Not My Department

 

The general and specific erudition of the Ricochet community makes me hesitant to post this, since you never know if you’re wading into an argument that was settled long ago by those who know the subject.  So forgive me. 

One of the greatest movies of the early 20th century is Metropolis, a German silent sci-fi film by the brilliant Fritz Lang. A few years ago I found a copy of Spies, the movie he made between Metropolis and M, and was knocked out – with its gadgets, it could be a Bond film.  After Mabuse’s chilly reception by the Nazis, he moved to America in 1933, and something was ever after lacking in his work.

Okay. Hold that thought. 

I listened to an audiobook of V2, a recent and lesser novel by one of my favorite authors, Robert Harris. It pings back and forth between the later days of the V2 program and the British attempt to foil it. One of the characters: Werner Von Braun. He’s depicted as bold, charismatic, and shall we say a tad evasive about the human costs of his scientific endeavors. His passion is rocketry. Science! If it means putting on this silly black uniform to get things done, then fine, fine, but the important thing is building the craft that will get man into space. Harris keeps the character remote and intriguing, unknowable, driven.

A flashback describes the German rocket experimental / testing facility at Peenemünde, and the author has Von Braun telling his protege, the fictional German rocket engineer who anchors the Nazi portions of the book, that it will be just like the rocket city in the movie they loved.

Woman in the Moon. 

Wikipedia:

It is often considered to be one of the first “serious” science fiction films. It was written and directed by Fritz Lang, based on the 1928 novel The Rocket to the Moon by his collaborator Thea von Harbou, his wife at the time. It was released in the US as By Rocket to the Moon and in the UK as Woman in the Moon. The basics of rocket travel were presented to a mass audience for the first time by this film, including the use of a multi-stage rocket.

Rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an advisor on this movie. He had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film, but time and technology prevented this from happening. The film was popular among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun‘s circle. The first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the rocket-development facility in Peenemünde had the Frau im Mond logo painted on its base.

It was a cultural reference point among the engineers: they were young men, proto-nerds, and they’d all seen Woman in the Moon in high school or their early 20s. It had changed them or recharged them, showed them what was possible. 

I’d never heard of the movie. It’s on YouTube. 

The rocket base:

 

The spacecraft leaving the Vehicular Assembly Building on rail tracks:

 

 

It’s all there.

I mention this for two reasons. One: we tend to fix the start of sci-fi movies in the post-war era, but this is a reminder there was a geek culture in the 20s, and the men who worked on rockets in the 40s had their own Star Wars and Star Trek. Mostly pulp magazines with cheap illustrations, of course – so imagine how a movie by Fritz frickin’ Lang made an impression. 

Two: the plot of the movie requires the scientist to go along with gangsters who want to exploit the moon shot for personal profit; he agrees, because Science! You have to wonder whether Von Braun thought of this while making his own deals. Probably not a lot. But you suspect it was there, no? 

If so, you wonder about the scene in the v2 book where Von Braun tours the Mittlewerk facility where the V2 was fabricated. Harris describes the deplorable state of the slave workers, beaten men shuffling through underground tunnels in their grey uniforms. I thought instantly of this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s from Metropolis, of course. He had to know. He had to know, for a moment, that he was occupying two competing visions simultaneously, that the movie he revered was made by a man who condemned the world he was making.  

In the end, he made a different world possible. 

How much do the whys and hows matter?

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  1. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    James Lileks: How much do the whys and hows matter?

    “I didn’t know it was loaded.”

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium began a slide and lecture in 1939 called “A Trip to the Moon”, with illustrations of the Earth as if from space, an imagined lunar landscape of frozen deserts and steep mountains, and a crew of half a dozen men making a two week visit. One of the fascinated viewers was immigrant filmmaker George Pal, who brought his main skill to America: puppet films and other stop-action. What today we’d call Claymation, more or less. In Europe, animation was known as “trickfilm”, and Pal’s work in animation studios gave him his start as a feature film producer with Destination: Moon. This would be much more widely seen in the USA in 1950 than Woman in the Moon had been, a generation earlier, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that George Pal had, at the very least, a good memory for Europe’s leading science fiction films. 

    Destination: Moon was full of ideas. That’s the first shot of a working computer you’ll see in a Hollywood movie, although it’s actually a World War II-era version of a Babbage engine, made to calculate ballistics tables. Pal said in a number of interviews that it was the Hayden Planetarium shows that originally put the idea in his head, and led him to collaborate with the great Robert A. Heinlein, whose story “Rocketship Galileo” was said to be the starting point of the screenplay. In gratitude, Pal donated a film print of Destination: Moon to the planetarium. 

    The planetarium then held a series of well publicized programs about the emerging possibility of a manned space program. This might have remained as an academic exercise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but Collier’s Magazine began a hit series about America’s future in space.

    Public interest and support were multiplied further when Walt Disney Presents devoted a program to animated speculation about classic von Braun-Willy Ley designs for space stations and rockets. 

