In this, Lang's final silent epic, the legendary filmmaker spins a tale involving a wicked cartel of spies who co-opt an experimental mission to the moon in the hope of plundering the satellite's vast (and highly theoretical) stores of gold. When the crew, helmed by Willy Fritsch and Gerda Maurus, finally reach their impossible destination, they find themselves stranded in a lunar labyrinth without walls - where emotions run scattershot, and the new goal becomes survival. A modern Daedalus tale which uncannily foretold Germany's wartime push into rocket-science, Frau im Mond is as much a warning-sign against human hubris as it is a hopeful depiction of mankind's potential. This DVD presents the culmination of Fritz Lang's silent cinema, newly restored to its near-original length.
This is the second of great silent SF movies made by Fritz Lang and although not as immensely great and universaly known as "Metropolis", it is certainly a very major film! Below, you will find some more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.
PRECISION: this is the review of "Masters of Cinema" restored 163 minutes long version of this film.
"Frau im Mond" begins with the great dream of a manned expedition to the Moon shared by two unlikely friends. One of them, professor Georg Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), is an old scientist, considered by his pairs as a madman or a fraud and living in most abject poverty. The second, Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), is a gifted engineer and very succesful businessman, owner of a major industrial company. Together they decide to build a giant rocket and go to the Moon, looking for gold which they hope will cover the immense cost of this enterprise. This is described in the very beginning of the film. The performance of Klaus Pohl as an old half-mad scientist is absolutely unique - those first minutes of the film, you really WANT to see them!
What happens next? Well, quite a lot indeed, because this is a long film. Some sinister forces will intervene, acting through The Man, a nameless archi-villain played magistrally by actor Fritz Rasp, who with his unique physionomy and great talent steals absolutely every scene he appears in (he also played a quite sinister character in "Metropolis"). As the title clearly suggests, a young woman will also play a considerable role - this is in fact one of the first films in which a woman who is also a serious scientist appears... There will be a love triangle, lots of trouble during the space trip, more trouble on the Moon and a very good, VERY surprising ending. All of this under the curious but stoic regard of a very zen mouse, played by Die Maus Josephine (as stated in the credits)...)))
This is a long film, but I didn't feel the time passing. The performance of actors is absolutely brilliant! The unique character of talent needed to act in silent movies gives to this film a charm impossible to find in modern cinema. Passion, hope, love, despair, anger, cruelty, lust, terror, disgust, ecstasy - you name it, they are all here, silently screaming at us from the screen. The plot is not bad at all, especially considering that this film is a pioneering work. Description of space travel is of course deliciously silly, but that also gives this film a very unique savour.
This film is also the first one to show the countdown to the launch of a rocket - pretty impressive, considering that this film was made in 1929. The very solemn moment of launching of the rocket is a great and very emotional cinema scene - and it certainly greatly impressed and inspired many young students, who were later to become rocket scientists in German V-1 and V-2 program in Peenemunde, beginning with a certain Werner von Braun, who saw this film, eyes wide-open, at the tender age of 17. In fact, the first V-2 rocket ever launched had the image of "Frau im Mond" painted on it...
I loved this film greatly and I am absolutely keeping preciously this DVD. I recommend it with all my heart. Enjoy!
