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Silent drama about gay painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) and
his model/lover Mikael (Walter Slezak). A beautiful countess (Nora
Gregor) commissions Zoret to paint her. He does but Mikael starts to
fall in love with her. He drifts farther apart from Zoret and their
relationship begins to crumble...
Being a gay man and a film addict I was surprised I had never heard of this film! It just popped up unannounced on TCM and I'm glad I taped it. A 1924 film dealing with gay men was way ahead of its time. Their relationship is not made explicit--it's mostly communicated by looks, gestures, dialogue and (in one instance) hand holding. Still that was groundbreaking for that day. It does have the predictable tragic ending...but that was the way it would have to end. It was refreshing to see that their relationship was portrayed as no big deal and no one makes a fuss over it. Very well done.
The acting is just great. It's astonishing to see Slezak so young and handsome and THIN. Christensen was just great too. Gregor isn't that good--but she's not given much to work with. Also this was beautifully directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The version I saw also had a very good music score given to in by Kino International in 2004.
A very good, groundbreaking movie. It really deserves a wider audience. I give it an 8 because it IS a little slow at times.
I invite any who see this to compare it to Novios búlgaros, Los (2003).
The stories are remarkably similar. An older man is attracted to a younger and the younger (while primarily attracted to women) is willing to be the object of adoration provided that it pays well.
In this film the older painter is taken at every opportunity by his younger model (and ward). And somehow the younger man is not painted as being a complete villain.
Also of interest to me was a minor subplot, when the famous artist is attempting to paint a princess who has commissioned a portrait the artist struggles more than he has with any other painting (The earlier paintings that we see are all of men) In this one he simply cannot get the eyes right. His young model/ward (who first came to him as an aspiring painter) makes an attempt and gets it right at his first go. Perhaps what was symbolized here was that the eyes are the windows to the soul and the famous painter (who's only attracted to men) cannot see into the souls of women while his young ward (who has slept with the woman at this point) can do so easily.
This film was remarkably well made for its day and while it does show some creaky signs of age, it is much more modern appearing than many of the films that came out of Hollywood much later.
The movie was fascinating even with no sound (which made a Swan Lake ballet sequence seem a bit weird) and the subtitles in the print I saw were in Danish (English translations were handed out before the show but did little good in a darkened theatre).
If you want to see fully one half of all gay themed films released in the 20's in one go, this may be your ticket. BTW... the other gay themed film made in the 20's Flesh and the Devil (1926) has much less gay oriented theme and is also available on VHS
This is a beautiful film, in its rich mise-en-scène and gorgeous
cinematography. It resembles in polished photography, including how
well it has remained over the years, the better-looking Hollywood films
at the end of the silent era. The lighting is great, creating a very
clear and crisp picture, with many subtle effects. And, the interior
furnishings are lush.
"Michael" is a moving film, and I think that has more to do with the photography and settings than with the drama. The implicit homosexual relationship between the artist and his model, Michael, is curious, though. What I especially like about the narrative, however, is that it's about art--a very apt subject, which is heightened by the photography. Benjamin Christensen plays the aging artist, which is a significant casting decision, given that he was the great Danish filmmaker to precede Dreyer. Christensen had worked as an actor in his own films, so he's fully capable in this role. Additionally, cinematographer Karl Freund, who changed the role of the camera the same year in "The Last Laugh", has a small role as an art dealer.
Overall, Dreyer does better here with the actors than he previously had. He achieves a nice pacing, as well, except for a few mistimed editing cues, which are too quick. Even the subplot, for mood affect, works. It's a mature work--probably his first--resembling his later films in many ways.
It is sometimes fascinating the subject matter for films before the
infamous Code was put in Hollywood. Of course this is a German silent
film and in those days when movies didn't talk all one had to do was
change the subtitles and film was really universal. Such is the case
with Michael, a romantic triangle the apex of which was Walter Slezak
in his salad days. He was beloved by both an aristocratic artist and
one carnal princess.
In less than a decade when the Nazis took over and made the UFA Studio their personal propaganda reserve such homoerotic work like Michael would not see the light of day for years. I'm really surprised that a print existed and that TCM obtained one. I would have thought Josef Goebbels would have burned all he could find.
