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Nathan the Wise
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by Jay Seaver

"Any movie the Nazis hated as much as this one has something going for it."
4 stars

"Nathan the Wise" has had a tumultuous journey to reach modern audiences: The original play (based on a narrative poem) was first performed two years after writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's death, and though this film version was very popular in many other parts of Germany upon its 1923 release, it didn't open in Munich; the ascendant Nazis threatened violence against any theater that ran it. In 1933, after they came to power, they destroyed all known copies, and it would be over sixty years before one was found in a Russian archive. The film itself isn't quite on the level of its history, but it's well-made, interesting, and heartfelt; well worth seeing.

The story takes place in twelfth century Jerusalem, during the time of the Crusades. Sultan Saladin (Fritz Greiner) takes the city over the efforts of his brother Assad, who had converted to Christianity and fought with the Knights Templar. In the chaos that follows, pacifist Jewish merchant Nathan's seven sons are killed when rioters set fire to the synagogue. He despairs until a fleeing soldier presses Assad's newborn baby into his hands. Fifteen or twenty years later, Nathan (Werner Krauss) has raised "Recha" (Bella Muzsany) well; both father and the pretty, cheerful girl are known for their kindness and chairty. Saladin, meanwhile, has successfully defended the city from Crusaders again, and though most have been imprisoned, he frees one (Carl de Vogt) for his bravery and resemblance to the Sultan's lost brother.

The paths of these people will cross, naturally; given what we have seen in the prologue, it is destiny. Interestingly, that opening sequence was not part of the original play, and in some ways it's an awkward compromise between what works in a written story or play and what works in a silent film. Screenwriter Hans Kyser and director Manfred Noa essentially show the audience how all the characters are connected before the title card for Act One appears, and while it likely reduces the number of later scenes that are just walls of intertitled exposition, it certainly reduces the number of later surprises while casting a shadow over the scenes with Recha and the Templar.

Worrying about plot is a little beside the point here, though; the point of Nathan the Wise is less the actual story than the message of religious tolerance. There are two clear metaphors here: The plot makes Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters family, positing that for them to love each other is natural but hate must be learned, with the family symbolism reinforced by The Parable of the Rings, a story within the story which Nathan relates that does an unusually good job of illustrating how faith and uncertainty go hand in hand. It's not subtle in the least - parables seldom are - but it's even-handed and well-told.

The Parable is also a segment that does something silent films do unusually well, switching to a more abstract style. It's presented as silhouettes, almost resembling puppetry at times. It's hard to imagine a modern live-action film going this route, but it works very well here. Noa and company also give this transplanted stage play a nice sense of scale, including staging an impressive battle scene to open the movie. Certainly, some of the filmmaking technique is primitive (it was, after all, made in 1922!), but bits hold up rather well.

The acting, of course, is very much a product of its time. Some is surprisingly effective - Carl de Vogt manages a dual role quite nicely, for example - and some can be rather hackneyed. Werner Krauss, for instance, has a way of presenting his character's nobility of character by leaning his head back so he's looking skyward and holding his hand to his chest that is almost a parody of humility today, although it generally works in context. Fritz Greiner does well as the open-minded but combustible sultan, and Bella Muzsnay really does make a lovely Recha.

(Sadly, the original score by Willy Schmidt-Gentner is believed to be completely lost. This screening featured a new composition by Aaron Trant and the After Quartet which, I must admit, I didn't much care for, though it might have been right at home at the time of the film's premiere.)

Surprisingly, there were few if any other big-screen attempts to adapt Lessing's story during the years the film was missing, even though the play was still performed regularly. Maybe doing a film with such a straightforward moral message didn't appeal to later filmmakers; "Nathan the Wise" certainly isn't complicated. It does tell its story of tolerance well, though; it would be worth finding even if it hadn't been lost.

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originally posted: 09/14/11 09:39:13
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