Fritz Lang is a behemoth entity who encompasses cinema from the Weimar age to playing a director called ‘Fritz Lang’ in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963). Within this startling career are elements of his disdain for the influence of the powerful and how guilt destroys and enables. Frau im Mond (1929) is the latest instalment of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema look at early Lang following on from Metropolis, M, the Mabuse films and Die Nibelungen. After Metropolis in 1927 was there anywhere for Lang to go? He ventured after escape, imagination and the boy’s own thrill of space flight. Two years after his operatic yearning for communality he gazed towards the moon – that friend for the lonesome to talk to.
Like Lang’s earlier silent offerings, Frau im Mond was written in collaboration with his wife Thea von Harbou from her novel of the same name, and in retrospect is a quite stupendous concoction of scientific speculation soon to become fact conjoined with elements taken from his film and made real by various nations and leaders. His final silent piece before M, Frau im Mond is a multifaceted work and not what would perhaps have been expected from a space exploration picture of that period: from melodramatic conceits like love triangles, evil industrialists, theft, blackmail and child wonderment at the numerous possibilities of worlds beyond our ken.
For close to half of Lang’s Frau im Mond we never actually leave Germany. The action is taken up by the growing disruption caused by adventurer Helius’ (Willy Fritsch) obsession with his assistant Friede (Gerda Maurus) and her engagement to his other assistant, Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim). Alongside this amour fou we are introduced to disgraced visionary Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl) and his theories of the moon and gold which attracts the attention of a cabal of capitalists who are set on not allowing ‘idealists’ the discovery of the lune d’or. Under the aegis of an American, Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp), the shadowy sect steal the research that Professor Mannfeldt had entrusted to Helius and blackmail him to allow Turner to join the expedition – or else they’ll destroy his rocket.
When we finally approach the leaving of Earth, the film seamlessly moves from melodrama to adventure and the unknown. Lang is a director and personality that is presumed to be both dictatorial and impersonal, with the character of the stowaway child Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur) we observe a Lang unmasked by his obsession with science fiction magazines and fantasy literature. Frau im Mond is not a masterpiece in and of itself, but its beauty and influence seeps through cinema and culture, whether that be the use of the countdown to take off – which, according to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Lang invented – to the work of science historian and space flight advocate Willy Ley, whose ideas influenced both Hitler’s V2 project and NASA’s Apollo programme.
Lang’s inserted adult paranoia of subterranean plotting would be strip-mined by Hollywood for years, while one only has to look at Hergé’s Tintin stories to see another avenue that spun off from Lang’s visionary tumult. Lang referred to himself as “an eye man not an ear man”, and never is this more apparent than in Frau im Mond, with its reimagining of the unknown and its telegraphing of the populace’s idealisation of space travel, the moon and adventure. More than anyone, Lang instilled in the consciousness of the world the visionary template for what would come in fact and fiction. We can see the vapour trail from Frau im Mond right through to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), heading straight towards us via a fantasy ride of electronic light and vision.