Talk to any of the majority of the non-film-buff, everyday, occasional-cinema-venturing public – and I don’t really include those of you actively seeking out ramblings on a film blog – and tell them that you’re really looking forward to the new remaster of a classic 1924 German silent film made by a Danish director, whose movies rarely made any profit, and you’ll be greeted with the raised eyebrow of a face expressively calling you a pretentious prick.
Indeed, even writing that paragraph makes me feel like the air of pomposity is gradually evaporating from my skinny chai latte and seeping through my Macbook Air retina display directly into your mind’s eye like a stench intent on staining your opinion of me. Hipster. But why? Why should it be that way? Why are you immediately coloured as some kind of film snob looking down your nose at the rest of humanity if you admit to liking old black and white films? Why should I, or you, or anyone, feel guilty for taking pleasure from something as wonderful as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Mikaël?
The simple answer is: I/you/we shouldn’t. Nor should I/you/we care. No style of cinema makes the viewer a better or worse person than any other. Enjoying Michael over the latest Asylum mockbuster (or vice versa) does not necessarily equate to you having a superior intellect; nor does having a “superior” intellect make you a superior human being, for that matter. Some of the cleverest of our species are right dickheads.
Yet there remains an air of pretension that is inescapable when it comes to this particular variety of cinema, so I felt it best to knock it on the head early on. I like House, I like The Cloverfield Paradox, I like Thor: Ragnarok, and I really, really like this latest edition to the Eureka Entertainment Masters of Cinema Series. And I don’t think I’m better than you. I just like these movies, OK?
Whew. Now that’s off my chest, now is probably as good a place as any to wrap up why I am so defensive so early on in the review, and actually get on with telling you about the bloomin’ thing…
Michael was originally adapted for the screen by Dreyer, based on a novel of the same name by Herman Bang, scripted by Thea von Harbou (who also wrote science fiction classic Metropolis for her husband Fritz Lang), and was released to audiences in Berlin in September 1924. Like most of Dreyer’s more well known works, such as silent movies Vampyre and The Passion of Joan of Arc, and later talkies like Day of Wrath and Gertrud, the melodrama feels very much like a stage play that just happens to be filmed spectacularly well.
Told in a six-act structure, the story unravels within a very domestic setting as the titular Michael (Walter Slezak) is taken under the wing of renowned artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen), known as The Master, to be his muse and assistant. Zoret’s longing for what he describes as an adopted son (read: gay lover) drives him to forgive Michael’s repeated acts of youthful naivety that stab Zoret through the heart like acts of betrayal, including sleeping with a destitute Russian heiress, running up debt, and stealing/selling valuable and sentimental personal possessions.
The moving drama will feel familiar to fans of Dreyer’s finest non-silent achievement, Ordet, as one’s morals and ethics are the root cause of each character’s despair. While “cinema’s first gay love story” may have its homosexual tendencies left to the subtext, presenting the surface level relationship between Zoret and the young Michael as that of a childless father and a fatherless son, the mise-en-scene reveals all you need to know. Sometimes the motifs overtly convey the divide between characters over sexuality, as seen in flickers to artwork of naked men literally hanging over the character’s heads the entire time, or the physical divides in framing characters at opposite ends of the screen, usually with a woman separating the two.
Speaking of whom, the movie toys with femme-fatale characters before femme fatales were even a “thing”, as women cheat, lie, and drain men’s morale, forcing apart the spurned lovers. Even on his deathbed, the Master cannot have Michael at his side, and we all know who is to blame. Yet it does not paint women as evil, sinister or entirely corrupting, but merely as unconquerable obstacles for the repressed Zoret. When he tries to paint the Russian countess, he is never satisfied. But when Michael addresses the issue himself, repainting the eyes, the portrait is complete. The window to a woman’s soul has its curtains drawn tightly for Zoret, whereas they are quite the opposite for Michael.
The restoration work carried out by Eureka is absolutely stunning. The original score has been lost to time, sadly, and the sparse sharp piano keys pierce and punctuate throughout in this newly released version. It is occasionally overbearing, but certainly complements the intended atmosphere of jilted isolation. Included in the Blu-ray is a fantastic little booklet with a complete translation of the original 1924 Danish programme (possibly penned by Dreyer himself) translated by Trond S. Trondsen. The contents are also packed with essays by Philip Kemp (2017), Tom Milne (1971), Jean Renoir (1968) and Nick Wrigley (2004).
Dreyer, and indeed von Harbou, were masters of their craft, as only further proven by their 1924 collaboration, and Michael rightly deserves to be included in the Masters of Cinema collection, opening up the world of Dreyer to newer and wider audiences.
Michael (Masters of Cinema) is out on Blu-ray from Monday 12 February. Check out the new and exclusive trailer below.