A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929)

Classic space-travel science fiction, Woman in the Moon was hugely influential on movies up until the time when human beings actually began to travel into space. You can find its traces in everything from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials to Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950) and Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956), and even into the space age in TV series like Lost in Space (1965-68) and the first Star Trek series (1965-69). None of this should be surprising: Willy Ley, a German rocket scientist who was a technical adviser on Fritz Lang's film, came to the United States in 1935 and became an ardent popularizer of space travel and consultant to many science fiction writers and film directors. Actual space travel made some of Woman in the Moon obsolete: the notion that the moon has a breathable atmosphere and a temperate climate, for example. But Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, also consulted with another rocket scientist, Hermann Oberth, while writing the screenplay, and got a few things exactly and presciently right, like multistage rocketry, the need for zero-gravity restraints, and the firing of retro-rockets to slow the descent of the ship to the moon's surface. But perhaps their most influential contribution is the suspenseful (and often hokey) melodrama of the plot. They invented the familiar clichés: the discredited scientist whose theories turn out to be right; corporate villainy and greed at odds with the idealism of the scientists; the romantic triangle heightened by the isolation of the spaceship; the unexpected but useful stowaway; the need to sacrifice a member of the crew to return to safety. Fortunately, Lang never lets things bog down in the nascent clichés, and he has a capable cast to work with. Willy Fritsch is Wolf Helius, an idealistic rocketeer who has planned the space flight with the help of the discredited professor, Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl). Gustav von Wangenheim and Gerda Maurus are Helius's assistants, Hans Windegger and Friede Velten, who have just gotten engaged, to the dismay of Helius, who is in love with Friede. Fritz Rasp is the evil mastermind Walter Turner, who threatens to destroy the rocket unless Helius allows him to come along on the voyage to advance the interests of the greedy corporate types who want to get their hands on the gold deposits that Manfeldt has theorized are plentiful on the moon. (With his hair slicked back across one side of his forehead, Rasp has a surprising resemblance to Adolf Hitler in this movie.) And the stowaway is Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur), a boy obsessed with space travel who brings his collection of sci-fi pulp magazines along with him. Even today, Woman in the Moon is good, larky fun.

Der müde Tod (Fritz Lang, 1921)

Death (Bernhard Goetzke) and the Young Woman (Lil Dagover) in Der müde Tod
Der müde Tod, which means "Weary Death," was released in English-speaking countries under titles like Destiny, Behind the Wall, and The Three Lights, all of which miss an essential premise of the film, which is that Death (Bernhard Goetze) has grown weary of his encounters with human suffering. So when he takes a Young Man (Walter Janssen) whose fiancée (Lil Dagover) seeks out Death and pleads for his return. he is inclined to give her a break: He will give her three chances to save the life of someone destined to die, and if she succeeds, he will return the Young Man to life. So we see the Young Woman in three episodes set in wonderfully fanciful versions of the past: ancient Persia, Renaissance Italy, and imperial China. Each time she tries to save her lover from the death she knows is coming, but each time she fails. Dagover and Janssen play all three pairs of lovers, with Goetze lurking in various fatal incarnations in each episode. When she fails, Death gives her one last chance: Returning the Young Man to life would leave an empty place in the afterlife, but if she can persuade someone to give up his or her life to replace him, he will spare her fiancé. It's a beautifully constructed fantasy, written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and directed by Lang with his usual exploitation of elaborate sets and camera effects. The art direction is by Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm, frequent collaborators with the great German directors of the period between the wars, such as Lang and F.W. Murnau.