Sunday, October 07, 2018

Das alte Gesetz / The Ancient Law (2018 restoration by Deutsche Kinemathek)

Das alte Gesetz. Poster by Josef Fenneker.

Das alte Gesetz. Poster by Theo Matejko.

DE 1923
regia/dir: E. A. Dupont.
scen: Paul Reno, dalle memorie di / from the memoirs by Heinrich Laube.
photog: Theodor Sparkuhl.
scg/des: Alfred Junge, Curt Kahle.
cost: Ali Hubert.
cast: Ernst Deutsch (Baruch), Henny Porten (arciduchessa / Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia), Ruth Weyher (dama di corte / Lady-in-waiting), Hermann Vallentin (Heinrich Laube), Abraham Morewski (Rabbi Mayer), Grete Berger (sua moglie / his wife), Robert Garrison (Ruben Pick), Fritz Richard (Professor Nathan), Margarete Schlegel (Esther), Jacob Tiedtke (direttore della compagnia teatrale / Director of the theatre company), Olga Limburg (sua moglie / his wife), Alice Hechy (la figlia / their daughter), Julius M. Brandt (un vecchio attore / an old actor), Fritz Richard (Nathan), Wolfgang Zilzer (Page), Kálmán Zátony (Josef Wagner), Dominik Löscher, Philipp Manning, Alfred Krafft-Lortzing, Robert Scholz.
prod: Comedia-Film GmbH, Berlin.
prod. mgr:  Max Paetz.
v.c./censor date: 18.10.1923.
uscita/rel: 29.10.1923 (Marmorhaus, Berlin).
copia/copy: DCP, 137′, col. (da/from 35 mm, orig. 3028 m., imbibito / tinted); did. / titles: GER, subt. ENG.
fonte/source: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM)
    Musical interpretation: Alicia Svigals (violin), Donald Sosin (grand piano), Romano Todesco (double bass), Frank Bockius (alla batteria).
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, 7 Oct 2018.

Jay Weissberg (GCM): "It’s peculiar how E. A. Dupont’s reputation always seems to hover on the edge of greatness, accorded high status for Varieté but then dropping a bit despite the excellence of films like Moulin Rouge and Piccadilly. Lotte Eisner, ever poetic, wrote that Dupont “succeeded in giving exquisite subtleties to his images… He makes the interiors vibrate with the atmosphere appropriate to each situation, marrying the velvet of the darks to the tender silk of the lights.” She was discussing Das alte Gesetz, a film that’s been well-studied following a 1984 restoration, largely for the way it sympathetically captures mid-19th century Jewish life via the story of an actor’s rise from his shtetl origins to the aristocratic world of Vienna. Yet our appreciation has significantly increased thanks to the new restoration by the 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 two additional prints to the four previously known. The resulting restoration, overseen by Daniel Meiller at the Deutsche Kinemathek, was an especially complex process which reproduces as much as possible the original German release, including the color palette shared by both the American and Swedish release prints."

"Scholars of the film tend to fall into two camps: those like Eisner who practically ignore the storyline and focus on the aesthetics, celebrating the way Dupont and cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl emulate the light and shadow of a Rembrandt etching, and those who bypass the palpable beauty to analyze what the film says about assimilation and the divide between Jewish peasant life and that of their “Westernized” city-dwelling co-religionists (one also thinks of Der gelbe Schein, 1918, screened at the Giornate last year). It’s a shame so few scholars bring both perspectives together, since hiding from the film’s fascinating treatment of Jewish life misses a key reason why Das alte Gesetz is so special, while dealing only with the storyline not only sidelines its cinematic qualities but relegates the movie to that ghettoized subsection called “Jewish films.”"

"Screenwriter Paul Reno (born Pinkus Nothmann) was partly inspired by the 19th-century actor Bogumił Dawison, hired by Heinrich Laube at the Burgtheater in 1849. The real 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. It’s interesting to note that Harry A. Potamkin, in his key discussion of Jewish characteristics in film (“Movie: New York Notes,” Close Up, February 1930), particularly praised Das alte Gesetz for its refusal to turn Jewishness into a schtick, favorably comparing Abraham Morewski, as Rabbi Mayer, to the over-sentimentality of practically everyone in The Jazz Singer. In addition, the film refreshingly presents the shtetl as a traditional rural village, not the impoverished and foul-looking place of misery so often associated with such communities."

"For German audiences of the day, the enormous popularity of Henny Porten would have transcended most thematic hesitations, 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 Porten’s Archduchess accept that a romance with Baruch (Ernst Deutsch) 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, though perhaps that’s because the religious barrier is too obvious to need addressing directly. Precisely because the 1920s saw a solidification of the status of urban German and Austrian middle-class Jews, 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."

