The Ancient Law ★★★★★

The setting is mid-nineteenth century Austria.  The story begins in a
rural Jewish settlement (shtetl) on the eastern frontier.  Baruch (Ernst Deutsch), the village rabbi’s son, wants to leave home and become an actor.  Baruch’s conservative, deeply religious father (Abraham Morewski) is shocked and scandalized by his son’s aspirations and does everything he can to prevent him from leaving.  Baruch escapes anyway and hits the road for Vienna.

Baruch encounters a ramshackle group of wandering thespians and begs to be allowed to join them. They take him on with the understanding that he must start at the bottom: his initial tasks include shoveling horse manure. The troupe encounters a party of aristocrats on holiday led by Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia (Henny Porten), who is bored and
longing for the beginning of the social season in the capital city.
She nevertheless requests a performance and is moved to tears by
Baruch’s Romeo.  She decides to sponsor him, takes him to Vienna with
the rest of her entourage, and helps him win a position with the
prestigious Burgtheater.

Baruch, having real talent, rises to stardom.  Ultimately he comes to realize that Elisabeth  has more than platonic interest in him, but it’s too late.  They are both made aware that a liaison between an Archduchess and an actor, let alone a Jewish actor, is impossible.  They must break off all contact, no matter how innocent.  They part forever.

Director E.A. Dupont (Variety) elicits outstanding performances from all of his cast. Of special note is Henny Porten’s Archduchess.  Porten (1890-1960) was a major star in Germany’s silent era, and its easy to see why. Her exquisitely nuanced portrayal of Elisabeth is a wonder to behold. Using only facial expression and subtle body movements she limns a fully realized, three-dimensional character of great sympathy.

This is silent film acting at its finest!