The limits of a medium do not necessarily define the limits of the art which can be created within that medium; with the influx of new film from around the world more readily available direct to the home than at any previous time in the history of cinema, shot on the newest equipment with production techniques able to alter any and every detail to match the director’s slightest whim, it is easy to dismiss older works as primitive.
Originally released in September 1924 and now available on Blu-ray for the first time anywhere in the world through Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael (Mikaël) still carries more artistic and technical merit than might be expected of a black and white foreign language silent film over nine decades old, yet it is rightly considered a landmark of gay cinema.
Based on Danish writer and journalist Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Englen Mikaël (The Angel Michael), previously filmed in in 1916 by director Swedish Mauritz Stiller as The Wings (Vingarne), Dreyer’s version was more faithful to Bang’s source material and so courted controversy even in its restrained and sensitive depiction of the tender relationship between an artist and his muse.
Benjamin Christensen is Claude Zoret, a renowned artist, while Walter Slezak is Michael, a man two decades his junior who came to the home of the master four years previously in hopes of learning as his apprentice only to have his work rejected but was instead invited to stay as his model. To Zoret he is an enchanting young man, but Michael is fickle and impulsive and over the years has grown indifferent to the affection shown to him by his mentor.
Into their lives comes the near destitute Countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor) who begs Zoret to paint her portrait as an act of kindness in hopes it will boost her standing in society, but her presence becomes a wedge between them, Michael’s involvement with the work the first sign that he is drifting from Zoret to her.
One of the earliest works of gay cinema still in existence in its complete form, as befits the time of production it narratively circumspect, the relationship between the two leads one of tenderness rather than intimacy; as when the statue of a naked female form is examined by two characters, the lines of anatomy are artfully blurred, but the implication is clear.
A noted director in his own right whose work includes the semi-documentary on witchcraft Häxan and contributions to an early version of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, Christensen is compelling as the brooding Zoret, broken by the betrayal of his lover on whom he dotes but whose suffering drives him to create before being overcome by his great sadness.
Slezak, who would appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and then much later as the Clock King opposite Adam West’s Batman, somewhat oversells the wide-eyed innocence of Michael while Gregor’s dull countess and Robert Garrison’s journalist are largely functional roles; as Zoret’s butler, however, Max Auzinger, already in his eighties at the time of filming, conveys far more with less material.
Beautifully filmed by Karl Freund who would later shoot both Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Tod Browning’s Dracula and appears in a cameo role as an art dealer here, as would be expected of a film focused on art and artists, in sets, lighting and composition the film is flawless from Michael’s first appearance in a cloud of cigarette smoke as he stands framed by the window to his succumbing to temptation as he walks through the horns of shadow cast upon the wall of the home he shared with Zoret.
The restoration showing the craftsmanship of Dreyer and Freund to great advantage with only occasional scratches and blemishes commensurate with the age of the source material, the film is accompanied by an insightful visual essay by critic David Cairns and an archive audio interview with Dreyer and a booklet of new and archive essays and other material.