‘For the human mind, there is no “never”. Only a “not yet”.’
In the 1920s, Fritz Lang was clearly committed to science fiction. Even after signing off on Metropolis, a super-production which bankrupted its studio, his need to pioneer wasn’t slaked – and this scrupulously-researched, epic-length moon mission is the cinema’s first relatively serious, non-fanciful trip to outer space. Though a bigger hit than Metropolis at first, it’s a less well-remembered film – as Lang’s last silent, it’s trumped by the still-vivid and exciting early talkies M and Testament of Dr Mabuse. Its reputation has eroded over the years through association with Nazi rocketry and (as with Destination Moon) the way its specific guesses and prophecies were sidelined into quaintness by the actual Apollo missions. Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife and regular writer, makes some very peculiar dramatic decisions which don’t square with all the hard science.
In a long first half (the take-off comes mid-way through a near-three-hour running time), visionary industrialist/technocrat Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), who comes across as a mix of the heroes of H.G. Wells and Ayn Rand, supports the theories of long-ridiculed bearded crackpot Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who is somewhere between Doyle’s Challenger and Hergé’s Calculus in the demented genius stakes. The Professor lives in a garret papered with notes and sneering press stories, but Helius has been working to carry out his planned lunar mission. Manfeldt’s hot idea is that the moon is rich enough in gold to make the expense of the trip worthwhile, which attracts the interest of a five-person gold cartel (one is a butch, cigar-smoking woman) who send a master-of-disguise spy who generally goes by the name Jeff Turner (Fritz Rasp – silent German cinema’s leading slimy heel, sporting a Hitlerian hair-wave) to steal the plans, models and film taken by an unmanned moon probe which reconnoitered from moon orbit. Turner and the syndicate muscle in on the project, setting up plot threads which are completely dropped once the rocket takes off.
In addition to Helius, Turner and the Professor, the crew of the good ship H 34 (aka ‘Friede’) consists of Helius’s initially easygoing best friend and sidekick Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim, just as histrionic as in Nosferatu) and Hans’s angelic fiancée Friede (Gerda Maurus), who is clearly more in love with Wolf than her actual guy. Gustav (Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur), a boy who idolises Helius and reads pulp magazines about ‘Mingo, the Nick Carter of space’, stows away for a lark – the sort of development which marks this as a juvenile space opera, though it’s also the first s-f film to make fun of the pulpier side of the genre (‘Vampire of the Moon’) in order to stress its own seriousness. In consultation with experts like Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley, Lang and his effects team (including experimental animator Oskar Fischinger) depict a three-stage rocket which has to be launched from a big water-filled silo, stud the interior with strap-loops so weightless astronauts can get around and manage on-the-mark guesses like TV coverage of the launch, a countdown and a lunar module with return flight capability. A fuss is made, as it would be in many future s-f films, about the effects of g-force in the early stages of the mission, with astronauts nearly passing out under the strain as dials near the helpfully-well-marked danger zone.
However, this desert moon has breathable atmosphere (on the dark side, at least) and bubbling pools of water – not to mention all that gold. Once on the moon, a full half of the expedition go crazy: the Professor is struck by gold fever and wanders off to fall into a crevice clutching a vaguely woman-shaped ingot, Turner has a homicidal spell but calms down and has a poignant moment as he dies, and Windegger becomes a ranting, panicking pessimist who never stops whining about wanting to go back to Earth. All this is busywork rather than story, and doesn’t add up to any particular point – but the last act is effective melodrama as a burst oxygen cylinder means only three of the four survivors can go home, and the two men (Helius stoic, Windegger in a tizzy) pick matches to see who stays (a nice touch is Gustav’s partisan marking of the contest). Windegger loses, but Helius drugs him and charges Gustav with piloting the ship home. The hero watches the rocket take off, then turns to find that Friede has justified the title by staying at base camp with him. Maurus, who has an odd birdlike presence, anchors the film, and the ending finally works up real emotion rather than just having characters throw wobblies. It’s a long haul, less consistently brilliant than roughly contemporary Langs like Spione and M, but it’s still a seminal picture. And, like Metropolis, its legacy includes unforgettable and often-repeated images: the cutaway model of the compact ship, the rocket hauled across the firing ground on a huge gantry, the rocket soaring through the star-studded blackness of space, Gustav floating around the capsule, weightless globs of liquid being captured in a cup to be drunk, the Professor struggling across the lunar sands in weighted boots and a bulbous diving helmet.