Fritz Lang’s last silent film—recently restored by Eureka Video for “The Masters of Cinema Series” (cross-references below)—is a marvel of look, gesture and storytelling that goes far beyond its pioneering work in the genre of science fiction/space-travel films.
Of particular interest is Javier Pérez Azpeitia’s piano score, a heady mixture of pastorale und drang that features a haunting love motif for the heroine (Gerda Maurus plays adventurer/wrong-choice lover Friede Velten with Saint Joan stoicism), a charming “March of the Shared Dinner” when entrepreneur Wolf Helius (the eyes as a tool of characterization have an able proponent in Willy Fritsch) feeds his starving genius-friend, Professor Georg Manfeldt (delightfully rendered by Klaus Pohl), “Ballet of the Intruders” (a pair of thieves aided and abetted by master swindler “The man called Turner”—Fritz Rasp is marvellously oily and, eerily, wears his hair in the same fashion as Hitler) and an impish “Who me?” lilt when it’s discovered that the Mingo-comic devotee, Gustav (Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur) has snuck aboard the spaceship and hitched a trip to the moon.
Based on the novel (Die Frau im Mond) by Thea von Harbou, Lang (along with Hermann Oberth who provided the technical input), her sometime husband and frequent collaborator, has crafted a fuller than full-length rendering of this tale of greed (there’s gold on the dark side of the moon) and love (Velten’s announcement of her engagement to Hans Windegger—Gustav von Wangenheim—drives Helius, his best friend and partner to morbid despair).
Seen nearly 80 years after the première, the spaceship’s launch (from a vat of water: the ship is so light it can float!) hurls the vehicle above the atmosphere in a couple of frames (so different from the reality of slow-motion liftoffs of the twentieth century’s monster rockets), but the interior is the equivalent (and in the case of the gadgetry required to fly the beast and monitor the G-force more believable and detailed) of the Star Trek sets.
The pace is at its best before the voyage. The evil consortium (the diverse quintet includes a woman, a non-Caucasian and a disabled senior in their ranks—pre-dating the cry for diversity by decades) uses Hunter as their agent to steal the professor’s previously mocked plans (the scene of his humiliation by dozens of peers speaks volumes: “Laughter, gentlemen, is the argument of ignorance,” retorts the scientist via the newly translated subtitles), then makes Helius an offer he can’t refuse (take me to the moon with you or I’ll blow up your factory and spacecraft).
Once on earth’s closest celestial neighbour, the film flags. It seems completely unbelievable that it takes ten minutes after screeching into the sand for anyone to take a peek outside. Once they do, the search is on for water, which leads the ever-inquisitive Manfeldt to a vein of gold that instantly kills his “life’s work” instinct, sending him to a crushing death where both the proud man and his principles bite the dust. (And who will now take care of Josephine, his pet mouse?)
Further mayhem leads to Windegger confirming his wimpiness and Hunter being shot after packing his pockets with auric riches. The surviving crew then faces THE BIG DECISION because a wayward bullet has halved their return-to-earth oxygen supply: one of them will have to stay put and hope for a rescue sometime in the future ….
Seen as a whole, the film is most certainly worth a visit: when Lang’s on top of his game, the drama, cinematography (Curt Courant, Oskar Fischinger, Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, Otto Kanturek) and editing dazzle the eye and make the time vanish as the story unfolds; even when stalled on the sandy terrain (footsteps: always a problem for continuity) and amazingly bright landscape, there’s much to enjoy in the cinema’s first “real” visit to the world of green cheese.
The film is accompanied by a brief documentary by Gabriele Jacobi, featuring comparisons to the 1969 first actual moonwalk and much historical footage, notably some stills of eighteen-year-old Wernher von Braun learning his craft. JWR