Based on the 1902 Danish novel of the same name (Mikaël) by celebrated novelist Herman Bang, Michael is a story, not of Michael himself but, of Claude Zoret, a famous painter who not only paints Michael, teaches him the art but falls in love with him. When a bankrupt Countess comes to sit for her portrait, she makes advances towards Michael and the two begin to steal from Claude, before the artist falls ill upon finishing his masterpiece.
Carl Theodor Dreyer is perhaps better known for his films The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was made four years after Michael in 1928, and Vampyr, which followed in 1932. While Dreyer became a filmmaker after the technical aspect of film was developed, film critics still consider him to be pivotal in the devolvement of film art. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterclass in the close-up and use of emotive expression, combining all the elements of Joan's world to create something wholly breathtaking. While Michael does not appear to be as widely discussed it is still a film of that same high quality.
While the story of love triangles and art theft may sound melodramatic, unoriginal and a little stale, it is perhaps important to remember that this film was made long before a lot of others which ran that plot line into the ground. As a visual medium, a film is more than its story, it must look great and I can say that Michael does. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael is a film about distance and restrained and constrained emotions. While The Passion of Joan of Arc utilised the close-up, Michael seems to focus on the gaps between people, as shown by the gorgeous tableaux, like the wide shot within lavish interiors. That is not to say that this film is devoid of close-ups, Dreyer continues to demonstrate his skill with that filmic device that would serve to catapult him into the annals of film history.
Aside from the stunning silent cinematography, Dreyer has assembled a diverse, multinational cast of performers to bring the melodramatic plot to life. However, what is interesting is that some of the cast weren't even actors. Cinematographer Karl Freund, plays an art dealer in the film, Benjamin Christensen, the man who directed the documentary-style horror Häxan, has the lead role as Claude Zoret. Our titular character is played by Walter Slezak, of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm fame. Regardless all of the cast, which also includes Nora Gregor (The Rules of the Game) and Mady Christians (Letter from an Unknown Woman), and their performances are top notch.
It is sometimes hard to judge the performances in silent films, due to its nature, it is radically different to the current style of acting that modern audiences have grown used too, and most have expectations of histrionics. Here, however, the acting style is calm with the performance(s) a masterful collection of subtle looks and unspoken longings (for multiple reasons). This nuance is also carried over into its subject matter, although never implicit the homosexual undertones are clear and Michael remains an important work in early gay silent cinema. If it wasn't obvious from the longing glances appearing on the faces of artist and muse, the way in which Dreyer structures the plot and character interaction reveals the themes of the film. The two parallel love triangles mirror each other and reveal the true relationship between Michael and Claude.
Eureka! has done a fantastic job in the construction of this Blu-ray, from the staggering presentation of a film stock that is over 90-years-old at this point to the number of illuminating extras included on the disc. Their 2K restoration is breathtaking, able to pick out the most minute detail even when in soft focus - it looks fantastic in the 1080p presentation. Similarly, Pierre Oser’s score (piano, clarinet, cello), in an uncompressed LPCM audio, sounds crisp and matches the emotions onscreen perfectly. The intertitles remain in the original German, which is a nice touch and they do have optional English subtitles, but when you are not reading the title cards but the subtitles, it can be a little irritating as it breaks the flow of the film somewhat.
Eureka! has provided a great selection of extras. The commentary track by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg is in-depth and informative, presenting an interpretation and taking you through the historical context for cast and crew. The video essay by critic David Cairns does a similar job but is more focussed due to time and structure. Finally, the illustrated audio interview, from 1965, with the director himself offers insight into how he worked and who he was, that then reflects back on the film and changes the way that you see it.
Michael is a beautiful, lavish film full of rich, emotional weight. It is a gem of early silent cinema, one that is a testament to what artists can do with the Medium. Eureka! understand that and have done an excellent job with the restoration and presentation of the film; adding extras that explore the historical context of the film and making a complete package that will be an important addition to any cinephile's collection.