Friday, December 26, 2014

Carl Theodor Dreyer | Mikaël (Michael)

by Douglas Messerli 

Carl Theodore Dreyer and Thea von Harbou (screenplay, based on a novel by Herman Bang), Carl Theodor Dreyer (director) Mikaël (Michael) / 1924

One might be tempted to describe Carl Th. Dreyer’s 1924 film Mikaël (Michael), based on the 1904 novel by Danish writer Herman Bang, as a kind of gay Der Rosenkavlier, with the elderly artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) serving as a kind of Marschallin, sacrificing his lover, Michael (the Marschallin’s Octavian [Walter Slezak]) to the Countess Lucia Zamikoff (Der Rosenkavlier’s Sophie). Clearly, there are parallels, of which Dreyer could have cognizant, particularly in the painful yet graceful way in which Zoret gradually gives up his young model, would-be son, and unspoken lover; and the fact that in the opera Octavian is played, like Mozart’s Cherubino, by a (female) mezzo-soprano, creates, at least visually, a parallel situation. Like the Marschallin, Zoret is surrounded by objects of wealth and culture to which he has introduced to his young Ganymede-Icarus-like figure. And like Octavian, Michael is seemingly blind to pain he causes his benefactor-lover.

     Yet Zoret is no male Marschallin, being a far-more pitiable figure, who is not truly a great artist and might have not even become so recognized were it not for his young model, whose beauty and charm graces Zoret’s somewhat kitschly-conceived classical portraits. And unlike the grand world of Der Rosenkavlier, Zoret’s domain is a nearly suffocating creation of a self-absorbed decadent who identifies himself with his precious acquisitions, both material and, in this case, human. Although Zoret often pretends to be a great aesthete apart from the world he inhabits, he is, in fact, a highly conformist figure of the bourgeoisie, who like many matrons of such new-gentry domiciles, brings out his expensive English glassware on special occasions. He is, in fact, little different from his friends the Adelsskjold’s, Alice and Alexander; and Dreyer makes the relationship between the two obvious by paralleling Michael’s affair with the Countess with Alice’s affair with the Duc de Monthieu (Dider Aslan). If the latter relationship ends more tragically, after an equally bourgeois duel, in the Duc’s death, it is only because Zoret, by film’s end, transcends his class and cultural limitations through his sexual identity.
     In fact, it is precisely this “transcendence” through his homosexual isolation that helps to make Dreyer’s film such an exceptional work of art. What might have been dished up as a kind of soap-opera-like freak show is instead presented in an extremely subtle series of events in which, through his focus on the rooms and objects of Zoret’s over-stuffed abode, their attire, and a careful study of the character’s faces, Dreyer conveys far more that what might have been conveyed if this had been a talking-picture. As dismissive commentators have noted, it’s true that this early classic of gay filmmaking shows no kisses, no overtly languorous stares, nor even any hugs; but through head pats, a moment of hand-holding, and the clear representation of near-nude figures for which Michael modeled in the paintings, it is obvious, unless the audience is determined to be blind to the reality that Zoret and Michael do not only share a house and an intense master-student relationship, but, at least upon occasion, a bed. 
     Even long after Michael has gone upon the chase of the Countess, leaving Zoret alone for a long period of time, and, after running up debts in his entertainment of Countess Zamikoff, the young man returns, ready, apparently, to resume to his usual chores of rubbing warmth in Zoret’s cold feet—an act we would never expect of a pupil or even would-be adoptee. No, this is the act of a younger lover.

