I love being thrilled and moved by movies I’ve never seen, or heard of, or always wanted to see. It’s why I’m addicted to collecting DVDs and Blu-Rays. Just when I think I’ve become so jaded that nothing will cinematically throw me for a loop, up pops a title like THE ANCIENT LAW (Das Alte Gesetz) from Flicker Alley (in conjunction with Museum fur Film und Fernsehem/The Sunrise Foundation/Fidelity in Motion/ROAM), and life is worth living again. This 1923 masterpiece, directed by the revered E.A. Dupont, is now available on a dual format Blu-Ray/DVD double platter, and classic movie fans/silent aficionados and scholars of Judaica best be rifling for their credit cards, even as they read these words.
THE ANCIENT LAW concerns a rabbi and his family, living in an 1860s Russian pogrom-dedicated hood. Unlike Fiddler on the Roof, life isn’t all that singy and songy (although, in all due respect, it wasn’t that great in the smash musical either). Rabbi Mayer’s (Avrom Morewski) biggest dream is that his well-read son Baruch (Ernst Deutsch, who resembles a pre-gray David Corn) follow in his footsteps. Baruch has other plans, however, fueled by wanderlust. During the joyous Purim ceremony, Baruch wows the locals (particularly the females) as he leads the youth of the village in an exuberant parade of pageantry and histrionics that terminally infects him with the acting bug. He asks his super-gorgeous girlfriend Esther (Margarete Schlegel, truly one of the most stunning actresses in all of silent cinema) if she’ll stand by him, but the winsome lass shudders at the thought of ever leaving the slum-kinda-wonderful town, the only place she’s ever known (it should be mentioned that her professor father is Caligari’s great Werner Krauss, far less sinister here, although similarly imposing). When nomadic beggar Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison) shows up for his annual kreplach feast, the cards are in play. He regales Baruch with tales of Vienna, the theaters, the women, the excitement. In one of the most double-take-friendly questions ever uttered in silent or sound cinema, Baruch meekly asks Ruben “Can a Jew become an actor?” Jesus!
Rabbi-dad is adamant, shouting the ancient law “The Jew’s strength is rooted in the ghetto!,” and follows it up by locking the boy in his room. Baruch’s mother (Grete Berger), the voice of compassion and reason, releases him, and he joins Pick en route to Vienna and, hopefully, fame.
But all isn’t latkes and blintzes in Germany. Baruch quickly becomes even poorer than he was before. Eventually, he is shown kindness by a traveling charlatan Herr Direktor (a particularly scummy Jacob Tiedtke), who provides provincial entertainment via his sleazy daughter and long-suffering wife (Alice Hechy, Olga Limburg). Baruch learns from the bottom up – literally, shoveling horse manure for caravan traveling rights. At last, however, he is given a chance. He goes out a hopeful, but comes back a star (of David). Trading the Bible for Shakespeare becomes a running theme through this epic period extravaganza (the picture unfolds at a swift 135 minutes). Baruch eventually attains infamous fame from goyim who admit he has something, but laugh him into the wings during his turn as Romeo due to his payot (Jewish sidelocks). That is, with the exception of Erzherzogin Elisabeth Theresia, the Archduchess of Hornytoads (a poignant, passionate performance by Henny Porten). The Archduchess covets Baruch like nobody’s bizness, and throws all caution, anti-Semitism and propriety to the wind to achieve her “goal.”
The female characters in THE ANCIENT LAW are sexually empowering, and as modern as any contemporary turn by Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron or Margot Robbie. The Archduchess is a prime example, using her birthright and charms to yank Baruch out of the lousy rep groups he’s in and onto the great showplaces of Vienna, much to the chagrin of the Royal’s snarky young handmaiden (Ruth Weyher). The slutty spawn of Herr Direktor, too, is way beyond the guidelines of traditional silent moviedom, pimping herself (with daddy’s approval) to aristocratic threesomes and foursomes (an exteme-closeup tongue tease could have been right out of a Gaspar Noe flick). It’s about as close to von Stroheim (who must have loved this movie) as LAW gets.
Jewish guilt likewise plays a major role in THE ANCIENT LAW. Baruch’s self-loathing forcing him to perform on the Day of Atonement (now minus his payot) is quite a sequence (the fact that it additionally concerns a Shakespeare drama with the word “ham” in the title doesn’t help either), justifiably appended by his far-away father being given a Shakespeare volume by Pick to replace his Bible. Assimilation is, thus, a key theme in the movie.
The painful reconciliation between father and son, the successful transport of Esther into the world of glitz and glamor (Baruch becomes Bavaria’s top actor), and the mazel tov capper for the mother all make for some riveting entertainment.
I truly cannot imagine that playwright Samson Raphaelson and star George Jessel did not see this picture before modernizing it up for The Jazz Singer, minus the art. THE ANCIENT LAW, scripted by Paul Reno, was based upon the memoirs of Heinrich Lauber (who is played in the movie by Hermann Vallentin, years after his metamorphosis from orthodox ghetto boy to thespian extraordinaire; here, he is presented as the aged, gruff, uncompromising impresario of the Viennese stage). Director Dupont, best known for the brilliant European classics Variety (1925), Piccadilly (1929) and Atlantis (1930), plays religious and sexual politics for all its worth. The meticulous, opulent production is testament to his moment in the sun. That he fled to America, nearly forgotten and ending up helming Grade-B 1950s flicks (Problem Girls, The Neanderthal Man, Return to Treasure Island) is a crime in and of itself. Other celebrated names involved in THE ANCIENT LAW include art director Alfred Junge (Black Narcissus) and, most notably d.p. Theodor Sparkuhl, who later gained much-deserved fame as an acclaimed cinematographer at Paramount. His style even here is a magnificent precursor to his later work, particularly If I Were King, High, Wide and Handsome, The Light that Failed, Beau Geste and The Glass Key.
There’s a reason why I had been fairly unfamiliar with THE ANCIENT LAW. It was nearly extinct, or rather extinguished (I can’t imagine that it led any popularity contests during the Nazi regime). This spectacular Flicker Alley restoration is a long-term association involving five countries (Sweden, France, Russia, Italy and America) who culled their 35MM materials, some with original color tints (beautifully restored as well). Occasional slight scratches aside, this complete 1923 roadshow German premiere version looks absolutely sensational.
Flicker Alley hasn’t stopped there. The extras alone are worth the purchase, including Essays on The Ancient Law, a luxuriously-illustrated booklet, a 15-minute tutorial on the restoration scans, a visual slide show, two scores (an ensemble piece by Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals, or an orchestral score by Philippe Schoeller) and the surviving elements from Der Film im Film, a stunning 1923 doc on Weimar cinema, featuring candid footage of Dupont, Fritz Lang and Robert Weine at work! They’ve done everything but throw in an extra pair of pants!
THE ANCIENT LAW. Black and white with tints and tones. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/The Museum fur Film und Fernsehem/The Sunrise Foundation/Fidelity in Motion/ROAM. CAT # FA0054. SRP: $39.95.