Sunday, 10 April 2016

A trade in meaning… The Merchant of Venice (1923), Barbican with Stephen Horne

There was a debate on the BBC this morning asking Is there more truth in Shakespeare than the Bible? during which it was agreed that it was vital to keep his art “alive” for “modern” audiences with fresh perspectives such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.

Now the same can be said for silent film – a seemingly far more “fixed” text but one that can reveal more of itself when accompanied live by a specialist accompanist such as Stephen Horne. Today Stephen was musically re-contextualizing a German film interpreting a Shakespeare play set in Venice and filmed actually in Venice.

The view from the Rialto Bridge...
One of the striking things about Shakespeare is how his very English works have spread beyond their linguistic home to Europe and beyond: it takes a playwright of immense ability to succeed beyond translation – Chekov, Ibsen, Molière all play across Europe but our Will is still in a league of his own. His plays originally drew from European history and culture and so it’s perhaps not too surprising that, for example, a Dane, Asta Nielsen, was so keen on playing Hamlet – history aside, the universality of themes and the sheer precision of Shakespearean narrative made for perfect connection in any language.

What appealed to director/producer/writer Peter Paul Felner about The Merchant of Venice? It’s a play about more than just Jewish money-lending and in the wrecked economics of Weimar Germany, the power of the “bond” to destroy lives would have been an all-too pertinent theme. There are also themes of love thwarted by class divide as well – one character lends money to impress his love who later claims that her love cannot be bought… only earned.

Henny Porten
Then there are religious divides, ones which never go away, a Jewish girl is promised to another of her religion under an arrangement made by their fathers, but she loves a Christian and has to find a way to breach her cultural containment.

It all sounds very modern and Stephen played with passion and impeccable timing to bring out the full flavour of this still potent cocktail of money, love and hate.

The film was re-christened The Jew of Mestri for its release in the US and this was the copy we watched, apparently two reels short of the full German version. The opening titles gave credit for the story to John of Florence (Giovanni Fiorentino) who wrote a similar tale two centuries before Shakespeare. The story doesn’t quite go as the William of Warwickshire later told it but that was undoubtedly the original source material for the film even though, as the introductory text has it, alterations were added to suit modern standards of “good taste”.

Werner Krauss as a Shylock shorn of sanity
Werner Krauss makes for an excellent Shylock/ Jew of Mestri, with a brand of extreme physicality that reminded me of Emil Jannings: almost exhausting to watch but a man worn down to his limits by grief, loss and a need to exact his pound of flesh. In this context, Shylock is clearly beyond his wit’s end and having lost wife and daughter to death and Christianity respectively, has nowhere to go but despair.

The film starts with his daughter Rebecca but really Jessica played by the striking Lia Eibenschütz falling in love with the Christian Lorenzo – one of the local high-powered likely lads but with a heart of gold. Shylock promises her hand to the son his friend Tubal (Albert Steinrück) but, amidst the celebrations no one notices Jessica’s desolation.

Harry Liedtke as Bassanio
Lorenzo is a friend of Bassanio (Harry Liedtke) a playboy of good humour and plenty of bad debt who relies heavily on his wealthy pal, Antonio (Carl Ebert), the merchant of Venice.

Bassanio encounters heiress Portia (Weimar superstar Henny Porten) and is quickly robbed of his wanderlust and a desire to settle down. Antonio offers to help him look wealthy so that he can match Portia’s social station and all is going well until Antonio’s ships start sinking…

Before that, there’s an tragic confrontation between the boys and Shylock’s mother (one of those “new” characters) who has a fatal heart attack after berating Antonio for his interest-free loans (that was Shylock’s concern in the play – he had to lower his rates…)

Carl Ebert is the Merchant!
There’s very bad blood between the men and so when Antonio needs to borrow money until his remaining vessels make it to port to recover his losses, Shylock takes full advantage with an interest-free loan that has one main condition in the event of a default: he must have a pound of flesh…

Only unlikely misfortune can endanger the deal and so it comes to pass as the remainder of Antonio’s fleet goes missing and all is set for the classic court room climax – Antonio will be noble, Shylock will be deranged and, of course, girls will be boys with years of legal training behind them…

No doubt the film would benefit from the exposition of those extra reels but it still works… with good performances all round and even Max Schreck as “Der Doge von Venedig” – you’d hardly know it was the Count at all.

Al fresco sewing
The cinematography of Axel Graatkjaer and Rudolph Maté is high standard and makes the most of the outstanding location: it’s hard to go wrong in Venice and it’s fun location-spotting from the market on the Rialto Bridge (still there if a little to the left) to the Bridge of Sighs, Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.

I haven’t seen the play since Dustin Hoffman came across to London in 1989 – itself a mix of film star and classic theatre - so I’m not too clear on the pure version but the film showed again how malleable the Merchant is helped enormously by next context of the music.

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