in: News & Features

October 1, 2012

Silent Film Das Alte Gesetz, with New Music


Composer Thomas Köner (file photo)

For the past 20 years, Thomas Köner has been an influential figure in the electronic music scene. In addition to producing experimental drone soundscapes and dub techno, Köner has also composed music for silent films for the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay. The Goethe-Institut-Boston has specially commissioned a soundtrack by Köner for the film Das Alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law), released in 1923, which will be shown on October 13th for the first time in the U.S. since 1924. The video-based screening will be at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University in cooperation with Non-Event, and the National Center for Jewish Film.

Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, director of Goethe Institut-Boston, is a film enthusiast who was responsible for selecting Thomas Köner to receive this commission. BMInt’s Lee Eiseman recently had a conversation with him and Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Film Museum.

Eiseman: I believe we can have an interesting conversation because we disagree about how to present silent films. Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen seems to think new audiences need new music, whereas Stefan Drössler apparently believes that the music needs to be authentic for the film and its time. So let’s start with you, Detlef. Why did you choose a composer of sampled electronic scores for this film on a Jewish identity crisis very similar to Al Jolson’s in The Jazz Singer?

DGS : Half of the new audiences will come to this showing from the electronic music scene, and it’s not important for me how old these people are. But for the future, if you have an audience where people are 70 years old, then they are 80, then they are 90, the silent film art form will die. But if you engage 20-, 25-year-olds, then always you will preserve the art form. You will see. Robert Köner composes new scores for silent movies in some of the hottest silent movie spaces of Europe. It was I who asked him to combine The Ancient Law with his way of composing —  we do not know the result yet. There are now 90 years between the premiere of the film and this presentation in Boston. So we know that he is reaching a complete new audience for this kind of film, without the expectations those at the premiere might have had.

LE: Ok, well I do disagree with your worry about aging audiences. It has ever been thus. The Boston Globe asked in 1900, “At the Boston Symphony concerts the average age is 60 years old. Will there be any future for the Symphony?” Now we hear the same refrain, but it’s always people of a certain age who go to symphony concerts, and every year there are new 60-year-olds, so I don’t worry about the future of classical music. But I’m not here to argue, because you’ve made your choice for various reasons: in part to build audience, in part because the film doesn’t have an original score, and in part because you’re essentially a modernist. I want to ask one question about this score: will it be performed live or does Köner record these sounds and use them as samples and simply run loops, as it were? To what extent do his performances vary each time he shows a film? We’re not going to hear an orchestra, it’s one individual, what is he actually playing?

Köner accompanies film (file photo)

DGS: Well, Köner’s method is to collect found material and mix it into a new score. All of the mix is prefabricated — and will be played from his laptop. So the score will sound the same in Boston as it will at the Brooklyn Academy of Music some nights before.

LE: He looks a bit like a disk disc jockey? Have you seen him work?

DGS: Yes, this is why I invited him. He was here two years ago. He has several devices. Very convincing, very calm, very cool.

Stefan Drössler: I agree more with Lee’s position because I know the film; and if I would have hired somebody, it would have been important for me that he would have had a relation to classical Jewish music because The Ancient Law is a distinctly Jewish-themed film dealing with traditions. So I would question the idea to use an electronic musician.

LE: Do we have any sense about whether there was traditional Jewish music used at the showings in the 1920s, or do you just hear Jewish music in your head when you watch this film?

SD: Yes, that’s how I imagine it, and I would look for real acoustic instruments, especially the Klezmer instruments … violin, clarinet, or something like this. That would be my approach. Aljosha Zimmerman did a good score for it years ago. I also hired him for some other Jewish films.

LE: You did say that you don’t have a prejudice in terms of whether you use new music or original music in a score. What’s important for you, say, is that the music works for the film.

SD: Yes, so for me, in terms of the silent films I always say there are good, really good films with good rhythm and good montage, then there are the wide field of mediocre films, and then there are some really bad films. I judge the music by how it helps the movie. The interesting cases are with the mediocre films. Here the music can make the film a good film or can make it a bad film. The really bad films, you cannot save even with the best music. It is in vain. With the very good films, you can hardly destroy with the music; it is very difficult to do it, and normally a musician doesn’t want to destroy a film. I had some musicians once who played against a film. This was my worst experience, it was [Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1928] Storm Over Asia, for which I had musicians from East Berlin who studied at Hanns Eisler Academy. There is a long dancing sequence of about 20 minutes. You see the Mongols with old instruments and they are dancing; it is a very beautiful sequence. And at that point all the musicians stopped playing. So for 10 minutes it was silent. The audience became very restless; they came up running to us saying “what has happened?” It was in a big silent festival in Bonn with 2000 people.

Afterwards the musicians really told me, “Well there was music in the images, and we don’t want to double the music, so we stopped playing.” They acted like this throughout the film, and that may have been why half of the audience left before it was over. It is a very strong film, and I could not believe that it is possible that somebody would play against the film, and make it boring, and miss all the dramatic moments. But that’s what they did,  and they were very proud of it.

LE: So you don’t agree with Detlef that you have to update the music to make a modern audience come to the film?

SD:  No, definitely not. I prefer authenticity, and for me it is important that we stay in the time. I don’t like synthesizers so much, and I have rarely seen music by synthesizers which I really liked. Of these “modern” approaches 10 percent I might like. So I will not say in general I think it is wrong, but I think it needs really good musicians who have a feeling for the film, for the dramatic structure of the film and even for the sound of the film.

