The Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer turns a Herman Bang novel about a love triangle with gay undertones into a lovely but austere, sentimental melodrama with “Michael,” a 1924 silent film memorable for being the first major role for Walter Slezak, who left Europe for Hollywood where he had a long career as a character actor.
Bang, a homosexual journalist and novelist from Dreyer’s native Denmark, loosely based this story on the life of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. It’s about a pretty young man (Slezak) taken in as a model by a famous artist (Benjamin Christensen), treated as “a son,” but who betrays the older man’s affections when a Russian princess (Nora Gregor) shows up for a sitting.
Young Michael had once shown his sketches to Zoret (Christensen) who dismissed them as “worthless.” But the boy caught The Master’s eye. He brought the kid on as his model.
Now, years later. Zoret is losing his grip on Michael’s attention. The journalist Switt (Robert Garrison) may be hanging around, working on a biography of the painter. But he’s privy to all the gossip about Michael, a fair-haired young man who cuts a dashing figure in his cape and beret.
“He spends each night at the opera, eyeing up the ballet rats,” the gossipy Switt relates.
Zoret shrugs this off, and every indiscretion to come. That’s the meaning of the film’s opening title.
“Now I can die in peace for I have known a great love.”
Princess Zamikov (Nora Gregor) longs to be painted by Zoret. And Michael, the object of his master’s eye and subject of his heroic nudes, is jealous.
Until he gives the Russian royal the once-over. He is smitten, sneaking into her opera box, kissing her bare shoulder as she holds up a demure fan against prying eyes.
Zoret obsesses and frets over her portrait, never quite mastering her eyes. Michael, in the spirit of “Only youth will know,” adds that final touch with the brush.
But that will be their last collaboration of any note. Michael, never coming out and admitting it, is moving on.
The acting is positively modern, with only the occasional moment of Christensen overacting with the eyes to give away how close this film came to the exaggerated theatricality of silent cinema of just a couple of years before.
But the lack of action here — a common complaint in movies about painters — makes “Michael” drag. A subplot mirroring the love triangle of Zoret, Michael and the princess, and involving a man seducing another’s wife may lead to a duel, but doesn’t do much other than overtly show the turmoil that the forbidden, hidden love that Zoret has for his “son,” Michael.”
The compositions are neat and craftsmanlike, with an occasional exterior (snowy streets with carriages) and a recreation of “Swan Lake” in the theater where Michael and the Princess have their assignations among the visual delights here.
Compared to 1919’s overtly gay “Anders also die Andern (Different from the Others),” this is seriously tame, a watered-down version of a gay writer’s novel. But being by Dreyer (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”), “Michael” is worth revisiting to see how a leading director of the day approached material that, however socially progressive Denmark and post-war Germany might have been, was more daring than he was willing to make it.
MPAA Rating: unrated.
Cast: Walter Slezak, Benjamin Christensen, Nora Gregor and Robert Garrison
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, script by Dreyer and Thea von Harbou , based on the novel by Herman Bang. A Kini Classics (virtual cinema) release.
Running time: 1:34