Sunday, 26 September 2010

Two Late Expressionist Utopias: Frau im Mond and Tabu

At the turn of 1930s, two of German expressionist cinema's leading lights left the dark shadows of the catacombs and the back alleys in search of other worlds. Both Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau had featured utopian imagery in their films before: think of the fairground scene in Sunrise, or most famously, Lang's city of the future in Metropolis. But both of these films feature distinctly urban utopias, whereas Tabu (1931) and Frau im Mond (1929) each take flight from the modernist city. The former looks back to the traveller's tales of exotic lands that inspired early utopias such as Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, while the latter looks forward to the 'hard' science-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke et al and the Apollo moon landings.

While the bare bones of Frau im Mond's plot, about a rocket trip to the moon and the happy couple that choose to stay there, may recall the late Victorian scientific romance of H.G. Wells, it is the little details that make it so prophetic – and the story behind the story that make it so historic. Advertised as “The first utopian film based on scientific fact,” Frau im Mond's rocket trip contain a number of features that put it closer to the Apollo landings of forty years later. Firstly, and most conspicuously, there is the countdown to lift-off, never before featured in fiction (let alone fact), and apparently invented by Lang on something of a whim for the purely dramatic reasons of building up tension (Alfred Hitchcock, who had only recently returned to England after a spell working at UFA studios in Berlin, may well have been taking notes).

Rather more profoundly – from a scientific point of view at least - Lang's film showed the world its first depiction of a liquid fuel rocket composed of two stages, jettisoning its first stage after take-off – just as the American space rockets of the sixties would. Such an extraordinary prophecy is made only slightly less incredible by certain details surrounding the film's production. The story, by Lang's wife and frequent collaborator, Thea von Harbou, was inspired by a small book written by Hermann Oberth, entitled 'By Rocket Into Planetary Space'. Originally intended to be Oberth's doctoral dissertation but rejected as too “utopian,” the book detailed the theories Oberth had been working on since a childhood exposure to Jules Verne. Oberth, along with his colleague, Willy Ley, from the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, a German amateur rocket enthusiasts club, would ultimately serve as technical advisors on Lang's film.

Also, in Oberth and Ley's circle at the time, was a young man named Werner von Braun. In the 1930s, as a member of the SS, von Braun would design the V-2 rocket, which bore the insignia of the woman in the moon at its base. The Nazis apparently considered, Lang's film so close to the scientific truth of their weapon that they had the film suppressed and all its models destroyed. Despite the destruction wrought by von Braun's invention on Western cities, and the use of concentration camp inmates as slave labour (resulting in more deaths in the rocket's construction than as a result of its firepower), within just a few years of the World War Two ending, von Braun's name would turn up in the American mainstream, advocating space travel in the pages of Collier's magazine, and even designing (with Willy Ley and Disney imagineer John Hench), the TWA Moonliner, a rocket bearing a distinct similarity to the V-2 that stood as the tallest structure in Disneyland's Tomorrowland.


Coming two years after the Jazz Singer, Frau im Mond was probably the last great silent science fiction film. In the year of its release, F.W. Murnau, dejected by the failure of his first talking picture, the now lost Four Devils, left his adopted Hollywood home for the South Pacific. Schooled in the romantic theatre of Max Reinhardt, it may have been the orientalist tendencies in so much nineteenth century music - from Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri to Bizet's les Pecheurs de Perles - that led Murnau to seek his own escapist exotica.

Murnau's Tabu is a film whose images teem with music. We see its characters singing, drumming, playing the guitar, and, frequently dancing. Despite Murnau's embeddedness in the film's habitat (he was by that time living on Bora Bora) and the realist intentions behind the choice of real locations and native actors, the dancing we see was in fact tightly choreographed by Murnau and his collaborator Walter Spies to fit into their conception of 'architectural cinema' (and the real locations and natural light certainly do not seemed to have stemmed Murnau's love for suggestive use of shadows). Likewise, the music composed to be performed in theatres alongside screenings of Tabu bares about as much relation to the authentic music of the South Seas as does The 101 Strings in a Hawaiian Paradise.

Composer Hugo Reisenfeld, whose first work on film was as a music arranger on film adaptations of the operas Carmen and Siegfried (for Raoul Walsh and Fritz Lang, respectively) initially proposed using themes by Bizet, Massenet, and Mendelssohn, and, although these were ultimately not to be used in the film it nonetheless gives you an indication of the way he was thinking. Though the music is often in sync to images of the islanders playing their own instruments, the soundtrack gives us, somewhat incongruously, a symphony orchestra throughout, frequently reprising themes from his earlier Murnau collaboration, Sunrise (along with a bit of Smetana's Má Vlast).

Tabu had begun life as a collaboration with the ethnographic film-maker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), who had intended to make a political documentary about white exploitation of the islands' natural resources. Apparently the hard-drinking, heavy smoker Flaherty soon fell out with the ascetic Murnau over the latter's preciousness concerning the waxed floors of his yacht. As the story of Murnau's film moved further away from political critique towards exotic fantasy, celebrating the idyllic lifestyle and 'primitive' rituals of the islanders, Flaherty was ultimately banned from the film unit, left to stalk the production like a jealous lover.

One week before Tabu's American premier, Murnau was killed in a car accident, while work on the music was still underway. On a documentary featured on the Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD, his grand-daughter recalls him as a great lover of music who knew many operas by heart ("from Beethoven to Bach"). Shortly before his death, he had signed a contract with Paramount to produce five new sound pictures, all of which were to be shot on the South Sea Islands. Alas, we will never know whether the resources of sound film might have led Murnau to find more sonic sympathy with the islands where he had chosen to live out his final years.