Still from “The Ancient Law” (file photo)

LE: Does Munich Filmmuseum have any plan to release The Ancient Law on DVD?

SD: The problem is, the print is not properly restored. New elements have surfaced and now we could recreate a tinted version. But that costs a lot and nobody cares. What we have already an old resoration with mediocre picture quality. That’s a little sad, because  The Ancient Law is a pretty good film. If you want to release it on an Edition Filmmuseum DVD you have to restore it to a higher standard. This would cost a fortune and will not be done soon for a film that is this obscure.

LE: How do you decide what films and what periods to concentrate on in your work as Edition Filmmuseum’s director?

SD: My focus begins in 1895 and hasn’t ended so far [laughs]. I’m doing a permanent programming of film history, and if I would say there is a period I’m not interested in, then I would not be the right director.  There are periods which I like more — the silent era of course, especially late ‘20s, when the silent film language was best developed; but I also like the early sound films where the directors experimented, and the New Wave of the 1960s.

But I’m not only interested in great art. I’m also interested in mediocre films because many reflect much more their Zeitgeist. Everything is interesting if you look at the movies with a special perspective.

The film I want to work on soon is Homunculus from 1916. This was a serial in six parts done by Robert Reinert. We’ve already put on DVD  Reinert’s Nerves, a very strange German silent film from 1919 which reflects the chaos and damage caused by the First World War. Homonculus is the granddaddy of all the German fantastic films. In the beautifully tinted origina print, an artificial man is created  — like Frankenstein. The man-made creature tries to explore the world and to find a woman to love before discovering that he is artificial and can never love. This turns him into hate, and he brings destruction all over the world. Suddenly you have in this series, images from the First World War, showing destruction. It was extremely popular in its time. In the end there is a scientist saying we have to create a second artificial creature — a good one — and then you’ll have a battle of the titans, and the good one will win.

LE: To get back a little bit on track here. A lot of people know E. A. Dupont, director of The Ancient Law, from his movie, Varieté. I imagine The Ancient Law is completely different, but are there qualities that would lead you to understand it’s the same director?

SD:   Dupont was not such an auteur that you could easily describe his style. But he was always devoted to the milieu of circus, stage and varieté. This is also reflected in  The Ancient Law. The son of a Rabbi wants to become an actor. He leaves the Schtetl and joins a travelling theater group. The storyline reminds one of  The Jazz Singer, but this film was made some years earlier and is without singing.

Varieté was a big success, especially in America. The film was praised for its moving camera und very reduced intertitles. Dupont was engaged in Hollywood, but shot only one film and went to Great Britain. Here he directed classics like the visually stunning Moulin Rouge and Piccadilly. His greatest filmhistorical efforts were the first European sound movies Atlantic and Two Worlds, which he shot in three different language versions. I have seen two of his early German sound films, the circus film Salto Mortale and Peter Voss, der Millionendieb. Both were not bad, and the next one, Der Läufer von Marathon, lead to another engagement in Hollywood where he failed to make successful films.

LE:  The greatest of the silent films in their large city showings often had full orchestral scores. Do you like Gottfried Huppertz’s scores for Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen Saga and for Metropolis?

SD:  I’m not such a fan of Huppertz, but these scores fit to the movies, and in these cases we know that the composer was involved in the production of the films already in a very early state. I think that Huppertz even was on the set during the shooting, so his music was well developed in collaboration with the director.  But these Fritz Lang films were exceptional productions, such an involvement of a composer you find rarely. We have it also with Edmund Meisel and his scores for Berlin, die Sinfonie der Großstadt and for the Eisentein films October and Battelship Potemkin. In the normal scheme the composer or the conductor of the orchestra in these big Berlin premiere cinemas, got the film a week before and had to do something with it.  So there was always very little time for doing the music, they had very limited time even for rehearsals. Only in special cases as mentioned, the musicians and the composers had time, half a year or one year to really create great music.

LE:  But there are only a couple of dozen of those, there are not very many.  In other cases I’ve seen old theaters where in the basement there are bins of music arranged by mood. So there’s chase music, there’s oriental music, there’s love music.

SD:   Yes of course, there were compendium books and cue sheets.  In America Griffiths did a cue sheet for Birth of a Nation which my musicians always refuse to play. They always change it especially in the end when there was Wagner music. [laughs] They say they cannot play it today anymore. Though they they followed the original score as much as possible but they didn’t like the entrance of the Ku Klux Klan with Wagner’s music. It was too triumphal.

There were also silent film scores by famous composers. Do you know of Hindemeth’s only feature length film score? It’s for Arnold Fanck’s 1921 In Kampf mit dem Berge. A new restoration is in the works. [read more here]  For next year Filmmuseum München is working on a restoration of Paul Wegener’s and Hanns Heinz Ewer’s 1913 Der Student von Prague with the original score of Joseph Weiss, an apprentice of Franz Liszt. It is one of the very first scores ever written for a silent film, and it really deserves to be rediscovered.


  1. A thought-provoking piece that reads more like a conversation than an interview (and I meant that in the absolutely best sense). Important stuff here, so thanks for putting talk about it out there!

    Comment by Andrew — October 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm

  2. Great conversation–very informative. It’s bad news that this film will not appear on DVD any time soon, since it’s hard to generate interest in a film that’s so unavailable. If the present restoration is defective, why not post it on the web so folks can see it? At least then the film can garner an audience. I enjoyed the showing last night, BTW.

    Comment by Doug — October 14, 2012 at 10:26 am

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