Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writer: Thea von Harbou | Silent | 90′
Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for his five major films made over a protracted career of 40 years from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). His output was hampered by lack of financing due to his unique cinematic vision which was viewed as uncommercial and his perfectionism often made him unpopular to work with. But the result is an intensely stylish studies of human crisis or religious conviction.
The German drama MICHAEL (Mikael) was one such psychological drama exploring three characters involved in a love triangle. Variously released as Chained (in the US) and The Story of the Third Sex, a more candid allusion to the film’s homosexual subtext, it features a mesmerising performance from Benjamin Christensen as “The Master,” an artist of international fame for his portrait of an art student Mikael (the sylthe-like Walter Slezak/Lifeboat), who awakens latent feelings of illicit desire while the two are tousling for the affections of an impoverished duchess who comes to have her portrait painted (the luminous Nora Gregor/The Rules of the Game). Such is the intensity of their smouldering rivalry that when The Master dies suddenly, Mikael comes under extreme public scrutiny as the perpetrator in his demise although it later emerges that he died from natural causes. This dreamlike silent drama leads on to a subtle subplot involving another tortured ménage à trois.
Filmed on a magnificent studio set, and in intimate close-ups where the characters often appear as if in a halo, silhouetted against the mysterious darkness, the piano accompaniment lends a sinister almost ghostly tension to the story. The meticulous camera moves with stealth drawing us in to the intrigue while maintaining an unsettling distance. Passion glows but never sizzles in Rudolph Mate and Karl Freund’s cinematography, Freund has his only role as an actor, in vignette, as an jovial art dealer. The film was scripted by Dreyer with Fritz Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou (Metropolis, M), based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël. A real treat avant-garde gem.MT
Masters of Cinema presents MICHAEL for the first time ever on Blu-ray | 12 February 2018