Thursday, March 31, 2011

Random Movie Report #88: Woman in the Moon

Woman in the Moon DVD cover and Amazon link
The mark that Metropolis made on the science fiction genre- and really, on movies, period- was so distinctive that it’s easy to overlook Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou’s second major sci-fi epic. Woman in the Moon isn’t quite the masterpiece its predecessor is, but it’s remarkably ahead of its time, managing to set conventions not only for future man-in-space epics but also, apparently, for actual space travel. Parts have aged better than others, but it’s worth a look.

Young Wolf Heilus (Willy Fritsch) is friends with the brilliant Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who for decades has held to the theory that there is a bouty of gold on the moon, and that a rocket could be used to ferry the precious metals to Earth. Working with his friend Hans Windegger (Gustav Wangenheim), Heilus is hoping to realize Manfeldt’s dream and travel to the moon, all the better to get away from his lost love Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus), to whom Windegger is now engaged. However, on hearing of his plan to leave, both Windegger and Velten insist on going with him, Velten as the expedition’s official documentarian. However, there’s also a saboteur working for the major gold barons of the world, and this mysterious “Mr. Turner” (Fritz Rasp) blackmails himself onto the expedition; there also turns out to be a stowaway, Gustav (Gusti Stark-Gstettenbaur), a young boy fond of reading science fiction magazines. The rocket is completed and the launch successful, but the voyage taxes everyone’s spirits, and the moon itself has a few fatal lures.

This is a film that takes its time to get going, as epics are wont to do. We’re more than an hour in before we get to the actual day of the launch, and unfortunately way too much of that time is wasted on a rather sloppy corporate espionage plot that only serves to put Turner on the crew. It’s really very slow and it’s never entirely clear what Turner is intending to do as part of the mission. Von Harbou wrote the story as a novel before she and Lang adapted it for film, and apparently Turner played a much bigger part in the book, but what’s left in still seems too much.

Once all the prep work is out of the way, though, the story becomes a rather tense and effective space adventure which would influence films in the genre for decades. Lang actually manages to predict a number of elements of actual space travel some forty years before we actually landed on the moon; there’s the first ever countdown to launch, a multi-stage rocket, a figure 8-orbit complete with the ship rotating, and a lot of discussion about acceleration pressure and how much will squish the passengers flat. Parts like the ship being launched from a water bath are more fanciful, and of course the moon itself is shown to have an atmosphere, burbling mud pits, and lots of gold. Still, it works; the special effects are superb, and the characters start to realistically feel the tension of being confined in a perilous environment.

The human story starts to narrow itself down to a love triangle, between Heilus, Windegger, and of course Friede as the titular woman. Early in the voyage the film makes it clear where it’s leaning by turning Windegger into a weeping nervous wreck, instantly regretting going into space and wanting to go home as soon as possible. I generally don’t like it when a romantic subplot forces things this heavily, but I will credit Wangenheim with a believable performance, and the film with at least making his breakdown understandable. He’s not really a bad guy, and ultimately the love story is not as melodramatic as it could have been.

The film is a spectacle, and on that level is a remarkable achievement. Whatever problems it has on the character and pacing level, it still has a certain humanity and sincerity carrying it over the rough patches. The film is cinema’s first really serious look at a concept that at the time, many people still believed was impossible. While not Lang’s best, it’s a flawed classic, and has both prescience and power.

Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou
Screenplay by Fritz Lang and Thea v. Harbou with scientific material by Prof. Hermann Oberth
Directed by Fritz Lang

Grade: A-

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