Fritz Lang was the Steven Spielberg of late silent/early sound era German cinema. He became popular as a director merging Expressionist style with crackerjack genre scenarios in films like Spiders and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. He then gambled the biggest silent film budget ever on the sci-fi (box office) flop Metropolis. He eventually grew tired of orchestrating large-scale spectacles and withdrew from filmmaking until a tenacious independent producer appealed to his desire for something smaller and more personal. That project, for which he retained full creative control and final cut, was the masterpiece M.
Woman in the Moon (1929) is the film that put Lang in the mood for small and personal. It’s his other sci-fi epic, after Metropolis. But where Metropolis is the opulent, Expressionistic grandfather of Blade Runner, Woman in the Moon is more of a precursor to the stripped-down, functional design sensibility of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though it depicts a fanciful voyage to the moon, it clearly represents, in contrast to Metropolis, Lang in transition to a more realistic visual style.
The story is sort of daffy Saturday matinee material about scientists and capitalists planning a gold-prospecting trip to the far side of the moon. Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou (screenwriter of Metropolis and M), adapted the script from her own novel. A love triangle develops between the entrepreneur spearheading the moon expedition, a female astronomy student and her fiancé, an engineer on the project.
What makes Woman in the Moon memorable, though, isn’t the melodrama but the hard science that went into its science-fiction. Dr. Hermann Oberth, a mentor to future Saturn space program head Werner von Braun, conceived the film’s space flight sequences.
From the start of the launch sequence, Lang establishes realism with a sweeping aerial shot of the rocket facilities and hangar. We see tracks leading from the hangar that are strikingly similar to the path that NASA’s colossal crawler uses to deliver spacecraft to the launching pad (see far right).
After a familiar sight of the rocket in the hangar…
Lang has fun orchestrating throngs of scientists, technicians, public crowds and photojournalists scrambling in anticipation of the big event.
While the production design may represent objects and architecture in more realistic proportion, Lang always retained an Expressionist’s use of light and shadow to heighten emotions. This scene is a symphony of crisscrossing searchlights.
Crowds swell as the rocket emerges from its hangar with all the fanfare of the curtains opening on King Kong in chains or Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome.
This is the young Lang most readily comparable to young Spielberg, striving to remain as technically plausible as possible while still indulging a showman’s sense of tantalizing revelation.
Despite having presumably worked months or years on this launch, the techies can’t help but gawk at the spaceship, slowly backing out of its way as the crawler threatens to trample them—like the scientists awed by the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind:
Lang covers this event in a stunning variety of precisely composed, static angles.
It was relatively easy to imagine the basics of rocketry in 1929, since the science was already centuries old. Acing the physics of it was a matter of extrapolating scale and mass. But to depict manned space travel, which wouldn’t happen in reality for another 32 years, Lang and company had to pull from their imaginations—in an age still charged by the 19th Century science-fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
As with Wells and Verne, in terms of predicting the future, the rest of this sequence is strictly hit or miss. Underwater rocket launches never caught on in reality:
Modern astronauts are typically seated upright and wearing flight suits, not professor sweaters, at the time of launch:
Still, it’s cool to imagine firing up a rocket engine just by throwing a knife switch. (Metropolis isn’t the only Lang epic that might have influenced the design of James Whale’s Frankenstein.)
On board is the most eccentric group of voyagers outside of Gilligan’s Island.
But the ridiculous gives way to the prescient. As the anticipation reaches excruciating heights, Lang introduces a dramatic device that, indeed, predicts the future of space travel: the countdown.
The model work and pyrotechnics throughout are exquisitely handcrafted, and yet Lang doesn’t linger on the effects, cutting in and out of them with an emphasis on realistic action rhythms, not eye candy.
Meanwhile, Gerda Maurus, soon to be our woman in the moon, proves to be a bit of a ham as extreme g forces supposedly pin her to her astro-cot:
Dr. Oberth and Lang understood that rocket fuel burns out quickly, and that a spent booster can be jettisoned from a craft built in detachable stages. Brilliant foresight.
They also did as good a job of depicting weightlessness as one could hope for, three decades before the Vomit Comet:
An adorable bit of rotoscoping (hand drawn animation over live action) sustains the bubbly mood:
Some of the wistful romance of space travel that we would later get from John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and WALL-E is in the images Lang selects as the rocket approaches lunar orbit:
And then all hell breaks loose.
It makes little scientific sense that the moon’s gravity would be powerful enough to rip the craft so violently out of orbit, on a collision course, but it makes every bit of dramatic sense. (Would you like to watch Star Wars with TIE Fighters that accurately make no sound?) Lang’s action montage kicks into overdrive, and from here on, we are suspended by a force physics still hasn’t gotten a handle on, the irresistible force of cinema.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist who writes for Capital New York, Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents and Slant/The House Next Door. He publishes the blog Big Media Vandalism.