After his stunning success with Metropolis, German studio Ufa gave director Fritz Lang free rein on his next project. Excited by the idea of rockets and spaceflight (hugely popular in Germany at the time) he decided to make a film about a rocket expedition to the Moon.
Lang insisted on such technical accuracy that, even though its a silent film made in 1929, Frau im Mond has uncanny similarities to the Apollo program three decades later. Just witness the moment where a giant three-stage rocket is assembled in a cavernous building, then trundled to the launch pad by means of a huge transport platform down a dual-tracked road. Several cliches seen in the sci-fi movies of the 1950's and onwards also originated with this film, such as the portrayal of the crushing pressures of acceleration (close-ups of dials and straining facial expressions), the comedy of trying to eat and drink while weightless, and a crewmember making a Heroic Sacrifice so the others will have enough oxygen to survive. It was also largely responsible for changing the popular portrayal of a spacecraft from Jules Verne Steampunk to SciFi Golden Age Retro Rocket.
Frau im Mond had interesting historical consequences. In order to promote the film Lang persuaded his technical advisor, Hermann Oberth, to construct and launch an actual rocket as a publicity stunt! As far as they knew no-one had ever done this, as US scientist Robert Goddard had not publicized his experiments. Unfortunately Oberth, more suited to the quiet world of academia, broke down under the strain and failed to meet the deadline. The resulting publicity however provided the funding for amateur rocket enthusiasts to continue Oberth's project. This in turn attracted the attention of the German military, who offered the groups' most promising member — a young Wernher von Braun — a contract to work on ballistic missiles. The rest, as they say, is history.
The movie was released as Rocket to the Moon in the USA. The UK preferred the literal translation Woman in the Moon.
Frau im Mond contains the following tropes:
- Absent-Minded Professor: Professor Georg Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), though he is much more rational than most of such characters.
- Artificial Gravity: One of the many Shown Their Work choices in this film has the ship create gravity through constant acceleration in space. As the log specifically notes, when they finally turn the engines off they are in zero gravity.
- As You Know...: When Mannfeldt asks why Helius doesn't want to take Windegger along to the moon, he makes sure to say "Windegger? Your colleague and best friend?"
- Batman Can Breathe in Space: The Moon has a breathable atmosphere, so they don't need spacesuits! Silent film actors depended greatly on facial expressions and body language which would be obscured by bulky spacesuits and helmets, so Lang was forced to compromise on this point.note
- Big Electric Switch: The control panel resembles something you'd find in a generating station (which would be the most technologically sophisticated installation at the time).
- Bittersweet Ending: Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) stays behind on the Moon, but finds that Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus) has chosen to stay behind with him rather than return to Earth with her fiance and live.
- Bold Explorer: Helius and Professor Mannfeldt plan and lead an expedition to the moon.
- Captain's Log: A written version, given that it's a silent movie, but still used for the required exposition.
- The Chick: Averted with Friede Velten, who is the title character and heroine of the tale; although a student of astronomy, she is clearly inspired by real-life female aviators of the era. Impressive when you compare it to the later patronising view of women in science fiction (see Project Moonbase).
- Cold Equation: The evil Turner gets killed in a shootout, but a bullet pierces an oxygen tank. The two remaining men end up Drawing Straws to see who will stay behind.
- Possibly subverted when Helius leaves a note to Windegger suggesting that Windegger could come back to get him, but the way everybody's acting certainly indicates that staying behind is a death sentence.
- Coming in Hot: The rocket is heading for the moon too fast. Cue scenes of panic and frantic attempts to slow it down. In the end all they can do is hold on tight!
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: The Finance Group and their representative, Walt Truner (Fritz Rasp, the "Thin Man" in Metropolis), who want to mine the Moon for its gold so they can control the world market.
- Diesel Punk: A Period version.
- Dirty Coward: Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), Friede's fiancé, breaks down in fear when he loses the Lottery of Doom. Helius then decides to stay behind instead, as he thinks Friede still loves Hans.
- Dowsing Device: Once he's landed on the Moon, Mannfeldt uses a divining rod to search for water. And you call yourself a scientist!
- Drawing Straws: Helius and Windegger draw straws to see who will have to stay behind on the Moon—Batman Can Breathe in Space, sure, but whoever's left behind will eventually die of hunger or dehydration. Windegger doesn't take it well when he loses.
- Equal-Opportunity Evil: Five Brains and Checkbooks, who include a woman (Tilla Durieux) and an Asian man (Mahmud Terja Bey).
- Feet-First Introduction: For the villainous Turner, when Helius is surprised to see Turner waiting for him outside Helius's door.
- Gold Fever: Turner murders Mannfeldt by backing him off a cliff, fills his pockets with the gold nuggets lying about everywhere, then tries to steal the ship and abandon the others on the Moon.
- Gravity Screw: Straps are placed all over the floor and roof of the cabin, and there's a sequence involving Friede and Windegger trying to drink from a bottle in zero-G. Once on the Moon, they use weighted boots to walk normally in the lower gravity.
- Herr Doktor: Naturally a large part of the leading characters, who are both Germans and scientists/engineers.
- Impairment Shot: A POV shot from Friede has her vision blur and fade to black as she passes out from the G-forces of the launch.
- Little Stowaway: Twelve-year-old Gustav (Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur) hides on the rocket so he, too, can see the Moon.
- Love Triangle: Engineer Hans Windegger and scientist Wolf Helius are both attracted to the heroine.
- Product Placement: Mannfeldt drinks from a glass that says "Odol", complete with a closeup with the camera trained on the logo as Helius pours the drink. Odol was and is a German brand of mouthwash.
- Shown Their Work:
- Along with Destination Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, this was one of the few sci-fi movies where the creators paid serious attention to their technical advisors — in this case, science writer Willy Ley and Romanian rocket scientist Hermann Oberth. So accurate was the film that the Gestapo later confiscated the release prints and a large cutaway model of the spacecraft, for fear that it would compromise Germany's secret ballistic rocket program.
- Besides the countdown and the attention paid to the problem of acceleration and g-forces, this film also has the launch done via staged rocketry ("Launch rocket exhausted! Full thrust to middle rocket!...Jettison middle rocket!"). This of course was how it was actually done when the Americans and Soviets started putting living beings into space in the 1960s.
- The scene where the astronauts watch the "setting" Earth fall behind the Moon looks shockingly similar to the famous "Earthrise" photo taken 39 years later on Apollo 8.
- Space Is Cold: Note the rocket is painted with one side black — that's so they can turn the dark side to face the sun when they need to heat the rocket, then rotate to the other side when it needs cooling.
- Space Suits Are SCUBA Gear: Professor Mannfeldt goes out in a diving suit to check that the moon has an atmosphere. After successfully lighting a few matches, he takes off his helmet.
- The Spook: Five Brains' enforcer, Walter Truner, who is a major character of the film. The only thing we know about him is that his name is not Walter Turner.
- Team Pet: The pet mouse Josephine.
- They Called Me Mad!: Professor Mannfeldt is laughed out of the room by his fellow scientists when he gives a lecture on sending expeditions to the Moon to exploit its resources. To be fair, we still haven't done the latter.
- Wire Fu: Plainly obvious in the scene where little Gustav floats up through a hatch.
- Yellow Peril: One of Five Brains.