Kino video has released a trio of silent films under the banner of
"Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era." When thinking about movies
made in Germany during the Weimar Republic, those with a homosexual content
don't generally spring to mind. However Kino has been able to illustrate
that a wider variety of films were made at this time than I'd previously
thought. The first film of this series that I screened was Michael
by the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Thought lost for years,
and eclipsed by Dryer's later films, Michael is a very interesting
work. In this film Dreyer's techniques that he would use in making
his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc are fully realized,
and the film is a stylistic triumph. Though the story itself didn't
captivate me, Dreyer's direction made this an interesting film to watch.
Michael (Walter Slezak) is a model and apprentice to the wealthy master
painter Claude Zoret (played by Benjamin Christensen who went on to direct
Haxan. This was his last acting role.) Zoret dotes on
his protege, and his most famous works are portraits of the young Adonis.
When a Russian Princess, Lucia Zamikoff (Grete Mosheim,) comes to have
her portrait painted by the master, things start to change. Michael
falls in love with Lucia and as the two grow closer Michael pulls away
from Zoret. The master painter is deeply troubled by this, and when
Michael rents an apartment of his own, and sees this as an act of betrayal.
Though when Michael starts selling the gifts Zoret gave him and even starting
to steal from him in order to woo the Princess, the painter turns a blind
eye to the exploitation.
The story itself, based on a novel by Danish writer Herman Bang who
was popular in Germany at the time, didn't really grab me the way most
of Dreyer's work does. I never really was that interesting in the
love triangle that at first glance is the driving force of the movie, nor
the subplot of the Duke having an affair with a married woman. Like
the ogre Schrek though, this film has layers. On the surface, the
two plots are a little on the melodramatic side, but when placed against
each other and examined, they give new meaning to the film. The two
romances involve love triangles an run through similar courses. When
you compare the two, they are very similar. The Duke's involvement
with a married lady is a forbidden love though, and by implication so is
Zoret's love for his model Michael.
Art plays an important role in this film, not only by being the backdrop
to the drama, but because most to the characters are associated with art
and interact through art. The story itself is almost told through
the various pieces of art that populate the film. Zoret paint all
three of the main characters, Michael, Lucia and himself in a fashion that
reveals the role that they will play in the movie. Michael and Lucia's
romance first starts when he shows her a statue of a naked woman, just
as Michael's relationship with Zoret began when the young artist showed
his sketches to the master. The comparison of people to art objects,
and how art connects people is hard to miss.
There is also the underlying theme of the role inspiration plays on
artistic achievement which I found much more engaging. The master
can create brilliant images when Michael is posing for him, but when he
tries to paint the Princess, he can't manage to fully capture her.
Michael on the other hand, can perfect his teacher's painting with a few
Dreyer obtains subtle performances from his actors in this film, as
he often does, and this subtlety greatly adds to the film's appeal.
The subject of a homosexual romance gone sour, told mainly through implication,
is a tough idea to get across. Even more so in 1924.
The strength of the actors and their willingness to tell the story through
more natural means is a key ingredient to the success of this film.
The one aspect of this movie that appealed to me most was the way that
Dreyer filmed it. He uses a very interesting tableau for much of
the film. Many of the shots are 'framed' by a doorway or an arch,
and there is little depth to th image with all figures being in the same
plane. These shots are reminiscent of some 18th century art.
The figures themselves are not as important as their surroundings...the
decor is what captures the eye. He alternates these tableau images
with many closeups, where a face fills the screen. This is almost
the opposite shot, where the decor is totally ignored and the focus is
on a single individual.
This is an interesting and effective way to tell a story. The
tableau style shots are useful in moving the narrative forward and telling
the story, but it is not very personal. Dreyer solves this problem
by intercutting closeups that are prefect for revealing emotion and giving
the movie a personal and intimate feel. The way he utilizes this
technique is both masterful and artistic, making this an important film
in his evolution as a director.
The original piano score by Neal Kurz was technically sound
but didn't enhance the film the way the best silent scores do. The
music for the Swan Lake scene had the same feel as the rest of the soundtrack
and didn't set this trip to the theater apart from the rest of the film
for example. Kurz's performance is very good though, and his score
is pleasing to the ear, it just doesn't mesh with the visuals as well as
some other scores do. There are English intertitles, but no optional
The image was good for an 80 year old film. While this restoration
by the Murnau Institue is a quality effort, it doesn't look like their
fill effort and resources were put into this effort. While the image
is clear, the picture is on the light side, and details are lost both in
the shadows and highlights. The range of grey tones is acceptable,
but not spectacular. It is very obvious that the film has been restored
though. Dirt and spots, while present, are not very frequent and
the image is much cleaner than one would normally expect. A nice looking
movie, even if it isn't outstanding.
This disc has a commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg from
the University of Denmark. He gives a very through and scholarly
talk. He discusses the background for the making of the film, the
careers of people involved, Dreyer's style and the differences between
the novel and the movie. Though it sounds like English isn't Tybjerg's
first language, his commentary is very clear and easy to understand, though
his presentation is a little on the dry side. Even with that flaw,
this was a very informative audio track.
There is also a text listing of Dreyer's films.
While story itself was not as engrossing as some of Dreyer's other films,
if you examine this movie a little it has some interesting things to say.
There are several layers to the film, and Dreyer includes a lot to interpret.
Dreyer has a lot to say about the relationship between art and the artist
and the role of inspiration. I haven't even touched on the religious
aspects of this work, a subject that runs through most of his films.
Technically the film is masterful. Dreyer has constructed with mainly
closeups and long shots and it is quite effective in telling the story
and keeping the film intimate and subtle. Recommended.