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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 brush strokes.
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 subtitles.
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.