WITH ITS MIX of sub-Hollywood showmanship and Weimar permissiveness, MoMA’s ongoing four-month, eighty-one-film exhibition of German cinema from 1919 to 1933 has that “alternate universe” feel. Here are comedies, musicals, chamber dramas, and sundry unclassifiables—all excavated from a period that most college surveys tag merely as the heyday of Expressionism, and which history treats as an overdetermined march to Nazism (or, in the case of Siegfried Kracauer’s shadow-casting study From Caligari to Hitler , a fusion of the two). The monuments—Nosferatu and Caligari, The Last Laugh, Berlin: Symphony of a City, M, Metropolis—are all present, but so are things like The Song of Life (1931), a movie that begins with a grotesque satirical scene of a wedding feast and, after the bride’s suicidal flight and salvation, features songs including a hopeful ode to procreation with shots of a fetus developing and a corny sailor’s lullaby.
Song of Life is at one extreme of musical pastiche, however, and the more familiar silliness and joy of carefree song-and-dance marks other toe-tapping Weimar entries. Wilhelm Thiele’s Three from the Filling Station (1930) stars Willy Fritsch and two nervous nellies as evicted friends who start a gas station and fall for the same convertible-driving, high-kicking dame, played by Lilian Harvey. The sprightly numbers are charming partly because they are so inconsequential (driving with friends is fun!), and the jaunty escapism and entrepreneurial capers crop up elsewhere in the series. In the improvised-feeling scenario of Into the Blue, co-workers from a failed firm start a dog wash, allowing for the extraordinary rapid tracking shot of a tiny runaway pup zigzagging through the streets. In Kurt Gerron’s A Crazy Idea (1932), the get-rich-quick scheme involves a mountain resort (“The Belvedere”) and numbers feature ladies shimmying in workout tunics, ice-skating waiters, and funky leg shaking in a hotel corridor. Even in Congress Dances (1931, and that would be the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna), easy-come-easy-go is one take-home lesson of the romance between shopgirl (Harvey) and Czar Alexander (Fritsch): Her temporary high life ends when history changes again (with Napoleon’s Hundred Days campaign).
In hindsight, the escapism has its limits. Gerron, for example, the prolific hulking cabaret and film star who also acts in The Blue Angel and Three from the Filling Station, was killed at Auschwitz after being forced to make a propaganda film. Hope and despair go hand in hand in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919), made when the country’s ban on imported films was sowing the seeds for rich and varied output. Advocating for gay rights, it’s a didactic melodrama about a concert violinist (Conrad Veidt) and his student, lovers who are beset by blackmail and ostracism. The only upside to the ending is that just one of the men commits suicide, and ultimately, the film challenges the audience to undertake social activism (specifically invoking Emile Zola). (The sexologist who encourages the student and his supportive sister is played by Magnus Hirschfeld, a historic gay-rights advocate persecuted for both his work and his Jewish faith.) The series also provides a chance to see Leontine Sagan’s by turns rambunctious and anguished Mädchen in Uniform (1931), about the forbidden relationship at a girls’ boarding school between a teacher and a spirited pupil.
The ground zero of Weimar cinema offers opportunities to glimpse famous names early on, including Marlene Dietrich (in Three Loves —pre-Sternberg), Alfred Hitchcock (The Pleasure Garden , set in London, shot in Munich), and Robert Siodmak (Farewell  and especially Looking for His Murderer , a black comedy about a man who asks a burglar to kill him). There’s also an early adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1931) and the original version of Viktor und Viktoria (1933). And for curiosity value and sheer jaw-dropping historical synchronicity, it’s hard to beat The Way to Strength and Beauty (1925), an athletic Muybridgean celebration of the classical human form. Wilhelm Prager’s Kulturfilm was conceived “to compensate for the loss of the valuable training given to male youth during their military service” following the army’s mandatory post-WWI disbandment; was advertised by German film company UFA as displaying “the representatives of a new race for whom body culture is uppermost”; and featured a young dancer named Leni Riefenstahl.
“Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through March 7, 2011. For more details, click here.