It’s not true, as some recent news articles have it, that Das alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law) was forgotten, nor was it lost. Highly praised by Lotte Eisner, the grande dame of Weimar cinema criticism, the film has received a fair amount of attention in academic circles ever since a 1984 restoration, and scholars studying the Jewish presence in German silent cinema have written extensively about the tension generated by the story’s contrast of traditional shtetl life with the protagonist’s apotheosis as an assimilated Jewish theater star in mid-19th century Vienna. What is unquestionably new is just how much our appreciation of both the story and the film’s visual artistry have increased following the brand new restoration by Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek, which began with the discovery of the original title cards. Once these were found, a call was made for all surviving material, which turned up a number of nitrate prints throughout the world that were not only longer than the previous restoration but followed the original edit and were also tinted and toned.
Curiously, writers on the film largely fall into two camps: those like Eisner who practically ignore the storyline and focus on the aesthetics, celebrating the way director E.A. Dupont and cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl seem to emulate the light and shadow of a Rembrandt etching, and those who bypass the palpable beauty to analyze what the film is saying about the clash between demonstrable Yiddishkeit and the quality of “passing.” It’s a shame that so few scholars bring both perspectives together. Hiding from the film’s fascinating treatment of Jewish life misses a key reason why The Ancient Law is so special, while sidelining the aesthetics to address only the storyline relegates the movie to that ghettoized subsection called “Jewish films.”
The opening is set in a shtetl in Galicia, where Baruch Meyer (Ernst Deutsch) develops the acting bug after impersonating Ahasuerus in a Purim play, much to the fury of his father the Rabbi (Abraham Morewski, looking far older than his thirty-seven years). Encouraged by itinerant salesman Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison), Baruch leaves the community and takes up with a small theater troupe, tucking his long peyes (side-locks) under a cap and capturing the eye of Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia (Henny Porten) during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She arranges an audition with Heinrich Laube (Hermann Vallentin), director of Vienna’s Burgtheater, and Baruch quickly climbs the ladder of stardom, cutting off his peyes and exchanging his shtetl clothes for the sophisticated fashions of a man-about-town. He’s receptive to the archduchess’s infatuation, though not nearly as passionate; shortly after she admits that her royal title makes this love match impossible, Baruch returns to his village, where his pining sweetheart Esther (Margarete Schlegel) is waiting. Back in Vienna, the newlyweds reap the benefits of his fame, hoping to convince his father of the validity of his life in the theater.
Screenwriter Paul Reno (born Pinkus Nothmann) was partly inspired by the 19th-century actor Bogumil Dawison, hired by the actual Laube at the Burgtheater in 1849. Laube held very firm notions about Jews in modern society: assimilation or expulsion, and he refused to give Dawison major roles in classic tragedies, claiming the actor over-sentimentalized them. It was a prevailing anti-Semitic put-down, associating outward displays of emotion with Jewish traits, and unsurprisingly Reno veered significantly from the historical record when inventing his characters. However, the question of assimilation does form a major element of The Ancient Law, with many film historians discussing the significance of Baruch laying aside the trappings of his Jewish self in order to succeed on stage. It’s important to acknowledge that Baruch doesn’t discard his religious identification after changing his appearance, he simply adopts the elegant clothing of the city (in Vienna, one thinks of the Ephrussi and the Wertheimers), challenging his father’s idea of what it is to be a Jew without losing his faith.
Refreshingly, The Ancient Law presents the shtetl as a traditional rural village, not an impoverished and foul-looking place of misery. In 1930, pioneering theorist Harry A. Potamkin praised the film for its refusal to schmaltz up (my words) the overtly Orthodox roles, making it the opposite of The Jazz Singer, although that seminal movie very likely drew upon Dupont’s film for its tale of a cantor’s son wanting to be a performer. For German audiences of the day, the enormous popularity of Henny Porten would have transcended any hesitations over the theme, though unlike her real-life story (in 1921 she married the Jewish doctor Wilhelm von Kaufmann), the characters refuse to wed outside the faith. Does the archduchess accept that a romance with Baruch is impossible because he’s Jewish, or because he’s a commoner, and an actor to boot? The movie gives signs that origin and profession are the key (once he’s ditched the peyes), though perhaps that’s because the religious barrier is too obvious to need addressing directly. Precisely because the status of urban German and Austrian middle-class Jews solidified in the 1920s, the backlash against integration and fears of assimilation continued to grow. Just days after the film’s premiere in late October 1923, anti-Semitic riots broke out in Berlin, specifically directed at the kinds of East European Jews represented by Baruch’s family.
While troubling clouds were developing over Europe, America was hardly free of its own homegrown anti-Semitism. Three years after the film’s release, the American magazine Motion Picture Classic ran a two-page profile of Dupont, giving the Jewish director Huguenot ancestry (the Gentile-ization of Hollywood performers was standard practice by then). Today, Dupont is best known as the director of Variety (1925), a spectacular film that’s maintained his status as one of the silent era’s more dynamic figures. He’d been working steadily as a director since 1918, but it wasn’t until his first pairing with Porten in the mountain-film Die Geier-Wally (1921) that his reputation began to take off. With The Ancient Law, Dupont’s attention to pictorial beauty as well as his facility with actors garnered accolades that made him one of the most highly praised European filmmakers until his ill-fated career in the sound era. The film has numerous striking moments worth singling out: the emotionally rich vignette of Baruch dreamily clutching Ahasuerus’ crown as he imagines a life in the theater; the potent long shot of Ruben Pick leaving the shtetl, his solitary figure enveloped by dust rolling in across the fields; the painterly beauty when the archduchess, realizing Baruch’s ambition is greater than his attachment to her, opens her sitting room window and basks in the sunlight.
Glowing critiques followed worldwide distribution, including in the U.S., though in her influential 1926 book Let’s Go to the Movies, Iris Barry calls it a “beautiful, unsuccessful film” (I haven’t found box-office figures and don’t know if the lack of success was due to sparse audiences or half-hearted distribution). She was especially taken by Deutsch, whom she compares to Charlie Chaplin and, indeed, his sensitive performance balances intelligence with humor. Like many in the cast and crew, Deutsch left Germany as anti-Semitism made life increasingly difficult. He ultimately returned to Berlin after World War II and is best remembered now as Baron Kurtz in The Third Man (1949). Abraham Morewski, one of the Yiddish theater’s true stars, also survived by fleeing to the Soviet Central Asian republics, making his way back to Latvia and ending his days as a star in Warsaw with Ida Kaminska’s State Jewish Theater. Others in the production weren’t so lucky: Paul Reno was murdered in Bergen-Belsen and Grete Berger, playing the rabbi’s wife, died in Auschwitz. Contrary to a number of sources, Werner Krauss is not in the cast.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by the Donald Sosin Ensemble