Accompanied by an appropriately oppressive score by Pierre Oser, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 silent Michael is a film heavy with implication. Just as the film’s setting and period are never explicitly stated, the homosexual relationship between its two protagonists – master painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) and his beautiful model Michael (Walter Slezak) – is as implicit as it is plain.
Despite Zoret’s frequent description of his relationship Michael as paternal, there can be little doubt of the motivation behind his patronage. Indeed, when Michael first comes to Zoret with his sketches, Zoret dismisses the aspiring artist before telling him that he ‘desires to paint’ him. Even if their romance is merely implied, only in the cinema of Weimar Germany could such obvious implication have gotten through the period’s censors. As such, Michael remains an important chapter in the history of gay cinema.
Though not perhaps as refined as his later works, Dreyer’s preference for close ups – maturing in The Passion of Joan of Arc – is evident in the claustrophobic interiors of Michael. A trope of silent cinema, the circular iris, is in full use here, closing in on characters as if to invite the audience closer to the screen, to experience the never fully explicit intimacy between Michael and Zoret. On its release, Dreyer’s film was likened to a kammerspiel, or chamber play, which though slightly erroneous, clues us into its oppressive atmosphere. Dreyer’s use of interiors, cluttered with heavy drapery, every surface covered in ornaments and bric-a-brac, seems to close in on its characters, who are hemmed in at every turn – even by the camera’s contracting iris.
Love, too, is an oppressive force in Michael. While Zoret symbolically confines Michael over and over again within the frames of his canvasses, Michael exploits his patron by running up huge expense bills as he courts the countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor). Zoret knows he is being ripped off, yet blinds himself to it in the service of his devotion to his young lover. Indeed, Zoret is blinded in more way than one, unable to capture the eyes of his new subject – the Countess – until Michael finishes for him, presumably because Michael’s love for the Countess allows him to truly see her. In an early scene, Zoret rebuked Michael for not being able to truly see – now that rebuke has come back to haunt him.
The words that open and close Michael – “I can now die in peace, as I have seen true love” – signify the terrible romance at the heart of Dreyer’s film. In its truest form, love binds its owners in the same moment as it frees them. The truest love transcends the self and asks for nothing in return. Zoret truly loves Michael because of, not despite, the fact that he is unworthy of it. In the film’s final moments, love and death are indistinguishable as the ultimate dissolution of the self.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell