Carl Theodor Dreyer is most known to cinema buffs for his 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, but that’s not his only film worthy of recognition – Michael, one of his more personal movies, is considered a landmark of early LGBT cinema.
Benjamin Christensen plays esteemed painter Claude Zoret, who lives with an attractive young twink called Michael, his muse and model. The two are very clearly in love, even if Claude refers to Michael as his ‘adoptive son’ when in polite company. Then the bankrupt Countess Zamikov comes into the fray, hoping that being painted by Claude will change her financial fortunes. But, obsessing over his inability to get Zamikov’s features right, Claude begins to neglect Michael, and eventually, Michael finds himself more interested in the Countess than in the ailing painter.
It’s a tight-knit story, set almost entirely in Claude’s lavish house, and there are comparisons to be made with current release Phantom Thread in its depiction of a difficult artist and his relationships with his muses. Indeed, Christensen puts a Day-Lewis level of intensity into his performance; he doesn’t need dialogue to convey the strain that Claude’s dual passions for Michael and for his art put on his mentality.
But it’s that passion for the young muse which makes the film remarkable to watch today; though it might not state it explicitly, Michael is an unabashedly gay movie, with Christensen and Walter Slezak putting on as pure a performance of two men in – and, in Michael’s case, falling out of – love as you could hope to see. This was alleged to have been a personal subject for Dreyer, who felt the need to dramatise his own feelings after a homosexual affair.
A third queer character, Robert Garrison’s journalist, who is profiling Claude but seemingly has some romantic past with him, adds an extra layer to the drama and plays neatly into the poignant ending. If there’s anything to criticise, it’s that Nora Gregor’s performance as the Countess doesn’t match up to the standard of the rest of the cast and that a subplot about a friend of Claude’s and his unfaithful wife feels unnecessary.
Nevertheless, Michael acts as a powerful reminder of the progressive, artistic sensibilities that made German cinema of the 1920s one of the most fascinating periods of the medium’s history. Besides that, it’s simply a stunningly scripted, directed and acted romantic drama.
This new Blu-ray release from Eureka does Michael justice; in a new 2K restoration, the film looks as crisp as ever, and there’s a range of fascinating extras: an audio commentary from Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg; a video essay by critic David Cairns; a 1965 audio interview with Dreyer himself; and a collector’s booklet full of essays, tributes and images. This comprehensive package makes for a highly recommended purchase for any silent cinema devotee.
MICHAEL (1924) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: CARL THEODOR DREYER / SCREENPLAY: THEA VON HARBOU, CARL THEODOR DREYER / STARRING: WALTER SLEZAK, BENJAMIN CHRISTENSEN, NORA GREGOR, ROBERT GARRISON / RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 12TH