Germany | 90 min.
black & white
Carl Th. Dreyer, 1924
Danish master Carl Th. Dreyer (1889-1968) directed Michael (also known as Mikaël) in 1924 for Decla-Bioscop, the artistic wing of German production powerhouse Ufa. It was Dreyer’s sixth feature in five years and his second in Germany.
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) driven to despair by his relationship with his young protégé and former model, Michael (Walter Slezak). With suffocatingly sumptuous production design by renowned architect Hugo Häring (his only film work), this Kammerspiel, or “intimate theatre”, foreshadows Dreyer’s magnificent final film Gertrud by precisely forty years.
Michael was scripted by Dreyer with Fritz Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou (Metropolis, M, etc). It stars the director Benjamin Christensen (Häxan); Walter Slezak (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); Nora Gregor (Renoir’s The Rules of the Game); Mady Christians (Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman); and Karl Freund (who shot Metropolis) in his only ever appearance as an actor. Freund lensed part of Michael too, but left to work on Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc) took over.
Never before released on home video, this 80th anniversary DVD set is a timely opportunity to experience a film that was once described (by Dreyer biographers J. & D. D. Drum) as “having one of the strangest and saddest fates a film ever suffered”.
by Nick Wrigley, 2004
Not many films are able to celebrate their eightieth birthday with a home video debut. Since its release, Michael has been notoriously difficult to view without travelling to rare theatrical retrospectives in large cities. Widely regarded as a key film in Dreyer’s frustratingly sporadic career, it will now hopefully enjoy close study and a fresh life in this new century.
“I’ve been waiting all my life to see this film!” – Cinematographer Néstor Almendros on Michael in 1989.
At the time of release in 1924, Michael was one of the first films in a brief but influential German genre – Kammerspiel – or ‘chamber drama’. The name originates from a theatre, the Kammerspiele, opened in 1906 by Max Reinhardt to stage intimate dramas for small audiences. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note in their book FILM HISTORY (2nd edition), “Few Kammerspiel films were made but nearly all are classics: Lupu Pick’s Shattered (1921) and Sylvester (1923), Leopold Jessner’s Backstairs (1921), Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and Dreyer’s Michael (1924). Remarkably, all these films except Michael were scripted by the scenarist Carl Mayer, who also coscripted Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.”
The Kammerspiel film relinquished spectacle, extreme emotion and the stylization that often typified German Expressionist films, instead focusing on a small number of characters in intimate surroundings. This atmosphere, lacking flights of fantasy or mythologizing, concentrated attention on character psychology within everyday situations. Most Kammerspiel films ended with the death of a main character, except the most successful, The Last Laugh, which notoriously had its ending changed to an outrageous, upbeat outcome.
Despite success, the genre seemed to die out altogether in the mid-1920s yet can be seen to live on in the diverse films of Bergman, Ozu, Fassbinder and also in Dreyer’s final film, Gertrud.
When Dreyer started work on Michael in 1924 he had been making films solidly for five years, and his previous film, Der var engang [Once Upon a Time] (1922), had been a personal and commercial disappointment. Dreyer told Ebbe Neergaard, “It taught me the bitter lesson – that you cannot build a film on atmosphere alone. I learned that people are primarily interested in people,” and thus came Michael, entirely focused on relationships.
Talking about the film in 1965, Dreyer said, “The action takes place during a period when passion and exaggeration were in fashion, when feelings were wilfully exacerbated; a period with a certain very false manner, which is seen in its decoration with all its outrageously supercharged interiors.”
Unusually for Dreyer, the film contains an extraordinary reference to modern culture of the early 1920s. The scene where Michael and the Princess laugh at a row of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan dolls is a lovely nod to The Kid, released only a few years earlier in 1921, and it adds a brief flicker of the outside world amid the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of Zoret’s lavish abode. The novel is set at the end of the 19th century, yet the Chaplin scene is evidence of Dreyer updating the story to the contemporary era of the time. Dreyer and Chaplin were the same age (both born in early 1889, Dreyer was two months older) and in 1952, submitting a list of his favourite films to Cinémathèque Belgique, Dreyer picked The Gold Rush in his top five.
Dreyer received a standing ovation after a retrospective screening for Michael at the tiny Sala Volpi cinema in Venice, 1965. He was very fond of the film, and later the same year, said: “For me, this film counts for a lot, even though I see it differently, through somewhat different eyes. It is one of my first films to clearly show a specific style: a certain reflection of the period. It was, for example, the period when, in France, the monasteries were expropriated by the government. Piles of accessories that came from churches and monasteries were put up for sale, and many people bought sacerdotal ornaments, chairs, benches and other furniture. For example, I knew a Danish actress – she lived in France and was married to the composer, Bereny – who, when she moved back to Copenhagen, set herself up in an apartment filled with horrible things of this genre, all lighted by a bunch of chandeliers. Well, all that was also part of the film’s atmosphere which reflects this rich taste … which was in bad taste but which, obviously was considered excellent at that time.”
