Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Fritz Lang's FRAU IM MOND
In 1929, just two years after changing the face of cinematic science fiction with Metropolis, German filmmaker Fritz Lang returned to the genre with the infinitely more grounded and realistic Frau Im Mond (Woman In The Moon).
Far less well-known than its predecessor, Frau Im Mond would prove Lang's only other foray into the sci-fi genre, despite numerous attempts to get similarly themed projects off the ground after moving to Hollywood. In this film, Lang strives for a documentary-style authenticity in his tale of rival entrepreneurs battling to be part of mankind's first manned lunar mission. Many of the film's technical details prove incredibly accurate, influential and prescient, with Lang often credited with coining the take-off countdown in this film that would be adopted by space agencies forever after.
Elsewhere, however, Frau Im Mond is purely speculative and embraces fantastical elements of pure fiction, most notably in its depiction of the Moon itself and the conditions there. The film's narrative centres on a race to mine and plunder large reserves of gold that all concerned believe reside under the lunar surface. The atmosphere there is also portrayed as breathable by the astronauts on arrival, and temperatures also dismiss any necessity for special spacesuits beyond thick tweed slacks and chunky cardigans. In many ways the trip is more reminiscent of Scott's expedition to the Antarctic than a journey into outer space as we would recognise it today.
The film opens with well-to-do rocket scientist Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) paying a visit to impoverished professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), whose lunar studies saw him ridiculed in academic circles but which Helius deems vital for his imminent space mission. No sooner has Helius acquired Pohl's data, he is mugged - and his home plundered - by a mysterious collective of capitalists and rival scientists. Their representative, the diabolically evil-looking Mr. Turner (Fritz Rasp), presents Helius with an ultimatum - collaborate with them on a joint mission or see all his research destroyed.
Meanwhile, Helius' two assistants, Weindegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Friede (Gerde Maurus), announce their engagement, much to the chagrin of their boss who has long-harboured romantic feelings of his own for the young woman. With no choice but to accept Turner's demands, the team prepares for departure - with Weindegger, Friede and Professor Pohl joining Helius and Turner. No sooner have they blasted off - in the film's extended centrepiece sequence - they discover that a young lad, Gustav (Gusti Gstettenbaur) has stowed away on the rocket. Unable to turn back, the crew has no alternative but to let the young sci-fi aficionado accompany them to the dark side of the moon.
There is plenty to enjoy in Frau Im Mond, which plays out primarily as a classic tale of espionage and pioneering science in an age when space travel was nothing more than a dream. Lang captures a spirit of intrigue and adventure that would play out in action and spy thrillers for decades to come, as well as the stories of Belgian cartoonist Herge's intrepid young reporter, Tintin. There are numerous similarities between Lang's ramshackle crew of scientists, stooges and plucky young adventurers that foreshadows Tintin's own escapades. Lang was incredibly passionate about science fiction and brought real rocket scientist Hermann Oberth on board as a consultant for the film, and the result was a degree of authenticity so accurate that when the Nazis came to power a few years later, and deemed Germany's missile programme a military secret, Frau Im Mond was subsequently banned.
While perhaps less of a singular vision as Metropolis, the influence of Frau Im Mond in science-fiction can be seen everywhere. There are strong similarities with the film's narrative structure and sense of pioneering adventure in everything from Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet, and by extension Irwin Allen's Lost In Space, to Richard Fleischer's inner space adventure Fantastic Voyage. Numerous story beats from Lang's film are repurposed for modern audiences in Michael Bay's own space adventure, Armageddon, most notably in its tear-jerking finale, when Bruce Willis valiantly trades places with Ben Affleck to stay behind and sacrifice himself.
Lang's expressionistic visual style is visible throughout this 169-minute space epic, with copious use of angular interiors and sinister shadows in much of the film's first half. This sets the mood brilliantly for an opening act filled with deception and underhand dealings, only to give way to a more documentarian style as the crew readies for launch. Lang employs numerous animated sequences and diagrams to convey the various scientific hurdles the crew will face later on, from the necessary distances and speeds that need to be achieved, to the dangerous G-forces and atmospheric pressure changes that will threaten the lives of the crew during take off. Modern audiences may be amused by the relative lack of technology on board the ship itself - which appears to be piloted successfully with a single solitary lever - but the film nevertheless shows great innovation for its time, not least in covering the rocket's floors and ceilings with toe and hand straps to combat weightlessness.
Less bountiful than some of Eureka Entertainment's other recent titles, their new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release nevertheless features a typically gorgeous 1080p presentation of the Frederich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung's recent restoration. The disc also features a brief yet informative German language documentary on the film's production, The First Scientific Science Fiction Film to accompany a 40-page booklet featuring a fascinating dissection of the film by Michael E. Grost, a noted computer scientist, science fiction writer and film critic.
Perhaps not as essential as some of the other German silent classics that populate the Masters of Cinema series, Frau Im Mond is nevertheless an incredibly entertaining adventure romp, offering a speculative vision of space travel that is both exhilarating and hugely entertaining as it veers from the prescient to the preposterous. As the title suggests, Frau Im Mond also stands as one of Lang's most pro-feminist works, positioning strong female characters in pivotal positions of both the good and evil consortiums jostling for control of outer space. All told, it's a remarkably enjoyable ride.
Frau Im Mond is released in the UK in a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD edition by Eureka Entertainment's Masters Of Cinema Series today.