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When Fritz Lang Shot the Moon

“Woman in the Moon” begins as an energetic, if routine, reprise of Lang’s previous film, “Spies” (1928). The first half is largely devoted to criminal conspiracy. A gang of plutocrats, fronted by a master of disguise and suave thuggery named Turner (played by German cinema’s favorite villain, Fritz Rasp), plot to steal a rocket designed by an aging mad scientist from his earnest young protégé, the entrepreneurial astrophysicist Helius (the popular leading man Willy Fritsch).

As a counterpoint to the assorted burglaries and deceptions, the movie establishes a romantic triangle involving Helius and his two assistants, the cowardly Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim, the hapless hero of “Nosferatu”) and the courageous Frieda (the Croatian actress Gerda Maurus). As resourceful as she is noble, Frieda had managed to produce close-up movies of the lunar surface, which resembles something grown in a petri dish. Amid much talk of trajectory, velocity and the “weightless zone,” a lunar expedition is organized that will involve all five of the principals and a young stowaway, first seen reading a science fiction pulp magazine.

“Woman in the Moon” reaches its emotional peak midway through with the rocket launch — a full-scale media event complete with search lights, a grandstand, a frenzied crowd held back by the police, and, as the full moon rises, the unveiling of a huge silver rocket, as godlike as a Kubrick monolith. The hysteria, which some have said anticipates the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” was paralleled by the movie’s premiere (the first covered live on the radio), which had Albert Einstein among the invited guests. The facade of the Ufa Palast theater was redesigned as a monumental bas-relief to dramatize spaceflight. A sculpted rocket, launched from a three-dimensional skyscraper city, shuttled back and forth to the moon against a heavenly deep blue backdrop of a thousand twinkling light bulbs.

In the movie’s most suspenseful sequence, the countdown to blastoff (a convention Lang invented) gives way to agonizing pressure on the space travelers, followed by the requisite weightless scene. The lunar landing is also stressful. Fortunately, the moon turns out to be a giant sandbox. (Unfortunately, it also provides an arena for the travelers to play out all the conflicts they brought from Earth.) A desperate overlay of mawkish sentiment notwithstanding, the end of “Woman in the Moon” combines an overwhelming sense of desolation with an agoraphobic fear of the void. More than presaging Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey,” this horror vacui anticipates the terror of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.”

“Woman in the Moon” proved a box-office success despite hostile reviews, particularly from left-wing critics who perceived the movie as a showpiece for the right-wing media mogul Alfred Hugenberg, who had bought a controlling interest in the film studio Ufa. The film theorist Rudolf Arnheim began his review with the declaration that Lang’s films were “parvenus, trashy novels that have come into money” and ended by mocking the notion that Frieda and Helius would be spending their honeymoon on the moon.

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