Baruch decides to leave the shtetl and pursue his dream of becoming an actor in Vienna, breaking his mother and father’s hearts in the process. His attempts to blend in and build a career are both helped and hindered by an all-too-helpful Austrian noblewoman…
Cutting the Old Home Ties…
Lost and found silent films often grab all the attention and for good reason: everyone loves buried treasure. However, this attention sometimes comes at the expense of pictures that were carefully reconstructed and restored from elements held in many archives around the world. Slow, steady and painstaking, the narrative isn’t sexy but the results can be stunning.
Take The Ancient Law, for example. No complete print of the German release version survives but a 1984 reconstruction and subsequent 2017 rework and rescan resulted in the most complete edition of the film available since its 1923 release. It didn’t leap out whole from some dusty stack in the Czech Republic or the Netherlands but I will gratefully accept the hard work of the restoration team.
The Ancient Law deals with a Jewish protagonist and Jewish customs but it was meant for release to general audiences. As a result, religious terms are explained or sometimes substituted (the subtitles use “Easter” instead of “Passover” at one point) and the rituals are presented with the Gentile viewer in mind.
The film was directed by E.A. Dupont, probably most famous for Variety and Piccadilly, and stars Ernst Deutsch, whom some of you may recognize as Baron Kurtz in The Third Man. Obviously much younger and far less sinister, Deutsch stars as Baruch Mayer, the son of a devout rabbi living in a shtetl in the 1860s. A quiet life in his village is what everyone expects but Baruch has been bitten by the acting bug and has fallen head over heels for Shakespeare and so his one dream is to make it to Vienna to become an actor.
This conflict between a traditional Jewish upbringing and engaging in popular entertainment of the time invariably invites comparisons to The Jazz Singer, the groundbreaking part-talkie in which Al Jolsen must choose between life as a cantor and life as a, well, you know. However, the question of assimilation vs. separation had been fiercely debated for centuries and the topic would have been particularly hot in 1910s and 1920s Germany. The influx into Germany of Eastern Jews fleeing political turmoil had inflamed antisemitic opinions that had been lurking below the surface and even though Osterjuden made up a mere 1% of Germany’s population, unethical politicians painted them as a dangerous invasion. Antisemitic riots were inevitable under such conditions and much worse followed, as we all know. (You can read more about this context in the excellent essay by Cynthia Walk and Daniel Meiller that is included with the Flicker Alley release of this disc.)
The Ancient Law portrays shtetl life as warm, loving but limiting for an ambitious young fellow like Baruch. His father, Rabbi Mayer (Abraham Morewski), is devout and expects equal religious observance from his only son. His mother (Grete Berger) understands that she cannot expect their laws to keep their son home if his heart is in Vienna. Baruch’s love, Esther (Margarete Schlegel), does not dare leave with him but promises to wait for him so that he can come and get her when he is a success.
The naïve young Baruch has only known life in his village and his first acting gig is with a small company of performers putting on dubious productions of the Maid of Orleans and assorted Shakespearean plays but the main draw is the leading lady performing as Joan of Arc in her stockings and a tiny pair of trunk hose. It’s a living.
But during one of these productions, Baruch catches the eye of the Austrian Archduchess Elizabeth (Henny Porten). Baruch’s sidelocks spill out from under his cap while he is playing Romeo, which earns him ridicule from the men in the Archduchess’s entourage but they were just there to ogle the leading lady anyway. The Archduchess, meanwhile, has decided to once again become a patroness of the arts. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Now, I had my suspicions about the Archduchess from the very beginning, Henny Porten or no Henny Porten. Didn’t I just review Yizkor in which a very similar situation played out with bonus poison? I did. So, I was giving this little lady a hard stare that would have impressed Paddington Bear, let me tell you.
Baruch is utterly clueless about flirtation but the Archduchess likes him well enough to send him to Vienna to act under the direction of real-life impresario Heinrich Laube (Hermann Vallentin), who is none too happy to have a royal favorite foisted off on him. However, Baruch’s natural talent wins over Laube as well and our young fellow is on his way! Once he cuts off his telltale sidelocks, that is.
The scene is nicely handled with Baruch clutching his peyot while staring into the mirror and finally making the fatal decision to remove the most visible evidence of his identity. (It’s worth noting that at no point in the film does Baruch wish to become a non-practicing Jew or convert to Christianity.)
Meanwhile, the Archduchess is taking the Little Engine That Could approach to romance with Baruch. Most of us would have gotten the hint by now but shiksas gotta shiksa and so the Archduchess figures that if she just pours enough of her benevolence over Baruch, his love will be hers. But what about poor little Esther back at the shtetl? And will Baruch manage to make it big on the stage? Most of all, though, will he ever be reconciled to his family? Watch The Ancient Law to find out!
The character of Baruch was supposed to be inspired by Bogumil Dawison, an actor who found acclaim on the stages of the world but who began his life in Warsaw. Certainly the plays namechecked in The Ancient Law were signature works of Dawison. Still, the film was also very much a mixtureof popular story tropes of the time. (Not a complaint, just an observation.)
Since The Jazz Singer angle has been pretty well covered elsewhere, let’s head into more obscure waters. The question of assimilation or separation by Jewish characters was tackled in East and West, His People and Yizkor, with the first two films coming out in favor of assimilation and the latter very much against. It’s highly likely that the notably copycat Universal borrowed themes from The Ancient Law, especially since Carl Laemmle kept a close eye on German productions. (Their swiping of Abie’s Irish Rose established elements of copyright law as we know it.) However, His People had enough of its own magic thanks to its roster of performers.
In addition to its interesting topic, The Ancient Law is lovely to look at. While it does not have the wild unchained camera of Karl Freund’s work in Variety, the cinematography of Theodor Sparkuhl has appealing warmth of lighting and finds movement in the characters and their surroundings. The crinolines of the ladies bounce, the cheap scenery of the travelling company quivers, the walking sticks of the Austrian noblesse swing coarsely upward. And there are juxtapositions that, while clear, are not insultingly obvious. After Baruch decides to star as Hamlet rather than observe Yom Kippur, we are shown candles being lit back at the shtetl as the theater’s chandelier is also illuminated.
There are also small cultural details that give the picture an air of authenticity. Later in the story, Rabbi Mayer is given a copy of the works of Shakespeare in hope that it will help him understand his son. Ill and angry, Mayer finally decides to give the book a chance but his first instinct is to open it from the back and read it right to left. It’s not much, just a small throwaway, but it’s a reminder of how different daily life is in the childhood world of Baruch.
The film also subtly tackles the double standard when it comes to romance. The nobleman of the Archduchess’s court are allowed to publicly seduce an actress but a reasonably discreet interview between Baruch and the Archduchess is treated as scandalous. (The film does not bring Baruch’s heritage into the objections, though it could possibly be read that way, especially since antisemitism toward various Jewish characters is shown throughout the picture.)
The film does a great job of conveying the glamour of nineteenth century Vienna and while there are cameos by such popular figures as Heinrich Laube and Johann Strauss, the screenplay never overplays its hand and these appearances feel quite natural. Why wouldn’t the nobility of Austria be entertained by the Waltz King, after all? I mention this because too many historical films quickly fall into Forrest Gump territory and unintentional on-the-nose hilarity.
Dupont’s direction, Sparkuhl’s cinematography and the screenplay by Paul Reno are all spot on but the picture really hinges on the performance of Ernst Deutsch as Baruch and he is all we could hope for in this conflicted character. I am used to more, well, emphatic acting in German films and was pleasantly surprised by how tightly Deutsch played his part. While a certain amount of pantomime is essential, the arm flailing and melodrama is kept to a strict minimum and Deutch plays many of his scenes primarily with his eyes.
Henny Porten does good work as the Archduchess, though perhaps she is a bit too wholesome looking to completely pull off the maneater look. Porten doesn’t get a lot of respect from critics, at least as far as I have read. She is damned by the faint praise of being “popular with the common folk” and written off as a second rate German Mary Pickford but to me she seems to have a more serene screen persona (Pickford was all about the firecracker) and can be more readily compared to Mary Astor or Mae Marsh. Lotte Eisner, never one to pull punches against all enemies foreign and domestic, describes Porten as “brimming with sentimentality and far too fat.” Mm-hmm. I know what you’re thinking and I agree.
(Spoiler) I think Porten would have been miscast if the Archduchess had turned out to be a Yizkor-esque maneater but she proved to be just a disappointed flirt who genuinely cared for Baruch and bears him no malice. In this context, Porten’s tranquil manner and wholesome looks work just fine. What the heck did Porten do to all these critics anyway? Did she personally steal their lollipops?
Abraham Morewski and Grete Berger are as warm as can be as Baruch’s parents and, frankly, I spent much of the film shouting at him to stop breaking their hearts and come home. Margarete Schlegel doesn’t have much to do beyond being beautiful and charming but mission accomplished there.
A major standout for me is Hermann Vallentin as Heinrich Laube. He looks the part, to be sure, but he does a lovely bit of acting as young Baruch auditions. Determined not to like this young nobody, Laube determinedly munches on his meal, clatters his coffee cup and generally tries to ignore him but Baruch’s performance keeps making him pause to listen. Nothing too over the top but exactly the sort of visual storytelling that was the signature of silent film.
I should mention that when researching performers in German cinema, there is always a bit of queasiness involved. Many careers ended “mysteriously” in or around 1933. (Purging the entertainment industry was an early goal of the Third Reich.) Many actors continued through the thirties and into the forties, which always makes my heart sink a bit. Dates of death are also significant and it’s not covered a lot but Jewish film folk were among the victims of the Holocaust. In the case of The Ancient Law, screenwriter Paul Reno and actress Grete Berger, Baruch’s mother, were both murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
Not Jewish herself, Henny Porten’s story is nonetheless sad and complicated. Per The Ufa Story by Klaus Kreimeier: “The Propaganda Ministry had, for all practical purposes, forbidden Henny Porten to work because she had refused to separate from her Jewish husband, the physician Wilhelm von Kaufmann. Persecuted by Goebbels, adored by Hitler and Goring, she became an apple of discord among the Nazi elite. Thanks to the Chancellery’s protection, her husband went unharmed, and she was occasionally offered minor roles.”
I try to be cautious with narratives that can verge into the sensation but from the information available from reasonably reliable sources, it seems clear that Porten was forced to thread the needle of staying with her husband and protecting him while not overtly angering her appalling “fans” Hitler and Göring. Per Kreimeier, near the end of the war, Göring offered Kaufmann safe passage to Sweden or Switzerland if Porten would agree to a divorce but she refused once again. We can hardly blame her for not trusting their promises, especially once the protection of marriage to a beloved star was lifted from Kaufmann.
Porten and Kaufmann miraculously survived the war. One can only imagine the stress the couple was under and why this has not been turned into a biopic already is beyond me.
So, now that we’re all good and depressed about war and genocide, let’s wrap this review up.
The Ancient Law is a very good family drama and its message of assimilation was very much par for the 1920s course. It’s elevated by thoughtful cinematography, a strong grasp of visual storytelling and polished performances from all its leads. If you associate E.A. Dupont more with style than substance, do check this picture out.
Where can I see it?
The Ancient Law has been released on DVD and Bluray by Flicker Alley and as you can see from the screencaps, it’s pretty gorgeous. It has those three little words every woman wants to hear: original tints restored. It also features your choice of two fine scores, one by Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals and the other by Philippe Schoeller, so choose your favorite and enjoy.