Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Woman in the Moon: a German SF film

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were married from 1922-1933.  During those eleven years, they collaborated on a number of remarkable films:  Lang as director and von Harbou as screenwriter.    In 1927 Lang directed and von Harbou wrote the script for Metropolis, one of the best SF films ever made.  Shortly afterwards, von Harbou wrote a novelization of the film.  I have a copy but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  Perhaps I should rent the film again and then read the novel.

In 1929, Lang directed and again von Harbou did the screenplay for another SF film, The Woman in the Moon, which was based on a novel she had written the year before.  Then, in 1931, Lang directed von Harbou's script for M, starring a young Peter Lorre as a serial child murderer, whom the police seem unable to capture.  So, the criminal underworld, disturbed by the attentions of the police, decide to take a hand.  This is one of  Peter Lorre's finest performances.

As I mentioned above, The Woman in the Moon was produced several years after Metropolis.  It is a different sort of SF film in that it appears to be set in relatively contemporary Germany.  At least there was nothing that I could see, except for the space ship of course, that couldn't be found in Germany in the late 1920s.

Wolf Helius is an engineer and the prosperous owner of his own firm.  He is the friend and sole support of a disgraced scientist, Prof Manfeldt, who years ago had theorized that there was considerable gold on the moon.  When he propounded his theory at a scientific meeting, he was laughed at and ridiculed, and his reputation destroyed. However, Helius believed him and is in the process of building a spaceship, supposedly in search of the gold, but to Helius, the gold is really just an excuse to go to the moon.

A group of wealthy unscrupulous business folk (four men and a cigar-smoking woman) learn of Helius' plan and decide that the gold really should be in their hands and "not controlled by crackpots and visionaries," forgetting of course that it is the crackpots and visionaries who discovered the possibility of gold and  who  developed the nearly completed spaceship.  As part of a carefully laid plot, they stole the plans and threatened Helius with destroying the ship and possibly hurting a number of people.  He could prevent this only  by allowing their representative to go along on the journey.   He agreed, probably partially because he really wasn't interested in the gold--it was the journey that counted.

The ship's crew, therefore, consisted of Helius, Hans Windegger (his closest friend and assistant engineer and also assistant pilot),  Prof Manfeldt, and Turner, the representative of the evil business cabal.  Also aboard is Friede, a young astronomy student who is engaged to Windegger.  And after liftoff,  they discover a stowaway, a young boy who insists he an "expert" on space travel by virtue of having read numerous SF stories.  One complication that emerges during the trip is Helius' undeclared love for Friede which he has kept secret from everybody, but being in such close contact with her is making it extremely difficult for him.  As one might expect, this will play a significant role in what happens on the trip.

One advantage Lang had was his scientific consultant,  Dr. Hermann Oberth who,  along with the American  Robert Goddard and the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky,  is considered one of  the three founding fathers of space flight.

See if the following doesn't sound a bit familiar.  The ship was built in a large industrial complex, not in someone's back yard or out in the desert.  Secondly it was built in a large hanger with gantries that pulled back as the ship prepared for liftoff.  In addition,  the ship was based on a large platform that moved the ship out of the hanger to the lifting area (launch pad in NASA terminology).  Moreover, it was a  three-stage rocket which discarded stages one and two after liftoff.  I've seen a number of  early films about space travel, and I don't remember any that suggested a multi-stage rocket, prior to the NASA program.

--Helsius,  as they approached the time for liftoff, called out  "ten seconds to go....6...5...4...3...2...1."    This is the first time according to the commentary that a countdown had been used in a film.

--At the end of the film, they discovered that they didn't have enough oxygen for the return trip.  Somebody was going to have to remain on the moon (Destination Moon?)   But, since the moon had a breathable atmosphere, there was a chance that the one who remained could be rescued if the ship could be quickly readied for a return flight.  After all, there was gold in them thar' lunar hills.

--When I discovered the the film was based on von Harbou's novel, I immediately went looking for it. had nothing available while had two available: a French language version for $2000+  and a second copy for over $9000 dollars.  Needless to say I'm not going to have my own copy soon.

I don't particularly care for silent films and normally give up after about 30 minutes, or even less sometimes.  However, I  found this film to be interesting enough to be able to watch it in its entirety.   Another exception to the rule is Metropolis.  Both are SF films and both are directed by Fritz Lang.  This may not be a coincidence.  Overall, this is one of  most technically accurate films of space travel I have seen that was made long before the actual trips to the moon.


  1. Another interesting connection between The Woman in the Moon and Destination Moon: in 1948, Fritz Lang brought Robert Heinlein out to Hollywood with an eye towards Heinlein writing a new film about a trip to the Moon. Presumably Lang wanted to revisit the same premise incorporating all the scientific and technical progress of the intervening two decades. The two didn't have a good working relationship, and the last straw was Heinlein's agent shopping around the movie rights to his novel Rocket Ship Galileo -- Lang viewed this as a competing project. The two went their separate ways, and RSG eventually became Destination Moon. (Strangely, several of the changes from book to film made it FAR more similar to Woman in the Moon than the book had ever been.)

    The whole story is recounted in William Patterson's excellent Heinlein biography.

  2. Richard,

    Thanks for the information re a possible collaboration between Lang and RAH. I hadn't heard that before. I'm not surprised that it didn't work out as both were known to want their own way.

    It's been so long since I've seen _Destination Moon_ that I remember little about it except for the ending and that it seemed more concerned about technical issues than other SF films involving space travel. Perhaps it's time I revisited _DM_, if it's available.

  3. One other oddity about DM in retrospect is how it depicts a single-stage rocket landing on the Moon and returning intact, despite Woman in the Moon having shown a more realistic multi-stage approach and Heinlein himself using that method in some of his prose stories. This makes DM seem even more dated than the silent film!

  4. Richard,

    I think the single-stage rocket was the most prevalent type back then.

    From what I remember, most spaceships were single-stage with takeoffs and landings--at both ends of the trip. I think I remember a few mother ship examples where shuttles were used but those were rare.

    But I think the rarest of all was the multistage rocket. I can't think of another multistage ship until after the NASA era began.