    There’s always been a mutually supportive relationship between outer space and the movies. 

    • #3
  4. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    It’s good to bring up pre-war(s) SF film and there was a lot of it beginning with Melies adaptations of Verne. Von Braun ist ein schwieriger Fall. He has to have known his work was being used to destroy London and he has to have known where the slave labor was coming from. He repressed this knowledge to preserve his own sanity, I suspect, as much as the work. Should he have? No. I don’t think so. 

    A personal note: I’ve been to Mittelbau Dora. According to the official history, the laborers in the camp were remarkably successful in sabotaging V2 components. Good for them. 

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A team of American industrialists pay to build the first spaceship, whose atomic propulsion seemed reasonable to audiences in 1950. Note that what it doesn’t have, possibly because it doesn’t have the limitations of chemical propulsion, is staging, which as has been pointed out, they’d even foreseen in Woman in the Moon in 1929.

    In fact, Rocketship X-M, a black and white 1950 cheapie rushed out to take advantage of its Technicolor hit rival, had staging. But that’s about all it had. Other than that one detail, its space ship was late Thirties state of the art

    • #5
  6. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A team of American industrialists pay to build the first spaceship, whose atomic propulsion seemed reasonable to audiences in 1950. Note that what it doesn’t have, possibly because it doesn’t have the limitations of chemical propulsion, is staging, which as has been pointed out, they’d even foreseen in Woman in the Moon in 1929.

    In fact, Rocketship X-M, a black and white 1950 cheapie rushed out to take advantage of its Technicolor hit rival, had staging. But that’s about all it had. Other than that one detail, its space ship was late Thirties state of the art

    The cheapies are where you find the really fun stuff, though.  They were always ready to go farther, be more outrageous.  Which could also translate into weirder, wackier ideas that were sometimes really good.

    • #6
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One of the more imaginative of the (relative) cheapies was Ray Harryhausen’s First Men in the Moon (1964), with a clever what-if gimmick: the first manned landing on the Moon, depicted as an international effort, discovers that earthlings have been there before, at the end of the 19th century. Harryhausen had learned from George Pal’s film of The Time Machine (1960) that a Victorian retro-future look could, paradoxically, really “sell” a science fiction story. There’s no real pretense of telling anything other than a tall tale. But the filmmakers manage to find 1899 equivalents of many of the things they’d need for space travel, using diving gear as space suits and an armored ball as a spaceship. 

    One thing that runs suspension-of-disbelief aground is one same minor detail that Woman in the Moon got wrong: the lack of gloves over bare hands. 

    • #7
  8. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Destination Moon is available to those who are interested at archive.org.

    Destination Moon (1950) full movie : George Pal Productions : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

     

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Regarding Fritz Lang: Marlene Dietrich once addressed a letter to him, simply as “SADISM Incorporated, Paramount Pictures, Hollywood”. 

    It reached him without a moment’s delay. 

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Note that what it doesn’t have, possibly because it doesn’t have the limitations of chemical propulsion, is staging,

    Or fins, near as I can tell.

    • #10
  11. KevinKrisher Coolidge
    KevinKrisher
    @KevinKrisher

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson, who plays a post-apocalyptic warlord a la Mad Max.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    • #11
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    Eventually, their Germans were our Germans.

    • #12
  13. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Percival (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    Eventually, their Germans were our Germans.

    That’s a line from The Right Stuff.  The Germans in question were our Germans and the Soviet’s Germans.

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    Eventually, their Germans were our Germans.

    That’s a line from The Right Stuff. The Germans in question were our Germans and the Soviet’s Germans.

    It was also used by a TV sports guy in Chicago reporting on the game results of Chicago’s professional soccer team: “Hey, our Germans can beat your Germans any day of the week!”

    • #14
  15. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    “Once the rockets go up

    Who cares where they come down.

    That’s not my department

    Says Werner Von Braun”.

    • #15
  16. Caltory Thatcher
    Caltory
    @Caltory

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

    “Once the rockets go up

    Who cares where they come down.

    That’s not my department

    Say Werner Von Braun”.

    “… Und I’m lehrning Chinese,”
    Says Werner von Braun.

    • #16
  17. KevinKrisher Coolidge
    KevinKrisher
    @KevinKrisher

    Among its other firsts, the rocket launch in Woman in the Moon had the first countdown.

    • #17
  18. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    There’s only one true movie about Nazis, rockets, and the Moon.  I give you Iron Sky.  Here’s a link to get you to the trailer:

    https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3653215513?playlistId=tt1034314&ref_=tt_pr_ov_vi

    Although the movie appears to be a thiller in the trailer, it’s more of a comedy.  I love President Sarah Palin!  Hopefully the sequel is equally as funny:

    https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2720119833?playlistId=tt3038708&ref_=tt_pr_ov_vi

    • #18
  19. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    I should watch that. The book is basically an extended fake history text depicting a glorious fascist future. A few years back Big Finish did an audio adaptation that I reviewed here (https://ricochet.com/members/drewinwisconsin/activity/1637861/). And . . . yikes. Two hours of Marxist propaganda. If it’s intended to be a tragedy, then I hope listeners were properly horrified.