"Dupont first worked with Porten in Die Geier-Wally (1921), exactly when his reputation began to rise and hers was undergoing a maturation process; she acted as producer on the first two of their three collaborations. Anna Schierse of the Landesarchiv in Berlin has discovered however that Comedia-Film, the short-lived production company for Das alte Gesetz, was owned by Ernst Deutsch and Hans Janowitz. Glowing critiques followed the worldwide distribution of Das alte Gesetz, with Iris Barry calling it a “beautiful, unsuccessful film” (she was especially taken by Deutsch, whom she compares to Charlie Chaplin). Like many in the cast and crew, Deutsch left Germany as anti-Semitism made life increasingly difficult. Morewski, one of the Yiddish theater’s giants, 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 Kamińska’s State Jewish Theater. Others in the production weren’t so lucky: Paul Reno was murdered in Bergen-Belsen and Grete Berger, who played the Rabbi’s wife, died in Auschwitz. Contrary to a number of sources, Werner Krauss is not in the cast. I am indebted to Cynthia Walk, whose work on the film has been seminal to our understanding of its history and thematic importance." Jay Weissberg

AA: A rebirth for a classic of the Weimar cinema.

We screened the previous restoration of Das alte Gesetz 30 years ago at Cinema Orion in Helsinki when it was a part of one of the FIAF 50 Touring Shows. It was very well made, but this new restoration is a revelation. Das alte Gesetz really needs this beautiful treatment because the subtle lighting design is of the essence.

The prohibition of the image was taken seriously until recently in the Jewish tradition. Baruch, the son of a rabbi, commits blasphemy in considering a career in the theatre. He is shocked to visit for the first time the Archduchess's premises where the walls and ceilings are completely covered with images.

In this presentation the affinity was more obvious than before to Samson Raphaelson's short story "The Day of Atonement" (1922), which became the basis for The Jazz Singer. Both do climax on Yom Kippur. In Das alte Gesetz Baruch has his great premiere as Hamlet on that very day. E. A. Dupont creates a long parallel montage sequence switching between the Burgtheater performance and the holy ceremony.

Significantly, the play is Hamlet, next to Oedipus Rex the most prominent tragedy on Vatermord.

After the success of Varieté, his masterpiece, E. A. Dupont became known for a flashy approach to sensational subjects. In Das alte Gesetz he is at his best. The mise-en-scène is assured. The direction of actors is powerful but controlled. The collaboration with the cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl is intensive.

Henny Porten is dignified as the Archduchess, a victim of an "ancient law" of her own, in tears at her own destiny as a woman while watching Baruch as Hamlet. The authority of Hermann Vallentin as the theater director is convincing. He plays Heinrich Laube, the very man on whose memoirs the film is based. Abraham Morewski as Rabbi Mayer, Baruch's father, Grete Berger as his mother, and Margarethe Schlegel as his fiancée Esther convey a warmth of the family and the community. The middleman to the great world outside is the Schnorrer Ruben Pick played by Robert Garrison. Ernst Deutsch carries the leading role with conviction.

Dupont alternates between the intimate and the epic. He handles well the crowd scenes of the Burgwache, at the synagogue, in the theatre (the "plays within the play" are electrifying), and at the ball room where Johann Strauss is conducting.

The intensity keeps growing towards the finale. There is a refined series of vignettes illustrating the Schnorrer's account to Baruch about circumstances at home. Baruch returns home for Passover, but for his father, "my son is dead". A reconciliation is still possible when the rabbi learns more about his son's calling. The film ends on a note of tact and restraint.

A warm, versatile, and deeply moving score was heard by Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin who played tonight together with Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius. In the climactic Yom Kippur sequence they played "Kol Nidre" which I know in the Max Bruch version. Now I realize that the familiar tunes are traditional holy melodies to which Bruch paid tribute.

The beautiful restoration conveys the luminosity of the cinematography. The colour world is subtle and charming. We know Lotte H. Eisner's praise of the exceptional visual quality of this movie in L'Écran démoniaque. This restoration helps us understand why.


