'The Ancient Law' gets a new life in Berlin

The Ancient Law tells the story of Baruch (Ernst Deutsch), the son of a rabbi in Galicia during the 1860s.

Ernst Deutsch and Avrom Morewski star in The Ancient Life (photo credit: DEUTSCHE KINEMATHEK)
Ernst Deutsch and Avrom Morewski star in The Ancient Life
One of the hottest tickets at the 68th Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, was the world premiere of the digitally restored version of the 1923 classic German silent film about Jewish life in 19th century Europe, The Ancient Law (“Das alte Gesetz”).
A huge crowd filled the 1,800-seat Friedrichstadt-Palast on February 16 to watch Ewald André Dupont’s film, which until this restoration had been unavailable for decades. The film was accompanied by new music composed by Philippe Schoeller and played by the Orchester Jakobsplatz München, with Daniel Grossmann conducting.
The restoration of this lost masterpiece of German- Jewish cinema was made possible by a collaboration between the Deutsche Kinemathek and ARRI laboratory together with ZDF and ARTE.
The Ancient Law tells the story of Baruch (Ernst Deutsch), the son of a rabbi in Galicia during the 1860s (played by Avrom Morewski, a Yiddish theater actor with the famous Vilner Trupe who advised the production on Jewish religious rituals and shtetl life). Baruch becomes fascinated by the theater after participating in his shtetl’s Purim shpiel. Yearning to become an actor, against his father’s wishes, he leaves home and joins a traveling theater troupe.
In Vienna, an Austrian archduchess (Henny Porten, the Mary Pickford of German cinema), falls in love with him and becomes his patroness, helping him become a great classical actor. But Baruch continues to long for home and eventually is reconciled with his family in an unexpectedly positive denouement, where he embraces his heritage at the same time that his pious father opens his eyes to the beauty of secular literature. The movie paints a complex portrait of the tension between tradition and modernity and was made at the last moment when the future of German and Austrian Jewry still looked hopeful.
Cynthia Walk, an associate professor emerita at the University of California, San Diego, who has written about movies by and about Jews during the Weimar Republic, was an adviser on the restoration. She pointed out that The Ancient Law was a source four years later for The Jazz Singer, the famous 1927 Hollywood movie featuring a cantor’s son who leaves home for the stage to sing jazz. It was Ernst Lubitsch, the German-Jewish emigré director, who initially mediated that project at Warner Bros. studio.
“The contemporary context for the film in post- World War I Germany,” she said, “was an increase in the mass migration of East European Jews to the cities of the West, fleeing the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” There was an “ethnographic component” in the film to show ethnic German audiences a sympathetic portrait of the Orthodox Jewish culture of these war refugees.
Although the German film industry was full of assimilated Jews, The Ancient Law is notable, according to Walk, as “one of the few films that explicitly addresses the fraught topic of assimilation.” The movie was set in the 1860s partly because it was “less provocative to make a pro-assimilation film in the historical past than to tell this story in the here and now.”
Other Jewish-themed German films in this period include The Golem by Paul Wegener, The City Without Jews by Hans Karl Breslauer and The Stigmatized/Love one another by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Ernst Deutsch, the leading actor in The Ancient Law, may look familiar to noir movie buffs, because he later played the role of Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. While most of the Jewish cast and crew survived the war – some like Dupont, made it to Hollywood, where he had a difficult career – others were killed in the Holocaust. Paul Reno, the screenwriter, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and Grete Berger, who played the mother, perished at Auschwitz.
The arduous restoration process is a fascinating story in itself. Daniel Meiller, head of this project at the Deutsche Kinemathek, said his team spent about two years on this project. A 1984 restoration turned out to have many flaws, with scenes out of sequence.
While there was no camera negative left for him to refer to, he found several export prints from the 1920s that had been sent abroad to Sweden, Russia, America, France and Italy. The discovery of the German censorship card for the film also gave his team important information about the content of the original release version. He scanned these five prints of the film digitally and found that some prints even had missing frames within a single shot. The original release version was painstakingly pieced together from these elements.
It’s a tribute to his team’s rigorous approach and hard work that the finished film looks seamless and wonderful.
Simulated color tinting based on the Swedish and American prints also makes it visually vibrant.
Fittingly, following its world premiere at the Berlinale, The Ancient Law will be going on a tour of Eastern Europe, with screenings in Vilnius, Warsaw, Budapest and Vienna, as well as a showing in Munich, all with live music. Its US premiere will be at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival following the Memorial Day weekend and it will also be shown at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. There will be TV screenings on the ARTE Channel in Germany and France. A DVD now available in Germany (Absolut Medien) will be followed by a Blu-Ray release of the film later this year in the US (Flicker Alley).
Let’s hope that the film will be headed for a screening in Israel soon.
For Meiller, the reward for this labor-intensive process came in the theater following the world premiere.
“I spoke with people on their way out, and everyone was talking about the plot. They were touched, telling me it reminded them of stories in their own families.
They weren’t commenting on the restoration,” just responding to The Ancient Law as a movie.