Sunday, March 15, 2009


Here's an oddity: a silent science-fiction romance. Well, maybe not so odd when you consider it was made by Fritz Lang, whose most famous movie, METROPOLIS, could be described the same way. Professor Manfeldt is a scientist who believes that the mountains of the moon are filled with gold and could be profitably mined by us Earthlings; he is considered a fool or swindler by most, but that hasn't stopped him from working for years on a book about his theory. He's become old, frustrated, and eccentric, but his pal Wolf Helius believes in him and arranges a trip to the moon to see if there is gold. Also interested is Walter Turner who, as a representative of a powerful group of five rich capitalists, steals Manfeldt's work and blackmails his way into going along to the moon. His theory: "The moon's riches … ought to be placed in the hands of businessmen and not into those of visionaries and idealists." Also on the trip: Friede, the young woman (named in the credits as a "student of Astronomy") whom Helius is sweet on, and Hans, an engineer who is engaged to Friede. The professor insists on going as well, despite concerns about his age (bringing along his pet mouse Josephine), and a young boy who loves reading science-fiction magazines stows away in secret. Once there, they do indeed discover gold, but the romantic triangle and the greedy villain create problems. One character dies, one is killed, and, when the oxygen supply is depleted, someone has to stay behind when the rocket returns to Earth.

At over 2-1/2 hours, this is way too long to keep the attention of most modern audiences (and even audiences of the time, as the relatively expensive film was a commercial failure). The problem is the set-up for the melodrama; we don't even get to the rocket take-off until 90 minutes in. This is the first film to take the concept of space travel seriously, and critics often comment on the accuracy of much of the science involved in the space shot, though the moon itself has a breathable atmosphere and a earth-like gravity, and the visitors all stroll around in their street clothes. Still, I stuck with this to the end, for several reasons: the model work (the rocket before takeoff, the rocket in space, the lunar landscape), though obvious, is charming; the Turner character--who later in the film sports a Hitler comb-over, is a master of disguise and there is a remarkable shot in which he wipes his hand across his face and his looks change completely (done with an almost imperceptible camera edit); when Manfeldt finds gold up in the mountains, his echoing shout of "GOLD!!!" is visualized and animated as in a comic book; the ending is lushly romantic. The acting is of the typical overdone silent-film style: lots of big gestures and grimaces and pointing, and the worst offender is the guy who plays Hans. My favorite line: after the break-in, Heilus sends his chauffeur to the police station, saying, "Don't bother with long explanations--just bring someone official!" And I love the character name of Wolf Helius. [DVD]

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