Early & Silent Film

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

This film, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of England’s premier playwright, was screened at the Barbican on April 10th. I have just read J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ so I was struck by the brutalist architecture of this complex. Inside, for Screen 1 in the main building, one enters a vast cavernous hall: it feels like the sort of entertainment space one would find in Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The cinema itself is down in the lower basement. It is spacious with a notable rake and, happily, has good quality 35mm projection. The print we viewed was from the UK National Film Archive and is a copy of the version prepared for release in the USA, shorter than the original German version.

The film was directed by Peter Paul Felner who also wrote the screenplay with Pietro Aretino. The source is not Shakespeare’s play but an earlier version which was also a source for Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a story by Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone, which appeared in 1558. Felner seems to have worked some of the Shakespearean version in to the film but judging by the characters and plot it is closer to that of Fiorentino. The opening credits is for Fiorentino’s work but there is also a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. There are parts of the film that are close to the Shakespeare play and others that differ.  The characters appear to have the names used in the Fiorentino version: but the original German language titles may have been different. The collected plays include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ under the comedies, and parts of this film are played in that tenor.

The casting is variable. Henny Portman is The Lady of Belmont [Portia] and she is not exactly the type for this women who has so many suitors. She is better when disguised as the young lawyer {Balthazar] for the trial scene. Harry Liedtke is Giannetto (Bassanio) and Carl Ebert is Ansaldo (Antonio), they are passable rather than engaging. The stand-out performance is Werner Krauss as the Jew of Mestri, Mordecai. He combines the angry responses to prejudice with the growing malevolence directed especially against Ansaldo.   Lia Eibenschütz  as Rachele [Jessica, the Jew’s daughter] is also very good.

Fiorentino’s version and this film appear to provide greater emphasis on the manner in which the Jew is the subject of prejudice and mistreatment. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock is already prejudiced against Antonio. But in this version there is an important sequence when Mordecai sends his wife to collect debts owed to him by Giannetto. She finds Giannetto passing with friends, including Ansaldo. They roundly abuse her. As a consequence she suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. In the following sequences Mordecai mourns his wife and vows vengeance. Thus we get the Bond with Ansaldo and the ‘pound of flesh’.

There is more space devoted to his daughter Racele than in the play. She is wooed by Lorenzo (I missed his name in this version) who is something of a fancy man. Mordecai meanwhile has arranged a union with the son of a friend. So there is drama round Racele’s unwillingness to join this union.

The trial sequence is very close to that in Shakespearean’s play and it is followed by the re-union of Giannetto with The Lady of Belmont, of Ansaldo with the Lady’s assistant and confidante and of Lorenzo with Racele. We again see Mordecai in the streets, bitter and frustrated by the loss of his suit, his monies and his daughter. The final moment of the film also differs from the Shakespeare play. In a powerful final shot we get a close-up of Mordecai [an iris shot], which can be read different ways depending how you interpret Krauss’s characterisation. I tended to see this as sympathetic. The longer German version may generate a different feel

One of the cachet’s of the film is that it was filmed on location in Venice. It is well served by the excellent cinematography by Axel Graatkjær and Rudolph Maté. One thing I noted that was that the crowd scenes in the streets of Venice were running slightly faster than the rest of the print. This could have been a different cranking rate in exteriors, but it seemed quite consistent across sequences. So I think it was shot to run slightly faster in order to generate drama.

I found the trial sequence impressive. There is a volatile crowd of onlookers, who become excited and vocal. In front of this the young lawyer, Mordecai and Ansaldo play out the famous dramatic scene.

The print we enjoyed was of pretty good quality. It was projected at 19 fps, running for 78 minutes. This would be about 1700 metres. However, Wikipedia suggests that the original version was at least two reels longer, about 220 metres: IMDB has even longer at 2800 metres. It is possible as there were parts of the film that seemed undeveloped. This is true regarding the death of Mordecai’s wife, some of the street sequences, scenes on the ‘Il Ridotto’ involving the Jewish financial community, the plotting of the affair between Racele and Lorenzo and also some of the plotting around the wooing of the Lady of Belmont. It may be that what is missing includes scenes that are closer to Shakespeare.

We also enjoyed an excellent accompaniment by Stephen Horne. He likes to accompany with multi-instruments: so we had the piano keyboard and strings; a flute, an accordion, a xylophone and a hand-held harmonium.

 

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