For the decors, Dreyer collaborated with an architect he described as “absolutely amazing” – Hugo Häring. Michael was Häring’s first and only film work. Dreyer said, “For him, it was an entracte in his career (and the period was not so much one for the construction of new houses), an amusement, a fantasy that offered itself …”
Over the years, Michael has been so rarely seen that we felt we had to present everything we had access to for this 80th anniversary DVD release. Disc One is the “USA version”, coordinated by David Shepard in 2004, including a newly recorded piano score by Neal Kurz and commentary by Casper Tybjerg, as well as new English intertitles. This version has been released in North America by Kino.
Also available to us was a different transfer of a different print, from Germany, with German intertitles and a most interesting score for piano, clarinet, and cello. This version was put together in 1993 for Arte Television, and has been shown theatrically around the world at Dreyer retrospectives. The quality of this German score, specially composed by Pierre Oser, is the main reason why there is a second disc in this package. A wonderful, haunting score – it feels ‘psychologically correct’ and works, I think, beautifully. Dreyer apparently chose motifs from Tchaikovsky to accompany initial screenings of the film in Germany and Denmark, but, unfortunately, no recordings exist and we haven’t turned up any original sheet music for those performances either.
It proved physically impossible to transpose the Pierre Oser score over the “USA version” (to offer it as an alternate soundtrack) because the new English intertitles are onscreen for less time than the German intertitles: resulting in over three minutes difference in the running times between the two versions (ie. not a consequence of PAL/NTSC timing shenanigans). We were not prepared to timestretch the German score, so instead, it is presented in its original form, complete, on Disc Two, as the “European version”. Apart from the differing transfers, intertitles, and contrasting scores, the USA version has a fifteen second tear in the film around the 78 minute mark – damage that the German version does not have.
By issuing both currently available transfers of this very rare film we hope to present the full picture of its current state at the time of its 80th birthday.
Its original German release title, Michael, has been restored for this edition because the film was made in Berlin with Erich Pommer at Ufa. Dreyer preferred the Danish release title of Mikaël, and this name has been used by many writers to refer to the film. Herman Bang’s novel, on which the film is based, was called Michael in Germany and Mikaël in Denmark, so the titles followed suit for the theatrical releases in their respective territories, to avoid confusion.
Michael/Mikaël – a minor confusion really compared to the early fate of the film in the USA. Eileen Bowser documented the film’s “curious history” in her MOMA retrospective programme from 1964. The film was shown “at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse the week of December 11, 1926, under the title Chained (the censors protested the title originally chosen – The Inverts), and Dreyer, unknown in the USA, was not even credited in the program. Some of the daily reviewers even credited Benjamin Christensen as the director. Only Mordaunt Hall of the Times appears to have known about Carl Th. Dreyer. Stranger yet, in 1930, Mikaël turned up at a Broadway grind house as Chained: The Story of the Third Sex, with a “scientific lecture”, a shoddy atmosphere, and no credit to Dreyer or anyone else. Paul Rotha in The Film Till Now refers to this film as The Heart’s Desire.”
The author of the novel on which Dreyer’s film was based is widely recognised as being the first significant Danish homosexual writer. The Danish literary scholar Dag Heede describes Bang as, “An important literary innovator of the impressionist style. Although his dense and tragic novels never touch directly on homosexuality, they do focus on frustrated and abused women – probably modelled on his mother, who died at the age of 43 – and lend themselves to obvious allegorical readings.” Dreyer’s mother also died similarly young and it is clear that he was drawn to Bang’s writing years before he made his first film. In 1912, shortly before Bang’s death, Dreyer interviewed the author in his Berlin home, probably in his capacity as a journalist for Ekstra Bladet. Months later, whilst on a promotional reading tour of the USA, Bang died of exhaustion on a train in Ogden, Utah.
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1902, the son of a famed Wagnerian operatic tenor (Leo Slezak) was twenty-two when he played the lead in Michael, his second film. He received his break two years earlier in Sodom und Gomorrha for Michael Curtiz. Slezak later went on to work for Renoir (This Land Is Mine) and Hitchcock (Lifeboat), before settling into run-of-the-mill family adventure films in the 1960s and 70s like Black Beauty (1971), and Treasure Island (1972) – his last two features. He did have a lengthy career on TV with small parts in such shows as Rawhide, Batman, Dr. Kildare, I Spy, and The Love Boat. He committed suicide in New York in 1983.
Nick Wrigley curates carldreyer.com.