When someone mentions the name Fritz Lang, two movies probably come to mind: the science fiction classic “Metropolis” (1927), and his first talking film, “M” (1931) — both of which have had a lasting impact on the art of movie-making. His career in films, beginning in 1911 and ending with his last production in 1960, saw the creation of 45 films — many of which have gone on to hold a place in movie history with nefarious characters like Dr. Mabuse or the classic film noir, “The Big Heat.” It’s one of Lang’s lesser-known films, 1929’s “Woman in the Moon” (“Frau im Mond”) — a silent science fiction movie based on the novel “Die Frau im Mond” by Thea von Harbou — that captured this reviewer’s attention.
The movie starts with businessman Wolf Helius paying a visit to his friend Professor Georg Mannfeldt. On his way up the stairs to the Professor’s apartment, he stumbles into a row with the Professor forcibly throwing someone out of his apartment. That “someone” attempted to purchase the Professor’s research concerning gold in the mountains of the Moon, but the Professor believed the man to be yet another charlatan out to make a mockery of his work, so he kicked him out.
Helius, however, believes in the Professor’s work and the possibility of space travel. He convinces the Professor that with his research, he can build a rocket and reach the Moon. Happy to have someone finally believing in him, the Professor entrusts his documents and manuscript to Helius. However, on the drive back to his apartment, Helius is mugged.
He telephones his assistant Windegger, interrupting the engagement party he’d been avoiding since Windegger planned to marry Friede, the woman he secretly loved. Windegger rushes to the apartment with Friede in tow, and as they examine the empty safe, an American named Turner shows up, explaining that he represents a group of businessmen intent on gaining control of any potential gold found on the Moon and that they contacted him to steal the plans and research. But he has a proposition: either include the businessmen in their scheme or watch as all their work is sabotaged. Seeing this as the only way to reach the Moon, Helius reluctantly agrees.
The team of Helius, Windegger, Friede, Mannfeldt, and Turner are launched into space, attaining their final destination only to find a stowaway — a young boy named Gustav. In order to make the return trip to Earth, they need water; Mannfeldt grabs a dowsing rod and is immediately pulled toward the far side of the Moon. Helius sends Turner after him. Turner finds Mannfeldt in a cave filled with gold, proving his theory about gold on the Moon. But Turner can’t let the others return with knowledge of the gold so he attempts to hijack the rocket and damages the ship in the process.
Because of the damage, only three people can return to Earth. Helius and Windegger draw straws, and Helius loses. But seeing his distress at being left behind, Helius drugs Windegger and Friede, confiding to Gustav that he will remain and that Gustav must pilot the ship.
For the time, it’s a surprisingly long film, clocking in at 169 minutes – that’s over two and a half hours! It’s MCU-sized, to say the least. So, a long movie needed a long synopsis, as I provided above. Now, let’s run “Woman in the Moon” through some observations.
In spite of a few overly long scenes, I was sucked into the adventure and science fiction aspect of the film. Exploring the Moon, searching for gold, evil villains — it offers just about everything to pique the imagination about space travel. The love story never quite attains its potential until toward the end of the film, and by that time, I was more interested in the other plot lines.
Actors in silent movies tend to over-exaggerate their facial expressions and actions, and “Frau im Mond” is no different. In doesn’t hurt the film; rather, it provides the viewer with clearly defined heroes and villains, and I can imagine audiences rooting or jeering at the film as if this were a stage melodrama. Though he’s not the hero of this tale, Windegger goes through the biggest change from someone you like to someone you loathe, and Gustav von Wangenheim’s performance is probably the best in the film. In contrast, the heroine Friede is very one-note. I never understood what Helius and Windegger saw in her.
It’s very easy to view a science fiction film made in the 1920s based on today’s standards and give it low marks – but you shouldn’t do that with the early silent films. When you consider what they knew about the Moon and space at that time, everything fits within that knowledge. So after the first shock of seeing them without masks, breathing as if they were on Earth, it doesn’t become distracting because it works within the time period of the film. The fact that Lang didn’t stray into the outrageous — such as with George Méliès’ “A Trip To the Moon” (1902) — makes the film more believable.
The use of miniatures in the film is impressive, most notably the appearance of the rocket as it moves from its hangar to the runway. Sometimes mixed with live crowds in the foreground, the effect was quite stunning. Unfortunately, that one scene lasts about 15 minutes too long, and I wondered if they would ever reach the end of the runway.
“Frau im Mond” wasn’t released in the United States until 1931, under the name “By Rocket to the Moon,” possibly trying to shift the focus from the love story to the adventure aspect of the film to appeal to a broader audience. No matter the title, Lang’s film is an intriguing piece of movie history, filled with great special effects and an engrossing story.