First Man into Space (1959)

Hi all, Nate here once more, where else would I be? Today I'll be reviewing an old Nazi German propaganda film from 1959, one that both tells and embellishes the true story of the first man into space, adding some superfluous love stories and a sensationalist monster threat to bring in the drive-in theater audiences. All in all a pretty good b-movie, made better by the rarity of both Nazi sci-fi movies in general and alternate history sci-fi in particular, this is indeed an odd combo. It has been said that the censors in Berlin's Ministry of Culture were not pleased with what some considered a smearing of a national hero, but the head of the studio convinced them that the movie's sci-fi elements made it more of a “flight of fantasy” than a “historical retelling”. They apparently won, because I'm watching it.

The titular “first man in space” was Kapitanleutnant Werner Theisenberg entering the upper layers of the atmosphere on March 19, 1940 when he disobeyed orders and shot off into space on a training flight in a rocketplane. While reprimanded officially, Werner became one of Germany's initial cadre of Astronauts, and, in fact, it was he who first took a step on the surface of the Moon on August 23, 1942. Truly one of Germany's national icons, as well as for all of humanity, Werner was a legendary figure that has inspired countless books and movies and erotic fan-fiction over the years. In our film his name has been changed to “Dan”.

Dan on his flight.

Actual photo of Theisenberg on the Moon.

The first third of our movie is character build-up and it's nicely done, if a bit tedious. We meet Dan and his older brother “Chuck”, both of whom work together in the rocketplane project. While competing and squabbling as much as any pair of brothers do, they have a great amount of respect for each other and are friendly and polite without being overly schmaltzy. In real life, Werner Theisenberg's older brother Anton was a technical adviser to the Luftwaffe's Space Program during the early war years, and was, in fact, in the control room at Peenemunde on the day in 1940 when his brother became the first man into space. More on that later.


The brothers chat.

We also meet Dan's girlfriend “Tia”, a young girl with curly hair and the skinny arms of a fashion model. She is supportive and caring, as well as accepting of Dan's pigheadedness and ego, plus she looks super cute in pearls and heels. In real life, Werner's girlfriend Zelma was what you might generously call “big boned and full of personality”, but the actress here is a whispy twig with little stage presence. Not that the terrible wooden block of an actor playing Dan looks anything like Werner either, with little similarity in the face and build.

Real pretty.

She also works for the rocketplane project.

The day of the flight is upon us now, Dan climbs aboard his rocketplane with Chuck's help and it's carried up into the air under the wing of a specially-modified bomber. They used a few seconds of library footage of the real first flight into space mixed with models backprojected onto starfields for the effects, which are typical of the movie's era. One my constant gripes in these old b-movies is the upturned plume of flame shooting out the back of spacerockets, but here they keep the flame arrow-straight as it should be. The model is also pretty good, if obviously a model, and they blend the stock footage into the live shots as well as expected.

Stock footage of the actual launch.


So Dan is just supposed to do some high-altitude tests but since he's a hotshot proto-Maverick pilot he decides on his own to boost it up into space. There's little the groundcrew can do but watch and cross their fingers, while the classic labcoat/glasses ScientistGuy intones fearfully that Dan might be lost forever in the blackness of space.

ScientistGuy and Chuck keep careful watch.

Radar was primitive back then.

The rocketplane makes it into the zone considered to be “in outer space” before radar notes it falling back to Earth out of control. It's way off course and so the escape capsule parachute lands in Bavaria, hundreds of miles to the south of where it was launched. The area is rugged and provincial, so Chuck and ScientistGuy have to travel down there to locate and investigate the crash site. It's about here where the movie veers into fantasy, or more correctly, alternate history. In real life Werner Theisenberg was found safe and sound in his capsule, dangling from trees in a wooded area near a Ruhr Valley town. In our movie, to heighten the dramatic tension and suspense, the rocketplane wreck is found eventually, but not the pilot.


Lots of old imported cars in this movie.

Worst yet, a mysterious “monster” has been reported in the area, just after the crash. This beast, while seemingly unrelated to our lost pilot, has been murdering people and sucking their blood out (dum dum dum!). This has the locals in a tizzy, and after some sleuthing and blind guessing, Chuck and ScientistGuy figure out that the monster is actually Dan! It seems that when he passed into space, he was coated in some sort of hard rocky coating due to to some spooky, poorly-explained scientific process, and came back to Earth as a monster. Sure.

