Starring: Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Klaus Pohl
Director: Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s sci-fi movie about a trip to the moon (his last silent film, released in 1929) is a sheer joy for its steampunky visuals, but drama-wise it now seems a bit lopsided, seeing as we don’t actually blast off until 73 minutes into its three hour running time. Before then, we’re firmly stuck on Earth as we meet smooth young industrialist Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch). Working in secret, he has built a rocket that will travel in space, but some unscrupulous businessmen get wind of his research and attempt to steal it. When that doesn’t succeed, they use strong-arm tactics to force him to do their bidding and take one of their henchmen along on his perilous voyage. All of which is interesting and well-handled by Lang – especially a scene of the cartel watching images of the moon’s surface sent back from an unmanned probe that has to count as one of the earliest found footage sequences in cinema. Even so, you’re keen to get onto the main attraction.
When it finally occurs, it’s all as reliably spectacular as you would expect from the director of Metropolis – the scale model of the rocket; the countdown sequence with floodlights and swarming crowds; Helius and his gang of plucky astronauts with their slicked back hair and mountaineering clobber, looking like refugees from a Kraftwerk concert. But don’t expect the pace to pick up from here. The flight to the moon lasts a leisurely forty minutes, partly because the film has to laboriously explain stuff that modern viewers know all about, such as G-force (which the astronauts survive by strapping themselves into flimsy bunk beds). Not that Lang probably needed much encouragement to tarry. Crude and Wendy house-like as it is, Helius’ space capsule represented the best thinking on the subject at the time (Hermann Oberth, the leading expert in the experimental field of multi-stage liquid fuel rockets, was a consultant on the film), and the director was obviously only too eager to show off that they’d done their homework. Never mind though, because the harder they try to make everything seem plausible, the more quaintly charming is the end result, and there are plenty of touches to keep you amused, such as the various trick-shots that Lang uses to create an impression of zero gravity.
What happens once they actually get to their destination feels like an afterthought, as the characters run around and clash on a moon that turns out to have a breathable atmosphere (which they discover after one adventurous soul steps outside in what is basically deep-sea diving gear). But you probably won’t be too bothered about that either, as it’s all so beautiful. Created on the vast Ufa sound stages with elaborate backdrops, craggy cliffs, bubbling pools of mud and forty truckloads of Baltic sand, Lang’s moon is a glorious thing, even if it’s not very scientific.
The film could have been better still with tighter proportions and a more high-powered storyline, but even as it is, science fiction fans are likely to find it pretty irresistible. Watching this little projectile wobble through space while the elegant folk within cling to leather hand-straps – it’s like those engraved illustrations you see in old Jules Verne books coming to life before your very eyes. Just one thing – you might want to mute the piano score and put on your favourite sci-fi soundtrack instead. The HD transfer is somewhat granular but it has startling presence and depth, and apart from some print damage towards the beginning, it’s very clean. It comes with a brief (14-minutes) but mind-blowing German documentary that explains this film’s all too real place is history. Apparently, the publicity around the movie helped inspire a state-funded rocket programme involving an erstwhile assistant of Oberth’s, a certain Wernher von Braun, and the Woman in the Moon became an emblem on the side of the dreaded V-2 rocket.