Arts Emanu-El to show 1923 German silent movie gem, ‘The Ancient Law’


Arts Emanu-El will present “The Ancient Law,” an important film in German-Jewish cinematic history, on Saturday, April 13, at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence. 

Celebrating its 95th anniversary, “The Ancient Law” contrasts the closed world of an Eastern European shtetl with the liberal mores of 1860s Vienna. The movie served as an inspiration for “The Jazz Singer,” one of Hollywood’s first “talkies.”

The backstory to the movie is the increase in the mass migration of East European Jews to Western cities during and after World War I. These migrants were mostly Orthodox Jews, with distinctive dress, beliefs and customs, and they became a visible foreign presence on the streets of Western Europe. 

Between 1919 and 1924, five concerned German directors created films that were cinematic interventions in an ongoing German debate about “the Jewish question.” One of them was E.A. Dupont, who released “Das Alte Gesetz,” or  “The Ancient Law,” during this period of escalating anti-Semitism. 

These five films address the topic of assimilation through the story of an ethnically mixed couple. “The Ancient Law” seeks to calm anxieties around ethnic differences by offering a conciliatory model that allows both groups to maintain their integrity.  Social and cultural integration is acknowledged, as long as there is no compromise to the dominant-class hierarchy or to minority-ethnic identity. 

Neither the original camera negative nor any copies of the German version of the movie have survived.  The Deutsche Kinemathek, along with the Federal Film Archive, created a reconstruction of the German version in 1984.    

Thanks to the efforts of Prof. Cynthia Walk of the University of California, San Diego, and the financial support of the Sunrise Foundation for Education, Deutsche Kinemathek was able to release a digital restoration of the film in 2017. 

Along with the screening, the Arts Emanu-El program will include two professional musicians, sponsored by the Sunrise Foundation, performing the film’s score.

Alicia Svigals, violinist/composer and a founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, helped revive the tradition of klezmer fiddling, which had been on the brink of extinction when she recorded her debut album, “Fidl,” in the 1990s. Svigals is also a composer who works in many genres.  She has toured with violinist Itzhak Perlman, and was awarded first prize in performance at the Safed, Israel, international klezmer festival. 

Donald Sosin has been enthralling audiences in the U.S. and Europe with his silent film music for over 30 years.  He is the resident pianist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, among others. 

A preview talk about the film will be given by Providence College Prof. Raphael Shargel at Saturday morning services. Shargel, who teachers film and English literature, is an expert on films of this genre.

PAMELA HANZEL is chair of Arts Emanu-El at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.

arts emanu-el, film