Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon has often been discussed as one of the first science-fiction features in cinema history. That’s invariably true, but a more useful understanding of the film’s significance recognizes its proto-Hollywood blockbuster-narrative structure of two distinct but intertwined threads: a spectacle-driven space mission and a melodramatic love triangle. In Spies, Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou attempted a similar feat, only its romance was set within a lengthy espionage tale, a genre in which conflicts of passion are far more common and easily acclimated. With Woman in the Moon, which was to be Lang’s last fully silent feature, there’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sensibility at work, where each weapon heretofore seen in the director’s narratological arsenal is proudly, if excessively, on display.
To that end, Lang’s exhibitionist inclinations dominate the film’s emphases, especially in the latter half, which is set entirely on the moon. The first half, however, has more in common with the office-bound mysteries of 1922’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Helius (Willy Fritsch) partners with Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who’s written a document rather unfortunately titled “Hypothetical Accounts of the Gold Content in the Mountains of the Moon,” which Helius believes to be legitimate, despite the local congress having laughed the proposal off the stage. Scientific jargon and tête-à-têtes about technological advancements comprise entire scenes; concurrently, when Helius learns that his assistant, Friede (Gerda Maurus), whom he’s secretly in love with, has just gotten engaged to his friend/other assistant, Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), the film creates an ironic betrayal scenario nearly lifted directly from 1927’s Flesh and the Devil, albeit with less tragic implications.
Lang turns the screws on each of these initially separate trajectories in a deliberate and nearly sluggish manner, lingering in expositional scenes as a thuggish businessman named Turner (Fritz Rasp) absconds with Mannfeldt’s exploration documents. He demands a trip to the moon that will include both himself and a team of his choosing; if his demands aren’t met, he’ll destroy Helius’s means to build a rocket. Naturally, Helius complies and Turner selects Friede and Windegger, in addition to several others, for the trip.
Lang’s attention to the specific, if superficial, details of characterization are considerable, but it’s no match for the director’s obsession, and outright fetishizing, of technological advancement. The story’s human beings are merely excuses to indulge the tamed attractions offered by the film’s imaginatively conceived set designs, with models of space mountains and rocket ships built down to their utmost minutia, whether it’s the hundreds of buttons on a control console or Mannfredt’s elaborate space suit. Unfortunately, Lang’s energies as a detail-first, theme-second filmmaker reveal themselves to be ill-suited for sci-fi—at least, the kind of sci-fi which uses an alternative present or future to explore more existential matters with relation to real-world biopolitics.
With his last attempt at a grand-scale magnum opus, Lang didn’t so much pave the road for later sci-fi opuses from Andrei Tarkovsky and Rainer Werner Fassbinder than ones from Michael Bay and James Cameron. In Armageddon, even Pearl Harbor, which adopts this particular dual narrative approach for its historical setting, a central romance sucker-punches audiences into overlooking Bay’s true interest in showy effects. Each director’s exuberant attitude regarding awe-as-filmmaking sometimes yields brilliant insights; here, when Friede tells the crew that “the ears of the world are listening” just before their rocket launches, it’s one of keenest ironies in all of Lang and Von Harbou’s dozen or so films together. The line recognizes that hearing was already a paradox in cinema, since it was soon to be (and already was, in the U.S.) the future of the voice in sound film, but the past for radio, a dying medium. Perhaps Lang and Bay are kindred spirits after all, each in pursuit of radically affecting the viewer’s sensorium, but neither able to restrain themselves, or their cinematic egos, when given a blank check.
Kino’s new Blu-ray is largely an audio/visual stunner, though given the film’s age, there are numerous imperfections to the image throughout, whether in the form of minor tears, debris, dust, or scratches. While it’s possible that a more rigorous restoration could have gone the extra mile to eliminate these issues, the image itself looks fantastic, with a clarity and specificity of detail that displays the film’s beautifully composed images, which often emphasize depth and various angularities within the frame. A new piano score by composer Javier Pérez de Azpeitia accompanies the film, sounding bold and strong on the stereo track, though one may yearn for an alternative techno score, as was included on Kino’s recent Blu-ray for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, given the film’s setting.
A short documentary on the film’s making is the sole extra, and it’s largely an informative and succinct explanation of author Hermann Oberth’s research on "the rocket," as well as Fritz Lang’s work at UFA. The doc also includes archival footage of various events and city streets around Germany during the late ’20s, making it useful both as film history and cultural anthropology.
Those students or cinephiles looking to trace the contemporary blockbuster’s roots should add Lang’s Woman in the Moon, which has never looked better than it does on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray, to their list.