Monday, July 1, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- Woman in the Moon

A while back I took a fresh look at Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis. Today I'm telling you about his 1929 followup, Woman in the Moon. As the title suggests, Lang and wife/writer Thea von Harbou (who also wrote Metropolis) turned their attention to outer space for this one.

In 1896, Professor Manfeldt proposed that the moon contains vast deposits of gold. The idea sounded ridiculous to his colleagues and he was laughed out of all scientific circles. Three decades later his protege Helius declares he has built a rocket and will fly to the moon. However, he isn't the only one interested in Manfeldt's research. A sinister cabal of businessmen steals their combined research and informs Manfeldt and Helius they have built their own rocket in order to take the moon gold for themselves. Their agent, Mr. Turner, presents Helius with an ultimatum: "Come with us to the moon aboard our rocket...or not at all!" To make good on their threat, they bomb the hanger containing Helius' rocket. Determined to go to the moon, and left with no other options for doing so, he agrees to join Turner aboard the cabal's rocket. Accompanying them are Manfeldt, best friend Hans Wendigger, his fiance Friede (the titular woman), and stowaway boy Gustav. What will they discover when they land on the moon? You'll just have to watch to find out.

Woman in the Moon is less ambitious in scope than Metropolis. It has a much smaller cast and smaller sets, and the score consists largely of beautiful piano melodies as opposed to the full orchestra of Lang's previous science fiction film. Fortunately, the story is strong, and less campy than Metropolis (no android belly-dancers here). I like the characters, particularly Helius and his steely resolve during the climax (too bad Wendigger ends up being a spiteful, cowardly tool). Also, the film quality, while a bit grainy, is consistent throughout.

Also worth mentioning is the attention to detail the film makers committed to when they shot this. Lang and von Harbou managed to pull off a relatively feasible flight to the moon involving a two-stage rocket forty years before it actually happened. The story uses details such as the G-forces during lift off, the necessary conservation of oxygen, and the use of thrusters to counter gravitational forces. Yes, there are many scientific inaccuracies in the film, but it's impressive how many things they got right.

At the end of the day, I think I still prefer Metropolis because of its grandeur. However, I really like Woman in the Moon as well. It is another cinema classic from a stellar husband and wife duo.

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