Dreyer’s only German UFA film, Michael was shot at Neubabelsberg in 1924, and brought him into contact with the great cameraman Karl Freund whom he also cast in an inspired brief comic role as a critic in the picture, together with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who was, at this point in history, Fritz Lang’s wife. The material for Michael comes from a novel by then openly admired gay writer Herman Bang who was one of the pioneering figures of Weimar era gay lib in Germany along with Magnus Hirschfeld whose 1918 picture Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others) with Connie Veidt was directed by Richard Oswald (Gerd’s dad) in 1918 and remains the first groundbreaking film to deal with homosexual characters and issues. Among many other things, Michael is in effect only the second such path-breaking film.
Bang’s novel comes from a popular genre of tragi-romantic, sentimental writing of the period and the novel focuses on the end of a gay romantic association. But the screenplay takes this material into fascinating new ground by switching the tragi-Romantic era liebestod ending of an illicit romance to a heterosexual parallel couple, in the movie the Duke du Montheuil and another man’s wife, ending à la Schnitzler in the Duke’s death by duel.
Dreyer’s movie opens at a point where the sexual relationship between Michael and his patron and lover Claude Zoret (“The Master”) is ending. The movie itself starts with a title card proclaiming “Now I can die content, as I have known a great love”. The movie also ends with this line, spoken by the dying Zoret, just as Dreyer’s last masterpiece Gertrud will also end with the heroine of that film saying the same words.
So, Michael is for a start a groundbreaking Weimar German gay film of incredible sophistication even for a society like ours nearly a century later in which the sheer unapologetic and extremely dignified matter-of-factness of the homosexual milieu of Zoret’s salon is a given. Indeed, most of the movie and its characters in this artistic circle are essentially expats to Berlin from places as far afield as Eastern Europe.
The film’s completely blithe presentation of gayness is so embedded into the fabric of the movie even a modern day commentator like cinephile Caspar Tybjerg cannot seem to quite bring himself to overcome his obvious embarrassment at the films’ subject matter in a commentary track for the 2005 MoC DVD which is carried over to the current Blu-ray upgrade. I could live without ever again having to hear Tybjerg floundering for some “justification” to even mention the homosexuality, as though ascribing such “vulgarity” to a film by Dreyer might tarnish his reputation as some kind of Sainted Exemplar of Transcendental Beatitude.
Dreyer in 1924 was already a man of the world. And it becomes almost mandatory at this point in such a great artist's career to note some comparability with none other than Shakespeare. Dreyer's own small filmography includes pictures whose heart is with such central characters as a witch, a deluded religious fanatic dying a martyr, an ageing widow who supernaturally watches over a young married couple to guide their passage, a neurasthenic cocaine-addicted aesthete, thrill-seeking vampires, murderous religious crazies, a saint and halfwit witnessing a miracle, and a woman who has lived her life alone for the sake of an undying and unfulfilled love affair.
Michael adds to this astounding role call an ageing homosexual artist who accepts the loss of his male lover to an enterprising and glamorous woman on the make, and who dies, like Gertrud from a broken heart, yet like Gertrud without any regret or trace of antipathy.
Dreyer’s association with Freund, who shot almost all the film, with Rudolf Maté coming in to finish when contractual commitments took Freund to another job (possibly Murnau’s Die Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh) gave Dreyer the perfect chance to enlarge his mise-en-scène, revolutionarily indeed - thus for the first 20 minute exposition of Michael he takes the relatively new narrative format of shot/reverse to its highest possible level with Freund in extended decoupages of growing complexity, thus varying shot lengths, and even more prodigiously he utilizes a plot device like Zoret asking Michael to fetch the floodlight to illuminate the salon’s nude painting of Michael to the Countess.
Michael’s bit of business here with the floodlight initiates a series of shots in which the light takes its own part in the mise-en-scène, within the cross-reverse cutting within which Dreyer and Freund literally shift focused light from face to face, closing and opening the image up within the frame without an iris or any other “external” device, obliterating not only other background details but even other faces in the two shots.
Thus the static decoupage becomes entirely kinetic, and immensely more expressive. He also instigates a visual mode of isolating the faces in close and two shot from the cavernous, stifling sumptuousness of the set and background. Thus he retains an ongoing backdrop of literal spectacle while pushing the film formally into the tighter frame and the mood of Kammerspiel/Chamber drama. You can see Dreyer’s formal genius literally taking off here, where he visibly engages with more and more technical expansion.
The film at these points literally pulses with both the excitement of visual discovery and the engagement with narrative pacing. Early in the second act Zoret who has agreed to paint the Countess’ portrait is nearly finished but is unable to bring the eyes to life. Dreyer sets up the sequence with the same shot/reverse decoupage as before, but with his first shot of Michael stepping in to help, Freund instigates the film's very first travelling into close as he dollies in to Michael approaching the unfinished painting for which he completes the eyes. Freund dollies out when Michael finishes and turns to face the camera and Zoret, and pulls the lighting suddenly back out from the close facial framing to recover the set and background into a flat wide shot of the studio. All in one shot.
Of Dreyer’s early work I've always loved The Parson’s Widow from Denmark as his first great film and Michael always seems to me his first masterpiece. Every other film from that point is also a masterpiece. And at this stage of life it’s impossible not to link Michael with Gertrud as the great bookmarks of his career. Even more staggering to me is the sheer inclusiveness and breadth of a vision of humanity that can span from a homosexual milieu for the narrative and character setting in one picture to a heterosexual one in the other without ever dropping a beat. There is nobody else like Dreyer in movies. Only Mizoguchi comes close.
Some critics, notably David Cairns in his superb 17 minute video essay on this disc go to great lengths to discuss Dreyer’s formal immersion in the material. The new 2016 “restoration” of this film finally gives it the astonishing visible detail, contrast, depth and clarity it has never had before to be able to actually see in all its magnificence Dreyer's and Freund’s genius at work. The new transfer, at its best now faithfully presents one of the great visual masterpieces of late silent cinema, like Sjostrom’s The Wind and Sternberg’s last three silents at Paramount.
One of my top ten of all time.
MoC's new Blu Ray is taken from a 2016 restoration out of Murnau Stiftung and several other parties. The prime source used is the 35mm 2005 reprint restoration also from FWMS, and the new 2K could have clearly benefitted even more from a large cash injection to allow a substantial amount of photochemical work, especially with shrinkage-related tearing, print damage and frame jumps. But what really counts here is the literally complete illumination the new 2K brings to the film for the first time since its premiere in 1924, along with all the clarity, pristine resolution and visual nuance. Thus it rescues this masterpiece from over 90 years of censorship, notoriety and neglect.