Film: Ancient Law, The / This Ancient Law / Das alte Gesetz (1923)

May 7, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Silent / Drama

Synopsis: The son of an orthodox rabbi becomes a feted actor in Vienna, but his efforts to reconnect with his family and estranged father remains a daunting struggle.

Special Features:  n/a




Recently cited as the precursor & inspiration to Warner Bros.’ classic and history making all-talking, all-singing sound hit The Jazz Singer (1927), this forgotten German silent classic was recently restored by gathering the best elements from five surviving colour-tinted prints from around the world, as the original negative and German version no longer exist.

Like Jazz Singer, the story follows a son who escapes from his father’s clutches when the hunger to entertain the masses is greater than fulfilling the expected requirements of his father, a respected figure in the orthodox Jewish community. In the passing years the youth becomes a respected artist, but he feels empty and dissatisfied without any connection to his family and culture. An attempted reconciliation goes bad, but there is peace when father attends a performance and realizes his son’s gift, and the respect he earns from audiences.

The 1923 film runs a good half hour longer, features ongoing love for a childhood sweetheart in his shtetl, an Austrian princess who aides the burgeoning artist with some secret maneuvering, and the young man’s skill is not a jazz singer in Manhattan, but an actor in Vienna. At 127 mins. and scenes divided into seven acts, Ancient Law seems daunting, especially since director E.A. (Ewald André) Dupont sticks to elegant but largely staid images, but the trade-off ensures the nuances of the cast’s fine performances are etched into the largely sepia toned film.

Ernst Deutsch’s understated performance covers Baruch’s growth from ambitious youth to a confident adult, assimilating into gentile Vienna; Henny Porten is sympathetic as the princess who hungers for Baruch’s love but must confront the impossibility of any union, let alone overt friendship; Avrom Morewski (The Dybuk) is solid as Baruch’s rabbi father who rules with a stern, imperious hand; Robert Garrison makes beggar Pick sympathetic as a wandering but caring font of tall tales; and Margarete Schlegel is demure and affecting as Baruch’s village love Esther.

The script by Heinrich Laube & Paul Reno and Dupont’ direction offer unusually detailed dramatizations of the religious ceremonies within the insular Galician village, each vivifying the tightness of the families and the impact of Baruch’s decision to flee when a chance moment allows him to leave his otherwise locked room and escape the house.

Purim is shown as a festive, bonding experience, whereas Passover shows the father’s rigidity in shifting positions and ejecting his son in spite of customarily welcoming strangers to dine at his table. Dupont also intercuts moments from the village and its religious activities to contrast the commercial, gentile equivalents, as Baruch transforms the stage of the playhouse as his new temple.

Amid the measured, engrossing scenes and effective touches of humour, it’s the tender moments that really stand out for the simplicity in the setup, and reliance on the actors to evoke the emotional turmoil, regret, and hardship that comes with tough decisions. Baruch’s first scene accepting a gift from Esther is quite lovely, as are the encounters between princess and master thespian in which he just doesn’t get her mounting love until a fateful forest meeting that also seeds the end of their friendship. Dupont isn’t interested in mining scenes for provocative sexuality – the exploits of an itinerant theatre troupe’s skanky daughter with whom Baruch travels is handled with restraint, as is the princess’s assistant (Ruth Weyher) who is the prettier, eye-batting maiden whom Baruch initially believes is his new royal benefactor.

The final encounter between the impossible would-be lovers is also handled with deftness and great care: their withholding of emotions and Baruch’s gentle rejection of her affection is also quite moving.

Where the film dips into vintage melodrama is the finale, when Baruch’s father is moved by the words of Shakespeare and demands to be taken to the theatre to see his son, only to become faint of heart. Dupont contrasts the father becoming wide-eyed with wonder among the audience with Baruch performing a scene about father-son conflict not to a fellow actor, but an imagined version of his father, using personal pain to motivate an impassioned performance.

Pick’s role as the man who seeds in Baruch the possibility of a Jew finding success on the Viennese stage and later acting as mediator between father and son is well-played, but much of his final scenes have Garrison looking down and smiling wisely, since Pick’s role has reached its limit.

The production design by Alfred Junge is gorgeous, recreating the rustic details of Baruch’s shtetl, the Viennese stage, and the expansive and ornate dance hall of the princess. Junge would work as production designer on several classic Powell & Pressburger films (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus) and art director in Britain (Friday the Thirteenth, The Man Who Knew Too Much) and Hollywood (Mogambo, Knights of the Round Table).

Theodor Sparkuhl’s cinematography isn’t flashy or heavy in movement, but the lighting design brings out the richness of the sets, and maintains a balance of being dramatic and natural; even the blue-tinted night scenes are lovely. Sparkuhl move to the U.S. had him working in multiple genres, but he’s perhaps best known for the classic Beau Geste (1939), the stark noir The Glass Key (1942) and drama Blood on the Sun (1945).



The restoration features beautifully tinted scenes, and the source materials are in great shape, with just a few showing signs of wear and damage that have been tempered to ensure smooth transitions between the sharper footage. The German intertitles are accompanied by English subtitles which are pretty accurate in translation and tone.

The European release of the restored edition features a score by Philippe Schoeller, whereas a prior North American theatrical release via the Goethe-Institut Boston featured music by Thomas Koener. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray features both the Schoeller score, plus a new chamber orchestra score by pianist Donald Sosin and Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals.

Sosin and Svigals performed their score live at the Canadian premiere of the restored edition on Sunday May 6, 2018, at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The score’s incredible strength lies in the strong themes and exemplary performances, especially Svigals, whose impassioned solos over the aforementioned scenes between Baruch and Esther, and Baruch and the princess are devastating in their beauty.

Equally memorable is the music that further vivifies Baruch’s decision to snip off his side curls to formalize his assimilation into Viennese society and avoid the racism and ridicule preventing him from become a great actor; his escape from his father’s watch, his unsuccessful attempt at returning home during Passover, and the finale in which he struggles to choose between going on stage or abandoning his career while his father’s presiding over Yom Kippur falters due to ill health.

Dupont also directed Emil Jannings in Varieté (1925), an early version of the Titanic (1929) disaster, and among his last credits is writer of the Wagner biopic Magic Fire (1956), directed by William Dieterle.

Few of the cast appeared in English films, but Ernst Deutsch had a small role in Carol Reed’s postwar thriller The Third Man (1949), and Robert Garrison in an early version of The Constant Nymph (1928), plus the German version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1929).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Composer Websites: Donald Sosin / Alicia SvigalsTJFF 2018
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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