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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.
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?Published in