A few times each decade, the Museum of Modern Art mounts a film retrospective so focused, inclusive, and downright eye-opening, that it begs to become a daily fix. “Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares” is one such retro. Knock off work in time for the 4:30 shows—you can use this column as your doctor’s note—or rush through your dinner to make the 7:30 ones, and don’t forget weekends. MOMA’s 75-feature survey of Germany’s groundbreaking silent and fertile early-sound cinema invites total, obsessive immersion.
The series opens November 17 with Robert Siodmak’s bizarre noir comedy from 1931 Looking for His Murderer, co-written (like more than a few of the movies in the show) by the young Billy Wilder, and it continues into March. Organized by MOMA film curator Laurence Kardish in collaboration with the Deutsche Kinemathek, which has furnished all manner of new restorations and rediscoveries, “Weimar Cinema” manages to have its cake and eat it, too. The classic Lubitsch-Lang-Murnau-Pabst quartet is duly acknowledged; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Blue Angel are included, as are a number of well-known expressionist horror flicks (Waxworks) and proto-noir street films (Asphalt). The full range of Weimar divas are on hand, from Asta Nielsen (an aging prostitute in the 1927 Tragedy of the Street) to the young Leni Riefenstahl (playing comedy in The White Ecstasy). But what gives the series heft is the abundance of extreme rarities, including period and sci-fi spectacles, progressive “sex education” dramas, leftist social dramas (among them the original 1931 Berlin Alexanderplatz), cabaret satires, and cross-dressing comedies (including the source for the 1982 Julie Andrews comedy Victor/Victoria), not to mention a plethora of musicals starring the delightful Lilian Harvey, and, in the case of the 1930 Three From the Filling Station, featuring the Comedian Harmonists.
Practically nonexistent when World War I ended in 1918, the German film industry would soon become the largest and most vital in Europe; it came under Nazi control in 1933 and thus sent many of its most talented filmmakers and personalities into exile. Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr (née Kiesler), and Lotte Lenya are all represented in the series, along with male counterparts Peter Lorre, Curt Bois, and Conrad Veidt (three émigrés who wound up habitués of Rick’s joint in Casablanca). The MOMA show further emphasizes Weimar cinema’s cosmopolitan side by including the works of visiting foreigners—D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, The Pleasure Garden, shot in Munich in 1926—as well as co-productions, like the German-Soviet adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse (1929) and Dreyer’s first talkie, Vampyr. Also: movies by Germans abroad, notably F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Hollywood “Weimar” drama Sunrise.
Not every movie showing is a masterpiece (although the percentage is extremely high), but just about every movie is a source of fascination. For the next four months, there won’t be a better, richer, more compelling course in film history available anywhere in town.
‘Weimar Cinema’ runs November 17 through March 7 at MOMA