“The Ancient Law,” a silent German film about 19th century Jewish life in Europe that premiered in 1923, was resurrected 95 years later for a screening by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Thursday night at The Woodruff Arts Center.
The film looked almost as good on the Woodruff’s screen as it did nearly a century ago at its premiere in Berlin. Through the magic of the digital film restoration team at the German Deutsche Kinemathek, we are reminded once again that silent film in the 1920s was an impressive art form in its own right with a strong narrative tradition.
“The Ancient Law” tells the story of the rise of a sensitive, yet ambitious young man, Baruch Mayer, portrayed by the Austrian Jewish actor, Ernst Deutsch. He is the son of a rabbi in what the film calls a ghetto, but what we have come to know as a poor shtetl or Jewish village in Eastern Europe.
The film eventually takes him to Vienna and he achieves great success as an actor in the prestigious Royal Court Theatre. But for him and, especially, his devoutly religious father, there is no way to fully escape the power of “the ancient law,” the law of Jewish life and tradition that has shaped the Jewish consciousness over the millennia.
Baruch’s rapid rise to stardom is aided by a love affair with Viennese royalty, the Archduchess Elisabeth Theresa, but she eventually rejects him because of his Jewish heritage.
“We too,” she sighs, “are slaves to an ancient law — etiquette.” Good manners, presumably, don’t allow her to say what she really means, that their romance is doomed because of the notorious anti-Semitism of Viennese society.
Director E.A. Dupont and screenwriter Paul Reno, whose real name was Pinkus Nothmann, were both Jews who fully understood the social dos and don’ts of Austrian society. Their hero, Baruch, is modelled, in part, on a real-life Jewish actor of the mid-19th century, Bogumil Dawison, who never quite made it to the top.
The prominent director of Vienna’s most important theater, Heinrich Laube, apparently didn’t believe Jews could handle leading roles. Moreover, he demanded that all his Jewish actors either assimilate or be fired.
The pull of assimilation was strong in both Germany and Austria, which attracted large numbers of Jews from the poor regions of Eastern Europe who flooded into Vienna and the cities of Germany. Many quickly abandoned the ancient law in favor of the social and political advantages that came with religious conversion.
But the hero of The Ancient Law never gives up his attachment to his religious upbringing, even when he chooses, after great anguish, to go on stage on erev Yom Kippur in his first starring role.
It’s said that the silent film, “The Ancient Law,” may have inspired, just four years later, the first great success of the sound motion picture era, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. It starred the great American Jewish singer, Al Jolson, who also struggles in the film with assimilation and the power of religious tradition.
Although it is not immune to the occasional theatrical excesses of the films of the period, “The Ancient Law” generally is a well-crafted, atmospheric story of Jewish life with strong performances that make you forget this is a film, without sound, that’s more than two hours long.
Although the German print did not survive the war years, the cinema detectives in Berlin painstakingly pieced together the film with prints found in five nations, including our own Library of Congress, and even matched up the original tinted film stock.
They added an original musical score by the master of silent film music in our time, the composer and pianist Donald Sosin, and one of the greatest klezmer violinists in the world, Alicia Svigals. She co-founded and led for many years the Grammy award-winning Klezmatic band. Both Sosin and Svigals were on hand this week to accompany the film in a live performance.
“The Ancient Law” was another in a series of this year’s AJFF Selects presentations, which screens a selection of films with Jewish themes at area theaters throughout the year. This program was co-sponsored by the German Consulate General in Atlanta and Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies.