Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A million miles, for one of your smiles… The Ancient Law (1923), with Meg Morley, Phoenix Cinema, London

This was the UK premier of a new restoration from the Deutsche Kinematek and, possibly, for the film itself: a real coup for the Phoenix and ace programmer Miranda Gower-Qian. Finding a German film sympathetic to the Jewish community in 1923 is not too surprising perhaps – the community was arguably more integrated than in other parts of Europe - but there had long been undercurrents of anti-Semitism even before the Great War and its aftermath. The Weimar arts community was liberal and forward thinking and hadn’t yet been shut down by the dangerous populism filtering through a society deeply in debt and poltically-fragmented.

Directed by EA Dupont – later to direct Variety, then Piccadilly and Moulin Rouge after his escape to Britain – Das alte Gesetz is a highly accomplished film that deals with the push and pull between those who want to integrate and those who want to stay separate.  Assimilation can split families but so can self-exclusion, it is still an every day tragedy and one that gives this pitch-perfect story significant power still. There’s additional resonance from the fact that so many of the cast and crew were Jewish… actors enjoying the freedom to ply their trade denied their more orthodox forebears with far worse to come.

Avrom Morewski and Robert Garrison
This restoration was completed from several non-German copies (as with Pandora’s Box and many others… the original negatives have long since been purged) and first presented at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and today the Phoenix was presenting the premier hours before it was unveiled at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Set in 1860’s Vienna and – apparently the basis for The Jazz Singer – the story focuses on tensions between orthodox society and the ambitions of a Rabbi’s son to become an actor. Rabbi Mayer is superbly played by Avrom Morewski and his son Baruch by Ernst Deutsch - such a feature of later talkies.

Ernst Deutsch 
The family lives in the Ghetto and are happy to stay amongst their own people as they follow a life of religious and traditional diligence. Baruch seems happy to be a part of things but during the festivities of Purim where the young dress up to act the part of religious figures, Baruch can’t resist and plays one of the leading roles much against tradition and to his father’s displeasure.

Baruch wants to be an actor, he wants to leave the Ghetto and is inspired by Ruben Pick (the excellent Robert Garrison) who travels afar and amongst wider Gentile society. Ruben sees the wanderlust and ambition in Baruch as a good thing whereas Rabbi Mayer believes the only way is to stay. There’s a great shot of Pick leaving the Ghetto, a low-angle showing him walking off down a path stretching to the far distance, he walks for some time and then a gust of wind suddenly floats a cloud of dust across the path behind him: the cinematography from Theodor Sparkuhl is crisp and inventive - this is a very good-looking film and the restoration is quite lovely.

Margarete Schlegel - told you...
Baruch is in love with a local girl, Esther (the striking Margarete Schlegel) and promises to return for her once he has made his name and fortune: it will break his mother (Grete Berger), he is determined to leave even after his father locks him in the house. He finds a way and his father’s desperate cries reflect the film’s subtlety – unlike The Jazz Singer perhaps, we have sympathy for all the characters, throughout. Plus, there’s no minstrelling… this film is just more authentic and nuanced. 

Baruch has no money and finds work mucking out the horses and writing programme notes for a travelling band of performers with whom he eventually gets a chance to act. His Shakespeare is not to everyone’s taste – far from it – but it attracts the attention of the Arch Duchess Erzherzogin Elisabeth Theresia (the always watchable, Henny Porten) who takes a shine to more than just his acting talents… She engineers him his big break at the Royal Theatre managed by the fearsome Heinrich Laube (Hermann Valentin) upon whose memoires the story is originally based.

Henny Porten and Ernst Deutsch

Proper cultured, urban types really love his work and Baruch is soon playing Hamlet and Don Giovani and it’s during a performance of the latter that Ruben persuades the Rabbi to come and see his son. It’s overwhelming… and the impact so great that the old man enters a decline his broken heart unable to resolve his love with acceptance.

Can there be a meeting between minds old and young, before it’s too late, and will the struggle even end there?

Phoenix-debutante Meg Morley played up a storm on keyboards, presenting flowing accompaniment of impressive warmth and narrative flexibility. This was the first time I’d heard Meg play electronic keyboards and the added bass allowed a jazzier feel more akin to her day job, with music that – for me - channelled Keith Jarrett, Jacques Loussier-baroque and a flavour of Klezmer. Very assured and full of likeable content, her improvisations flew by just like this absorbing and gently stunning film.

The Ancient Law is just being released on Blu-Ray DVD by FlickerAlley and is already on my birthday list.

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