Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sometimes entitled Symphony of Love, this early talkie from Czechoslovakia is a very artistic,
and cinematically expressionistic tone poem in the mode of the earlier Murnau sensation Sunrise.
Of course, now it's known mainly as the shocking sensual 'debut' of Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr,
but it's quite a movie in its own right, with Lamarr's sensitive performance enhanced by some
Young Eva (Hedy Kiesler, later known as Hedy Lamarr) marries Emile (Zvonomir Rogoz),
only to discover he's a closed-off man concerned only about having absolute order in his life.
Despondent, she returns to her father's horse farm, 'to find peace'. Divorce proceedings are begun.
While swimming, her horse runs off with her dress on its back, causing her to meet Adam (Aribert Mog), a
construction foreman, under revealing conditions. They begin a torrid affair. All seems well until
Emile and Adam meet up independently ....
Yes, Playboy had little better to do in the '60s but attempt its own revisionist cinema history,
and Hedy Lamarr often showed up in their pictorial sections, huddling behind some wispy tree in
the nude. The original Extase was made in Czech, German and French versions, and cemented
her notoriety years before Walter Wanger brought her to America for a remake of Pepe Le Moko.
Algiers was a big hit, and a fat MGM contract followed. Of course, after a retitling to Ecstasy,
the 8-year-old film was imported as a naughty item that only made Lamarr seem more exotic. People had heard
of 'stag' films, but Hollywood stars didn't make them. This Lamarr was in a class by herself - who would
think of someone like stuffy Greer Garson as having such an uninhibited movie in her past?
Well, Ecstasy turns out to be nothing to hide - it's a very artistic and emotionally valid
exploration of the
sensual life of a troubled young woman. There's almost no dialogue, and the story is told in the
'pure visual' style of Dreyer's Vampyr: slow scenes, beautiful photography, a lingering
attention to details of decor and the subtle expressions on the actor's faces. The plot is reduced
to the bare minimum. All the time and attention is spent on contrasts of light and dark, and
Some of the symbolism is rather thin, but, accepted as expressionist shorthand, it serves the
same purpose as whole paragraphs of text. Eva's husband crushes a bee under his cane, revolting her
with his impassivity - to bees, and to her. Later, outdoorsman Adam seeks to break the ice after bringing
Eva her dress. He gives her a flower, but first rescues a fallen bee and puts it on the petals. Eva is
charmed. A later suicide is accompanied by the vision of flies trapped in a window, and in candle wax.
Director Machaty was clearly fluent not only in Dreyer and Murnau, but Buñuel as well.
Less successful cinematics are used in a scene where Eva's father mates two horses ... the camera takes the
impassioned view of the mounting stallion, going so far as to truck in quickly on the mare's rear end. It's
either funny, or really crude, now. Machaty constantly compares Eva's moods and desires to the wild
beauty of nature, but this is a bit much.
Hedy Lamarr's famous skinny dip was probably nothing new in 1932, as many silent films, even American ones,
had employed casual nudity in similar situations. But Lamarr's radiance and natural joy at becoming one with
nature does feel like something new, because Ecstasy makes us feel it too. The montages of the
natural fecundity of animals and wheatfields weren't necessary to make Hedy's power glow from the screen. She's a
natural, like Brigitte Helm of Metropolis, or Louise Brooks of Pandora's Box, which this
film sometimes resembles. Hedy's nudity is direct but discreet ... the effect is one of rapture, not cheap
thrills. Americans later seeking out her hot European movie must have felt cheated. Strangely enough,
Lamarr always seemed subdued and remote in her MGM pictures, a cold beauty instead of the young lifeforce
seen here, with her heart pounding and lips parted. MGM didn't publicize the fact that Lamarr was actually
a very intelligent electronic engineer, who patriotically invented some kind of sonar device (honest) that saw use
during the war (no kidding). I guess that didn't fit in with Louis Mayer's idea of an exotic movie star. 2
But Lamarr has her own undying corner of erotic screen history. The big seduction scene concentrates almost
exclusively on her upturned, enraptured face, with the detail of her broken string of pearls standing
in for her sexual initiation. There's only the slightest hint of real sexual activity going on, but
the scene is far more intense than the countless humping rituals that serve as sex in movies now.
The ending is slightly cryptic. Eva leaves her Adam for reasons not spelled out, although she clearly
feels unworthy of him. Then we have an extended work montage of Adam's laborers, complete with
pick-axe POVs of mud flying up and the sky spinning. It's almost unwelcome, because we want to know
what's become of Eva. We see Adam, looking pensive, missing her, and then a vision of Eva - his
thoughts? The truth? Is the child in the vision something Adam knows is coming? How could he? It's
frustrating when the END card follows so quickly, but then you realize that life can be just like this.
People come together and separate, and one wonders what's become of the other. At least Eva looks
happy ... although we have reason to believe that she could just as likely have come to a completely
Image's DVD of Ecstasy comes from the Austrian Film Archiv and is clearly the German
version of the movie, entitled Ekstasy in the dreamy opening visual that almost reminds of
the beginning of Blue Velvet. The image on this DVD is not terrific, but not bad either. The movie is quite intact, but
several dupey generations away from prime material - the grain is severe, and the framing way too
tight. Several scenes crop Lamarr down almost to the eyes, and it's obvious that some optical dupe
in the past cropped way in on all four sides. That said, it's also very watchable and few details
are lost. Perhaps the Czechs or the French have miraculously kept some superior version somewhere,
but this version is not at all bad.
The sound is 1932-primitive, but the music score is very effective and emotionally effective. The few
lines of dialogue are crudely overdubbed, so it's all for the better that this is a Sunrise -
like visual Symphony of Love. There are no extras. The enticing box art is either original, or a
very convincing simulation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2002
1. Actually, although MGM star Joan Crawford claimed she never even
saw a movie until she was a dancer in New York, rumors have always claimed that she made some hot
films in the early '20s. So far, none have shown up.
2. And, courtesy of Chris Crywalt (thanks!), here's a link to an article about Hedy the electronic engineer -
and a patent she shared with George Antheil:
1997 Bulbie Award Winners.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson