I have never seen The Jazz Singer
(1927). Periodically I remember that it's a landmark of cinema and then I remember that I still haven't recovered from Wonder Bar
(1934). Fortunately, if you're looking for a movie about the negotiation of traditional observance with secular art, the complicated relationship of a religious father and a rebellious son, and the question of what it means to be a Jew on the bimah or onstage, I can now recommend you E.A. Dupont's The Ancient Law
(Das alte Gesetz
, 1923), recently and exquisitely restored by Deutsche Kinemathek. I saw it last week before Arisia; I loved it. It's timely, heartfelt, intelligently scripted and richly staged, and there's not a mammy number in sight.
It is also historical fiction, continuing this month's accidental theme
. Partly inspired by the life of actor Bogumil Dawison and the memoirs of impresario Heinrich Laube, The Ancient Law
is subtitled "Ein Film aus den sechziger Jahren"—"A Film from the Sixties." That would be the 1860's, a notable period of Jewish emigration and emancipation within the Austrian Empire; through the parallels of the past, the screenplay by Paul Reno can speak directly to Weimar anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and anti-Semitism, none of which have become exactly irrelevant today. There are always people moving across borders, between definitions. Baruch Mayer (Ernst Deutsch) looks the old-country picture of a rabbi's son, soulful and scholarly, properly frum, already engaged in the formal moves of parentally approved romance with Esther (Margarete Schlegel), the gabbai's daughter who watches him with a kind of bold shyness over the mechitzah of the women's balcony in shul, but when the tall youth impulsively takes a turn in the carnival of a door-to-door Purimspiel, the tin crown and false beard of King Ahauserus reveal something that isn't so heymish: a flair for theater that can't be realized within the rural streets and ritual bounds of his Galician shtetl. "In the world outside," the tinker-like wanderer Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison) attempts to impress on an outraged Rabbi Mayer (Abraham Morewski), "actors are highly esteemed people!" but the rabbi is having none of it. His heir is to keep his eyes on the Talmud, not the infectious nonsense of Shakespeare. They fight bitterly, escalatingly; it ends when Baruch runs away with the clothes on his back, the grieving blessing of his mother (Grete Berger), and a promise to return for Esther once he's made his fortune. The viewer may expect the next few acts to trace his rise from ostjüdisch
nobody to darling of the Burgtheater and the romantically generous Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia (Henny Porten), at each step leaving behind a little more of his old, unassimilated life, but one of the beauties of this film is how much this process is neither a binary nor a one-way street. It makes the audience hopeful of Baruch's reconciliation with his family, which he is increasingly shown to desire as much as his glittering Viennese career; it's sufficiently realistic that we don't feel guaranteed of anything. I saw this movie with my parents and we were breathless in the final scene, not knowing which way it would tip off the fine edge of emotion that comedy and tragedy both share.
Deutsch is almost certainly best known nowadays for The Third Man
(1949), where he embodied the ambiguity of Reed's postwar Vienna as much as the deep noir cinematography or the nervy zither score; I last saw him as the rabbi's antiheroic assistant in The Golem, How He Came into the World
(Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam
, 1920). With his dark-winged unibrow, his steadily burning eyes, and his sharply cut yet full-mouthed face, he made an ideal young hero of Expressionist stage and screen; he could look both pensive and piercing, dreamy and dangerous, and he sometimes gives the impression, like Conrad Veidt, of hailing from a planet where everyone has better cheekbones and doesn't blink. He's spellbinding and adorable as Baruch, effortlessly graduating from stage-struck yeshiva bokher to his generation's Hamlet. I think it's only sensible of the camera to consider him just as beautiful in his Hasid's yarmulke and black silk bekishe as in the sack coats and checked trousers of a Viennese man-about-town, but it matches the film's approach to assimilation as a spectrum, not a switch. That said, nothing here glosses over the forces that encourage it, ambition included but also anti-Semitism. Baruch's first experience of the theatrical life is the seediest and most satirical sequence in the film, as he falls in with a traveling family who perform what it is probably generous to call provincial theater. Penniless as he is, he's used as groom and gofer instead of actually apprenticed, but he studies his Shakespeare in between harnessing and mucking out and finally gets the chance to show it off when a picnic of Habsburg aristocrats summons the troupe for an evening's entertainment. It's the mechanicals at the court of Theseus: the actors are keyed up for success and patronage, but the audience is hoping for an MST3K-grade travesty and they get it, from a buffoonish middle-aged Mercutio to a canvas balcony that wobbles precariously with every moue of its smirking Juliet, but there's something about this back-country Romeo, acting his heart out as if he's not in a barn with kerosene footlights and an audience half composed of slumming courtiers and flirting peasants, that has the ladies intrigued behind their lorgnettes even as the gentlemen exchange side-eyes. He's even got the Archduchess quietly sobbing as he approaches the climactic love-suicide—and then, in an inspired improvisation of distracted grief, he pulls off the embroidered cap of his costume and his curly dark peyes come springing out. They might as well be horns. "Ein Romeo mit Judenlocken!" The crowd goes up in a guffaw, as if the very concept of Jewish romance is a burlesque. The curtain is hastily rung down. Two swells applaud the fuming director for his innovative casting of the "ghetto Jew" who can turn any drama he touches to comedy gold; a humiliated Baruch, stripped of Montague finery and back in his unmistakably Jewish street clothes, is mockingly saluted as "the Romeo from the Tribe of Asra!" His fortunes change for the better that very night, but it is impossible for the viewer not to recall that laughter and its scalding assumptions when we see him arrive at the Burgtheater in gentile dress, his unruly hair carefully ringleted to camouflage the tell-tale sidecurls. Following his barnstorming audition, they're the only wrong note in the reflection of a new-minted fellow of the Royal and Imperial Court Theater. Now the action reverts to the shtetl, where Esther's father (Fritz Richard) is encouraging her to accept the match he's arranged for her; as they speak, she's polishing the Shabbes candlesticks and he's knotting tzitzis. "Who are you waiting for?" he presses gently. "Baruch? He is lost to us . . ." Her small defiant face and her father's hands on the fringes of the tallis dissolve into Baruch squaring himself before the mirror, the scissors in his hands. The shear of the blades is shocking even without sound. He pulls one severed lock free, then the other; they drop from his fingers like dead things. As we watch him slick and comb his no longer so obviously Jewish frizz into a smart side-parting, we're not sure that her father isn't right after all.
Of course it's not that simple, because people's lives are not that simple, but movies often are, so I love that this one is not. It feels important, for example, that as high as Baruch's star rises in Viennese society, he never changes his name, a more Jewish moniker than which is hard to imagine. I know it's important that he's presented with a direct conflict between his religion and his profession, but I was not expecting the way it resolved. Having impressed an initially unreceptive Laube (Hermann Vallentin) on his own merits and received a further boost in the company's pecking order through the discreet interference of the Archduchess, Baruch is to open a new production of Hamlet
in the title role; it's an ambitious but clever match for his intensity, his lyricism, and his gift for irony, not to mention his still unresolved issues with his father, whom we glimpse from time to time with the rest of the shtetl in cutaway vignettes. The catch? Opening night is Erev Yom Kippur. Genuinely distressed, Baruch protests that he can't act on the most important night of the Jewish year, only to be told by the exacting director that there's no more important night in an actor's year than an opening: "If you don't perform the day after tomorrow, you won't perform at all! Adieu!" Evening comes and with it the shtetl's preparations for the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Mayer presiding over a tish before the fast begins, his son's place at the table still conspicuous in its emptiness. The candles are lit in the synagogue with its murals and the white embroidered paroches of the High Holidays, as they are in the great chandelier of the theater with its stalls and draped boxes; the stormy, melancholy look on the star's face as he places the prince's royal chain around his neck is not all Hamlet's, nor merely first-night nerves. As the orchestra tunes up and the spear-carriers take their places, the agitated Baruch retrieves a small book from the pocket of his hung-up coat. He clears a space at his dressing table, closes his eyes, bends over the parted pages. Is he conning his lines last-minute? He's davening, the only observant Jew in the K.K. Hofburgtheater and he will not miss Yom Kippur. The two worlds of the film don't collapse so much as they are shown to exist in superposition all along. The theater audience and the synagogue congregation fill their chosen spaces with the same mix of serious attention and community bustle, dark-striped prayer shawls no stranger to the camera's eye than white-tie evening dress, and the prompter who knocks at Hamlet's door finds him rocking over his book as if in the beys-medrish, utterly heedless of his call time. Whatever the man makes of the visible Hebrew, all he does is, matter-of-factly, his job: "Come on! You're on stage . . ." Startled but not shamed, Baruch with not a minute to lose slips the prayer book inside his fur-trimmed doublet, furls himself in Hamlet's black cloak, and plays one of the greatest roles of Western theater with a machzor over his heart. The cantor is reciting Kol Nidre, the Aramaic formula that preemptively forgives all pledges and promises broken by accident or inability. Without irony on either side, the staging shows a congregation moved to tears by prayer just as strongly as an audience by poetry, the hazzan's voice, the actor's body. Baruch afterward is totally wrung out, absolutely glowing, and the night is crowned when Laube at last shakes the hand of his firebrand Jewish Hamlet. When a note arrives from the Archduchess, inviting him to a ball at the Grand Redoute, he tucks it between the pages of the machzor. The answer to the question he asked Ruben Pick all those months ago is a resounding yes, and he didn't have to stop being a Jew to do it.
The same smart sensitivity characterizes the resolutions of the film's other subplots, chiefly Baruch's relationships with the Archduchess and with his family. ( It is the spirit of the other world. )
At this point I stop caring whether the optimism of the ending was impelled by the pressures of the times or whether its call for empathy should be considered a failed project in light of the Nazi future through which it is almost impossible not to view a Weimar German Jewish film: with my mixed parentage and my mixed relationships and my marriage which was formalized under a chuppah with a line from American musical theater translated into Hebrew, it is important to me to see stories where the negotiation of identities is not either/or.
And this film looks fantastic doing it. The Ancient Law
runs 135 minutes in seven acts and was never technically lost, having existed in various international versions and a black-and-white reconstruction of the German version since 1984, but the original camera negative had long since gone the way of most nitrate and it was not until the film's censorship card surfaced in the '90's that curators could even be confident about the original wording of the intertitles or the rightful order of some of the scenes. Completed in 2017, the current digital restoration incorporates material from five different international prints and I can tell because it was mentioned in the introductory notes, not because there are visible seams. Every now and then a fracture of damage washes across the screen and the rest of the time it looks crisp as a ghost, tinted amber, rose, or blue as the mise-en-scène requires. I should have guessed that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl would eventually wind up in America, contributing his painterly photography to the nascent noir style, but in the meantime his Purim kreplach are as mouthwatering as his backstage shots of Hamlet
are technical and thrilling. When Ruben Pick takes his leave of Baruch at the edge of the shtetl, he disappears down the dust-track of the road into endless grasslands and a wind that seems to fold him away into itself. Baruch and Esther embracing at last are a cameo of pure romance, an oval-masked rebuke to the idea that Jewish love can't take your breath away. Backgrounds as disparate as a rabbi's book-stacked study or a candle-blazing grand salon are all handled by Alfred Junge, without whose later production design for Powell and Pressburger I can't imagine their time-slipped Kent
, myth-misted Hebrides
, or hothouse artificial India
. This film is, incidentally, an extremely #ownvoices production—Dupont and Reno were both Jewish, as was the majority of their cast. I have exactly one complaint about the subtitling and it's the intertitles' own fault for using Osterfest
in the first place. Since Morewski doubled as the film's technical advisor on matters of Yiddishkeit, that line about "Easter" being celebrated in the ghetto is on him.
I saw this movie at Temple Israel
; it was a co-presentation of the Jewish Arts Collective
and Boston Jewish Film
with live accompaniment by Alicia Svigals
and Donald Sosin
which would, frankly, have been worth the price as a concert. Both the program and discussion afterward pointed out that while Samson Raphaelson's short story "The Day of Atonement" (1922) predates The Ancient Law
, the Hollywood talkie it was eventually adapted into—The Jazz Singer
—owes an appreciable debt to the German silent, apparently right down to specific scenes. If you'd like to make the comparison for yourself, you can get the Blu-Ray/DVD from Flicker Alley
. Svigals and Sosin's nign-like, waltz-time, violin-twined score is included. No jazz, but I'm still sticking with Deutsch, for whom Shakespeare supplements but does not supplant the Talmud. This heart brought to you by my esteemed backers at Patreon