     Dreyer’s film (as perhaps did Bang’s novel—there is, alas, no current English translation) assumes a situation that often arises in such man-boy relationships, that the younger lover is bi-sexual. And Zoret recognizes that reality is one which he simply must endure. The fact that, from time to time, Michael spends his time eyeing the ballerinas, is something the older rman has come to expect. But what he has not prepared for, as his loyal biographer-friend Switt almost vengefully informs him, is that Michael might really begin an affair with a woman who is not even a ballerina, but a mutual acquaintance he has attempted to paint. That fact not only forces him to face the reality that he may lose his beloved boy, but that, in many ways, he already has lost the youth as Michael has grown up in front his eyes, now ready to sever his life from his mentor. More devastatingly apparent, moreover, is Zoret’s gradual realization that his talent is not a great one; the artist could not complete the Countess’ portrait, only Michael accomplishes that by bringing it to life through capturing the beautiful woman’s eyes.
     Eyes or faces, accordingly, become a central theme in Dreyer’s work, as time and again, he focuses his camera upon his character’s faces in a manner that may seem quaint or even melodramatic to contemporary audiences, but which allow his silent audiences to study their personalities and, obviously, seek out the character’s desires. Michael, in particular, although a handsome man in physique and form, has eyes that absolutely sparkle—at least as Dreyer represents them. So too is the Countess a beautiful woman, with eyes that, as Zoret perceives, bring her to life. But what we soon learn about each of these figures is that they are all three blind to each other, unable to read one another’s hearts.
      Blinded by his love for the Countess, Michael dares to sell Zoret’s best painting of him, “The Victor” behind the artist’s back in order to support the penniless and in-debt woman. Yet Zoret, despite his great pain in hearing of the sale, controls his emotions by secretly buying it back and returning it, with enormous generosity, to his former lover. As critic Jim Clark has perceptively observed (in one of the most thoughtful essays on this film published on his “Jim’s Reviews” blog) our hero—and it is important to recall that the gay figure Zoret, not Michael, is the center of this film—behaves in a manner that we will not again encounter in films with gay figures for another half-century or more. Unlike most of the gay figures of later films until recently, Zoret, obviously suffering from loss of love, rejection, and the degradations of age, does not have a psychological breakdown ending in suicide. Rather, he accepts the slings and arrows of lost love with graceful equanimity, much like Der Rosenkavlier’s the Marshallin. If his loneliness and sadness end, predictably, in death, it is, nonetheless, a death of a man who has lived life to the full rather than an isolated and closeted sexual being. In fact, Dreyer’s script (I see none of the usually overstated Mabuse-like theatrics of the named collaborator, Thea von Harbou, in this work) suggests that Zoret’s love for Michael grows even stronger through the sacrifices he has made.

    Dreyer’s somewhat cryptic opening statement “Now I can die in peace, for I have seen true love,” in my point of view, refers directly to his own love of Michael, to whom in his last will he leaves everything, as opposed to commenting on Snitt’s loyal presence, Michael’s love of the Countess or, even less rationally, the Countess’ love of Michael. And, accordingly, with only the ungainly second-hand lover Snitt at his side, Zoret dies with a transcendent vision that love does not necessarily have to be a unilateral expression in order to be of significance to one’s life. The act of loving matters more, sometimes, than love as an acquisition—something received and held within. 
      Oddly enough, the object of that love, and of the smothering caresses within the Countess buries him to prevent the youth from running to the bed of his former Master, is the only being in this film who, we project, will ultimately discover he has no real love to turn to. As Clark points out, the movie, resolving its many loose strands one by one, ends in a kind of stasis, not only with Zoret’s physical death, but with Michael’s spiritual death. We can only imagine that Michael one day, having spent the money bequeathed to him, will discover that he lost even that which he has mistaken for love. 
      Biographies report that Dreyer was evidently a very private man, whose own love life, is little known, made more complicated by the fact that Dreyer’s major biography by Maurice Drouzy has yet to be translated into English. Moreover, new information has continued to arise about Dreyer and his films over the past few years; and Drouzy has suggested newer findings, arguing that perhaps in the 1930s, after making Michael, Dreyer may have engaged in temporary homosexual relationships which ended in his nervous breakdown. What is clear from seeing this early Dreyer film, is that, if nothing else, Dreyer was most sensitive even before acting on his own sexual inclinations to gay sexuality, permitting his film to sensitively and even unpredictably express what it might really have meant to be a gay artist early in the 20th century. 
     What also becomes apparent through this film is that the Germany in which this fiction was made was more open and accepting of a sexual situation that most countries would reject for many decades to come. The New York Times critic Mourdant Hall, for example, described the story as being “handicapped by queer titles,” and criticized the film for presenting “less than favorable national figures on the screen.” The truth is that the hero of this lovely portrait is far more favorably presented than was Wilde’s secret acquirer in The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Los Angeles, Christmas Day, 2014

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