Das Alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law), a German silent film that premiered in 1923, was shown in the United States for the first time since 1924 last night at the recently redesigned Modern Theater with a new score composed by Thomas Köner. Detlev Gericke-Schoenhagen, the director of The Goethe-Insitut Boston, placed the commission on Köner, an electronic music producer.
Suffolk University’s intimate Modern Theater was almost at full capacity when Dr. Veronika Fuechtner, Associate Professor of German at Dartmouth College, gave a wonderful introduction to the film. She posed many questions and themes raised by the film mostly dealing with inner conflicts faced when our personal desires clash with the expectations of our families and cultures. She also spoke of the ever-present focus on Judaism in the film and the difficulties facing Jews attempting to assimilate into society during the film’s 1860s setting and beyond.
The film is about a young man, Baruch Mayer, the son of a rabbi from a poor shtetl in the rural periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who decides to leave his family to pursue acting in Vienna. Throughout the film young Baruch struggles to uphold his religious devotion and honor his origins as he becomes more assimilated into Viennese culture. Baruch is often ridiculed for his Jewish heritage and has trouble fitting in with Vienna’s high society even when he becomes an established and successful stage actor.
The composer, Thomas Köner, has been an influential figure in electronic drone music and minimalist techno since the early 1990s. As a multimedia artist he has created art installations combining original visuals and music. He has had extensive experience working with film, as a sound engineer and composer, even satisfying commissions from the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay. Gericke-Schoenhagen chose Köner to write the music for this film after experiencing a performance the composer gave as part of the Goethe-Institut’s electronic music series in 2010.
Köner’s compositions run the electronic music gamut, from ambient to dub techno, but most of his work relies on drone. Though drones have been a part of many traditional musical cultures since ancient times (bagpipes and sitars are examples of instruments which inherently use a drone) they are not strangers to the Western music canon. The opening of the finale of Haydn’s 104th symphony, “London” is an early example. This philosophy was extended by early minimalist composers such as La Monte Young whose drone compositions, mostly for acoustic instruments, occasionally entered the electronic music world of the 1960s.
It is this language that Köner uses to score the film. The music last night showcased Köner at his most accessible and cinematic to date and the sound system in the Modern Theater supported it well. At times he used orchestral samples and loops, organic in origin but processed almost to the point of unrecognition — like an organism on the verge of deterioration, perhaps a nod to composer William Basinski.
Though the catalog of sounds which Köner uses is unconventional, his method of scoring is more commonplace. In watching the film, it becomes evident that Köner assigns musical gestures to different characters and themes. . The sound of wind makes its way to the foreground when a character is faced with a difficult decision or struggling with the idea of fate. It is a very operatic way of composing (see Wagner’s fate motif in Der Ring des Nibelungen), one which is not easily translated over to minimalist electronic but which Köner handled well.
Köner explained in the panel discussion after the film that his method of composition is meant to create a personal space for audience members, one which would heighten their emotional response to the images by enhancing the atmosphere in which they are experiencing it. He made it clear that he was not playing an “illustrative” role as composer, where each action in the film would be meticulously underscored. The problem with this method of composition is that the composer’s interpretations are more easily lost on the listener especially when the audience is not conditioned in the methods of composition used, as they are in more conventional film scores.
To most listeners the score probably sounded unusually dark. Indeed in most modern film scores a rumbling low tone usually foreshadows a sinister event about to unfold, but in this film Köner uses this ubiquitous trope not as one of foreboding, but rather as a motif linked to the constant presence of Baruch’s Jewish identity. Even when Baruch is reaching the height of success in Vienna, there are always visual parallels of his poor family and the heritage which he had to abandon in order to achieve success.
With these compositional methods in mind, Köner’s score, though always beautiful, is hit or miss in regard to its dramatic relationship with the film. Specific moments are not Köner’s concerns, but instead he relies on indefinite moods which shift slowly from scene to scene. The score is extremely effective when Baruch makes the decision to leave his shtetl and pursue his passion, against his father’s demands. The pacing of the film is slow here, allowing for Köner’s music gradually to build layers of samples all processed into a chaotic swirl of separate sounds — just as Baruch’s mind is struggling with many tiers of contradicting thoughts. It is an emotional moment with strong resonance even today, one which most likely would have been lost with a conventional score.
There are occasionally moments where Köner’s score seems exceptionally dull. When Baruch decides to cut his Payot (sidelocks) in order to prepare for an audition — the scene which Dr. Fuechtner described in her pre-concert talk as the “heart of the film,”— Baruch rids himself of his outward Jewish identity, taking a final step towards assimilation. Köner’s score here seems ignorant of the intense inner turmoil that must have been facing the young Baruch. These isolated moments, though rare, were not easily forgotten.
The last thirty minutes of the film are Köner’s best. Baruch seeks atonement from his father only to face further rejection while Köner’s score introduces a warm analog pad containing shifting bitonality as major and minor thirds clash. This ambiguity of tonality is directly related to the insecurities of the rabbi’s faith as it contends with the love he longs to share with his son. Baruch’s father starts to doubt his own decision to disown his son and, after seeing the young Baruch play Don Carlos (in a role which is strikingly similar to his own situation). At his deathbed the Father and son reconcile and the father seems to experience redemption.
The musical score, though not a complete success, gave a 21st-century life to the film. With his pulsating pads and dissonant samples, and vaguely organic materials, Köner is able to contextualize an art form surviving from an earlier culture, otherwise destined to remain behind a museum glass as history and not art.