What’s the role of art when the world falls apart? As powerful and ultimately resonant as various forms of art can be in retrospect, in the moment when the world is burning – or smoldering ominously – all the highest, most sublime artistic expression can seem ludicrously fragile. I’m reminded of the comedian Patton Oswalt’s response to those suggesting that comedians would really miss outgoing President George W. Bush: “I would happily give back the 10 minutes, tops, I wrote about George Bush if we weren’t torturing people and our money wasn’t on fire.”
But, as a cultural artifact, the art of a society in crisis is an invaluable and fascinating glimpse into the way the most talented thinkers and artists attempted to make sense of what was happening to their country, their fellow citizens and themselves. Digging these works from the ashes proves that, fragile though they may have seemed, great art endures long after the fires of ignorance, brutality and bigotry have cooled.
Such are the lessons to be learned from the Portland Museum of Art’s film series, “The Cinema of Weimar Germany,” which continues on Thursday with director Joe May’s 1929 crime melodrama “Asphalt.” The Weimar era was the brief period between the cataclysm that was the First World War and the dwarfing totalitarian madness of the Second World War. Reeling from its humiliating defeat, crushed by economic disaster and beset with the rise of extremism in the name of “making Germany great again,” the country yet saw the flowering of a vivid, vital artistic renaissance whose films, printmaking, painting, writing and other aspects all show a cultural movement determined to illuminate the human heart in all its complexity.
Watch the “Asphalt” Trailer:
The film series, curated by Bowdoin College German department Chair Jill Smith, is designed to enhance the PMA’s current exhibition of Weimar art, “The Robbers: German Art in a Time of Crisis,” which is on display at the museum through July 15. According to PMA director of visitor experience and special programs Marcie Griswold, this unique multimedia collaboration is a way for both the film and visual art experience to enhance each other in visitors’ minds. “It provides a really interesting backdrop,” said Griswold. “To see these prints (from German artists George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz), and then see films from that same era, dealing with some of the same issues, you can kind of see the emotion up front, close and personal.”
“Asphalt” joins other Weimar-era films, such as F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” (which screened on March 29), Fritz Lang’s still-stunning “M” (May 17) and G.W. Pabst’s “Westfront 1918” (June 14) in the PMA Films series. The story of an upright traffic cop lured into a dangerous love triangle by a femme-fatale jewel thief, the little-known film, according to Smith, “allow(s) the viewer to revel in the glamour of Weimar Berlin, while also contemplating its darker, more vulnerable sides.” For film fans, this is yet another public service from PMA Films, which continues to fill Portland’s need for a true repertory movie theater by bringing in movies Maine film fans aren’t going to see on the big screen anywhere else. “A few of these films were second or third choices, since distributors haven’t been rushing to put Weimar-era films on Blu-ray,” Griswold said. “But Jill is a scholar, and her in-depth knowledge saw her looking high and low, looking for what you might call the B-sides. Not that they’re not powerful.”
Said Smith in her descriptions of the series, “The key to understanding (German) Expressionism is that it is an externalization of the internal, the visualization of feelings. Unlike Romanticism, however, it does not try to make the darker, uglier sides of emotional life seem beautiful; rather it lays bare those feelings that we most often try to hide.”
Also, according to Smith, “The Weimar Republic was a time of economic and political instability. And yet, it was also a time of democratic and artistic possibility, and 1920s Berlin was a major center of cultural experimentation. The Weimar Republic was not doomed from the start, and it should not be seen as such simply because we know how it ended.”
As Griswold notes, viewers of both the art exhibit and film series are likely to come away seeing troubling parallels to the world outside the museum. “These works were an evaluation of German society and national identity at a time of crisis. It wasn’t our intention to necessarily comment on anything happening today, but it is really interesting in the questions that come up about who we are. We’re able to show some of the moods and emotions and social changes of that time. Now we have things like social media informing the conversation, but film was a completely new way to engage in a cultural conversation at the time.”
“Asphalt,” the second entry in PMA Films’ Cinema of Weimar German Film Series, plays on Thursday at 6 p.m. Admission is $8/$6 for members and students with valid student ID.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Tuesday, May 8: “In the Intense Now.” The University of Southern Maine Philosophy Symposium Film Series continues with this cinéma vérité portrait of the complex nature of revolution. Newsreel, amateur and other immediate footage of the 1968 popular uprisings in Czechoslovakia, Rio de Janeiro, China and France are combined into an impressionistic depiction of the world in hopeful turmoil.
Wednesday, May 9: “Maine Mayhem 2018.” The annual, student-made film festival from the aspiring filmmakers of Southern Maine Community College is a must-see. This year’s eight short films are, as ever, an eclectic, fascinating mix of genres and styles, providing a showcase for some of the state’s best young moviemakers.