This beautiful black-and-white silent movie boasts a remarkable restoration: sharp and clear with all the shades of gray intact. It’s like looking at a film made this year. The score is interesting too: a piano is used rather than the organ we are used to hearing. The music was composed and is performed by Jon C. Marsalis. Like “Spies” (previously reviewed here) this film, also directed by the great Fritz Lang, is long at 2:49, but is never slow. Also like “Spies” the screenplay is by Thea von Harbou, who subsequently novelized it.
The film begins with a title card which says:
“Never” does not exist for the human mind…only “Not yet”.
As Bea Arthur sings in “Mame”: “The Man in the Moon Is a Lady”. Here the woman in the moon is Friede, an astronomy student (played by Gerda Maurus) who has been wooed by Wolf Helius, an inventor and space enthusiast who is building a spaceship (played by Willy Fritsch). Wolf, however, is so concerned with his ambitious undertaking that he has paid scant attention to Friede, who has now become engaged to Wolf’s engineer, Hans Windegger (played by Gustav von Wangenheim).
Wolf’s mentor, Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) wants to keep all his work safe, and since strange people have been seen recently in his neighborhood, he gives all his papers to Wolf to be stored in Wolf’s safe. As Wolf’s chauffeur winds through the city, he stops as traffic slows, and a young woman selling violets smiles at Wolf and offers him a flower. As the car takes off she jumps in, and when they arrive at his fortress-like apartment building Wolf is unconscious and the girl and all of Professor Manfeldt’s papers are gone. Enraged at his own foolishness, he rushes in only to discover that his safe has been robbed as well.
Now The Man Who Calls Himself Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp) appears and tells Wolf that he is in possession of all the papers and that they will be returned for one simple thing: Wolf’s promise to give “Turner” a seat on the spaceship.
Investors and bankers and those the film refers to as “Checkbooks” have surmised that the involvement of Manfeldt means that Helius subscribes to Manfeldt’s theories, theories that disgraced him decades before. Namely that the mountains of the Moon contain more gold than is to be found in all of Earth. Therefore, the flight will be to the Moon and the object is the gold that awaits whoever can get there. And the Checkbooks all agree that “The Moon’s riches of gold, should they exist, ought to be placed in the hands of businessmen and not into those of visionaries and idealists.” So the film is up to date on businessmen as well as some aspects of spaceships.
Well, certainly Wolf intends to go around the Moon and return to Earth, and he would like to land if possible, but gold does not figure into his plans, despite the fact that he intends to take Professor Manfeldt along.
I suppose spaceships have always been portrayed as bullet-shaped because the ship in this movie looks very modern, even after 87 years! The sequence where the ship, supported by heavy girders which curve over to touch the bullet-like dome, is brought out of its housing on a bed that runs on railroad tracks, is exciting and amazing in equal parts. The film continues to show a startling modernist quality as to the rocket from beginning to end, as in the trip to the Moon, during which the first two rockets are jettisoned after they have provide the energy needed to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
The crew consists of Helius, Manfeldt, Windegger, Friede, and “Turner”, and they encounter the dangers of thrust at takeoff and of weightlessness. There is a stowaway, they crash into the powdery surface of the moon with little damage, there is a death due to gold fever, and damage to the oxygen tanks, which forces Wolf to stay and hope they can come back for him. Luckily the Moon air is breathable (the only major mistake in the film). After one final surprise this early science fiction space opera ends. I loved it.