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.
At the Cannes film festival in May 2011, one of the world’s finest movies was reborn – for the first time in nearly 100 years, we were able to see Georges Méliès’ masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (1902) in vibrant, psychedelic colour. And yet, there were those who considered the new restoration of the film to be a travesty. The hand-coloured print had been rescued from nitrate decay, cleaned and mended frame by frame – so far, so uncontroversial – and then a soundtrack had been commissioned. And we all know how contentious modern silent film scores can be.
Which is why, when I finally saw the restoration of A Trip to the Moon at the Ciné Lumière in London, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music, which is presented here on the DVD release of the restored film. It’s often bizarre, and puzzling, but so is the film, and it powers through at a clattering pace that brings a real sense of blockbuster excitement back to this science-fiction landmark. Given the controversy, there’s an argument to be made for offering an alternative piano score on the disc – but there’s also a case to be made for sticking to one’s artistic guns. It’s ridiculous to speculate on what Méliès would have thought of the soundtrack. He may well have been more mystified that with his own narration missing, no alternative commentary was written. But given the film-maker’s love of cheeky humour and absurd theatricals I think he would have enjoyed it, just a little.
And the music remains a side issue with a film of this visual brilliance – enhanced by those deftly applied inks, which add both warm, natural skin-tones to the chorus line and lurid primary colours to the lunar landscapes and aliens on the attack. A Trip to the Moon follows the adventures of a group of bearded, chattering astronomers from their lab to the moon’s surface and back to earth again. It’s endearing dappy, from the first simple sketch of their flight, to the gory moment the rocket gouges the eye of the man in the moon, to the scientists’ battle with the selenites – umbrellas at the ready. This is live-action film, but transformed by Méliès’s ingenious in-camera editing and those gorgeous paints to be something more like a cartoon. It’s gorgeous, it’s ludicrous and it’s heaps of fun. The new restoration is a revelation, and here on DVD, it looks brilliant. I wanted to watch it again and again. So I did.
But for all its wonders, A Trip to the Moon is only a quarter of an hour long. It’s very rare to see such a short film as the sole attraction on a DVD, we’re more used to compilations of early cinema. Happily, however, there’s more to this disc than the headline act. Alongside image galleries, you’ll find a fantastic documentary by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange called The Extraordinary Voyage. It’s an hour long, packed with talking heads from the French cinema – and well worth a watch, particularly if you are new to Méliès’ work. The documentary introduces the film-maker, his techniques and personal history, discusses the film and particularly its restoration in depth. There are also re-enactments of Méliès at work in his Paris studio, with Tom Hanks, yes, Tom Hanks playing the director. There’s also a slightly odd interlude when Hanks proposes Méliès as a pioneer not just in film-making but in space travel too.
That may be a stretch, but I remember that when I left the Ciné Lumière last year my mind was boggling that we had managed to put a man on the moon more than 40 years before we had managed to restored A Trip to the Moon back to its full-colour best.
A Trip to the Moon with accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage is released on DVD in the UK from Monday 26 November 2012 by Park Circus. Buy on Amazon here.
The British Metropolis? Not quite. But Maurice Elvey’s High Treason was heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s film – in its slick futurist designs and its pacifist theme too. Based on a play written by unpleasant MP Noel Pemberton Billing, High Treason is set in the far-off future that is 1950 AD, when a war between the America and Europe seems inevitable. The leader of the Peace League is determined to avoid the conflict, leaving his daughter Evelyn torn between him and her boyfriend, a commander in the Air Force.
You can see an extract from High Treason here. It’s worth noting that in this bleak, dystopian vision of the future, Prohibition is still in force in America.
High Treason screens at the BFI Southbank with a short film from 1924, The Fugitive Futurist: a Qu-riosity by “Q”, in which an “inventor” attempts to hawk a device that can see the future, treating the audience to glimpses of London landmarks as they might appear in time, including Trafalgar Square submerged by water, and a blimp anchored to the Palace of Westminster.
High Treason screens at NFT1 on Wednesday 5 October at 6pm. The screening will be introduced by BFI curator Simon McCallum and is part of the BFI’s Capital Tales season. There will be live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.
The BFI’s year-long celebration of Russian cinema is in full swing. It may be a matter of some sadness to us that the first section of the season, covering the silent years, is over, but we still have some treats to look forward to. There is still a chance that the throat-singing band Yat-Kha will overcome their visa problems and return to the BFI for a live performance of their Storm Over Asia score. Having heard the recording the other day, I’d definitely say that would be worth checking out.
More immediately the Russian space exploration strand of the Kino season kicks off with a hugely popular silent film, the delightfully potty Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). This Soviet space fantasy features some genuinely hilarious moments and some mind-boggling costume designs – wild constructions of wire and plastic that have to be seen to be believed. Also playing with Aelita is Interplanetary Revolution (1924), a satirical cartoon in which, much like in the main feature, a group of Soviet citizens fly off on a consciousness-raising mission to Mars. It looks like the perfect accompaniment. Check it out:
Next up in the season is a science-fiction film from 1936 called Cosmic Voyage, all about the first journey to the moon, a dangerous mission aboard the USSR 1 – Josef Stalin. Accompanying that film will be a 1912 short by animator Ladislaw Starewicz, Voyage to the Moon. Starewicz is celebrated for his charming, early “insect films”, which use stop-motion animation and beetles with wires for legs. You may know, for example, The Cameraman’s Revenge, a whimsical tale of marital infidelity among insects.
Aelita, Queen of Mars with Interplanetary Revolution screens on Sunday 10 July at 6pm in NFT1 and Monday 25 July at 8.30pm in NFT 2. Both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.
Cosmic Voyage with The Moon (1965) and Voyage to the Moon (1912) screens on Sunday 24 July at 8.20pm in NFT3 and on Tuesday 26 July at 6pm in NFT3.
Tickets are on sale as of today to BFI members and soon for everyone else. Tickets cost £9.50 or £8 for members and you can buy them here, on the BFI website.
You may also be interested in the lecture that opens the Kosmos strand, which will be given by Soviet cinema scholar Sergei Kapterev on Friday 1 July at 6.20pm in NFT2. Tickets cost £5.