This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Frau Im Mond is one of the first silent movies I saw as an adult. And despite its audacious special effects I can honestly say Fritz Lang’s rocket opera was not my gateway drug to silent film. Instead I saw it to justify the décor of my recently redecorated flat. I wanted to hang an attractive film poster above my stairs; for quite some time it was going to be Metropolis, until I saw the poster for Frau Im Mond, and its iconic rocket. As a science-fiction fan, and a film buff, how could I resist this picture? However, it seemed like cheating to have a poster of a film I hadn’t seen hanging above my stairs. So that is why I saw Frau Im Mond six years ago, having bought the previous Masters Of Cinema DVD release.
Now it is back, re-released in dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and seven minutes of additional footage have been added to the film, which brings the running time up to a handsome two hours and 49 minutes. As with the recently reconstituted Metropolis, Lang takes his time but doesn’t waste a minute. It is just that for much of the film each minute could have been thirty seconds shorter, and the plotting gets in the way of what the film promises. While Frau Im Mond is a notable film in both Lang’s filmography and in the history of science-fiction cinema, it is also way too long and ponderous – considering its wonderful potential.
Written by Fritz Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou, and based on her novel of the same name, Frau Im Mond is one part conspiracy thriller and one part science-fiction tale. And that almost equally splits the running time, with the first hour and 20 minutes being a convoluted runaround between a professor, venture capitalists, enemy agents, a fiancée and a sparky kid. The rocket from the poster – and the justification for this being the first “scientific” science-fiction film – finally appears at one hour 18 minutes and the film does pick up considerably at that point, if only to give us some effects and even better Aran jumpers.
Watching the Blu-ray, with its extra seven minutes (no new segments, just extended, fixed and found bits, only noticeable when I ran the Blu-ray and older DVD back to back), it is incredible how abruptly the film shifts from its Euro-thriller mode into a Utopian paean to the greatness of science and mankind. Even the dolorous piano score on this version (by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia) noticed the grandeur and joyous crowds as the rocket Peace is wheeled out of its hangar. It is moments like this when films can genuinely capture the imagination, and it is remarkable to think that this predates pretty much every rocket programme (and perhaps a touch scary to think about how it may have inspired rocket technicians in Germany over the following decade). In a nice touch, UFA had dedicated much of their advertising budget to pay for a real rocket launch to coincide with the film’s release – unfortunately the money ran out and this never happened. That’s one of the facts you’ll glean from on the discs’ sole extra, a short and dour German documentary called The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.
Inventing genres is not easy, and Lang’s position as the father of cinematic science-fiction (thanks to this and Metropolis) does give him a fair amount of credit above and beyond what the films actually present. Frau Im Mond in particular is a thriller mashed up with an expedition film, with 10 minutes of half-decent science in the middle. As grand science-fiction narratives go, it has close ties to Hergé’s Tintin story Destination Moon of 1953 (with which it shares a remarkable amount of plot). As in Destination Moon the team sent to the moon are not quite what we would expect from astronauts. Instead of spacesuits there is a natty line in Aran jumpers and jodhpurs. That said, some things never change in science-fiction – just like in Prometheus (2012), as soon as there is one decent oxygen reading, the scientist takes his diving helmet off to breathe the alien air. Perhaps the most far-fetched part to modern eyes is how a kid could stow away on the first ever rocket – but that may say more about our security obsessed culture.
As with many pulp moon fantasies of the 20s and 30s, there is no avoiding the fact that the bit of the moon facing visible in telescopes was clearly rocky and lifeless, which meant that any excitement must be lurking on the dark side. Here Harbou posits lots and lots of gold – just the ticket for depressed Germany. And it is these gold deposits that motivate the trip and the long conspiracy-oriented first half.
Frau Im Mond is long, and is not all that exceptional as a thriller, science-fiction film or romance. The scenes of space travel are interesting historically, as are the predictions of multi-stage rockets and weightlessness (both with excellent effects). But when a film’s primary claim to fame is inventing the “rocket countdown” you have to wonder how strong it actually is. Because I don’t really think it really invented counting backwards.
Watching it again I find I take pleasure in the film in discrete moments: the chandelier that catches fire, the rocket sequences and the stabs at bathos in the resolution of the (wholly predictable) love triangle. Having seen as many silent films as I have now, I feel a little bit of a fraud for having my poster of Frau Im Mond over the stairs. Handsome in places and doubtless influential, it still isn’t that great a film and a second viewing has confirmed what I foolishly put down to being an issue with silent film itself first time round. This intergalactic gold rush lacks the grandeur or non-stop visual invention of Metropolis. But it is still one hell of a poster, and the twenty minutes that we spend inside that amazing rocket are almost worth the rest of the trip.
By Peter Baran