Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Woman in the Moon

The Netflix streaming service has once again done itself proud. Its growing collection of on-demand silent movies is becoming quite impressive. Today I watched one of the first "serious" science fiction movies, Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (also known variously as Frau im Mond, Woman in the Moon, Girl in the Moon and By Rocket to the Moon).

Released in 1929, it came shortly after Metropolis, and was quite remarkably ahead of its time. SF has been a staple part of film since Melies did his Voyage to the Moon in 1902, but it was mostly Verne-style fantasy. I was expecting something similar from this, with strange beasties or lost civilisations living on the Moon, much like the Soviet SF film Aelita, Queen of Mars, but it's nothing like that at all. If anything, it's more of a forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13, crossed with a 1940s planetary exploration story.

The story's simple enough. A group of people take a rocket to the moon to prospect for gold, but their journey is marred by personal rivalries and jealousy, and once they land, it becomes a fight for survival.

However, what makes this film remarkable is the hardcore scientific setting, described by most critics as "prescient". The rocketship, which predates the pulp days of magazines like Astounding, is something both Werner von Braun and NASA would recognise instantly. It's absolutely not Flash Gordon. Much of the movie is taken up with the spectacular launch and flight to the Moon. His characters are worried about how to survive the g-forces during blast-off, and we see in detail how the acceleration couches are sprung to minimise the risk. It's a liquid-fueled multi-stage rocket, and we see the boosters drop away. Throughout the ship there are footstraps and bars so they can move in zero gravity, and yes, there are floating sequences, including a great bit where they're pouring drinks that turn into liquid bubbles they have to catch. We see them using retro-rockets to decelerate before landing, and we even get an explanation of the gravitational fields of the Earth and the Moon. The spacesuits are obviously diving suits, but they're more realistic than much of what followed in the hey-day of Hollywood SF. And when they land, we see them lighting matches to test for oxygen.

It's hard to remember that when this was made, it was 40 years before the first manned flight to the moon, and 25 years before even Sputnik. Lang worked closely with Hermann Oberth, one of the world experts on rocketry, and he drew his inspiration and design mostly from Oberth's influential textbook Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Planetary Space) which was first published in 1929, a few months before Frau im Mond was released.

Of course, it's not all perfect science. For a start, there's breathable air on the Moon, so they can wander around happily. And while gravity's low, they're fine with heavy-duty diving boots to keep them anchored to the surface. The costumes are pretty cringe-worthy too: I couldn't help laughing at the men's outfits of everyday clothes (with a tie, of course) and a woolly cardigan.

However, that aside, this is a work of absolute genius, and deserves to be better known. In its day, it played a key role in firing popular enthusiasm for rocketry and space exploration. If it had been a sound film, it would probably have survived in the public consciousness much better. As it was, silent films were all but obsolete a couple of years later. Not until 1950's Destination Moon did we see a science fiction film that was so heavily based in real science.

It's available in a nicely restored print on DVD from Kino, and, as I said at the start, on Netflix streaming. If you love science fiction movies, do yourself a favour and watch it.

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