Combustible Celluloid Review - Michael (1924), Thea von Harbou, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen, Walter Slezak, Nora Gregor
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Benjamin Christensen, Walter Slezak, Nora Gregor
Written by: Thea von Harbou
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 86
Date: 09/26/1924

Michael (1924)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Art for Art's Sake

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for a series of five masterworks made over a period of 40 years, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964). Though he worked slowly, struggling for financing for his decidedly non-commercial films, the films never betray that struggle. Each reveals a stunning control, as if every inch of the frame were under his spell.

Dreyer did not suddenly begin as a master. Two of his earlier films -- The Parson's Widow (1920) and Michael (1924) -- have recently turned up on DVD, proving that he played on a training ground before finding his touch.

The Parson's Widow has its moments, but Michael is a truly fascinating film with just the tiniest hint of the greatness yet to come. Walter Slezak (later in Hitchcock's Lifeboat) stars as the title character, a young painter who becomes a model and apprentice to an old master (Benjamin Christensen). When a destitute duchess (Nora Gregor, The Rules of the Game) comes in for a portrait, Michael becomes smitten with her and unwittingly forms a love triangle. A second love triangle forms a small but tragic subplot that mirrors the major thread.

The film looks like almost any other film from the period, and frankly not quite up to the artistry of someone like Lubitsch or Murnau. But in one transcendent moment, the old master painter asks Michael to paint the duchess' eyes, with which he has been struggling for days. Michael takes over, and Dreyer's camera moves ever so slightly, lighting Michael and the duchess as if in a halo, drawing them together in a holy aura. In that moment, Dreyer's true artistry comes into view, and we can see visions of The Passion of Joan of Arc just around the corner.

Two legendary cinematographers, Rudolph Mate and Karl Freund, joined forces to photograph the film. Both would go on to direct their own classic films (D.O.A. and The Mummy, respectively). Interestingly, Freund makes his only screen appearance in the film as an art dealer, and he has an interesting, comical presence.

An interesting sidebar to this film is that Dreyer leaves it up to the viewer to decide what kind of relationship the painter and the apprentice have. It could easily be either homosexual or paternal. Since Kino Video has released Michael as part of an "early gay cinema" package, it's clear which side they've taken. But the film is very subtle on this point, and viewers hoping for something openly homoerotic will be disappointed.

Otherwise, Kino's DVD is a splendid achievement. It comes with a commentary track by film professor Caspar Tybjerg -- who also provided the very useful track on the Criterion Collection's The Passion of Joan of Arc DVD -- and a complete Dreyer filmography.

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