German Film History Uncovered

A beautiful poster for Das alte Gesetz (The Old Law), from 1923, a seeming precursor to The Jazz Singer about a rabbi’s son who becomes a successful stage actor.

During my all-too-brief visit to New York City recently I stopped by the Museum of Modern Art, where my old friend and colleague Larry Kardish was kind enough to show me around the striking multimedia exhibit that’s been mounted to accompany his film series Weimar Cinema 1919-1933: Dreams and Nightmares, which was presented in association with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden and in cooperation with the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. The series is almost over but the wall show will remain on view through March 7 and it’s a must-see.

Even though the film program has been running since November, there are still a handful of rarities to come. For instance, on Thursday,—

—January 27 at 4:30 p.m. the Museum is screening Niemandsland (No Man’s Land), made in 1931 and later banned by the Nazis. A contemporary newspaper account described the film this way: “Five soldiers of different nationalities find themselves in a trench in the no-man‘s land between the

The great Danish-born German star Asta Nielsen is featured in Dirnentragödie (Tragedy of the Street), from 1927.

fronts, and in their misery discover they are separated by language and uniforms, but otherwise they have the same thoughts and feelings. Why are they enemies?”

Reading through the entire schedule makes me wish I could have camped out at MoMA for the duration of the series. Many of the 35mm prints on loan from German archives are unique, and the Museum has made use of a London-based laser-subtitling service to provide English translations. This expensive and ambitious program isn’t likely to be repeated anywhere else in the U.S. (Wouldn’t it be nice if someone assembled a collection of these titles on DVD?)

Viktor und Viktoria (1933) was a great hit at its MoMA screening, and was the source of the British musical First a Girl (1935) with Jessie Matthews and Blake Edwards Victor/Victoria (1982) starring his wife, Julie Andrews.

The good news is that we can all learn about these films—from Expressionist dramas to escapist musicals—in a new book edited by Kardish and published by the Museum. It bears the same name as the exhibition, Weimar Cinema 1919-1933: Daydreams and Nightmares,
and it includes a handful of essays, rarely seen photographs, and a filmography of the 75 titles included in the show.

But even this handsomely printed book doesn’t present the colorful posters and pressbooks that are on display at MoMA for another month or so. I hope my snapshots will whet your appetite to see this show, curated by Ron Magliozzi, in person.


Iris Barry, the founding curator of film for the Museum of Modern Art, was smart enough to collect these beautiful pressbooks for German films of the period.

Here are more examples of pressbooks and programs from the MoMA archives.

This certainly caught my eye: a double-page spread from the original pressbook for the U.S. release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

This wall in the lobby of the Museum leads the way to the wall show downstairs. It features a poster from Walter Ruttman’s famous film Berlin: Symphony of A Great City, and an adjacent video screen runs continuous excerpts from the picture.

One of the showpieces of the exhibition is this huge poster for F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh. As the film is famous for its lack of title cards, you’ll note that this poster has no lettering whatsoever!

The unforgettable poster from Fritz Lang’s M and a wall-sized photo enlargement lure the visitor into the exhibit space.

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June 2024