The Imitation Game
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There is espionage, there is melodrama, there is adventure - but Fritz Lang's final silent film is also the first to take space travel seriously
In reality neither man nor woman reached space until the 1960s, making space truly the final frontier - but space travel has been with us since the very beginnings of narrative cinema.
As early as 1898, pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès was envisioning a close encounter between man and the moon in his surreal short The Astronomer's Dream, and soon after he was depicting flights to the lunar surface in A Trip To The Moon (1902), and then to the sun in The Impossible Voyage (1904).
Mars was also on the itinerary, with first Denmark and then Russia launching expeditions there in the groundbreaking SF features Himmelskibet (1918) and Aelita: Queen Of Mars (1924), but all these visions of celestial travel were mere flights of fancy, emphasising futurist design work and dystopian allegory at the expense of anything like scientific accuracy. The same was true for Fritz Lang's seminal earthbound SF Metropolis (1927), but just two years later, Lang would make Frau Im Mond, the first ever space travel feature to be grounded in actual science, paving the way for the new realism of Destination Moon (1950), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and even Sunshine (2007).
Frau Im Mond begins with hunger - you can see it in the eyes of impoverished old Professor Georg Manfeldt (Pohl) as he watches his idealistic young mentor Wolf Helius (Fritsch) tuck into a meal laid out before him. This hunger prefigures the broader dreams and desires driving the film's different characters, and brought within their grasp by a journey to the moon, to be bankrolled and led by Helius.
Manfeldt hopes to prove true his long ridiculed theories about the moon's gold content. Astronomy student Friede Velten (Maurus) wants to be the first woman on the moon. Her fiancé, Helius' chief engineer Hans Windegger (Von Wangenheim), quickly finds his ambition to get to the moon eclipsed by a more desperate desire to get home. Ruthless master-of-disguise 'Walt Turner' (Rasp) will stop at nothing to secure the moon's riches for the wicked cabal of industrialists that he represents.
Young stowaway Gustav (Stark-Gstettenbaur) wants to experience a space adventure like the ones in his beloved comic books. And Helius himself harbours a secret, impossible love for the betrothed Friede, and has even named his phallic rocket after her. All will be resolved - although not always in the manner expected - on the dark side of the moon, where nothing seems impossible.
Frau Im Mond's first part may combine a paranoid conspiracy thriller with shrill erotic melodrama, and its third and final part may, contrary to the established scientific opinion of the time, present the far side of the moon as a place with a breathable atmosphere, a water supply, and mountains of gold - but the middle section of Frau Im Mond, covering the flight of a manned rocket from Earth to the moon, was drawn closely from Lang's collaboration with the scientist Hermann Oberth, whose research team (including a young Wernher Von Braun) would go on to design Germany's deadly V1 and V2 rockets.
As a consequence, everything shown here, from the grandiose spectacle of the launch, to the jettisoning of the lower liquid fuel rockets during ascent, to the crippling G-forces during acceleration was in keeping with the best science of the day, and so now seems uncannily prophetic when compared to the practices of actual spaceflight - while the numeric countdown to lift-off, entirely invented by Lang (and here presented in animated intertitles), would become an integral part of all real rocket launches in future.
At nearly three hours in duration, Frau Im Mond certainly takes its time to get off the ground, with a good hour and a half passing before the rocket has even appeared on screen. Consequently, modern viewers may well find their patience challenged by the slow pacing and bland characters on offer here.
Still, Lang does his best to keep things interesting with cloak-and-dagger intrigue seemingly straight out of his previous Spione (which also starred Fritsch and Maurus), beautiful set design, a loving attention to even the most incidental of details, and a romantic-seeming ending that is more cynical (or at least more ambivalent) the more that one thinks about who the titular 'woman in the moon', shown in the closing images with arms outstretched, is really waiting for.
Best of all, though, in what was to be Lang's final silent film, is the innovative use of flashbacks, diagrams, log entries, skywriting, animation and even a film-within-a-film to convey the film's expository material. Such stylisations are almost enough to make up for Fritsch's out-of-this-world overacting, or the Professor's rather unscientific use of a divining rod to look for water in the film's last third.
In Lang's overlong but intriguing space oddity, the realities of flight clash with the reveries of the characters.
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