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VON HARBOU, THEA
(1888–1954). German writer.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Wrote: Kriemhild's Revenge (Fritz LANG 1924).

Wrote with Lang: Destiny (Lang 1921); Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (novel by Norbert Jacques) (Lang 1921); Siegfried (Lang 1924); Metropolis (novel by von Harbou) (Lang 1927); Spies (Lang 1928); Woman in the Moon (with technical material by Hermann Oberth) (Lang 1929); The Testament of Dr. Mabuse  (Lang 1933).

Film based on her work: The Terror of Dr. Mabuse (Werner Klingler 1962).

 
Born to a family of wealthy nobles, Thea von Harbou broke away from a pampered life of leisure in an unliberated age to launch her own independent career as a writer and actress, while also leading a campaign to legalize abortion and promote woman's rights. She soon garnered a reputation as one of her country's outstanding screenwriters and crafted what are unquestionably the two most memorable science fiction films of the silent era. Based on this description, one would imagine that, today, von Harbou would be widely celebrated as a pioneering feminist and major figure in film history; instead, she is routinely ignored and belittled.

The reasons for this neglect, of course, are not difficult to discern; for after she forged a romantic and creative partnership with renowned director Fritz LANG, their divergent political views (and their extramarital affairs) lead to a divorce in the early 1930s, and while Lang fled from Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany to work as an expatriate director in Hollywood, von Harbou stayed behind to become an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism, contributing her talents to several propagandistic films that now are understandably regarded as unwatchable.  It is little wonder, then, that film historians prefer to regard her landmark silent films as mostly the work of Lang, whose genius purportedly enabled him to forge artistic triumphs out of his wife's flawed, clumsy scripts. (Protip: if you want to earn a lasting reputation as an important screenwriter, do not divorce a man regarded as a major director in order to write paeans to the world's most notorious dictatorship.)

However, despite her unfortunate political proclivities, there remains the inconvenient truth that, after divorcing his fascist wife and emigrating to America, Lang never again made any films as memorable as Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. And while I despise Hitler and his sympathizers as much as the next man, I am driven to the conclusion that the brilliance of those films must be attributed more to their author than to their director. Yes, von Harbou's stories could lapse into illogic, bathos, and clichés, but they did not burden Lang—they inspired him to do his very best work. For despite her other deficiencies, von Harbou excelled in the one aspect of literary craftsmanship that critics tend to ignore because it is utterly beyond their ability to comprehend: the power of myth-making.

At first, von Harbou applied her skills to traditional myths—in Destiny, an anthology film featuring the traditional figure of Death, and Siegfried, an adaptation of the Norse myth that features an amazing dragon—although Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler merits attention as the film that first brought to prominence the iconic figure of the dominating, technology-obsessed supervillain. But the freedom that came from looking into the future engendered von Harbou's greatest achievements. First was Metropolis, which stunned audiences with its meticulous construction of a new sort of human society wherein wealthy overlords lived in soaring skyscrapers while downtrodden workers labored in vast underground chambers dominated by machinery, a realm that nonetheless seems more fascinating than oppressive. Most provocatively, the film declines to follow the pattern of dystopia, avoiding the predictable conclusion of having its desperate citizens smash their enclosed civilization to smithereens and escape to live above ground in a bucolic, natural setting. Instead, while von Harbou's Metropolis is threatened with destruction, and is in need of reforms, the film's resolution is to have future humanity accept its transformed circumstances and work within them achieve some sort of resolution that will preserve the city's futuristic structures while relieving the miseries of its proletarians. H. G. WELLS may have famously derided the film for various absurdities, but it both borrowed from Wells's own The Time Machine (1895) and heavily influenced Wells's later, and brighter, vision of subterranean life in Things to Come (1936). And almost a century after its release, the film remains one of the rare science fiction films—Arthur C. CLARKE and Stanley KUBRICK's 2001: A Space Odyssey is another—that stubbornly refuses to reject novelty and reaffirm comforting traditions, rather forcing its characters, and its audience, to accept the fact that the human condition is destined to change, significantly and irrevocably, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Further praise of Metropolis is unnecessary, since celebrations of the film are ubiquitous, and it has remained one of the few silent films which are regularly revived and reedited to astound a new generation of viewers; but the usually-overlooked Woman in the Moon is a masterpiece as well. In the first place, this film essentially created the significant subgenre of the realistic space film, or spacesuit film, by endeavoring to show precisely how science and technology might enable humans to travel to another world. To this day, its scenes of the spaceship being launched to the Moon, supervised by rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, seem more prescient than any other space films made before the beginning of actual space flights. Yet this breakthrough film also went much further than most of its successors in having its hero and heroine both travel to the Moon and become the first residents of an alien planet. Indeed, the supposedly tedious melodrama of the film's lengthy prologue, which establishes the sympathetic or unsympathetic personalities of the future crew of the lunar mission, can be said to convey the point that there are two types of human beings—those with the strength, intelligence, and character to conquer space, and those who lack those qualities—and their subsequent flight to the Moon and sojourn on the lunar surface will function to separate those groups, as the people who cannot handle the rigors of space—the evil Turner, frail Manfredt, young Gustav, and cowardly Windegger—die or flee back to Earth, while the virtuous Helius and Friede boldly choose to remain on the Moon, fully prepared to endure the challenges of life on another world. In a different way, this film recalls 2001 as well, as both stories focus on astronauts who travel into space and never come back.

Unfortunately, the early constraints of talking films forced the team of Lang and von Harbou back to the present, and to lesser works, though there was one more noteworthy achievement, M (1931), which almost qualifies as a horror film due to the striking performance of Peter LORRE as a pursued child molester, along with a second Dr. Mabuse film. But by this time, the couple had separated, and they would officially divorce in 1933, as Lang moved to America and von Harbou succumbed to the allure of Nazism. She kept working hard on a series of realistic dramas and comedies that are rarely noted, even though a number of them lacked the heavy-handed propaganda said to characterize her films of this era, and she even managed to survive the fall of Hitler and continue writing films after the war. But any hopes for her critical rehabilitation must rest not on these later films but on the recent rediscovery and distribution of nearly-complete versions of Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, which may force scholars to reluctantly acknowledge that the person who crafted their stories actually had something to do with their remarkable success.

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