    How does the film turn that plotless book into an actual narrative?

    • #19
  20. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown

    “Eh, Nazi-schmazi” says Werner Von Braun

    • #20
  21. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    High intelligence does not equal high ethics or morality.  

    • #21
  22. MisterSirius Member
    MisterSirius
    @MisterSirius

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    I should watch that. The book is basically an extended fake history text depicting a glorious fascist future. A few years back Big Finish did an audio adaptation that I reviewed here (https://ricochet.com/members/drewinwisconsin/activity/1637861/). And . . . yikes. Two hours of Marxist propaganda. If it’s intended to be a tragedy, then I hope listeners were properly horrified.

    How does the film turn that plotless book into an actual narrative?

    I believe you accurately anticipate the film Things to Come (1936). IMHO it is shockingly “post-democracy” in orientation. The movie has three parts: The coming of war to the UK in 1940; the post-apocalyptic world of 1970; the technological utopia of 2035. The middle part is by far the strongest (add “first zombie film” to the list of achievements); the third part is the weakest.

    • #22
  23. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Rodin (View Comment):

    High intelligence does not equal high ethics or morality.

    There’s that old expression, “Too smart for his own good.”

    • #23
  24. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    MisterSirius (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    I should watch that. The book is basically an extended fake history text depicting a glorious fascist future. A few years back Big Finish did an audio adaptation that I reviewed here (https://ricochet.com/members/drewinwisconsin/activity/1637861/). And . . . yikes. Two hours of Marxist propaganda. If it’s intended to be a tragedy, then I hope listeners were properly horrified.

    How does the film turn that plotless book into an actual narrative?

    I believe you accurately anticipate the film Things to Come (1936). IMHO it is shockingly “post-democracy” in orientation. The movie has three parts: The coming of war to the UK in 1940; the post-apocalyptic world of 1970; the technological utopia of 2035. The middle part is by far the strongest (add “first zombie film” to the list of achievements); the third part is the weakest.

    I think the most shocking thing to me was the happy face applied to the idea of exterminating all the Catholics.

    • #24
  25. MisterSirius Member
    MisterSirius
    @MisterSirius

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    MisterSirius (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    I should watch that. The book is basically an extended fake history text depicting a glorious fascist future. A few years back Big Finish did an audio adaptation that I reviewed here (https://ricochet.com/members/drewinwisconsin/activity/1637861/). And . . . yikes. Two hours of Marxist propaganda. If it’s intended to be a tragedy, then I hope listeners were properly horrified.

    How does the film turn that plotless book into an actual narrative?

    I believe you accurately anticipate the film Things to Come (1936). IMHO it is shockingly “post-democracy” in orientation. The movie has three parts: The coming of war to the UK in 1940; the post-apocalyptic world of 1970; the technological utopia of 2035. The middle part is by far the strongest (add “first zombie film” to the list of achievements); the third part is the weakest.

    I think the most shocking thing to me was the happy face applied to the idea of exterminating all the Catholics.

    FWIW, that bit did not make it into the film.

    • #25
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Stad (View Comment):

    Rodin (View Comment):

    High intelligence does not equal high ethics or morality.

    There’s that old expression, “Too smart for his own good.”

    “Some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them”.

    • #26
  27. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

     

     

    • #27
  28. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

     

     

    Wow the Chinese line is remarkably prescient. 

    • #28
  29. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    My favorite pre-war sci-fi film is Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It combines the stunning visuals of the Korda brothers with terrific acting by, among others, Sir Ralph Richardson.

    It is also the first WWII movie. It was released two years before war broke out, at a time that many people knew it was coming. It predicts a war that extends from 1940 until 1954, and that reduces civilization to a pre-industrial state with a few remnants of modern technology.

    Uhhh . . . hmm. Seen it lately? ;) I remember seeing it when I was 15, and it made a deep impression as well, thanks to the visuals. I revisited it a few years ago, and it’s appalling piece of techno-fascism. 

    • #29
  30. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Reagan
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential
    @GLDIII

    Stad (View Comment):

    There’s only one true movie about Nazis, rockets, and the Moon. I give you Iron Sky. Here’s a link to get you to the trailer:

    https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3653215513?playlistId=tt1034314&ref_=tt_pr_ov_vi

    Although the movie appears to be a thiller in the trailer, it’s more of a comedy. I love President Sarah Palin! Hopefully the sequel is equally as funny:

    https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2720119833?playlistId=tt3038708&ref_=tt_pr_ov_vi

    Dinosaurs, Nazis, and a president Palin and it is not a comedy?

    • #30