Michael: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Iconic Gay Silent Film, Starring Walter Slezak

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made Michael (aka Mikaël, Chained: The Story of the Third Sex, and Heart’s Desire), an iconic German gay silent drama, which is striking both visually and emotionally.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Michael
Michael1924DVD.png

Dreyer is best known for the notable silent, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), prior to which he had made Master of the House (1925), and Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921).

The film stars Walter Slezak as the titular Michael, the young assistant and model to the artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen).

Along with Different From the Others (1919) and Sex in Chains (1928), Michael is widely considered a landmark in gay silent cinema.

The film, which is based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël, is the second screen adaptation of the book; the first was The Wings, made by director Mauritz Stiller. Michael, however, follows Bang’s storyline more closely and faithfully.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Famous painter Claude Zoret falls in love with one of his models, Michael, and for a while the two live as partners. Zoret is considerably older than Michael, and as they age, Michael begins to drift from him. When a bankrupt countess comes to Zoret to have a portrait made, in fact intending to seduce him and swindle his money, she finds Michael to be more receptive. After the two become a couple, she begins using Michael to steal from Zoret.  Zoret, realizing the scheme, is crushed and his work suffers.

Michael sells the painting that Zoret has made of him, as well as other sketches Zoret made of their time in Algiers, where they were in love. Zoret begins work on his masterpiece: a large-scale painting of a man lying on a beach, with Algiers as a setting, depicting a man who has lost everything.

After completing the painting, Zoret falls ill and Charles Switt attends to him. Switt, who had always loved Zoret, never criticized Michael for fear of hurting his unrequited love.

In the end, Switt sends a message to Michael, informing him that Zoret is dying, but the Countess prevents him from getting it.

Zoret’s last words, which also are in the prologue to the film, are “Now I can die in peace, for I have seen true love.”

Michael premiered in Berlin on September 26 1924, and in the U.S. in 1926. Initial responses to the film included some negative reviews, such as the one by critic Mordaunt Hall, writing in December 1926 in the N.Y. Times: “Chained” is a dull piece of work, redeemed only by some artistic scenes and Benjamin Christensen’s able portrayal of Claude Zoret, an artist….Walter Slezak, who figures as the youth, gives a stilted, amateurish impersonation.”

He perceived the film as opportunism for a German director to take a “fling at France” by filming less than favorable national figures on the screen (Zoret was purportedly based on French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

The homosexual elements proved disturbing, too, as “Michael was one of the few big-budget mainstream studio productions from the silent period that dealt with homosexuality; although it remains implicit, it was readily apparent to many contemporaries.

After Dreyer had established himself as a prominent director with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), considered a masterpiece, critics began to reevaluate Michael.  Auteurist scholars noted the trademark elements of Dreyer’s personal directorial style, such as his use of intense close-ups, emphasis on emotional characterization.

It’s been suggested that the film is rather personal, drawing on Dreyer’s purported homosexual affair.

The film has influenced many directors, such as Hitchcock, who drew upon motifs from Michael for his script for The Blackguard (1925).

The film was released in Region 2 by Eureka Entertainment Ltd (as part of the Masters of Cinema Series) on October 25, 2004.

Kino International, which retains the copyright in the US, released the Region 1 version, under the title, “Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael.”

Cast
Walter Slezak as Michael
Benjamin Christensen as Claude Zoret
Nora Gregor as Countess Lucia Zamikow
Robert Garrison as Charles Switt, journalist
Max Auzinger as Jules, principal steward of the house
Didier Aslan as Duke de Monthieu
Alexander Murski as Mr. Adelsskjold
Grete Mosheim as Mrs. Alice Adelsskjold
Karl Freund as LeBlanc, art dealer
Wilhelmine Sandrock as Widow de Monthieu