MOMA’s current series is based on an extraordinary French collection of films, the Centre National de la Cinématographie, the nation’s depository for motion pictures. There are 11 programs, covering French cinema from Sacha Guitry’s 1915 Those at Our House (charming home movies on the celebrities of the day) to Yanick Bellon’s 1972 narrative feature, Somewhere, Someone. The selection includes three docs about the making of key early French films—La Roue (1923) and La Fin du Monde (1930) by Abel Gance, and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1928). The standout is Jean Dreville’s record of the shooting of L’Herbier’s masterpiece, an adaptation of Zola’s novel about greed and corruption in the world of international finance. Dreville’s imaginative approach—a camera constantly on the prowl, perched most of the time on the catwalks above L’Herbier’s sets—resulted in a terrific and totally original little experimental film in its own right.
The revelation of the series is Jean Gremillon’s Maldone (1927). This powerful first feature stars Charles Dullin as a well-to-do landowner who leaves his ancestral home for the freedom of the countryside and becomes a teamster who works by a canal. Visually, the film is marked by the distinctive blend of naturalism and lyrical stylization that would remain a feature of Gremillon’s later work. The virtuoso country dance sequence at the bargemen’s café, a brilliant synthesis of narrative and spectacle, is one of the great moments of French silent cinema.
Kurt Gerron, actor (The Blue Angel) and director, was one of a number of German filmmakers who took refuge in Paris during the 1930s. His Paris Music Hall (1933)—a record of performances by jazz bands, acrobats, and Les Blue Bell Girls (the French version of the Rockettes)—is giddy fun. It helps if you block out the awareness that its director’s final film was to be The Führer Presents the Jews With a City, the horrendous Nazi propaganda movie made in the “model” concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where he had been sent. His job done, Gerron, the entire crew, and all the actors were shipped to Auschwitz and murdered.