MIKAEL (aka: MICHAEL)
(director/writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer; screenwriters: Thea von Harbou/from the novel by Hermann Bang; cinematographers: Karl Freund/Rudolph Maté; music: Hans Joseph Vieth; cast: Walter Slezak (Mikaël), Benjamin Christensen (Claude Zoret), Rob Garrison (Switt), Nora Gregor (Princess Zamikoff), Grete Mosheim (Alice Adelsskjold), Alexander Murski (Mr. Adelskjold), Didier Aslan (Duc de Monthieu), Karl W. Freund (Leblanc, art dealer), Max Auzinger (Jules, the majordomo), Wilhelmine Sandrock (Widow de Monthieu); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Erich Pommer; Janus; 1924-Germany-in Danish with English subtitles)
“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.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Mikael is played by the handsome 22-year-old Walter Slezak. It’s a heavy going and at times unbearably ponderous Teutonic artsy romantic melodrama by Carl Theodor Dreyer that is based on the 1902 novel by German writer Hermann Bang. 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 (I don’t think that was a wise decision!). Karl Freund handled photographing all the interior scenes, while Rudolph Maté handled the exterior ones.
Middle-aged bachelor Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen, film director) is a master painter living in opulence. He is adorned in a smoking jacket and smokes a long-stemmed clay pipe. Mikael is a tempestuous struggling young artist who four years ago brought the Master his sketches but is rejected, instead he’s 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, as these paintings that Mikael models for become very popular. The Master calls him his adopted son, and promises to leave him everything. 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 Mikael steals the Countess from his mentor, which drives him to solitude and to paint his final masterpiece The Vanquished. It 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 Mikael, 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 Mikael where it belongs.
When Zoret is on his dying bed, he calls for Mikael 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 Mikael, 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.
It was 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 downright foolish, but he reaches for truth in both love and art when he symbolically slays his ego. Dreyer’s life long theme of ‘Be true to one’s self’ is certainly indicated as the credo for the artist, while a woman who interferes with the serious artist is only perceived as a nuisance. 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 (Hollywood has a long history of missing the boat on gay romances).
REVIEWED ON 7/28/2004 GRADE: B –