This is a very good issue of Fritz Lang's 1929 silent sci-fi epic, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) by Masters of Cinema. The Friedrich Murnau Stiftung transfer looks very good in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio presentation with the images pin sharp, showing off the solid cinematography of Curt Courant, Oskar Fischinger, Otto Kantureck and Konstantin Tschetwerikoff, the outstanding production designs of Otto Hunte, Emil Hasler and Karl Vollbrecht, and the solid direction of Lang. One caveat - a very ugly edit as the layers of the DVD change which occurs just as the rocket is taking off. I found the way it dissipates tension most distracting, but perhaps others won't be so disturbed. The film is given with a decent piano accompaniment of music by Willy Schmidt-Gentner which seems a bit basic to me coming from Gottfried Huppertz's wonderful orchestral scores for Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, but it is a re-recording of the film's original score and that is a good thing. MoC's presentation this time is decent rather than outstanding. Included on the disc is a 15 minute documentary 'The First Scientific Science-Fiction-Film' which only really scrapes the surface of the details about the making of the movie. Then there's the customary booklet, this time just 36 pages of large print which consists mainly of 'A Formal Analysis' of the film by Michael E. Grost. This concerns itself with drawing out tropes which the film shares with the rest of Lang's oeuvre and though interesting in part, I find it misleading to draw thematic parallels between Frau im Mond and Lang films where he wasn't really personally involved - he was very much just a hired hand for Western Union, Rancho Notorious and Moonfleet and any parallels of mise-en-scene or script must surely be coincidental more than anything else. There is also an extract from the page or so that Tom Gunning gives the film in his marvellous book on the director, Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. The fact that Gunning doesn't give much space to Frau im Mond underlines the sad fact that the film isn't one of Lang's most successful efforts. In contrast to other reviews posted here I have to say that the film is of limited interest to the average punter. It's only likely to attract sci-fi afficionados (it was a pioneering example of the genre) and Lang completists (like me), especially as MoC have made it available at a slightly lower price than usual.
There's no doubting Lang's lofty ambition here. He had already toyed with science fiction in Metropolis and was determined to keep up to date with the media of the time (an obsession of his especially shown in M) by capitalizing on the current craze for rockets, the moon and space adventure in general as evidenced by numerous comic strips of the time and the work of Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley, two rocket scientists who he press-ganged into the film as technical advisers. The rocket in the film is named Friede (German for 'peace'), the name also of the film's central heroine played by Gerda Maurus, and the film would appear to be a statement on space travel as a harbinger of world peace, though this is extremely woolly when put into the context of most of the film's spurious character-driven melodrama which is anything but peaceful. It is also quite ironic in view of the Nazis later banning the film because it resembled research being made into the V1 and V2 rockets by Wernher von Braun that started in 1937.
Frau im Mond impresses most with the success of its central section which depicts the launch in very precise detail with an emphasis on extraordinary aerial model effects and the kind of remarkable geometric set construction so familiar to us from Metropolis. Lang's customary crowd-control skills are also much in evidence with the media sensation of the launch being heightening to generate considerable tension. It's even claimed that Lang and his screen writer/wife Thea von Harbou invented the countdown (from 6 to 1) as opposed to the count-up which had been in use before. The rhythm of the editing is superbly gauged here as the moon rises over the horizon and the rocket is moved out for the launch. Then we have that unfortunate edit which I have mentioned, but the actual journey to the moon is well depicted with superb effects as the rocket approaches it's destination which spins dizzyingly in front of us. Lang loved diagrams, maps and graphs and in this film he really goes over-board with his loving depiction of the process of design. This is shown right from the beginning with the designs stuck on the Professor's apartment walls, and becomes control-freakish once we get to the launch - clocks, dials and a multitude of other round designs really dominating the mise-en-scene to an obsessive degree. It isn't all simply sci-fi fantastical conjecture either as (apart from a couple of misjudgements) it's remarkable how close Lang and his team come to predicting how space travel would eventually be. As Gene Wright says in The Science Fiction Image: 'It's silly melodramatics aside, the film offers a stunning and remarkably prophetic depiction of a flight to the moon'.
