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German Cinema ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ : The first part of the Art Museum’s survey covers films made before 1933 that were subsequently banned by the Nazis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rare films from Hitler’s Third Reich will be among those shown during “From Caligari to Hitler,” a two-part series surveying German cinema from 1913-1945 that gets under way Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.

The series complements the museum’s upcoming “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” which runs Feb. 17 through May 12.

Part 1 (Friday-Jan. 26) is composed of films made before Hitler came to power in 1933; all were subsequently denounced and banned by the Nazi regime. Part 2 (Feb.1-March 4) covers the key films of the Third Reich, which have not been seen in 45 years.

The series’ title comes from Siegfried Kracauer’s fascinating, hotly debated 1947 history of the German cinema, in which he argues dogmatically--and with varying degrees of persuasiveness--that the coming of Hitler and Nazism was foreshadowed in Germany’s movies.

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The series opens with screenings at 1 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. of Walther Ruttman’s abstract 12-minute “Light-Play Opus No. 1" (1921), and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919). The latter, one of the most famous and influential silent films, ushered in the golden age of the German cinema. With its boldly innovative Expressionist style, “Caligari,” which was directed by Robert Wiene, an otherwise obscure experimentalist, projects powerfully--and prophetically--a vision of society as an insane asylum under the rule of a clever and evil madman.

The world of “Caligari” is that of a nightmare in which highly stylized settings, a jumble of bizarre angles and forced perspectives, represents the distorted vision of the film’s narrator, a distraught young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher). He tells a horrifying tale of an evil-looking magician, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who arrives in the fictional town of Holstenwall with a carnival.

Caligari’s magic act consists of Cesare the Somnambulist (a cadaverous-looking Conrad Veidt), who upon being wakened in his upright coffin--the “cabinet” of the film’s title--makes predictions based on questions from the audience. Clearly, Cesare is in Caligari’s thrall. Meanwhile, Holstenwall is struck by a series of murders.

Scheduling conflicts prevented Fritz Lang from directing “Caligari,” but he is credited with providing the film’s framing story, which adds a profoundly disturbing dimension to Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s script.

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Screening at 2:30 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. is Ernst Lubitsch’s enchanting 1919 “Madame Du Barry” (released in the United States as “Passion”). It offers a sly, boudoir view of history; a radiant Pola Negri plays Du Barry to Emil Jannings’ petulant, ungainly Louis XV. In the immediate wake of World War I, the French were so taken aback by this sophisticated, though tragic, romp that they banned it for five years. Meanwhile, its stars and director went on to Hollywood and even greater fame and glory.

Saturday brings (at 8 p.m. only) a trio of rarities, starting with the 75-minute first (1913) version of “The Student of Prague,” directed by Stellan Rye and produced by and starring the burly Paul Wegener as “Prague’s finest swordsman and wildest student.”

The title character sells his soul to a satanic magician in this imaginative and poignant variation on “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; in the 1925 remake, Wegener would be more aptly cast as the tempter opposite Conrad Veidt as the student.

It is followed by Richard Oswald’s elegant and sensitive “Different From the Others” (1919), which the late gay activist/film historian Vito Russo declared to be the first film to advocate gay rights. It also is the first to depict a gay bar.

With his usual intensity, Conrad Veidt plays a famed concert violinist who courageously stands up to a blackmailer. This enlightened film stirred up a considerable controversy and was subsequently banned.

Concluding Saturday’s program is a real stunner, the 60-minute “Backstairs” (1921), written by Carl Mayer and directed by Leopold Jessner. Against Paul Leni’s looming, shadowy settings--the print is razor-sharp and mint-fresh--they tell with the utmost economy and psychological impact of the obsessive love of an unprepossessing postman (Fritz Kortner) for a pretty housemaid (Henny Porten) with a tall, handsome lover (Wilhelm Dieterle, later a prominent Hollywood director).

For information, call (213) 857-6010.


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