Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Out of this world: 'Woman in the Moon' at
Harvard Film Archive, 35mm, Sunday, Aug. 17

Exploring the lunar surface in 'Woman in the Moon' (1929).

I know it sounds like a lame joke to say that a silent film might just leave you at a loss for words.

But that's how I feel about 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), the final silent film from German director Fritz Lang.

I think it's an astonishing sci-fi rocket ride. And I'm thrilled to be doing live music for a rare screening of it, in 35mm no less, on Sunday, Aug. 17 at the Harvard Film Archive.

There's a press release below with detailed info about the film and the screening. I encourage all to join: sci-fi geeks, silent cinema buffs, Lang groupies. There should even be room for a few mainstream folks.

But for now, here's 10 reasons you should see 'Woman on the Moon' as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

1. Hitler didn't want you to see this film. Really! It depicted advanced German rocket technology in such detail, Hitler had the film suppressed when he came to power, as he had ideas other than space travel about how rocket technology might be used. (Like attacking London.)

2. It's structured and paced like an espionage thriller, so you won't be bored.

3. In the big launch sequence, Lang and his screenwriter/collaborator Thea von Harbou invented the idea of a backwards countdown, which later came into common use for actual space launches.

4. What it got right. In reaching the moon, it's astonishing how Lang and his collaborators anticipated so much of what later actually came to pass with Apollo: a tall spacecraft assembly building, multi-stage rockets, lunar landing capsules.

5. What it got wrong. Howlers include a strange notion of zero gravity, moon voyagers dressed like alpine mountaineers, and a conveniently breathable moon atmosphere.

6. Oh, and the moon is full of GOLD! Didn't you know?

7. Director Lang hated Hitler, so it's probably not a coincidence that the villain (a quick-change artist played by Fritz Rasp) bears more than a passing resemblance to Der Führer.

8. 'Woman in the Moon' has been totally overshadowed by its iconic predecessor 'Metropolis' (1927), also directed by Lang. Don't you feel the least bit sorry about that? Here's your chance to right that wrong.

9. The hairstyles of female lead Gerda Maurus.

10. This film will just generally blow your mind for its sheer audacity.

So we're counting down until blast-off time, which is Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Hope to see you at the launch pad—er, the Harvard Film Archive.

* * *

Now arriving: mankind on the lunar surface.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent sci-fi space adventure film
to highlight Fritz Lang retrospective

'Woman in the Moon,' pioneer drama about first moon voyage, to be screened with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at Harvard Film Archive

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be shown this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive.

'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Admission is $9 per person/$7 students & seniors.

The screening is part of a retrospective of Lang's work and career that continues through September at the Harvard Film Archive.

The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of space pioneers as they attempt mankind's first voyage to the lunar surface, where they hope to find large deposits of gold.

The film, made with German rocket experts as technical advisers, is noted for anticipating many of the techniques used by NASA for the Apollo moon launch program 40 years later. For example, a multi-stage rocket is employed to escape Earth's gravity, and a separate capsule is used to reach the lunar surface.

The film is also noted for introducing the idea of a dramatic "countdown" prior to launch, which later became standard procedure in actual space flight. Critics regard the film's extended launch sequence as a masterpiece of editing and dramatic tension.

But 'Woman in the Moon,' with its melodramatic plot and colorful characters, also stands as the forerunner of many sci-fi story elements that quickly became clichés: the brilliant but misunderstood professor; a love triangle involving a beautiful female scientist and her two male crewmates; a plucky young boy who yearns to join the expedition; fistfights and gunfire and treachery on the lunar surface.

Added to the mix is a vision of the moon (created entirely on a massive studio set in Berlin, Germany) that features a breathable atmosphere, giant sand dunes, distant mountain peaks, and bubbling mud pits.

"This is a great and at-times bizarre film, one that must be seen to be believed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening. "It's as entertaining as any spy-thriller. And as a past vision of a future that didn't quite come to be, it really gets you thinking of time and how we perceive it."

Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., will improvise live musical accompaniment during the screening, using both an acoustic piano and a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

The cast admires a close-up view of the moon prior to landing.

'Woman in the Moon,' a full-length feature than runs more than 2½ hours, should not be confused with the much earlier film 'A Trip to Moon,' a primitive "trick" short movie made by French filmmaker George Méliès in 1902 and famous for the image of a space capsule hitting the eye of an imaginary moon man.

"Unlike the Méliès film, there's nothing primitive about 'Woman in the Moon,' " Rapsis said. "It's silent film story-telling at the peak of its eloquence, with lively performances, imaginative camera angles, and superb photography."

Director Fritz Lang, who was responsible for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), planned 'Woman in the Moon' as another step in his quest to stretch cinema's visual, story-telling, and imaginative capabilities.

Bad timing is one reason that 'Woman in the Moon' (titled 'Frau im Mond' in German) is not as well known today as 'Metropolis,' its legendary predecessor. Lang completed 'Woman in the Moon' just as the silent film era was coming to a close.

As one of the last silent films of German cinema, 'Woman in the Moon' was unable to compete with new talking pictures then in theaters, making it a box office flop at its premiere in October, 1929.

However, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an adviser on the movie, and it developed cult status among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun's circle. During World War II, the first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the German rocket facility in Peenemünde had the "Woman in the Moon" logo painted on its base.

Ship Commander Willy Fritsch prepares to pull the launch lever.

During the war, the Nazis tried to recall and destroy all prints of 'Woman in the Moon' due to its detailed depiction of state-of-the-art rocket propulsion technology; in later years, this served to make the film even more hard to find. For many years, the film was available only in cut-down 16mm versions that ran as short as one hour.

But pristine and complete 35mm copies of 'Woman in the Moon' did survive in several European archives. Today, restored prints are amazingly clear and sharp, Rapsis said.

" 'Woman in the Moon' is technically one of the best-looking silent films I've ever seen," he said. "If you think all silent films are grainy and scratchy-looking, 'Woman in the Moon' will change your mind. It's like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life."

‘Woman in the Moon’ will be shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive, located in Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets are $9 per person/$7 students & seniors. For more information on the screening, visit http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/ or call 617-495-4700. For more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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