Without a kiss, without an embrace, but with a look of love that tells all, we know exactly what the relationship Benjamin Christiansen has with Slezak. Slezak plays the title role, a callow youth a willing user of the affections of all in the same manner Murray Head was in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Slezak was quite the hunk in his youth to those of us who remember him from Hollywood in the Forties.
Nora Gregor plays the princess who eyes Slezak like a side of beef on the meat rack at the Playgirl Club. He's getting tired of Christiansen anyway so he's hot to trot as his she.
Christiansen is a sad and lonely old man and his performance really drives the film. His and Slezak's relationship also reminds me a bit of the famous relationship played out in the tabloids of Scott Thorson and Liberace. Another young cutie who was showered with everything, but just wanted his own space.
It's a good thing this gay themed story did survive and is available now for home viewing on DVD. A great piece of gay cinematic history.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Strange as it may seem, as a huge horror movie fan I couldn't pass up
watching this silent drama, even though it has absolutely nothing to do
with horror. For starters, it was directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, who is
possibly most famous for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) but also
made the genre classics VAMPYR (1932) and VREDENS DAG (1943). Even
though this was filmed in Germany during a time of heavy government
control of film output, Dreyer managed to secure full artistic control
over this particular production. It stars Benjamin Christensen, who
directed HAXAN (1921), one of the strangest and most bizarre and most
innovative of all horror movies, silent era or not. The interiors were
shot by Karl Freund, who later directed the horror classics THE MUMMY
(1932) and MAD LOVE (1935) at Universal and would win two Oscars during
his long and distinguished career. Freud also makes his first and only
on-screen appearance here, playing an art dealer in a single scene.
Exteriors were shot by Rudolph Maté, a five-time Oscar nominee who also
directed the science fiction classic WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE in 1951. The
basis for the film was Herman Bang's novel "Mikaël," which was adapted
by the director and Thea von Harbou; the latter being well known for
her collaborations with then-husband Fritz Lang. Her writing credits
include METROPOLIS (1927), M (1931) and a whole series of "Dr. Mabuse"
films. So from top to bottom, a bunch of very talented and influential
filmmakers and production people worked on this particular film. The
line-up of talent itself should appeal to a wide range of classic film
fans and not just horror buffs like myself. The content also secures
this film an audience, even today, as it's one of the first films to
ever deal with homosexuality in a mature way. In fact, I really can't
recall a film made prior to this one to include such content. For 1924,
it must have been a very bold and courageous project for these people
to take on.
The main character in MICHAEL isn't really Michael himself, but an established, older artist by the name of Claude Zulot (played very well by Christensen). Over the years, Claude has become a wealthy and acclaimed painter specializing in human portraits. When approached by the youthful, almost angelic-looking artist Michael (Walter Slezak), Claude tells him his own sketches need some work but he'll let him become his "muse" and model. Five years later the men are still working - and living - together, but their relationship crumbles once an attractive destitute countess (Nora Gregor) stumbles onto the scene. Michael starts seeing more of her and less of Claude, at first behind Claude's back but eventually with little regard for his feelings. Before long, Michael abandons his mentor for the countess and moves out of the home, but continues to pop in from time to time to see Claude. Those visits usually end in Michael needing financial assistance, whether it be willingly offered to him or stolen. Though the relationship between the men is played off as an "adopted son" type thing to the public, it's obvious there's much more going on beneath the surface. This is evidenced by scenes of Claude's loneliness and agony over his abandonment, the sense of betrayal, a scene where the countess discovers a love letter and many other subtle moments. Adding another dimension to the story is the presence of a journalist named Charles (Robert Garrison), whose unwavering care and support for Claude hints at the kind of unrequited romantic love Claude unwisely tried to find with Michael. The people who truly care for and love you will be willing to put up with your hangups. The people who truly care for and love you will be with you at the end.
Interestingly, on the sidelines, there's a contrasted love triangle between a man, his wife and a young duke she's having an affair with, almost as if to say, "Hey, we ALL have the same feelings, the same relationship problems and go through the same exact things whether we're male or female, gay or straight." Seems simple enough, but it took a lot of courage to put this message on the screen back in 1924. Unfortunately, the whole moral crusade and censorship took hold soon after this was made in much of the world and gay characters weren't tolerated in mainstream cinema unless they were comically exaggerated or hidden behind so much metaphor and subtext you'd need a decoder to spot them. While the content here is subtle by conventional standards, the movie does not shy away from it. Homosexuality is portrayed through adoring looks, touching (the hair, the shoulders, the arms) and holding hands, as well as through emotional reactions to the various events going on. The movie is extremely well made for its time, both in technical terms and in terms of content. The acting from the principals is very, very good and the insight into relationships are relatable to basically anyone who has ever been in one.
