in black-and-white.
  • "Because the spaceship is too light to stand freely, it is submerged in a water basin in which it stands upright."  Considering that this is a direct ascent moonshot, and that only alcohol-liquid oxygen fuels would be available, the rocket would have to be roughly twice the size of the Saturn V.  Either this should be "too heavy," or "too fragile."
  • "From the launch until the necessary speed of 11,200 meters per second is reached ... / ... there will be eight critical minutes in the battle with the increase in velocity, the pressure of which is fatal for humans when it surpassed forty meters per second."

    What a stilted sentence.  Try "... the battle with acceleration, whose force is fatal for humans when it exceeds forty meters per second squared."

Summary

Woman in the Moon is a great visual and musical experience. A fabulous treat for space fans.  Destination Moon is much better-known among American audiences, but it feels like a rerun compared to Frau im Mond.  What was visionary in 1929 is merely a technical exercise in 1950.

P.S. In reality, it cost far more to obtain the Apollo moon rocks than their weight in gold.  The Apollo program cost $25 billion from 1961 to 1972 and brought back 842 pounds of moon rocks, for a cost of $2 million per troy ounce.  Gold was selling for about $60 per troy ounce in 1972.