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AMMI salutes directors at home and abroad

The series consists of double-features by 11 directors, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophuls, Wim Wenders, Jean Renoir, Werner Herzog, Terence Davies, and John Woo. On each day of the series, the museum will present an American and international film by the same director.

“Hollywood has always been a land of opportunity to filmmakers around the world, who are drawn by its technical resources, talent pool, and financial support,” said David Schwartz, the museum’s chief curator of film. “What is fascinating is the extent to which these filmmakers have found ways to not only explore their favorite themes while working in this country, but also to find ways to comment on the American experience, to offer an outsider’s perspective on our culture and society.”

The series opens April 5 with an extremely rare opportunity to see two of the greatest films of the silent era, F. W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” and “Sunrise,” in recently restored archival prints. Other highlights of the series include Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” and “The Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser,” in imported 35mm prints provided by Herzog; and restored prints of Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner” and Josef von Sternberg’s “Blonde Venus” from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

When it was released in 1924, F.W. Murnau’s film “Der Letzte Mann” (whose pessimistic English-language title “The Last Man” was ultimately changed to “The Last Laugh”) was widely regarded by Hollywood executives and filmmakers as the greatest movie ever made. By telling the story of a doorman’s tragic decline solely with images — and no need for intertitles — Murnau elevated the young entertainment medium to the level of art. Studio chief William Fox brought Murnau to Los Angeles, and introduced him around town as “the German genius.”

Murnau was soon in production on “Sunrise,” with a script by Carl Mayer (“The Last Laugh,” “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”) and an enormous city set built on the Fox backlot. American directors were fascinated with Murnau’s working methods and his distinctive style. “Shadows, camera movements, artfully stylized settings and gestures, all became the mark of true film art in Hollywood during 1927 and 1928,” wrote film historian Richard Koszarski.

Life magazine proclaimed Murnau the “World’s Greatest Director,” awarding him the unofficial title that had previously been held by another émigré, Ernst Lubitsch. Murnau’s American career quickly faded, and the next honorary genius was the Viennese-born Josef Sternberg, whose name received an aristocratic and foreign-sounding “von” from a Hollywood producer who felt it sounded more impressive.

The self-consciously artistic von Sternberg was clearly the author of his exotic films; his artistic signature could be felt in every frame. This was significant because during this period in Hollywood, the director generally functioned as a relatively anonymous craftsman who was rarely involved in the writing or editing process, and whose work was overseen by a producer or supervisor.

Needless to say, the idiosyncratic temperaments of the great European directors didn’t always mesh with the commercial demands of the industry. Among Luis Bunuel’s numerous unrealized Hollywood movies was “The Sewer Of Los Angeles,” set entirely on a giant dunghill between a freeway and a desert. Sergei Eisenstein’s abandoned American projects included an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.”

Yet many directors have been able to take advantage of Hollywood’s tremendous resources to make films that are as accomplished as the masterpieces they made in their home countries. Fritz Lang’s “Fury” reworks many of the themes of “M” to create a strong critique of mob violence and lynch law. Max Ophuls found in the Hollywood “woman’s film” a genre ideally suited to his fascination with reckless passion and forbidden desires.

What is interesting about these films, and the works of other émigré directors, is that they often reflect a love-hate view of America, viewing the country from the perspective of an outsider who is able to make observations and raise questions about his adopted country. Wim Wenders’ “Hammett” and Terence Davies’ “The Neon Bible” search for the reality lurking beneath such mythological worlds as the rain-slicked, lonely big city, and the rural heartland of the deep South. And many of Hitchcock’s dazzling entertainments, including “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Wrong Man,” and “North By Northwest” contain profoundly ambivalent critiques of the American way of life.

By pairing films made in their home countries with their American films, this series shows how the new country offered not just what Murnau called “new opportunities to develop my artistic aims,” but an endlessly fascinating subject as well.

SCHEDULE

Saturday, April 5

F. W. Murnau

2 p.m. “The Last Laugh”

Germany, 1924, 77 mins. With Emil Jannings. The tragic decline and unlikely resurrection of a Berlin hotel doorman is dramatized in purely visual terms. Widely proclaimed at the time of its release as the greatest film ever made, “The Last Laugh” paved the way for Murnau’s entry to Hollywood. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

4 p.m. “Sunrise”

1927, 110 mins. With Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien. Murnau’s visually breathtaking love story about a country man torn between his wife and a seductress--and lured by the big city--was Hollywood’s greatest achievement of the silent era. It earned an Oscar for “Best Artistic Quality of Production,” a category dropped the following year. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Sunday, April 6

Fritz Lang

2 p.m. “M”

Germany, 1931, 111 mins. With Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Inge Langut. Lang’s undisputed masterpiece, “M” is a tightly narrated, almost documentary-like chronicle of the pursuit of a child-murdering serial killer in Berlin. M’s grim image of urban alienation can be seen as a precursor to film noir.

4 p.m. “Fury”

MGM, 1936, 94 mins. With Sylvia Sidney, Spencer Tracy. Lang’s first Hollywood film is a bitter tale of lynch law and revenge. The portrait of the violence lurking within small-town America proves even more disturbing than Lang’s German work. In the courtroom climax Lang uses cinema itself as the star witness as Americans are forced to confront their demonic side.

Saturday, April 12

Josef von Sternberg

2 p.m. “The Blue Angel”

Germany, 1930, 103 mins. With Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings. Dietrich instantly became an international movie star as the beguiling cabaret singer Lola Frohlich, who lures a hapless professor to his downfall. The film was shot in both German and English versions; the superior German version will be shown in a recently restored print from Kino International.

