Mon
Apr 20 2009 3:41pm

Ancient Rockets: Frau im Mond

Look, Tintin, we’ll get you another dog when we get back to Earth. Just stop crying.

1929’s Frau im Monde (Woman on the Moon) is a landmark film, mentioned in every book on science fiction cinema. It’s possible to argue that Fritz Lang shaped our present world with it. Yet its brassier sister, the art-deco political fairytale Metropolis, has stolen all its thunder. This is a shame, for Frau im Mond stands as the bridge between Méliès and Kubrick, the uncannily accurate prediction of our first exploration of space. You owe it to yourself to see this one.

Mind you, for the first 73 minutes you will have to endure a spy melodrama, with the sort of human interest backstory that film producers insist on inserting to this day. It’s actually not that bad an experience. The acting is good, the characterizations well drawn, and the sets evoke the tidy bourgeois world in which Steppenwolf begins. Helius, a wealthy engineer, has been drawing up practical plans for a rocket that will travel to the moon and back. This has led him to neglect his romantic pursuit of  Friede, a student of astronomy who is part of his scientific team. Helius’s assistant Windegger steps in and proposes to Friede, and when she accepts, Helius gloomily decides to make the journey to the moon himself.

First, though, he visits an old friend, Professor Mannfeldt. The professor has been living in toothless penury in a garret since 1895, when he ruined his scientific reputation by announcing that the moon contained vast gold reserves. Today we know this isn’t the case, but there was no reason to believe otherwise in the era before gas spectrometers. The professor warns Helius that someone has been trying to break into his garret and steal his work. He gives his manuscript to Helius and begs him to keep it safe. Helius goes home and loses not only the manuscript but all his own project notes and models, in two neatly stage-managed robberies.

He is then contacted by a mysterious American calling himself Walter Turner, purporting to be from Chicago. Mr. Turner, eerily similar in appearance to William Randolph Hearst, is the dirty-tricks agent for an international cartel of financiers who want control of any gold found on the moon. He informs Helius that the moon voyage will be made on the financiers’ terms or not at all. Refusal to meet their demands will result in Helius’s work being destroyed. Since all they ask is for Turner to be included on the mission, Helius agrees.

At this point we meet young Gustav, the twelve-year-old son of Helius’s chauffeur. Gustav has a knapsack full of science fiction comics. Gustav dreams of exploring space. Can you guess that Gustav will stow away on the rocket, when it takes off? I could too. I was still surprised to meet this particular SFnal archetype in a silent film from the Weimar Republic.

 

The official mission roster will include Helius, Turner, Professor Manfeldt and his pet mouse, and Friede and Windegger. Nattily dressed in shawl-collared sweaters and other early aviator gear, they board the rocket and now at last comes the big set piece, the Launch! 

And this is the point at which I leaned forward in my seat and began repeating oh my God for about the next twenty minutes.

I was born in 1952. I remember the Mercury 7 and the black-and-white TV images from Cape Canaveral. I remember the gray lunar surface scrolling past beneath the Eagle as it came in for its landing in 1969. But here it is in 1929, just the same. The enormous gantry rolling into place, the backwards countdown from 10, the three-stage rocket dropping its segments until only the space capsule flies on, the astronauts attempting to pour liquids and scooping up the resultant floating globules, the capsule reversing itself for its moon landing, the bubble-headed space suits.

It’s a bit anticlimactic after they land, because now the things they didn’t get right take prominence. The moon has a breathable atmosphere and people can stroll about on its surface, perfectly comfortable in their shawl-collared sweaters. The explorers plan to find water with a dowsing rod. There are bubbling puddles of moon-mud. And the plot, with its burdensome lovers’ triangle and treacherous villain and crazy old professor and bright kid, begins to resemble a Lost in Space episode. I can’t warm to Friede, even though she is an intelligent woman-in-the-sciences, because she still functions as little more than a romantic object. Scriptwriter Thea von Harbou consistently undercut any nascent feminism by making her heroines marble images of spiritual perfection. There’s really no particular reason to call it Woman on the Moon, either.

It doesn’t matter. That so much was gotten right, forty years before humanity finally made it to Luna, is astonishing. It gives rise to bitter reflection on how much sooner mankind might have gone into space if not for Hitler. The primary science advisor for Frau im Mond was rocketeer Hermann Oberth, one of whose proteges was a bright boy named Wernher von Braun. Von Braun was a great fan of this film, and went so far as to paint its logo on the first successful V-2 rocket. You have to wonder how much else of the film’s imagery shaped his thinking about what our first attempt at a moon landing would be like. It’s a fact that the backwards countdown to launch was invented for this film, to draw out the suspense. How many kids, poised at the top of the playground jungle gym from 1961 on, counted out “5-4-3-2-1-BLASTOFF!” before jumping into space and skinning their knees in the sandbox?

Ironically, Frau im Mond, for all its sleek modern look, for all its technical brilliance, was a boxoffice failure, largely due to the fact that it had become a relic of the past: the era of silent films had come to an end. The public wanted to see talkies. And most of those bright German kids with knapsacks full of science fiction comics were denied their shiny future, and cemented into an ugly strata of history instead. The Nazis had the film withdrawn from circulation and destroyed the models.

But you can watch the Kino Video restoration on DVD, and you should. If The Right Stuff floated your boat, Frau im Mond will bring tears to your eyes.

4 comments
Chrissl
1. Chrissl
My father was a participant in the great machine that produced the Apollo project, and I recall him passing through the living room one evening in about 1958 when my brother and I were watching a sci-fi movie (in black and white) on TV. The announcer was declaiming, in his rotund announcorial tones, "By the year two thousand..... Man had Reached the Moon!"

"That sounds about right," my father commented.
Michael Grosberg
2. Michael_GR
How sooner would we be on the moon if it weren't for Hitler? None the sooner, probably much later in fact. It was the third reich's obsession with the V-weapons that pushed rocketry forward during WWII. The german scientists' experience (especially Werner Von Braun's) was pivotal in advancing the development of rockets in both the USSR and the USA
Chrissl
3. Fredösphere
Great review. Great film. How many people know Fritz Lang invented the pre-launch count down?

I do wish you had trashed the first hour of the film more thoroughly, because without proper warning your readers may give up on it before getting to the latter part of the film, which as you say is a must-see for any SF fan. The first hour is dreadfully slow. It is horrible, worthless junk. It made me want to gnaw my own leg off. The rest is great.

Here are some screencaps and another review.
Kage Baker
4. kagebaker
Er... I enjoyed it, actually. Weimar-era Germany is such an alien world. Here's this sane, dull, democratic republic in which Bertolt Brecht can run around offending bourgeois sensibilities and Harry Haller can mock them. The artistic and scientific communities thrive, kids read comics, everything seems ordinary and normal... and yet, within ten years, the place had become a madhouse.

And it's standard received wisdom that without the technology driven by WWII, we still wouldn't have gotten into space, but I wonder if that's necessarily true. It's clear from this film that a lot of it had already been figured out. We can never know, of course...

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