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From Caligari to Hitler: 1920s German Cinema at the LACMA

The short-lived burst of creative genius that surfaced from the Weimar Republic’s turmoil is delightfully presented in Haunted Screens, an exhibition curated by Maltzan and Murphy in Los Angeles

Only eight years separate The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, an Expressionist nightmare filmed against painted canvas sets, from Metropolis, a dystopian parable set in a futuristic city. The first was made on a shoestring budget in 1919 and it evokes the chaotic aftermath of defeat; the second was a prestige production that still inspires awe. They are the best-known of 25 classics featured in an exhibition, Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Each was conceived as a work of art, and many put a strong emphasis on architecture and urbanism. Michael Maltzan and Amy Murphy have created an extraordinary installation for that short-lived burst of creative genius.

Having curated a major Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood, I know from personal experience how hard it is to capture the kinetic spirit of film in a museum. As with architecture, you can show only representations, tiny fragments of the real thing. Moving images, an essential component of such exhibitions, upstage the most compelling static exhibits, and need to be kept apart, as though they were foxes and chickens. And yet, there has to be a synthesis of preparation and product; the movies cannot be relegated to a back room. Scale is another issue: important silent films like Metropolis premiered in sumptuous movie palaces seating two thousand and were accompanied by a pit orchestra, for the new medium wanted to surmount its humble beginnings and rival the prestige of the opera house.

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Ernst Stern, Paul Leni, Das Wachfigurenkabinett (Le cabinet des figures de cire) 1924
La Cinémathèque Française, Paris

LACMA curator Britt Salvesen divided the 250 exhibits into four thematic sections and deftly wove them into a visual narrative, elucidated by succinct text panels. Within each section, you can review set and costume designs alongside production stills for a few features, and then step into a darkened space to watch excerpts of those films, back-projected onto suspended screens. Happily there was a rich trove to draw on, principally from the collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Hollywood studios squandered their treasures, treating talent as hired hands, and junking their archives. There, most publicity stills were portraits of popular stars; at UFA, the leading German studio, up to 800 photos documented every aspect of a major production. Lotte Eisner and other dedicated archivists rescued prints and drawings that survived wartime devastation and carried them off to the Cinémathèque. In doing so, they preserved a legacy of art and history. German studios made plenty of fluffy entertainments for mass consumption, but Weimar cinema enjoyed respect as an art. Like the painters and sculptors whom the Nazis would soon condemn as decadent, filmmakers − including Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Georg Pabst and Robert Wiene − mirrored the turmoil and creativity of the Weimar Republic. The distorted houses, oppressive city streets and sinister laboratories constructed on stages and back lots mirrored a society struggling to break free of the past, even as its economy and government foundered. Whereas the best German architecture of the 1920s − from the Weissenhofsiedlung to luxury villas and workers’ housing estates − is cool and rational, filmmakers exposed the contradictions of the times and the dark underside of material progress. Their subjects ranged from slum poverty to the polarisation of wealth, madmen, monsters and the threat of  new technologies. The demons that haunt these films would soon achieve power: critic Siegfried Kracauer entitled his history of film, From Caligari to Hitler.

Within a confined gallery, you can examine the exhibits, absorb the febrile atmosphere of Weimar, and surrender to the timeless magic of the movies.

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Otto Hunte, Metropolis, 1927
La Cinémathèque Française, Paris

To articulate this multi-layered story and heighten its impact, Maltzan and Murphy have constructed a trio of wave-like forms to enclose projection screens, which are set at angles to each other, so you can watch one or several clips simultaneously. In the troughs between, small drawings and production stills are displayed on the canted surfaces, shard-like columns, and a jagged, open-ended frame. Posters occupy the side walls of the gallery, and sound cones descend from the ceiling. The installation is easy to navigate, but it subtly conveys an air of menace, mystery and insecurity. Within a confined gallery, you can examine the exhibits, absorb the febrile atmosphere of Weimar, and surrender to the timeless magic of the movies.

LACMA is an apt host. It frequently presents art from its fine collection of German Expressionism, and commissions leading architects (including Gehry, Morphosis and Frederick Fisher) to install exhibitions. And it is in the city that lured the finest talents of Germany in the years between the two world wars. Writers, directors, producers, actors, and − most successfully − cinematographers and composers migrated to Hollywood, initially for the money, and later as refugees. They brought a new sophistication to an escapist industry, and they helped to establish the genre of film noir. For a decade, LA became Weimar on the Pacific, and there’s a faint echo of that era in the more interesting independent movies of recent years. Haunted Screens takes us back to the source.

Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
When: until 26 April 2015

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