It was an ordeal that helped shape the dominant view of one of the richest periods in cinema. In 1933 Siegfried Kracauer and his wife fled Germany, and in 1941, after harrowing efforts to escape France, they arrived in New York. That’s where the Museum of Modern Art’s first film curator, Iris Barry, found Kracauer a position at the museum. There, working from memory and films Barry had collected, he wrote “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film” (1947), an urgent text that built on work he had done as a critic in Berlin, examining the madmen, ghouls, evil masterminds and other dark visions in certain Weimar-era films as harbingers of Nazi brutality. Kracauer’s compelling thesis neglected more effervescent and popular fare, but recent scholarship and newly restored films are painting a more nuanced picture.
Beginning Wednesday, MoMA’s “Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares”—a four-month-long series including 75 feature films and six shorts, accompanied by an exhibition of posters, stills and studio presentation books—will unspool a wealth of little-seen material. It is being presented in cooperation with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek. Laurence Kardish, senior curator in MoMA’s film department, who organized the film portion with Eva Orbanz of the Deutsche Kinemathek, began thinking about it at least a decade ago. “There were about 3,000 films made during this period in Germany, many of which were deeply influential on American cinema,” he says, “and I realized that we only knew a small number of these films.” Although it includes a sampling of moodily expressive canonical works, such as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (“Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari,” 1920), F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens” (Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922) and Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931), the retrospective emphasizes Weimar cinema’s forgotten history.
“I thought that I would like to give a more comprehensive view of Weimar cinema than Kracauer’s,” Mr. Kardish says. “As good and as strong as his view is, it’s not comprehensive. But I had to wait.” Like the many film professionals who went into exile after the rise of Nazism, Weimar films themselves were scattered by the turmoil that swept Germany. After the Nazis came to power, they banned or censored movies, and at the end of World War II the Soviets plundered many German films for their own archives. Later, some were returned to East Germany, but Mr. Kardish says it wasn’t until reunification that they “represented an undivided nation.”
Some works have taken a more mysterious path. One highlight, “Into the Blue” (“Ins Blaue hinein,” 1931), an exuberant short with avant-garde camerawork thought to be the only film directed by the cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (who developed a groundbreaking special-effects process and shot films for Robert Siodmak, Marcel Carné and others), recently surfaced in France.
Others probably still await rediscovery, but the retrospective promises plenty of revelations. “Looking for His Murderer” (“Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht,” 1931), for example, is a Siodmak film featuring a script co-written by Billy (then Billie) Wilder, who penned screenplays in Germany but didn’t direct until he arrived in Hollywood. Although it’s screening in the only extant version, which has been shortened, Mr. Kardish describes it as “really quite a marvelous, crazy comedy that opens with an attempted suicide, and apparently in 1931 it didn’t have to be explained to a German audience why someone would be committing suicide.” Kurt Bernhardt’s “Three Loves” (“Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt,” 1929) stars a fresh-faced, coolly erotic Marlene Dietrich before her appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” (“Der blaue Engel,” 1930), long thought to be her first lead role.
‘Three Loves’ (‘Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt,’ 1929).
Some directors are virtually unknown today. Alexis Granowsky, the founder of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, made the poetic and experimental, but heavily censored, “The Song of Life” (“Das Lied vom Leben,” 1931) and the more conventional fable “The Trunks of Mr. O.F.” (“Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. Ein Märchen für Erwachsene,” 1931). Marie Harder, one of the rare female filmmakers of the period, directed “Lohnbuchhalter Kremke” (1930), a realistic story about economic hardship and unemployment.
Kracauer was especially contemptuous of the frothy comedies and musicals that ignored the looming disaster of fascism. These sometimes featured characters facing financial strain, as in “A Blonde Dream” (“Ein blonder Traum,” 1932), in which two window washers pursue a girl who fantasizes about becoming a Hollywood actress. In Ludwig Berger’s winsome “Early to Bed” (“Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht,” 1932), a young man and woman working different shifts share a bed in a rooming house, and eventually a romance that is cleverly contrasted with the unattainable dreams of the cinema.
Numerous comedies also incorporated cross-dressing as a lively theme. Mr. Kardish cites as personal favorites the work of two once-popular comedians: Reinhold Schünzel, who acted in, produced and co-wrote the screenplay for “Heaven on Earth” (“Der Himmel auf Erden,” 1927), about drag, nightclubs and Prohibition, and later directed “Viktor und Viktoria” (1933), which was remade in Hollywood; and Curt Bois, who appeared in “The Masked Mannequin” (“Der Fürst von Pappenheim,” 1927).
The series also traces the effects of a dramatic shift midway through this fertile period. Mr. Kardish says, “Sound came in and for a while circumscribed the visual expressiveness of film—only to a certain extent, because there are some early musicals that are absolutely astonishing in their fluidity—so this show is also an investigation of how sound came to cinema, and the strategies various filmmakers used.” Because the films have been restored in their original German-language versions, the museum will be presenting them with simultaneous translation or electronic subtitles.
Yet another fascinating aspect of Weimar cinema the series sheds light on is the close relationship between the U.S. and German film industries during the period. A surprising number opened stateside and were even reviewed in American newspapers. German talent, of course, also worked in Hollywood before and after 1933. MoMA played a significant role by collecting Weimar cinema early on and supporting Kracauer’s research. From the dark stylization of noir to elegant musicals and sophisticated comedies, Hollywood cinema was incalculably enriched by the exchange.
Ms. Jones is an arts writer living in New York.
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