When Mikaël was released in the United States in 1926, the New York Daily News wondered if “the censors were too unsophisticated to know what it was all about.” Many viewers, the critic speculated, “could watch the entire unreeling of this film without discerning its ‘psychological’ theme.” The New York Evening World remarked that “the direction by Carl Theodor Dreyer is distinguished by the delicacy of the development of a none too pleasant theme. The film is not suitable for general exhibition except in such theaters as may follow the Playhouse rule of admitting no children.” This “none too pleasant theme” was the relationship between master painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) and his protégé Mikaël (Walter Slezak). Although the film’s titles insist that Zoret has only fatherly affection for Mikaël, U.S. distributors played up the film’s salacious implications by renaming it The Inverts, which was changed to Chained when censor boards objected. In 1930, years after its initial release, the film “turned up at a Broadway grind house as Chained: The Story of the Third Sex, with a ‘scientific lecture,’ a shoddy atmosphere, and no credit to Dreyer or anyone else,” according to film historian Eileen Bowser.
Dreyer adapted Mikaël from a 1904 novel by Herman Bang, a fin-de-siècle author considered the Danish Oscar Wilde. Although it received mixed reactions in Denmark, the novel was a terrific success in Germany, and Bang’s German publisher awarded him seven times the usual honorarium for his book. In 1916, Swedish director Mauritz Stiller known today for his discovery of Greta Garbo adapted the novel to the screen under the title Wings. Stiller added a framing device in which he played the “director” and 19-year-old Nils Asther played the “aspiring actor.” Asther later confirmed rumors that the two did have an affair. “One evening he came up to me and I was initiated into the art of loving someone of your own sex,” he wrote in his autobiography. Although Wings treads lightly on its homosexual theme, the title refers to the sculpture Zoret creates of his protégé as Ganymede, the Trojan prince abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle, an icon of homoeroticism revived during the Italian Renaissance. In Dreyer’s film, this same suggestive statue stands in Zoret’s home.
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer became interested in Mikaël after the critical and commercial failure of his fairy tale film Once Upon a Time (1922). A former journalist, Dreyer had joined the innovative Danish production company Nordisk Films in 1912 as a title writer, and transitioned to directing in 1919. By 1924, he had directed films in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, including the comedy The Parson’s Widow (1920) and the Intolerance-inspired Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921). Dreyer returned to Berlin in 1924 at the invitation of Erich Pommer, producer of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), who suggested that he film Mikaël to capitalize on the novel’s German popularity. Dreyer, who had interviewed Herman Bang in 1912, readily agreed. Although Thea von Harbou (who wrote the scenario for Metropolis in 1927) is credited as the author of the screenplay, Dreyer had complete editorial freedom over the script.
Dreyer cast the famed Danish director Benjamin Christensen, best known for his 1922 film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, in the role of Claude Zoret. Four years earlier, Dreyer had praised Christensen in the Danish press, writing: “It created a positive sensation when a man appeared-Benjamin Christensen-who did not manufacture his films, but worked them out with care and affection for every little detail. He was considered a little out of line. As things turned out though, it’s clear that he was the one in contact with the future.” The New York Times praised his “fine face and earnest eyes,” but Mikaël proved to be the last time Christensen agreed to appear in front of the camera. Dreyer hoped to cast Danish superstar Asta Nielsen as Princess Zamikova, but she had never forgiven him for writing many years earlier: “Long and lanky, she is as flat in the rear as an ironing board. She is flat-chested and interesting only to a physician.” To his request that she appear in Mikaël, Nielsen replied, “I only play leads.” So Dreyer cast Italian actress Nora Gregor, later acclaimed for her performance as the alluring wife in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). The 22-year-old Austrian actor Walter Slezak, who had recently made his début in Michael Curtiz’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1922), played Mikaël. Tall and willowy in the film, Slezak later gained a considerable amount of weight and made a career of portraying villains and thugs—most notably as the Nazi U-boat commander in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944).
Mikaël was partially photographed by the celebrated Karl Freund (the cinematographer of Metropolis), who also makes the only on-screen appearance of his career as the sycophantic art dealer LeBlanc. When Freund abandoned Dreyer to film F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), 26-year-old Polish cinematographer Rudolph Maté replaced him. German Modernist architect Hugo Häringin his only foray into filmdesigned the sets for Mikaël, which Dreyer biographer Dale Drum describes as “a monstrosity of pseudomedievalism gone wild.” Contemporary critics suggested that the character of Zoret and the decadent interiors of his home were meant to evoke sculptor Auguste Rodin and his “Convent of the Sacred Heart” studio in Paris.
Following Mikaël, Dreyer returned to Copenhagen to make his reverse Taming of the Shrew comedy Master of the House (1925). A success in France, it prompted the Société Générale de Films to invite Dreyer to make a film for them on the national hero and Catholic saint Joan of Arc. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), with its austere set design, formidable close-ups, and Renée Falconetti’s intense performance, is one of the foremost achievements of silent film art, although it was a financial disaster. Dreyer constructed an entire replica of medieval Orleans that hardly appears on camera. He filmed the story in strict chronological order, and rumors abounded that he used sadistic method acting techniques to push his actors beyond their limits. Thereafter, production companies avoided the demanding director. In 1931, Dreyer formed his own company with the financial support of a Dutch film enthusiast to make his first sound film, Vampyr (1932). An unsettling ghost story filmed in an abandoned German chateau, it was a financial disaster too; audiences in Germany booed and hissed in the theater. It also attracted its share of fans; according to biographer Drum, “Alfred Hitchcock called it the only film worth seeing twice, and Luis Buñuel named it as one of his favorite films.” For the remainder of his career, Dreyer found only sporadic work as a director, making a series of public service movies for Dansk Kulturfilm in the 1940s, as well as a few celebrated films of his own: Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). He died in 1968 at the age of 79.
In 1943, Dreyer reflected, “We directors have a very large responsibility. We have it in our hands to lift the film from industry to art, and, therefore, we must go to our work with seriousness, we must want something, we must dare something, and we must not jump over where the fence is lowest.”
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Donald Sosin