A special performance of Manfred Noa’s restored 1922 film Nathan der Weise with a new commissioned musical score from Aaron Trant performed by three members of his After Quartet, was given at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on the morning of September 11th, the tenth anniversary of that unforgettable day. This commemorative meditation was very much the result of dedicated work by Detlef Gericke-Schoenhagen, director of Goethe-Institut Boston, who has always had a love for the films of his native Germany. As the head of Germany’s Goethe-Institut’s film division, he co-founded Edition Filmmuseum, a digital platform for “…hidden and forgotten treasures of the German and Austrian film libraries and film archives.” Without such efforts at digital restoration, Detlef noted, “treasured films like Nathan the Wise would have been screened two or three times and then stored and forgotten in dusty film archives. Today these films (plus many others) are available for the public.”
Noa’s film adaptation of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise was dogged from its inception with threats of censorship and the destruction of theaters where it might have played. Later, the Nazi government succeeded in destroying virtually all of the prints, and for the next 75 years Nathan was regarded as one of the greatest lost films of the German silent canon. Then, in 1997, a single wrongly titled copy of the movie was discovered in the collection of Gosfilmofond in Moscow, and a duplicate print made there became the source for the subsequent digital restoration by Filmmuseum München. (Stefan Drössler’s excellent essay on the film appears here).
Although silent film actors only had their faces and gestures for expression, silent films presentations always had a “voice” — music. In big-city premiere engagements, the films were usually accompanied by large orchestras from scores written often by important composers, such as Saint-Saëns and Richard Strauss. In lesser engagements, there were smaller ensembles, organs or pianos to break the silence and expand the expression of the directors’ visions.
In its premiere engagements in Munich and Berlin in 1922, Noa’s Nathan de Weise was accompanied by an orchestral score written by Willy Schmidt-Gentner, one of the most successful German composers of film music in the history of German cinema — we don’t count excellent exiled German composers, like Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Riesenfeld. Schmidt-Gentner’s score for Nathan der Weise in 1922 was his first. At his most productive, he scored up to ten films a year, including numerous classics and masterpieces of the German and Austrian cinema. Successfully adapting and re-defining himself through the Weimar, Nazi and postwar periods, he continued as a prolific film composer through 1955, scoring 200 films. He died in Vienna in 1964, just short of his seventieth birthday. Though his music for Nathan is considered lost, one can hear excerpts of many of his other scores here.
Therefore, when Nathan der Weise, a major German silent film, was going to be shown to the German public for the first time in 75 years, and since its original score was lost, the Goethe-Institut’s Gericke-Schoenhagen was determined that the debut performances feature a new orchestral score. “I always considered Nathan the Wise as extraordinary, the theater play as well as the film,” he said. “When we included Noa’s film in the ‘Edition Filmmuseum’ and in the film library of Goethe-Institut, I asked the former German foreign minister and his office to support the composition of a new score and the performance by the Bundesjugendorchester. The response was very quick and very positive. Under the patronage of the minister of foreign affairs, a new score was written by the Lebanese composer Abou-Khalil and premiered in October 2009 in Munich.”
The performances by the Bundesjugendorchester of 60 teenage musicians under conductor Frank Strobel were “ecstatically received.”
Khalil’s composition combines elements of Western and Eastern music and instruments. According to the Institut, Abou-Khalil “bridges the historic gap between the world’s three main religions in a musical fashion. He blends European with Arab and Jewish tradition, and his symphonic film music for large-scale orchestra incorporates the ancient wind instrument known as the serpent, the Arabian short-necked oud, as well as modern percussion instruments. The result — an extraordinarily exciting dialogue between film and music, old and new, Occident and Orient.”
The restored print was also released in DVD four years ago by Edition Filmmuseum with a piano-violin score by the late Aljoscha Zimmermann, a composer of fifty to one hundred silent film scores (though only eleven are available) as well as a piano solo score by Joachim Bärenz, also an outstanding pianist. This DVD is only available through remainder sources but may soon be re-issued on BluRay.
Originally, Gericke-Schoenhagen hoped to invite the Bundesjugendorchester to Boston for the US premiere of the Nathan restoration. Unfortunately, the German economic crisis didn’t allow it. So two years later, when Goethe-Institut Boston decided to present the premiere as part of a September 11, 2001 meditation on its tenth anniversary, it turned instead to Boston’s After Quartet and its composer Aaron Trant, who is also the group’s percussionist along with Nathan Wooley, trumpet and Scott Fitzsimmons, bass.
Before I get to my reactions to the music, which is after all BMInt’s main focus, I must thank the Goethe Institut Boston and the Coolidge Theatre Foundation for bringing a great film to a large and engaged audience with very high technical standards. The Edition Fimmuseum’s BluRay restoration looked very grand in the Coolidge’s main auditorium. The hall’s 1930s iconography did not clash at all with the German Expressionism on the screen. The tinting and toning were quite effective — especially in a torchlight march, for which highlights were tinted yellow while shadows were toned midnight blue. There were no digital artifacts in evidence, and the only flaw was frequent blown highlights, which we suspect were inherent in creation of the black-and-white restoration negative from the surviving colored nitrate print.
But the music is another story. I must declare my strong bias for accompaniment music that is of the period of the film, not the events depicted within the story or of the time of the film’s subsequent presentations. It’s also a credo of mine that great art is timeless and not needy of periodic updating. Nevertheless, I went to this morning’s performance ready to accept a well-intended, albeit anachronistic, accompaniment.
Composer Aaron Trant (interviewed here) comes to silent film scoring from a background in “classical, jazz, rock, contemporary and improvised music”; and in his score were elements of all of these. There was something like a swing interpretation of the vendetta duet from the third act of Rigoletto, modern jazz percussion riffs in the style of Gene Krupa, Hare Krishna bells and a Satchmo-escque version of Bye Bye, Blackbird.
What any of this had to do with a moving and deeply intellectual drama of events in the twelfth century through the lenses of Lessing in 1779 and Manfred Noa in 1922 is beyond me. Yes, the performance banished the silence from the auditorium, and yes, the positive press engendered by the singularity of the commission brought a large and appreciative audience to a great silent film and to Lessing’s immortal meditation on reconciliation and human understanding. The score underlined the rhythm of the film well in broad terms except in the Parable of the Ring sequences when something completely different, maybe even silence, was required. But to me, I’m very sorry to have to say, the anachronistic musical performance was an inadvertent act of vandalism to a profound film that celebrates humanity, rather like a vuvuzela chorus at a peace conference. The high level of production values and cultural- historical importance of Manfred Noa’s magnum opus demand a more thoughtful, faithful and sophisticated score.
I suspect my views are very much in the minority in this morning’s audience, since I overheard the word sublime applied to the score more than once. I should also report that some of the organizers are particularly keen to update classic films for modern audiences. But I maintain that such updatings are misguided, generally weaken the films, and run strongly counter to the intentions of the directors.
As a litmus test I urge readers to listen to two radically different scores for Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and decide for themselves which better honors the director’s intent. First navigate to Gorgio Moroder’s ‘80s rock version here. When you’ve had enough, have a look and listen to the Murnau Foundation’s restoration of the movie with the Gottfried Huppertz’s orchestral score from the premiere here. Please feel free to send your comments to BMInt.