A Gay Movie from 1924
Almost since the dawn of moving film there have landmark gay film and one of the important ones of the silent era is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 movie “Michael”. A new 2K restoration of the film was released as a World Exclusive on Blu-ray on February 12, 2018.
Based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel of the same name, Dreyer’s film is a fascinating fin-de-siècle study of a “decadent” elderly artist (Benjamin Christensen) who is driven to despair by his relationship with his young protégé and former model, Michael whol is played by the handsome 22-year-old Walter Slezak. It was filmed in Germany, where the auteur demanded complete control of his film and got it despite the German studio’s usual policy of overseeing the films it produces. The co-writer is Thea von Harbou, who was Fritz Lang’s wife at the time. It was released in America some three years later with the new title “Chained: The Story of the Third Sex”. The underlining love triangle has a suggestive gay romance that never is brought out in the open, and has been ignored by many of the film critics.
Middle-aged bachelor Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen, film director) is a master painter living in opulence. Michael is a tempestuous struggling young artist who four years ago brought the Master his sketches but is rejected and instead is asked to model for him. This leads to making himself at home in the Master’s palace and having the Master pay for his upkeep. The paintings that Michael models for become very popular. The Master calls him his adopted son, and promises to leave him everything. But then when the Master paints a penniless Russian countess, Princess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor), complications arise when they both fall for her. The Master has previously painted only men and can’t get the eyes of the Countess right, as this is his only painting that gets panned by the art critics. Meanwhile Michael steals the Countess from his mentor, which drives him to solitude and to paint his final masterpiece “The Vanquished” that depicts an old man sitting on a rock who has lost everything.
Zoret calls in his art dealer Leblanc (Karl W. Freund, cinematographer) to sell his Caesar and Brutus painting, but learns that Michael, who has jilted him to live with the Countess, sold his best painting, “The Victor”, which he gave him as a present. He then orders the dealer to buy back the painting under the name Leblanc and return it to Michael where it belongs.
When Zoret is on his deathbed, he calls for Michael but the ungrateful adopted son will not leave the arms of the Countess. But Zoret excuses him and makes out his last will leaving everything to Michael, exclaiming he can now die in peace because he has seen true love. The Master requests that his aide find a secret burial place in a field of flowers and tell no one where it is.
This is a difficult story to like or feel much for any of the self-absorbed flawed characters, or care much for their idea of love. But the pain from an unrequited gay love comes through loud and clear. The Master’s love is filled with self-pity and a nobility that seems completely foolish, but he reaches for truth in both love and art when he symbolically slays his ego.
As drama, the characters remain too distant to offer the warmth needed for Dreyer to convey that love in its purity conquers all in the end. But as an early example of a gay themed film, it becomes a landmark film showing the obstacles in the way of a gay romance.
With this “Michael we get a level of attention to restoration and presentation of the film that is quite unexpected, illuminating not only the early work of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, but giving us a wider look at the cinema of the period and the attitudes that formed it.
Dreyer’s film is a dramatic conflict based around the themes of art and love. Michael is an early examination of the power of art and the fire of inspiration. It’s an inspiration that arises out of the very act of being human and communicating with other people and all the emotions that this gives rise to – love, desire, jealousy, betrayal. “All these emotions contribute to the richness of life, its reflection in art and its ultimate culmination in death. The relationship of the artist and their inspiration is a complex one and not an easy one to achieve and it is particularly difficult to convey in a silent film. This is where Dreyer’s artistry shines.
The relationship between the Master and Michael is a more complexly layered one with elements of father and son, artist and muse, master and protégé and suggestions of a homosexual relationship between them. All this is difficult to convey in any film, never mind a silent one, but Dreyer manages to do so.
The other element of Dreyer’s great skill in the film is through the set design and the performances of the actors themselves. The elaborateness of the sumptuous sets and the rich lighting all support the baroque drama of the plot’s romance and tragedy. Dreyer draws much meaning through the eyes of the actors rather than the exaggerated gestures we might be more familiar with from other silent films of the period. “Michael” hints at the greatness Dreyer would achieve in his later films, but in its own right it is a magnificent film from this era of cinema.