‘For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.’
Frau im Mond was made in 1928, it was a busy year for some. Logie Baird demonstrates the colour TV, the Chrysler factory is in full swing and plans for a 70-storey Chrysler skyscraper in NYC are afoot, Morkrum & Kleinschmidt’s Teletype company is founded (one could regard Teletype as an antecedent of contemporary networked communications). The behemoth-like Graf Zeppelin is set to be released from its hangar, Robert Goddard launches liquid-fueled prototype rockets in New England, and the Nazi party command less than 2.6% of the vote in Weimar Germany. Capitalism is beginning to identify new frontiers.
Speed is key – mass manufacture of cars, fledgling networked communications, and an embryonic form of television are all vying for public attention and corporate dollars. Humankind is moving into new spaces, both real and virtual, at new speeds, which are frankly alarming. Calamity is not far away either. By 1929 things are set to take an irrevocable turn for the worst with the Wall Street Crash. This is the context in which Fritz Lang directed Frau im Mond and, truth be told, the context of its creation and its subsequent historical resonance is far more interesting than the film itself.
Cylindrical projectiles were terrifyingly cool and big business in 1928, public imaginations had been thoroughly captured (this was what has become known as sci-fi’s Golden Age). It was inevitable that someone somewhere would want to make a movie that capitalised on the zeitgeist. German film production company UFA decided to gamble. A company not interested in doing things by half-measures UFA went the whole hog staking their entire advertising budget on the movie and going to ridiculous lengths to create a convincing mise-en-scène. The nub of Frau im Mond‘s existence, however, lies on the fringes of German scientific research.
Professor Hermann Oberth was a school master and amateur physicist. Inspired by Robert Goddard’s research, Oberth set about devising his own rockets but progress was hampered by a lack of hard cash. Fritz Lang had become aware of Oberth’s book – Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (Rocket into Planetary Space, 1923) – a clarion call for advanced rocket research. Lang had the notion this might be perfect fodder for a movie and persuaded UFA to take an interest. They did. Oberth was hired as a technical advisor for the proposed movie with a deal sweetener that the studio would sponsor the development and launch of a rocket, which the execs at UFA presumably thought would make an excellent promotional stunt. And therein lies the central problem with Frau im Mond, it’s a movie centered around a gimmick and this saps the screenplay of any sustained magnetism.
A rather lengthy space opera, Frau im Mond doesn’t offer much in the way of directorial innovation beyond the prescient portrayal of a trip to the moon. To these eyes, Lang played his trump cards with the series of Dr Mabuse films, Spione, and for sheer, ‘Look we have lots of Deutschmarks and we’re spending them like wildfire’, cinematic spectacle, Metropolis. With Frau im Mond what critics tend to bang on about is the aforementioned scientific accuracy of the film, its 80% precise vision of a rocket launch and zero-G space travel. However, Lang’s clairvoyance seems to exist at the cost of the screenplay.
Based on a novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou (who also gets a credit as co-screenwriter), it is rather flaccid. A sub-Ryder Haggard, sub-Arthur Conan Doyle adventure yarn, Frau im Mond concerns the pursuit of lunar gold and the fate of those co-opted into acquiring it by a sinister Bilderberg-like sect from the military-industrial complex. The protagonists – a woman, Friede Velten,, four men, one mouse and a child – are led by Wolf Helius, a dynamic entrepreneur and space buff. They are inspired by the (of course) eccentric Professor Manfeldt’s prophecy that the moon contains gold. The Frau im Mond is not Freide, a feisty young woman in love with Helius but engaged to engineer Hans Windegger, it is in fact the name of the rocket ship.
The screenplay is porridge through and through, and by George it’s lumpy. Set design, photography and certain plot aspects are all from time to time stunningly modernist but the schnittsen is almost pre-modernist. Editorially the film has a certain density, reminiscent of Virginia Wolf or the syntax in a Victorian novel; sub-clause after sub-clause after sub-clause. That is not to say it is altogether uninteresting. Certainly the film is a fascinating historical artifact, a fine example of Weimar-era science fantasy, but as an entertainment it is rather fatiguing and dystrophic. The sluggish pace of the plot is especially ironic when one considers that the whole film is fundamentally concerned with the possibilities of rocket power and the acceleration of speed and, therefore, time.
Frau im Mond of course is not a talkie, yet strangely this silent film isn’t silent enough. ‘Authentic’ piano schmaltz has been chosen to accompany the movie, a sort of relentless Debussy-lite for the cloth-eared. This seems particularly anachronistic when one considers that at this time great modernist innovations were taking place in western classical music. The atonalism of Schoenberg, Webern or Berg – at once clinical and precise yet uncertain and oblique – would have made a perfect counterpoint to the concrete realities of earth and the lunar unheimlich depicted in Frau im Mond.
Ultimately, Frau im Mond has its charms but it is nowhere near as lunatic a prospect as one would like. Its legacy is frankly nuts, though. One of Hermann Oberth’s assistants, a seventeen-year-old male with a skull full of goofy teeth and space-age fantasies, was Wernher von Braun. During WW2 von Braun was responsible for the design of the V2 rocket. Curiously, each V2 would have a symbol depicting a cross-legged woman sitting on a sickle moon, a rocket between her legs. The symbol was known as ‘Frau im Mond’. Up to 20,000 slave labourers are alleged to have died at the Mittelwerk V2 rocket factory and in excess of 3,000 allied civilian and military personnel were killed by V2 weapons during the war. After 1945 von Braun escaped trial at Nuremberg due to the intervention of America’s science establishment. He was invited to contribute his expertise to the USA’s rocket science research and, of course, he is now known as the architect behind the Saturn and Apollo missions, the first man to get other humans onto the moon. Nasa’s immorality in engaging with a war criminal has been a perennial embarrassment for that organisation and it should not be forgotten but it should not be surprising. Watching Fritz Lang’s very expensive cinematic folly one is reminded of the futile crassness of putting humans into space. Thinking about the absurdity of what followed (the Cold War), two mad, venal Super Powers vying for the conquest of icy, dark nothingness and aiming for zero, Mutually Assured Destruction, Frau im Mond should have been a comedy not a thriller.
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