Watch the Silent Film that Brought Rocket Science to the Masses

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This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.


Science fiction cinema proper may have begun with A Trip to the Moon, a short silent film made in 1902 about, well, a trip to the moon. But the genre didn’t really hit its stride until almost three decades later with the release of Fritz Lang’s underrated sci-fi masterpiece Woman in the Moon in 1929.

Generally considered to be the first ‘serious’ science fiction film, Woman in the Moon was far ahead of its time and was the first time that the nascent field of rocket science was presented to the masses in popular media. It was the first film to employ a scientist as an advisor and was considered so realistic that it was banned by the Nazis for fear that it would reveal military secrets (although Lang’s Jewish heritage might also have played a role).

Woman in the Moon tells the story of Professor Mannfeldt, a renegade scientist who wrote a paper arguing that there is gold on the moon. Although he was dismissed and ridiculed by his scientific peers, his work attracts the attention of an entrepreneur named Helius as well as an enterprising group of American thugs led by a man named Walt Turner.

After Helius approaches Mannfeldt about the possibility of putting his theory to the test they agree to collaborate on designing the first journey to the moon. But on the way back from Mannfeldt’s office, Helius is mugged by Turner and his American compatriots who steal the Professor’s plans for a journey to the moon. Once Turner and his gang realize that Mannfeldt and Helius are planning to venture to the moon in search of gold, they threaten to blow up the spaceship unless they can get in on the journey.

But this is perhaps the least of Helius’ problems. He is deeply in love with his assistant Friede, who he recently discovered was to be engaged to his other assistant Windegger. Distraught at his lost love, Helius reluctantly boards the spaceship—which he has named Friede in a desperate attempt to win her love—for the moon along with the professor, Turner and his two assistants.

The 1929 Woman in the Moon theatrical release poster. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The journey to the moon is a revelatory one: Windegger reveals himself to be a coward and Helius reveals his love to Friede, creating an awkward ride for everyone involved. However tensions are lifted after the crew arrives on the far side of the moon which has a breathable atmosphere. Here, they discover gold and realize that Mannfeldt’s theory was correct, but during a struggle over the gold between Mannfeldt and Turner, the professor falls to his death in a cave.

With the professor out of the picture, Turner tries to hijack the rocket back to Earth but is shot and killed by Helius. The bullet also strikes one of the rocket’s oxygen containers and Helius, Friede, and Windegger realize there will not be enough oxygen for all of them to make the trip back to Earth—one person will have to be left on the moon. Windegger and Helius draw straws to see who will stay, and to Windegger’s horror, he draws the short straw. But being the great guy that he is, Helius concocts a plan to take Windegger’s place and allow Friede and her fiancé to return safely to Earth.

Yet when the rocket takes off—presumably carrying both Windegger and Friede—the love of Helius’ life emerges from behind some moon rocks and announces that she has made the decision to stay with Helius on the moon. How the first two lunar colonists end up faring is left to the imagination, although given the film’s conclusion, one must imagine Friede and Helius happy.

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Woman in the Moon was both the last silent and science fiction film ever made by the master of German expressionism. It also marked the pinnacle of Lang’s collaboration with his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, who had written the novel that the film was based upon. Von Harbou and Lang had been artistic collaborators from the moment they met in 1918, with von Harbou generally supplying the literary source material and screenplay and Lang taking over directorial duties.

The duo’s first great cinematic success came with the release of Metropolis in 1927, the silent sci-fi film that is generally considered to be Lang’s magnum opus and established the thematic elements that would later come to be known as film noir.

Yet despite their perfect match as artistic collaborators, the couple’s relationship was less than idyllic. Lang was a notorious womanizer (in fact one of his more famous affairs was with Gerda Maurus, star of Woman in the Moon) and von Harbou was no prude herself. The pair became increasingly estranged as von Harbou became swept up with German nationalism (indeed, she would go on to become a major figure in Nazi cinema) and their marriage finally came to an end when Lang walked in on van Harbou in bed with Ayi Tendulkaer, a young Indian nationalist and Nazi-sympathizer.

“They had a very European marriage insofar as it didn’t both either of them that much,” Patrick McGilligan, a film historian and author of Fritz Lang: Nature of the Beast, told me.

“She was a critical collaborator for Lang, who always needed a writer,” McGilligan added. “But in the process of the separation, he lost the one person who was indispensible for him. He really spent the rest of his American career looking for a writing partner and failing to find the same kind of soulmate who could finish his sentences.”

In spite of their turbulent marriage, Woman in the Moon is a testament to the near perfect alignment of von Harbou and Lang’s cinematic vision. Both were passionately interested in science fiction, although it was Lang that would prove to be a stickler for details.

“Lang prided himself on doing meticulous research and loved experts,” said McGilligan. “He loved to be able to say that there was real science and research behind a given scene. So he would go visit the places where the scientists were, charm them and befriend them. That’s how he became friends with the rocket men.”

Read More: ‘On the Silver Globe’ is the Best Sci-Fi Film Never Made

This fascination with science and the future of space travel that was taking shape in Germany eventually led Lang to meetup with Hermann von Oberth, who published his groundbreaking work on rocket science, Ways to Spaceflight, the same year that Woman in the Moon was released in Germany. At the time, rocket science was a brand new discipline and Oberth was at its bleeding edge. Not one to miss out on the action, Lang asked the rocketry pioneer to serve as the scientific advisor on his film to which Oberth readily agreed, seeing the film as an opportunity to present his ideas about rocket science to a popular audience.

The collaboration turned out to be well worth it. Woman in the Moon was far ahead of its time and anticipated a number of developments in rocket science, including the countdown to launch sequence, launching the rocket from a pool of water (launch pads are normally wet today to dissipate the heat), and the use of a multistage rocket to reach the moon.

Originally, Oberth had wanted to design a functional model rocket based on the Friede to launch in northern Germany as a publicity stunt for the film, but this dream never materialized due to budget constraints. Still, Lang and Oberth did manage to build a full-sized rocket that had to be transferred from a tall building to a launchpad for filming.

Shortly after the film was released, the development of the famous V-2 rocket had begun in Germany, overseen by Oberth’s pupil Wernher von Braun. From 1933-1945, the film was banned in Germany and its rocket models were destroyed because the German government though that the rocket in the film bore too many similarities to their top secret V-2 rocket program.

The Freide rocket, crash landed on the Moon. Screengrab: YouTube

While other scientific details of the film, such as gold and a breathable atmosphere on the moon, haven’t withstood the test of time (although in the early 20th century the German astronomer Peter Andreas Hansen did espouse a theory that there was an oxygen rich atmosphere on the far side of the moon), the thematic elements of Woman in the Moon will still be familiar to viewers today, almost 100 years after its release.

Today, scientists are pursuing designs for space habitats that will allow humans to live for long periods of time on the moon and Mars. In the past few years, a number of space programs have also put forth serious proposals for developing lunar colonies, although none of these proposals have been brought to fruition (yet). And while the moon might not harbor gold beneath its surface, there is something of a lunar gold rush happening thanks to Google’s LunarX prize, which will award $30 million to the first privately funded teams to land a rover on the moon. Moreover, it’s hard not to see Elon Musk prefigured in the character of Helius, both of whom see untold wealth among the stars.

Although today’s cinematic and rocket technology would probably be unrecognizable to Lang, his film serves as a testament to the enduring allure of human space exploration and the moral ambiguity that always accompanies it.

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