It is unfortunate that such a stunning central section is so compromised by the protracted melodrama which sandwiches it. The first hour is all lengthy plot exposition - something about a sinister capitalist consortium muscling in on a planned trip to the moon being prepared by Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), the owner of Helius Hangars, a big engineering company. He's in love with space cadet Friede Velten who is about to marry his best friend Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim). Helius is blackmailed into including on the trip the mysterious agent for the sinister consortium named 'the man going by the name of Walt Turner' (Fritz Rasp). The group is completed by Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), the crackpot genius astrologist who first had the idea that there might be gold on the moon. The moon trip becomes less an adventure into the romantic unknown (though that element is encapsulated in the plot by the inclusion of a stowaway boy played by Gustl Stark-Gstettenbauer), than a capitalist profit-driven hunt for gold. What makes this melodrama tedious is the number of protracted scenes between protagonists which ill-serve the film's theme of space travel. Thea von Harbou must take the blame here along with her husband for a scenario that looks back to the 19th century more than it looks forward to the 21st. Consequently, this is the silent film of Lang's which has dated the most. Even at the time of its release the film was criticized for its antiquated structure. In 1931, re-edited, re-titled (By Rocket to the Moon) and released in America, Variety magazine found the film 'painfully draggy' and observed, 'the rocket trip to the moon is surrounded by a hackneyed melodramatic frame, and a bedraggled romance'. Lang's forte was always production design and narrative structure to the extent that actors often seem peripheral to his concerns. In films which are concerned with much stunning experimentation (especially Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler, Die Nibelungen, Spione, Metropolis and M) nobody really notices the over-wrought expressionistic acting, but in Frau im Mond, a good deal of time is given to the actors who exist only on the surface with painfully little psychological incite afforded them by the script. Compensatory sustained suspense is in very short supply so that the shortcomings of this soapy melodrama are exposed as clear as day. Fritsch, Maurus and Rasp had all come to Frau im Mond straight from Spione. In that film, the narrative design is so cunningly designed that the film seems breathtakingly way ahead of its time. Because Lang is so concerned with the mise-en-scene and how it relentlessly drives its plethora of different plots, the over-wrought acting seems to add to the total effect of the film. Frau im Mond however, strands the same actors on (admittedly very well designed) sets where the mechanics of their craft are truly exposed by an over-simple old fashioned storyline which takes forever to spin out. This is true of every character confrontation before they leave and is especially problematic when the party reach their destination. Where you would think Lang/Harbou would be more interested in the moon surface itself and the characters' awe-struck reaction to it, the script focuses instead on mundane Earth-like, character-driven jealousies, especially the silly love triangle and the Disney villain cartoon antics of the dastardly 'Mr Turner'. 'Quaint' would be a kind description for events that transpire with cutesy episodes with the boy and a mouse not helping one jot.
Lang devotees will find numerous compensations throughout the film. Apart from the launch of the rocket, there are the other typically imaginative set designs coming from Hunte and Vollbrecht - Manfeldt's dingy hovel strewn with maps and diagrams, Helius's well-appointed apartment with sleek modern furnishings and a Lang-trademark huge spiral staircase, the chic apartment of his neighbor with it's shop-window-like plant display cases, Windegger's apartment replete with a huge bookcase and stylish art-deco trimmings, the interior of the rocket depicted with obsessive detail, and then there is the moon surface itself which looks startlingly like a romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Lang keeps his compositions scrupulously balanced, focusing on square constructions and also modern-looking circular designs, especially the numerous clocks and dials which keep re-appearing throughout. Whether these Langian features are enough compensation for the film's flaws is a moot point. For me, Frau im Mond is a huge come-down from Spione, and I find it little short of amazing that Lang should rebound so quickly to make the stunning M. In terms of narrative structure and mise-en-scene, Frau im Mond could and should have been another wonderful voyage into the future like Spione or Metropolis. That even Die Nibelungen (a myth from the 12th/13th century) looks more modern is testament enough to the film's folly. Still, Lang maintained affection for it in later years even though he was aware of its weaknesses. As Patrick McGilligan points out in his biography, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, among other things Frau im Mond was a valentine to Gerda Maurus with whom he was having an affair at the time, and this may well explain much of the wan sentimentality and the way the camera seems to drool over Maurus whenever she is on screen. It was also the last silent film Lang ever made. Bad box office returns combined with his refusal to post-synchronize sound into the film were enough for Ufa to let him go. His next film (and greatest masterpiece), M was eventually set up with Seymour Nebenzahl for Nero-Film and featured stunning sound design and much else besides, but that's another story...