Das alte Gesetz
Juutalainen / En jude / The Ancient Law

Saksa 1923. Tuotantoyhtiöt: Comedia-Film, Berlin. Ohjaus: E. A. Dupont. Neuvonantaja: Avrom Morewski. Käsikirjoitus: Paul Reno – Heinrich Lauben muistelmista. Kuvaus ja valot: Theodor Sparkuhl. Lavastus: Alfred Junge (suunnittelu), Kurt Kahle. Puvut: Ali Hubert.
    Pääosissa: Gheton ihmisiä. Avrom Morewski (rabbi), Ernst Deutsch (hänen poikansa Baruch), Grete Berger (hänen vaimonsa), Robert Garrison (Ruben Pick, der Schnorrer), Fritz Richard (tarjoilija Nathan), Margarete Schlegel (hänen tyttärensa Esther). Teatterin ihmisiä. Jacob Tiedtke (teatteripäällikkö), Olga Limburg (hänen vaimonsa), Alice Hechy (hänen tyttärensä), Julius M. Brandt (vanha näyttelijä). Wienin ihmisiä. Henny Porten (herttuatar Elisabeth Theresia), Ruth Weyher (hovineiti), Hermann Vallentin (Heinrich Laube, Wienin Hofburg -teatterin johtaja), Kòlòman Zatong (Joseph Wagner).
    Helsingin ensiesitys: 18.1.1925 Kino-Palatsi, maahantuoja Suomen Biografi Osakeyhtiö – 12791 – S
    Restauroitu laitos 2018: Deutsche Kinemathek – 2K DCP – musiikkikopio (Donald Sosin, Alicia Svigals) – English subtitles – 137 min

    Vanha laki antaa meille tilaisuuden arvioida Dupontin todellisia ominaisuuksia. Hänen kuvailmaisussaan on tavatonta hienostuneisuutta, ja hänen liikkuma-alueessaan on tilaa loputtomille muunnelmille. Hänen tavoitteenaan ei ole ornamentaalisen muodon germaaninen liikkumattomuus eikä dekoratiivinen tyylittely vaan sävyjen yhteensovittaminen. Yrittäessään vangita valohämyn ohimeneviä vaikutelmia hän käyttää milloin ruudullista takkia tai raidallista pitsinauhaa, milloin taas kukkamaljakkoa tai gobeliininkaistaletta. Hän saa kuhunkin tilanteeseen sopivan atmosfäärin väreilemään interiöörissä; pimeyden sametti yhtyy valon pehmeään silkkiin. Näyttelijöiden asettelu on tavattoman eleganttia ja sensitiivistä mutta samalla liioittelematonta esimerkiksi kohtauksessa, jossa tyttö, joka rakastaa Baruchia, kätkee epätoivoissaan päänsä vuoteeseen, joka tuo esiin hänen haurautensa puvun raskaiden laskosten alla. Dupont sommittelee aidon Kammerspiel-kohtauksen Henry Portenin ja Ernst Deutschin välille; taftipuvun himmeä hehku sulautuu takana olevassa ikkunassa heijastuvan hiljaisen olohuoneen puolihämärään.
    Historialliset asut lakkaavat olemasta naamiaispukuja. Nämä ovat henkiin heränneitä daguerrotypioita; krinoliinit kieppuvat parkettien halki, vehreiden nurmikoiden poikki. Vaihtuvien valovaikutelmien rikkaus on maagista.
    Miten taitavasti Dupont välttääkään jyrkkiä kontrasteja ja väkinäisiä tehokeinoja hämärässä maalaisghetosssa. Kuvaajansa Theodor Sparkuhlin avulla hän yltää Rembrandtin koulun etsausten veroiseen voimaan ja sfumatoon. Näitä kohtauksia tarvitsee vain verrata Pabstin Synnin koston (Der Prozess) kohtauksiin, jotka tapahtuvat myös oikeaoppisessa juutalaismiljöössä, jotta voidaan arvostaa täysmittaisesti Dupontin makua ja arvostelukykyä.

EWALD ANDRÉ DUPONT (1891–1956), ohjaaja, käsikirjoittaja, lehtimies. Kunniasija elokuvan historiassa elokuvan Varietee (1925) perusteella, jonka loistoa sittemmin turhaan tavoittelee (Piccadilly, 1929; Moulin Rouge, 1929; Salto mortale, 1931). Vuodesta 1926 alkaen Englannissa ja USA:ssa; vuonna 1933 juutalaisen Dupontin oleskelu ulkomailla muuttuu maanpaoksi. Ohjaa viihde-elokuvia Universalille, MGM:lle ja Paramountille: Dupontin lyötyä yhtä The Dead End Kids -ryhmän lapsinäyttelijää ura katkeaa. Journalistina ja PR- miehenä vietetyn 1940- luvun jälkeen paluu elokuvaohjaajaksi lähinnä C-luokan teoksissa (The Neanderthal Man, 1953).   

– Antti Alanen 17.5.1989 (FIAF 50 Touring Show), päivitys 25.11.2018 (Deutsche Kinemathek 2018)

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