'Michael' — early gay film was ahead of its time

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday February 20, 2024
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Walter Slezak and Benjamin Christensen in 'Michael' (still: Kino Now)
Walter Slezak and Benjamin Christensen in 'Michael' (still: Kino Now)

Originally released in 1924, Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Michael" was a film that was quite different from what audiences of the time were used to. "Michael" is about a gay artist who loses his young male lover to a gold-digging woman. The film is now available on BluRay and is also streaming at Kino Now, the on-demand streaming service of distributor Kino Lorber.

"Michael" was produced in Germany during the Weimar era, a time in between the world wars when German society underwent a stunning renaissance. This was a time of free artistic expression, decadence, and sexual freedom. A decade after the film was produced, the Nazis came to power, crushing the freedom that had been enjoyed and murdering millions of people, mainly Jews but also a significant number of queer people.

Walter Slezak, who left Germany in 1930 and went on to enjoy prolific careers in Hollywood and on Broadway, was just 22 when he essayed the titular role in "Michael." A handsome young man, Michael always impeccably dressed, so it's easy to see why the famous, and decidedly older artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) falls in love with him. Their relationship was more than platonic, though there are no kissing scenes in the film. There is some hand-holding.

Things take a bad turn when Michael meets Countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor) and begins spending time with her. He falls for her and lets her use him for money. Michael spends less and less time with Zoret, who is powerless to stop his beloved "foster son" from turning away from him.

Kino Lorber provides a reasonably decent print of "Michael," though a few scenes are faded. The print should have been clearer as it was restored by the Danish Film Institute. Still, for a film that's a century old it looks okay.

One of the most impressive aspects of "Michael" is the cinematography, which was the work of Karl Freund, who was a master with his use of the camera. He created stunningly expansive visuals for this film. Among Freund's dozens of other credits are the legendary films "Metropolis" (1927) and "Dracula" (1931).

Towards the end of his career he served as cinematographer for, of all things, the "I Love Lucy" TV series, where he was credited with giving the show its slick look. It was a look he was already perfecting when he shot "Michael." In addition to his camera duties, Freund also has a cameo as an art dealer in the film, his only known credit as an actor.

The acting in "Michael" is naturalistic. The cast avoids the melodramatic style of acting that was so prevalent in silent films. Slezak is appropriately treacherous as Michael, but the film's finest performance comes from Christensen, whose character ultimately becomes a tragic figure as he realizes he's lost the love of his life. Christensen's performance is quite moving, he and Slezak play off each other quite well.

The film has a pleasant, unobtrusive musical score, and there are German intertitles, with optional English subtitles available on the disc's menu. Also included is an optional commentary track with film historians Amanda Doxtater and Maxine Savage, who discuss, among other things, the film's historical significance.

"Michael" is indeed a historically significant film. When it was made there was no queer cinema to speak of, only a small handful of such films had been made. That the lead characters' homosexuality was made so apparent was a giant step forward in the annals of moviemaking. This is a film definitely worth seeing.

'Michael' $21.62 BluRay, $2.99 streaming at Kino Now

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