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“Nathan” as a Film Concert: What the Ring Parable Sounds Like on an Oud

Filmmuseum München Copyright: Filmmuseum München
Scene from the classic film “Nathan” (Photo: Filmmuseum München)

26 October 2009

A special kind of comeback: laboriously restored and atmospherically colourized, the silent film classic Nathan the Wise returns to the silver screen in Munich. Silent? As if! By Katrin Hillgruber

“Raise not your hands in force!” cries a yet dark-bearded Nathan to the aggressors. Yet, it is too late, the house with the Star of David goes up in flames, and with it Nathan’s wife and his seven children. The National Youth Orchestra of Germany conducted by Frank Strobel soars up to fortissimo, the screen is coloured crimson; already in the prologue to the film concert Nathan the Wise the film, orchestra and audience have become one. Thanks to an ingenious reinterpretation, Manfred Noa’s film adaptation of Lessing’s poetic drama Nathan the Wise experiences its resurrection.

On 29 December 1922, the “film of humanity,” a production by the young Bavaria AG studios, celebrated its premiere at the Alhambra cinema in Berlin and not in Munich, where anti-Semitic intrigues thwarted the first release. In 1996 the Münchner Filmmuseum discovered a copy long believed lost in the Moscow Gosfilmofond collection entitled The Storming of Jerusalem.

Erich Wagowski produced the work in six acts (there were only five in Ephraim Lessing’s drama of 1779) using countless extras in Oriental garb as well as peacocks, donkeys and camels on the grounds of Bavaria Studios. It has now been laboriously restored and colourized unobtrusively yet fitting to the mood. The title cards adapted from Lessing’s iambs glow in green Gothic letters on a black background alongside the subtle Bavaria signet, a circle with owl, behind which a filmstrip moves.

The director positioned the famous Werner Krauss as Nathan, Fritz Greiner as Sultan Saladin, Carl de Vogt as the young Templar, who falls in love with Nathan’s adopted Christian daughter Recha (Bella Muzsnay) only to recognize in the final scene that she is his own sister, as well as many other silent film greats in an Oriental décor, which reveals Manfred Noa’s love of classical painting. The sets like the sultan’s palace recall the forms of Jugendstil. The sultan – expressively made up as the entire cast – wears long mother of pearl earrings with his imposing turban.

Oriental Voltes

Yet not until now, almost 87 years after the premiere, does the only film adaptation of Lessing’s “Nathan” attain that dimension which makes up its universal validity. This is to the credit of the Lebanese-German composer Rabih Abou-Khalil and his ingenious film score. The project was funded by the German Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut and the Munich cultural department.

Michel Godard on the serpent, a forerunner of the tuba, American percussionist Jarrod Gagwin and Rabih Abou-Khalil playing the oud, a Middle Eastern short-necked lute, form a highly unusual trio for Central European ears. In their interpretation of the silent film scenes, the three repeatedly thrust Oriental voltes. Abou-Khalil, who fled the Lebanese civil war to Munich in 1978, is the ideal conveyor of both Middle Eastern and Western music.

The first act of the film portrays the “fanatical war between the peoples of the orient and occident.” The crusaders tear across the yellowish screen on horseback while in Jerusalem, Muslims and Jews fear for their lives. Abou-Khalil interprets these emotions with Arabic sound sequences and the rhythm of the “German” film plot with an intensively oriental counter rhythm.

Modern Awareness

As Werner Krauss begins to tell the story of the ring parable, the nucleus of the play, the music recedes completely to allow for full concentration: which of the three rings has the power to render its owner “pleasant in the eyes of God and mankind“? What applies for the three rings is also valid for the three Abrahamic faiths.

During the political commotion of the Weimar Republic, the message of the ring parable met with little interest and Manfred Noa’s film classic was entirely forgotten under National Socialism. In the final scene, Nathan, pardoned by the sultan, embraces his adopted Christian children. Saladin, in turn, grants his archenemies permission to make the burial place of their saviour an eternal place of pilgrimage.

The tolerance and the magnanimity of Nathan were once depicted by Manfred Noa and now set to music by Rabih Abou-Khalil and his colleagues in such a way that the rating “film score initiative for tolerance” is magically filled with life. We hope that Strobel and the National Youth Orchestra of Germany have many more performances ahead – also and especially in the Middle East, Nathan’s home.

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