Famous painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) is in love with
friend, muse, and model Michael (Walter Slezak). They live comfortably
and happily in their mansion, which is littered with Zoret's pieces
with Michael as their inspiration. When the bankrupt Countess Lucia
Zamikoff (Nora Gregor) comes to visit to ask Zoret to paint her, Zoret
accepts but struggles to put any life into his painting. He can't
depict her eyes, but Michael steps in and completes the painting.
Sensing his infatuation with her, the Countess seduces Michael, and
Zoret witnesses his relationship become more and more distant. Michael
steals and sells Zoret's sketches and paintings in order to satisfy the
Countess' spending habits, and Zoret eventually falls ill.
Although it's hardly tackled explicitly, and more suggested in looks, exchanges, and title-cards than sexual imagery, Michael's tackling of homosexuality was quite revolutionary in its day. Naturally, it failed financially and critically (although when Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and became auteur, it has since been re-visited and praised), but it should be a film that any cinephile should see, especially those with an interest in the origins of Queer Cinema and the depiction of homosexuality in film. Benjamin Christensen, perhaps best known as director of the silent docu-horror masterpiece Haxan (1922), is masterful as Zoret, his face darkened with sadness, subtle jealousy, and tragic sentiment. Slazek and Gregor fair less well, and suffer in comparison to Christensen's depiction.
Although the climax is predictable, it has a feeling of inevitably which makes it fittingly moving and quite beautiful, similar in many ways to the ending of Dreyer's Ordet (1955). But the film is surprisingly rich and luscious, with Dreyer's usual blank canvas and bleak settings replaced by detailed sets, all captured by cinematographer's Rudolph Mate and Karl Freund (who appears here as art dealer Le Blanc, and would go on to work on some Universal's finest horror output in the 1930's). A wonderful, 'minor' work in Dreyer's wealthy filmography.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Michael (1924) is Carl Th, Dreyer's first mature romantic drama. It does not deliver on the level that he would reach even a year later with Master of the House or in 1928 with The Passion of Joan of Arc. There are a few things to latch onto stylistically that can be viewed as things to come. A few set pieces, a few shots, use of shadows reflected on the walls, but for the most part the set as the story itself is baroque, which Dreyer will quickly abandon for stripped down austerity in the near future. The acting style was still highly theatrical and not what one thinks of when Dreyer comes to mind, and is probably one of the leading reasons that the characters never quite really get their emotional impact across. With everything baroque and everything keyed up it only serves to create a barrier between the story and performances and the audience. Yet, Michael is still very much ahead of its time with very obvious homosexual and bisexual undertones (that at times read more as overtones), tones which Dreyer ultimately backs off of slightly by the end of the film. This subtext is by far the most intriguing element of the film. Michael is a love triangle between an older famous painter, Claude (Benjamin Christensen of Haxan fame), his young muse Michael (Walter Slezak) and a Princess (Nora Gregor) just for good measure. Michael and the Princess elope and Claude foots the bill, mostly, either directly or indirectly. It is only in the last ten minutes of the film, when the viewer Is fully informed of what Claude has gone through to ensure a good life for Michael which is having his art dealer secretly buy all of the paintings he gives Michael as presents that Michael in turn sells. Claude, dying, leaves everything to Michael. On his deathbed he request to see Michael one last time, yet Michael will not leave Princess Zamikoff's side (which we see in an odd cut-away to their apartment where they skulk and act like junkies for some reason). It is in these final moments that the pain of the unrequited gay love between Claude and Michael is truly felt, which helps to save some of the more extraneous and uneven subplots and lack of any real depth outside of superficial pontifications on death, religion and art.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I must admit that I rarely watch LGBT-related films. This silent film
deals with the relationship between the famed painter Claude Zoret, his
model Michael and how this is altered by the arrival of a woman,
Officially Zoret adopted Michael, because he didn't want to die childless. Remember that the film was made in 1924. At that time it was almost impossible to overtly depict a gay love story. There are no kisses, tender embraces or hand-holding.
