When’s a good time to reissue a film? Had Eureka Masters of Cinema put out this Blu-Ray reissue of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael last year, it might have been a valuable contribution to the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. As it is, it hits shelves in February 2018, lending it a topicality Eureka can’t have foreseen. A film about a high-society artist who finds his commissioned work suffering when real passion enters his life, Michael would make an unusually good double-bill with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.
That said, the two films occupy diametrically opposed spaces in their creators’ back catalogues. Phantom Thread is the work of an artist who’s served his apprenticeship and is confident following his own themes and ideas without worrying too much about the marketplace. Michael is part of an early run in Dreyer’s career, when the man who would later turn in one film per decade was a jobbing director making a film every year. Some of these films are partially lost due to poor archiving, and Michael itself was thought to be missing for many years. Despite – or because? – of its inaccessibility, Dreyer retained a fondness for the film, often claiming it as his favourite early work. Watched now, it doesn’t quite escape the confines of genre, but its intense close-ups point the way forward to The Passion of Joan of Arc, even if the lavishly detailed sets are a bit of an outlier in Dreyer’s usually spartan world.
Michael is based on a familiar theme in queer literature, perhaps most famously rendered by Thomas Mann in his 1912 novella Death in Venice. It’s about the passion an aging aesthete has for a beautiful but shallow younger man, and there has been much speculation about whether Dreyer was drawing from his personal life in depicting this relationship. Really, there are lots of reasons why Dreyer would choose this theme that have nothing to do with his personal life. Herman Bang, author of the popular novel Michael was adapted from, was openly gay, and in any case there is a small but notable subgenre of Weimar-era LGBT films including Richard Oswald’s Different From the Others, William Dieterle’s Sex in Chains and Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform.
If the gay relationship isn’t necessarily personal to Dreyer, what is there of the man in the film? Plenty, as it turns out. Michael is a film about art made by someone who was just starting to realise his high ambitions. You could construct an allegorical reading where Zoret, the older painter, is Dreyer, constantly frustrated that he has to pursue commercial considerations rather than his own ideal of beauty. Or perhaps the younger man, Michael, is the author surrogate, and Dreyer is sending a warning to himself. Rather than accept the sincere, refined Zoret, Michael runs off with the Princess Zamikow, a woman with money and glamour but no depth. Was he, perhaps, telling himself to fall in love with culture rather than success?
The identity of Michael as a film about art is strengthened by the casting. Michael’s cinematographer Karl Freund, who would go on to lens everything from Metropolis to I Love Lucy, has a small role, but the real tell is Dreyer’s choice for Zoret. Benjamin Christensen had directed Haxan shortly after Dreyer’s similarly-themed Leaves from Satan’s Book. He and Dreyer shared a forward-thinking determination to make unique, personal films, and David Cairns’s accompanying video essay touchingly confirms how the two directors inspired each other on set.
The disc as a whole is lovingly curated, from the booklet which includes new and archive writing (including an appreciation of Dreyer from Jean Renoir) to the inclusion of Pierre Oser’s 1993 score. The original score for Michael was a rearrangement of motifs from Tchaikovsky, which sadly doesn’t exist any more. In the absence of this, Oser’s music is the most fitting accompaniment. Scored for piano, clarinet and cello, it’s as intimate and melancholy as Dreyer’s film.