The film was released in 1929 but is not well known because it was suppressed by the Nazis (the scientifically correct depiction of lunar rocketry offended Der Fuhrer himself, apparently– it was a state secret, and so it was rolled back).
The film tells the story of Helius, an aviation industrialist who commits to a Lunar flight but is blackmailed into bringing a blackguard along. The first reel sets up the blackmail with such deftness, suspense, and humor that the theater was alive with the energy of the audience.
The bad guy in the film, Walter Turner (played by Fritz Rasp) is a totemic achievement of character design: he looked as though Edward Gorey had reached back in time and created his own real-life top-hatted, spat-wearing bounder. What a creation.
The first forty-five minutes are the most fluid, spirited filmmaking I’ve ever seen from Lang. Lang is a much admired director whose best work was in Germany prior to emigration to the US. He turned in M, featuring Peter Lorre as the hounded killer, and of course the great touchstone of silent cinema SF, Metropolis.
This film benefited from the matured film industry in Germany and joy of joys, the print we had, although with a few inserted scenes of slight roughness, was for the most part the sort of voluptuous silvery grey photography we associate with high Golden Age cinema, simply delightful to look at.
Sadly, the film itself ran too long and suffered from occasional pacing problems. An interesting aspect of the film was that the majority of the acting was acceptable by modern standards, but when those German film actors have to show extreme emotion – well, let’s just say it’s less effective in Seattle in 2003 than it was in Berlin in 1929.
Nonetheless, the film is lighthearted throughout, although deadly serious about attempting accuracy in its’ subject (except for positing an atmosphere on the Moon). Interestingly, show organist and film historian Dennis James claimed that Werner Von Braun had consulted on the film, and I’m inclined to lend credence to the claim (Googling led to some German-language sites that mention von Braun and the film at the same time).
There was even a film-within-a-film in which the basic principles of translunar rocketry were briefly, accurately explained. There were enormous, detailed engineering drawings. There was a cutaway, large scale model of the lunar rocket, which of course featured crash couches, at least three decks, and a central ladder core for deck access. The film clearly has some of Man Conquers Space‘s DNA.
One other I noticed, first with the dense, efficient, highly entertaining introductory section. Then, second, many details of the rocket and voyage very strongly resemble the work of Hergé in his Tintin books generally but also very strongly in the two-part Tintin story, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. For example, in the visualization of the moon’s surface as potentially having water or ice, but more strongly in the profound detail with which the rocket is presented. Also Hergé’s character of Professor Calculus appears to in some way be inspired by the nutty old professor that comes along for the ride in the Lang rocket – he even goes off dowsing on his own!
There were extensive documentation of Hergé’s sources and inspirations at the Tintin site but, dashitall, they’ve up and gone. Some one get Thomson and Thompson on the case!