“The influence of anxiety” is one way of describing many of the 31 films in the Museum of Modern Art’s impressive “The Weimar Touch” exhibition, which starts next Wednesday, April 3, and runs through May 6.
As opposed to a conventional retrospective of German Expressionist films made during the Weimar Republic (1918-33), the program was curated from subsequent international movies that were topically or stylistically shaped by the movies of that era, or shared talent with them. Expressionism – described by Thomas Elsaesser as “a rebellious artistic intervention” – was only one strand of a cinema that in “the battle between popular culture and high culture tilts notably in favor of the popular.”
Inevitably, though, the lighting, the mise-en-scène, and the intimations of instability and the coming inferno that characterize Expressionist films shade those made by Weimar’s diaspora. So there is fear and paranoia aplenty in such MoMA selections as Joseph Losey’s remake of “M” (1951), Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” (1934), Fritz Lang’s “Fury” (1936), Robert Siodmak’s “Mollenard”/“Hatred” (1938), Frank Borzage’s “The Mortal Storm” (1940), and Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
Dread isn’t the only emotion: the season includes two classic comedies of gender identity in Reinhold Schunzel’s “Viktor and Viktoria” (1933) and Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” (1959), and two Shakespeares in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935) and Paul Czinner’s British-made “As You Like It” (1937). Made on a Warner Bros. sound stage, “Dream” is the most glorious convergence of German Romanticism and Anglo-American acting outside of film noir. I am fond of it as the first film I wrote about professionally, but also because James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, and Olivia de Havilland give sublime performances in the tangles and shadows of Reinhardt’s Athenian Arden. There are hints, too, of Hieronymus Bosch.
Also featured is Dieterle’s “The Life of Emile Zola,” which in 1937 was a timely account of the Dreyfus Affair. It’s unfortunately billed on different days to another 1937 film, Ulmer and Jacob Ben-Ami’s American Yiddish comedy-drama “Grine Felder (Green Fields)” (1937).
Wilder, Ulmer, and Siodmak had worked on a famous silent portrait of pre-Hitler Berlin, “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930), with cameramen Fred Zinnemann and Eugen Schüfftan. “The Weimar Touch” includes directors Zinnemann and Emilio Goméz Muriel’s “Redes (The Wave/Nets)”, a socialist realist drama about striking Mexican fishermen that was originally conceived as a documentary and photographed by Paul Strand. Schüfftan photographed Siodmak’s “Mollenard/Hatred”; two of its stars, Harry Baur and the French Resistance fighter Robert Lynen, were murdered by the Nazis.
So, too, was the Jewish actor-director Kurt Gerron, who had played the clown opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). He ignored von Sternberg and Peter Lorre’s entreaties to join him in Hollywood, remaining in Europe. The MoMA season includes “Het mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate” (1935), a crime drama about a murdered dancer that Gerron directed in the Netherlands.
Arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he was forced to stage a cabaret there and perform “Mack the Knife” (as he had done in the original 1928 run of “The Threepenny Opera”). He was also forced to make a Nazi propaganda film, “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews,” about the camp’s “humane” conditions. He and his wife died in Auschwitz in 1944, reportedly on the last day before the gas chambers were closed.
Other stand-outs in “The Weimar Touch” are Max Ophüls’s Dutch-made Depression film “Komedie om Geld”/”The Trouble With Money” (1936) and Jacques Tourneur’s anti-Nazi spy thriller “Berlin Express” (1948). Starring Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon and set in Allied-occupied Germany, the latter was written by Siodmak’s brother Curt and featured Reinhold Schünzel (the “Viktor und Viktoria” director) and Weimar director and “Pandora’s Box” star Fritz Kortner.
Finally, the Technicolor and Oscar-anointed special-effects sci-fi flick “When Worlds Collide” (1951) doesn’t sound like a Weimar offshoot, but its end-of-the-world scenario suggests a blend of Nazi-era Götterdämmerung and Cold War catastrophe. Two Austro-Hungarians made it: the director was Weimar cinematographer Rudolph Maté; the producer was George Pal, a former UFA client who graduated to Paramount's Puppetoons in the 1940s.