4:30 p.m. “Blonde Venus”

Paramount, 1932, 92 mins. With Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant. In von Sternberg and Dietrich’s third Hollywood collaboration (and their only film set in America) Dietrich plays a housewife who resumes her career as a cabaret singer to pay for her husband’s operation. Her descent begins when a wealthy playboy falls for her.

Sunday, April 13

Alfred Hitchcock

2 p.m. “The 39 Steps”

England, 1935, 87 mins. With Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll. With its lovers-on-the-run tale of a wrongly accused man and his unwitting “accomplice,” this delightful blend of romantic comedy, thriller, and spy drama served as a model for many of Hitchcock’s American films.

4 p.m. “North By Northwest”

MGM, 1959, 136 mins. With Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint. The comfortable world of a New York City advertising executive is shattered when he is mistaken for a spy, and sent on a cross-country chase that climaxes on the face of Mt. Rushmore in Hitchcock’s all-American variation on THE 39 STEPS.

Saturday, April 19

Jean Renoir

2 p.m. “Toni”

France, 1935, 90 mins. Charles Blavette, Celia Montalvan. Renoir foreshadowed Italian neorealism with his use of real locations and non-professionals in his deeply moving adaptation of a true story about a doomed triangle between a young woman caught between an Italian laborer and his foreman.

4 p.m. “The Southerner”

United Artists, 1945, 91 mins. With Zachary Scott, Betty Field. This unsentimental saga of a sharecropping family struggling to hold onto their farm was filmed on location, and was Renoir’s favorite of his American films. It was also the closest in style to his 1930s French slice-of-life films.

Sunday, April 20

Max Ophuls

2 p.m. “Liebelei”

Germany, 1932, 85 mins. With Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Magda Schneider. Made in his home country before Ophuls fled to France, this passionate melodrama about a doomed love affair between a lieutenant and a shy fraulein was also a strong critique of military and aristocratic oppression.

4 p.m. “The Reckless Moment”

Universal, 1949, 82 mins. With James Mason, Joan Bennett. To protect her family and her stereotypical middle-class existence, a housewife confronts her daughter’s seedy lover, accidentally kills him, and tries to conceal the crime. This is one of the few noir thrillers seen from the viewpoint of a female protagonist.

Saturday, April 26

Michelangelo Antonioni

2 p.m. “Blowup”

MGM, 1966, 110 mins. With Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Sarah Miles. Antonioni’s portrait of Swinging London is couched within an existential thriller in which the key to a murder--and to a photographer’s purpose in life--may be found within the grains of a photograph.

4:15 p.m. “Zabriskie Point”

MGM, 1970, 112 mins. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin. Sam Shepard helped write the screenplay for Antonioni’s poetic vision of counterculture America that takes a questioning look at hippie culture and a literally explosive view of consumerism.

Saturday, May 3

Werner Herzog

2 p.m. “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser”

Germany, 1975, 110 mins. With Bruno S. The true-life story of Kaspar Hauser, a mysterious man who spent his life in solitary confinement until appearing one day in Nuremberg’s town square, is anchored by a bizarre yet matter-of-fact performance by formal mental patient Bruno S.

4:15 p.m. “Stroszek”

New Yorker Films, 1977, 108 mins. With Bruno S., Eva Mattes. A trio of Berlin misfits strikes out in search of the American dream and finds instead the wasteland of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin. Beneath the film’s oddball humor lies a sardonic and deeply poignant view of America.

Sunday, May 4

Wim Wenders

2 p.m. “The American Friend”

New Yorker Films, 1977, 126 mins. With Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper. Wenders combines Hitchcockian thriller and European character study in this atmospheric adaptation of two novels by Patricia Highsmith about the con artist/exile Tom Ripley, with cameos by Sam Fuller and Nick Ray.

4:30 p.m. “Hammett”

Orion, 1982, 94 mins. With Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle. Wenders’ American debut is a dreamlike meditation on the classic Hollywood detective film, based on Hammett’s early career and his decision to leave the Pinkerton Detective Agency to devote himself to writing.

Saturday, May 10

Terence Davies

2 p.m. “The Long Day Closes”

England, 1992, 82 mins. With Marjorie Yates, Leigh McCormack. This radiant memoir of Davies’ Liverpool childhood captures “a paradise that’s already being lost.” An eleven-year-old boy enjoys long summer days with his family and countless trips to the cinema.

4 p.m. “The Neon Bible”

Strand Releasing, 1995, 92 mins. With Gena Rowlands, Denis Leary. Davies’ first American film is a Depression-era story loosely based on a novel by John Kennedy Toole. Davies creates a gorgeous widescreen vision of the American South that is at once mythological and intimate.

Sunday, May 11

John Woo

2 p.m. “The Killer”

Circle Films, 1989, 104 mins. With Chow Yun-fat. Inspired by Melville’s “Le Samourai,” Woo’s hyperbolic, stunningly baroque thriller is about a hardboiled contract killer who falls for a nightclub singer he accidentally blinded in a gunfight.

4 p.m. “Face/Off”

Touchstone, 1997, 138 mins. With John Travolta, Nicolas Cage. A maniacal criminal and a determined FBI agent literally trade faces during this deliriously convoluted and delightfully overblown thriller, which brings Hong Kong mayhem to the Hollywood action blockbuster.

Museum Information

Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Group tours by appointment, Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Location: 35 Avenue at 36 Street in Astoria.

Subway: R or V trains (weekends, R or G) to Steinway Street. N or W train to 36 Avenue.

For information call 718-784-0077 or go to www.movingimage.us.

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