Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
For decades now, Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments,” has held pride of place on television screens across America, its timing sandwiched between Pesach and Easter.
An invented holiday tradition if ever there was one, the annual broadcast of a nearly four hour film given over to the story of the ancient Israelites and their search for freedom puzzles as well as delights me.
I can well understand the film’s connection to Pesach, which, after all, commemorates the Exodus and exhorts its celebrants to remember. The movie version may even enhance the process of remembering, rendering the ancient story vivid and alive. As one movie-goer put it, way back when, “the story of Israel had laid frozen in hieroglyphics, manuscripts and books.” But thanks to DeMille, it has “thawed into something colorful.”
“Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares,” running at MoMA until March 7, 2011, is billed as the largest-ever retrospective of German cinema from between the Wars to be shown in the United States. The era’s defining cinematic style, expressionism, is well-represented in dozens of offerings, giving a healthy dose of the atmospheric, disturbing and downright spooky in classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “M,” “Nosferatu,” “Vampyr” and “Waxworks.”
But alongside these seminal works, the 75-film retrospective — created with assistance from the F.W. Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden and the German Kinematek in Berlin — also highlights lesser-known and in some cases downright impossible-to-find fare, such as the surviving early comedies to which Billy Wilder lent his talents as screenwriter (see the 1930 ménage à trois musical “A Blonde’s Dream”).
On December 13, the museum will screen the impossible-to-find silent version of “Fräulein Else,” adapted from the revolutionary novella by Arthur Schnizler and directed by Paul Czinner. Schnitzler’s slim volume, written in a breathless interior monologue, tells of a young woman who consents to appear naked before the benefactor who is willing to save her father from financial ruin.
During her lifetime, even personal friends were unaware that film star Hedy Lamarr was Jewish. Now two new biographies — “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr” by Stephen Michael Shearer, due out in September from St Martin’s Press and “Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” by Ruth Barton, just out from The University Press of Kentucky — both detail how Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna to a Jewish family, her mother originally from Budapest, and her father from Lvov.
Of the two new books, by far the better written one is by Barton, a Lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Shearer, a Las Vegas-based former actor, journalist, and friend/biographer of Patricia Neal, absent-mindedly describes the first marriage of one of Lamarr’s husbands in this amusingly redundant way: “They were married by a Jewish rabbi.”
Lamarr’s earliest work was in Berlin with the Russian Jewish director Alexis Granowsky, whose 1925 silent hit “Jewish Luck,” an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem with titles by Isaak Babel, starred the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels.
On February 7, at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, a new publication from New York University Press, “Is Diss A System? A Milt Gross Comic Reader” edited by Ari Y. Kelman, will be presented. Gross (born in 1895) of Russian Jewish ancestry, drew comic strips of wild slapstick energy, following in the violence-for-laughs tradition of “The Katzenjammer Kids.” A self-consciously low comedian, Gross drew racist images of black people and was not all that flattering about Jews either.
Gross’s defiantly insensitive gift for visual anarchy got him jobs in Hollywood writing and directing short films like “Izzy Able the Detective” (1921) and “Jitterbug Follies” (1939; see below). Gross was even reportedly hired by Charlie Chaplin to invent sight gags for the silent film “The Circus.”