Dreyer has invented a clever plot device to make us learn about the true nature of the two men's relationship. He has added a subplot involving a heterosexual love triangle. The viewers compare the two triangles and recognize the similarities. They are both of the same kind, with the exception that in the heterosexual triangle the scorned Count Adelsskjold challenges his rival to a duel - in which the latter is killed. Zoret's love for Michael is unselfish and unconditional. The film can be seen as a support for sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld's statement that "homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation just like normal love".
Benjamin Christensen, who directed "Witchcraft through the Ages" (1922), is excellent as the unfortunate Zoret. The difference between Chistensen and Slezak can be summarized as follows: Chistensen is acting, Slezak is posing.
Although Countess Zamikow is bankrupt, she still hires Zoret to paint a picture of her. Zoret has difficulties with painting her eyes satisfactorily. Michael manages it. This can be interpreted that only a man who fancies women can capture the beauty of a woman's eyes. Zoret is gay and has only painted male models, while Michael is bisexual (or heterosexual). The viewers really don't get to know if Michael really loved Zoret or if he only regarded him as a "sugar daddy" ("gay for pay").
Michael falls in love with Countess Zamikow. She is constant penniless, so Michael sells his Master's sketches to pay her debts. He goes so far that he sells Zoret's greatest painting of him, "The Victor". Zoret is aware of it, buys it back and returns it to Michael.
A famous painter named Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) falls in
love with one of his models, Michael (Walter Slezak), and for a time
the two live happily as partners. Zoret is considerably older than
Michael, and as they age, Michael begins to drift from him, although
Zoret is completely blind to this.
Directed by the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who went on to direct "The Passion of Joan of Arc", called by some "the most influential film of all time". Written by Dreyer, and Thea von Harbou, who is now probably best known as Fritz Lang's wife. Produced by Erich Pommer, which cinematography by Karl Freund. As far as 1920s German cinema goes, this is top drawer.
Along with "Different From the Others" (1919) and "Sex in Chains" (1928), "Michael" is widely considered a landmark in gay silent cinema. It has also been suggested that the film reflects personal feelings harbored by Dreyer after a purported homosexual affair, though I have no evidence of that.
This film was pretty great, despite being silent and foreign. Those factors took nothing away from the experience for me, and I have to give credit to Dreyer and the cast -- the film is full of very intense faces, which made up for the lack of any audible emotion.
What drew me to this film was having cameraman Karl Freund on camera. A genius behind it, this is a rare treat to see the man in front and caught on film. His role is fairly small, but captures his movements and body language in a way that no photograph ever could. To my knowledge, this was his last acting role in a film.
The film has been cited to have influenced several directors. Alfred Hitchcock drew upon motifs from "Michael" for his script for "The Blackguard" (1925).
Master painter Benjamin Christensen (as Claude Zoret) doesn't like the
sketches offered for review by budding artist Walter Slezak (as
Michael); instead, he asks the attractive young man to become his
model. Mr. Christensen takes a liking to Mr. Slezak; and, soon, they
are like father and son. Then, an alluring woman arrives to request
Christensen paint her portrait. Young Slezak is attracted to his
benefactor's feminine model, Nora Gregor (as Countess Zamikoff); and,
the young models begin an affair. Christensen becomes despondent over
the loss of his ward's attentions. While carrying on with Ms. Gregor,
Slezak takes increasing advantage of Christensen's generosity. Will the
old painter cut him off?
The homosexuality currently heralded to be found in Carl Theodor Dreyer' "Michael" is so subtle it's almost invisible. The Christensen-Slezak couplings must have occurred during their time in Algiers, which is over when the film begins. An even earlier affair, between Christensen and Robert Garrison (as Charles Switt), is a little clearer. It's nice to see cinematographer Karl Freund (as M. Leblanc), the art dealer who informs Christensen that Slezak is endeavoring to sell "The Victor", a painting which symbolizes their once close relationship. "Michael" requires more concentration than your average silent; to help, the overall production is excellent.
******** Michael (1924) Carl Theodor Dreyer ~ Benjamin Christensen, Walter Slezak, Nora Gregor
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