Germany (1924) Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
We like to think homosexuality in cinema is a relatively recent development with the last couple of decades seeing its rise in becoming a subgenre. But as this classic silent film attests, it has been tackled before on the silver screen, in a far more subtle and less explicit manner as per the times.
Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) is a famous painter whose works command high figures among art collectors, but this success is due to the subject of his paintings, his young muse Michael (Walter Slezak). They live together in a huge mansion and while the relationship is strictly platonic, Michael is aware of Zoret’s feelings towards him.
When the bankrupt Countess Lucia Zamikoff (Nora Gregor) asks Zoret to paint her, he reluctantly agrees but can’t bring out her essence in the painting, which Michael can because he sees her with love. Michael and Lucia begin a relationship but they need money so Michael borrows some from Zoret then, when things gets desperate, starts stealing from him.
It seems remarkable that someone with the repute of Carl Theodor Dreyer has quite a modest film catalogue. Known mostly for the emotive silent classic The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and later, cynical religious dramas like Ordet, Michael is Dreyer’s sixth film, based on the 1902 novel Mikaël by Herman Bang. Not a commercial or critical success at the time, it has since been regarded as a landmark film in gay cinema.
Dreyer effectively gives away the fact a tragic story awaits us by opening the film with a quote “Now I can die in peace, for I have seen true love”; that it concerns two men isn’t immediately obvious, upsetting some people at the time. Not to mention author Herman Bang was also gay (ironic name but there you go) but as implicit as this is, it is also hidden in plain sight.
The script adaptation was co-written by Dreyer and Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife, and really stands up next to every other “sugar daddy loses his love for another” drama but a rather underfed subplot running parallel to this, involving the young wife of an older man and her affair with a playboy her own age, serves to illustrate the fact that love is a messy game whether it follows convention or not.
A flashback reveals that Michael was an artist hoping to gain guidance from Zoret but his sketches fail to impress because he “hasn’t learned to see”. Zoret however was able to “see” something in Michael’s dashing looks and insists he models for him; fast forward a few years and both live in affluence and opulence with Zoret’s stock in the art world never higher.
Ironically, the first sign Michael might be using Zoret comes after he arrives home late one night to find Zoret and his dinner guest, Lucia, started without him. Michael’s little sulk dissipates soon after he watches Lucia posing for her painting and his petulance turns to passion. Zoret’s old friend, journalist Charles Switt (Robert Garrison), spots the two about town and plays informant for Zoret, whose true feelings remain internal.
With the subtext of this being a gay drama, some might infer Michael could be bi-sexual and “gay for the pay” as porn parlance might put it, but Dreyer is careful to leave this up to the imagination of the individual. Since it has already been established that Zoret treated Michael like the son he never had, we can be happy to accept Zoret understood nothing would happen and took what he relationship he could with Michael.
One aspect of this story not readily examined when discussing this film is the role of the muse for an artist yet it becomes a vital plot point when Zoret’s work begins to suffer the further Michael’s deception and betrayal takes hold. Yet he manages to create his final masterpiece in the wake of this for the poignant denouement, allowing Dreyer to use it for a stunning and pointed visual metaphor of Zoret’s plight.
But since the lure of the story is the implicit gay relationship between Michael and Zoret, with a cleverly added second layer of intrigue, again hidden in plain sight, this won’t be of interest for many but it is integral to exploring the depth of love and why art and passion are not mutually exclusive sides to a person. Therefore, even if Zoret as in love Michael the art is good, who cares, right?
Presentation wise, this isn’t as polished as Dreyer’s later works but a nascent version of his recognisable style is present whilst staying true the aesthetic of the Weimar era of German cinema. Shadows are used to heighten the mood of the darker moments but one shot in particular stands out – Michael is about to do something nefarious and the shadows from random objects form the shape of the devil on the wall.
Dreyer’s fondness for close-ups that allows the actor’s faces to emote and tell the story instead of intertitles and overt dramatic physical gestures, a prelude, if you will, to what he would perfect in Joan Of Arc. The cast are photogenic in their own way to make this work – Benjamin Christensen has a stern face with eyes that glare thunder, concealing Zoret’s sensitive side, contrasted by Walter Slezak’s softer, almost effete looks that makes Michael the muse he is.
Holding this film back is the awkward pacing. The first hour is rather slow and wastes too much time with a pointless scene at the ballet, leaving Michael’s deceit to begin late in the film, the consequences of which are dealt with inside thirty minutes, which really is the meat of the story.
It can’t be denied that, subtle or not, Dreyer made a brave film for the period in Michael and should be recognised as a milestone for gay cinema, even if it is chaste by modern standards, and a solid drama for cineastes to enjoy.