Frau Im Mond (Woman In The Moon) Review

Billed as the first science-fiction film based on real scientific fact and coming from the visionary director of Metropolis, the importance and influence of Fritz Lang’s final silent film Frau Im Mond (Woman In The Moon) shouldn’t be underestimated, but it would also be a mistake to take it too seriously. First and foremost, Woman In The Moon is an adventure film - as much for the director and the viewer as for its bold explorers into the great unknown.

At close to three hours, rather a long film, Woman In The Moon, is essentially split into two parts, the opening half reprising the spy movie drama of Lang’s previous film Spione (1928), the second part delighting in the futuristic Metropolis elements of its pulp science-fiction Moon adventure. The two sections however are very much connected, Lang recognising in both parts the propensity humans to strive for forbidden knowledge, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to for it.

What fires this lust in Woman In The Moon is greed for gold. A half-mad Professor called Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) believes that there are vast resources of gold in the mountains of the Moon and that man could be capable of travelling there to bring it back. Manfeldt is ridiculed by his colleagues, his theories are dismissed and he is run out of the academy, but he has an ally in flight engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), who announces to the delighted professor his intentions to build the rocket that will make the seemingly impossible journey. Although he has been devastated by the announcement of her engagement to his best friend Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), he intends to also bring Friede (Gerda Maurus) and her new fiancé on the expedition. However, their plans for the rocket ship have been stolen by a syndicate of rich financiers, who demand to have their agent Turner (Fritz Rasp) included in the mission in exchange for their return. Like his innovations in Spione, Lang plays out the first half of Woman In The Moon for the thrills of international and corporate scheming, this time exploiting the use of scientific diagrams and models to clearly lay out the intrigue for the viewer, while employing a master of disguise to raise the already high stakes.

It’s in the Moon mission of the second half of the film that Lang really stretches himself and excels, mixing realistic speculative science with sheer pulp adventure. On the one hand, much as he set the standards for the police procedural in M and for the espionage thriller in Spione, here Lang formulates the procedure for the launching a spaceship and the problems likely to be faced by its human crew. In the process he effectively invents the countdown as an exciting build-up to the thrilling rocket launch. On the other hand, the incredibly primitive technology by which Helius and his colleagues navigate, control and land the rocket, their adventure to find gold on the Moon with its breathable atmosphere, and their costumes (the men have moon boots, but the more delicate ladies have moon sandals), is less based on scientific fact than for how thrilling the director can make the adventure in visual and in plot development terms. And Lang unhurriedly takes his time over all these little details, certainly extending the length of the film in his unwillingness to leave out any little element that could be explored, finding ways to make the models, scientific diagrams and even the intertitles work for the story - animating them, repeating and exploding them, having them almost float out of the picture.

The dwelling over such details, the playing around with effects and the consequent drawing out of the plot would be overindulgent were it not for the strong human element that underpins the story. Dramatically, the conflict on the grander scale lies largely between the thirst for scientific knowledge and the corporate greed that is willing to exploit it – a point whose irony is not lost in the fact of the innovations into rocket technology proposed here would indirectly lead to the development of the V2 bombs developed by the Nazis - but it is the human element that really supports the film’s extravagance. Inevitably, that largely takes the form of the love triangle between Helius, Hans and Freide, which effectively provides an element of tension in dramatic terms, but there is equal consideration given over to the very real concerns of what it means for mankind to shoot off out into the unknown.

As well as the uncommon physical phenomena that man has to endure – the effects of zero-gravity, g-force and the forced moon-landing are all thrillingly and vividly depicted by Lang – the director also considers the psychological impact of what it means to be hundreds of thousands of miles from civilisation. These elements can appear to be a little over-played by the silent actors, who act out their hysteria with exaggerated over-emphasis, but more than anything, what Lang most successfully and chillingly conveys to the viewer in Woman In The Moon is the incredible sensation of being alone, possibly stranded forever, watching the Earth disappear over the pitted horizon of the Moon. It’s hard to imagine a more effective means of describing the incredible loneliness that must be endured by any innovator who sets out to explore the unknown or the incredible rewards such daring can bring.

Frau Im Mond is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema catalogue. The DVD is in PAL format and is free of region coding.

The restoration of Frau Im Mond by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung has resulted in another amazing transfer of a Fritz Lang film to stand alongside their work on Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, The Testament of Dr Mabuse and Spione. There is a faint level of grain, not excessive, but well handled by the transfer and barely noticeable in normal playback. Tones are remarkably good, showing fine definition, sharpness and impressive shadow detail. The quality however is variable from scene to scene. Some brief sequences – undoubtedly sourced from other prints – do not match the quality of the main part of the film, but other than a slight variation in tone and grain, they present few problems. Some bits of damage remain in the form of very tiny speckles of white dustspots, a few tramline scratches and some larger marks and jumps, but the majority of the film is clear, stable and fluid in its progressive transfer. There appear to be no issues with digital manipulation, contrast boosting or edge enhancement – the image looking very natural and consequently often quite impressive.

The film is silent, but comes with a score by Willy Schmidt-Gentner. The solo piano music is generally fine, but I don’t think the traditional tinkling piano silent film accompaniment works so well with Frau Im Mond. A grander orchestral score or even a minimal experimental track (perhaps in the style of the KTL score for Tartan's forthcoming The Phantom Carriage) would I think have been more appropriate for the science-fiction element of the film and certainly enhanced it more than the score included here. In terms of quality however, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is flawless.

The intertitles are in German, but I can’t say whether they are the original titles or restored ones. English subtitles are included and are optional, both for the intertitles and for the text and animated words that appear in the film itself.

Produced by Luciano Berratúa, the short documentary feature The First Scientific Science-Fiction Film (14:03) proves to be very informative on the circumstances around the making of the film, the scientific sources used, the development of rocket science and Lang’s part in it.

The inclusion of a booklet of essays in Masters of Cinema releases is of course an additional benefit, but the value of them can be variable. Occasionally, they provide a wealth of fascinating historical documentation – as in their recent release of Tabu - but too often they are filled with dreary, self-important pieces of academic speculation. There’s only one main essay in the 36-page booklet included here and the title of Michael E. Grost’s piece - Frau Im Mond and the Fritz-Lang-Film: A Formal Analysis doesn’t sound promising. Indeed, it proves to be a dubious and largely irrelevant consideration of the film in terms of symbols, shapes and types. This leads to such absurd observations as circles representing science-fiction elements (the Earth and the Moon evidently being round) ...except where they don’t. There is no discussion of anything like a human element to the film or consideration that the characters might be actual people - they all representations of types, ie. Feminist, Worker, Capitalist. If you can only see Woman In The Moon in terms of abstract concepts, geometrical shapes, clocks and media, then you are really not getting the point of the film at all. The film is a lot more human and fun than this makes out.

There are a few other quotes from studies on the film from the likes of Jacques Rivette and Lotte Eisner in the Frau Im Mond Casebook, but sadly little information about the history of the film and its making and no information on such technical elements as the restoration, the frame-rate, the intertitles and the original score, all of which would have made much more interesting and invaluable reading.

Woman In The Moon is a fabulous adventure, one to excite the imagination of the viewer, but one which also clearly excites the imagination of the filmmaker. Fritz Lang uses every means at his disposal to make the fantastic elements of the story come fully to life, both in dramatic and in human terms, which more than makes up for the perhaps excessive length and over-acting that can at times make the film tough going. Masters of Cinema’s presentation is again impeccable, giving a terrific transfer to a visually impressive film which, like its imagination and innovation, belies its age.

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