Figuring out the science.

One of several clear shots of Monster-Dan.

Needing pure oxygen to survive (because science), Monster-Dan must feed on oxygen-rich human blood, so he's been killing at random to stay alive. Not only is the beast murdering hapless humans, but innocent livestock are at risk, and he's even busting into blood banks at local hospitals to feed off blood bags. It's a unique twist on the hackneyed vampire blood-lust trope, I have to say, at least he isn't favoring pretty young girls over other victims or carrying anyone off to his lair. The poor quality of the rocky monster suit is the plot hook's undoing, especially since it gets a number of surprising daylight appearances. While I usually bag on b-movies for keeping their monster in the shadows, in this case it would have helped.

Chuck and ScientistGuy discuss it all.

Telling Tia the bad news.

Of course not everyone in the sticks is convinced it's a spacemonster on the loose and city slicker Chuck has some conflicts with the local officials. The movie drags a bit in this middle act, it sure seems like they had a great idea but couldn't figure out how to keep the dramatic pacing up. It actually drifts into a detective story for a while, which tonally doesn't fit well with the rest of the plot. There are other head-scratcher moments that don't seem to fit well, such as why Monster-Dan, despite being a blood-crazed killer, apparently still remembers how to drive a car and work a lockpick. One wonders if these elements were from an earlier script version that was more noirish than sci-fi.

Locals are locals everywhere you go.

So much talking, needs more action!

Once he figures out what's what, Chuck lures Dan into an enclosed oxygen chamber at a nearby science lab, which Monster-Dan seems to somehow understand is best for him. The pure oxygen helps Dan to recover enough to speak a few tortured lines, lamenting his hubris mostly, but he soon keels over and dies. Tia watches all this in horror, but she's also relieved that his suffering is over. And with that the credits roll. Take-away lesson? Always follow the SOP charts when doing dangerous things with government property.

No going back from this.

She's had better days.

While the movie ends here, I thought I'd follow up on some of the real life people that these characters were based on. All of this you can find with a few Google searches, I know, but it's interesting nonetheless. Promoted to Kapitan in 1944, Werner Theisenberg (aka “Dan”) died in January of 1947 due to nitrogen poisoning while on a routine resupply mission to the Moon Base. His capsule arrived on schedule, landing by automatic radio controls, but he and his crew were found to be dead once the hatch was opened, victims of a pressure hull leak during the flight from Antarctica. His death brought forth one of the few public addresses by Adolf Hitler, who read a short eulogy and thanked Werner for his bravery and tenacity in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.

Werner Theisenberg.

Anton Theisenberg (aka “Chuck”) did not outlive his more famous younger brother, as he was killed in the crash of an Fw-190 on a training flight during the last weeks of the war. Passed up for the Astronaut Corps due to a heart condition, he stayed on active duty until the end, flying combat missions with the Luftwaffe's JG-27 in the defense of the Fatherland.

Anton Theisenberg.

Werner's girlfriend Zelma Gott (aka “Tia”) lived a long and healthy life after her boyfriend's death (they never married). Moving to the Baltic coast after the war, she had four children with another man and remained active in the Nazi Party for the rest of her life. She died in 1988 and while she spoke only infrequently of her former beau's exploits in space and on the Moon, her wartime diaries, published by her daughter in the 1990s, provided researchers a rare glimpse into the early days of the Lunar Program. Her daughter, by the way, ended up as a fairly well-known actress, Pam and I reviewed some of her television work in Ficken auf dem Mond.

Zelma Gott.

“ScientistGuy” is probably an amalgamation of several real life scientists working on the rocketplane project at the time, but some other websites claim his look and demeanor in the movie is very close to Doctor Johan Buk, who was lead designer of the rocketplane's propulsion system. Doctor Buk disappeared after the war, perhaps to Argentina or South Africa, maybe even to the Moon Base. It's also suggested that he might have been Paperclipped to America, but no evidence of this has ever been found. Though he does kinda look like my old dentist from Phoenix...

Johan Buk (or maybe “Bob Johnson, DDS”?).

The End.

Written in October 2016 by Nathan Decker.

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