Michael Review

You know that DVD releases are reaching critical mass when you get releases of early silent films from Carl Th. Dreyer – films like The Parson’s Widow and Michael, which have not only rarely been seen, but in some cases have never been available in any form for home viewing. Not only however are we privileged enough to get DVD releases of these two rare films, but with The Parson’s Widow we get the chance to see two other rare Dreyer short films (Thorvaldsen and They Caught The Ferry), and with the Eureka/Masters of Cinema release of Michael we get a level of attention to restoration and presentation of the film that is quite unexpected, illuminating not only the early work of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, but giving us a wider look at the cinema of the period and the attitudes that formed it.

Dreyer’s film is a dramatic conflict based around the themes of art and love. An aspiring young artist, Michael sacrifices his ambitions to work as a model and inspiration for the Master, the great artist Claude Zoret. However, the relationship between the Master and the protégé has soured over the years, the Master now only seeing in Michael the inspiration for a painting depicting Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar. Zoret has found a new muse – a Russian Princess, The Countess Zamikow, but his work lacks the spark of artistic genius, preventing his portrait of her from achieving true greatness. His understudy Michael however is more receptive to the feelings the Countess inspires in him, giving him the ability to add the finishing touches to achieve what the Master could not. Michael’s relationship with the Countess becomes a tremendous strain on the Master who sees nothing but ingratitude and betrayal in the actions of his adoptive son.

Michael is an early examination of a subject that continues to interest writers and filmmakers – the power of art and the fire of inspiration. It’s an inspiration that arises out of the very act of being human and communicating with other people and all the emotions that this gives rise to – love, desire, jealousy, betrayal. All these emotions contribute to the richness of life, its reflection in art and its ultimate culmination in death. The relationship of the artist and their inspiration is a complex one and not an easy one to achieve (Jacques Rivette has tackled it marvellously in La Belle Noiseuse) and it is particularly difficult to convey in a silent film. This is where Dreyer’s artistry comes into play. In a parallel subplot, the Duke of Monthieu embarks upon a doomed love affair with a married woman, Alice Adelsskjold. The subplot mirrors the main story in a more conventional playing out of events that culminate in the traditional duel, but it subtly overlays its impression of forbidden love and drama on the main story, depicting a love triangle situation that the main story can only imply. The relationship between the Master and Michael is a more complexly layered one with elements of father and son, artist and muse, master and protégé and possibly even suggestions of a homosexual relationship between them. All this is difficult to convey in any film, never mind a silent one, but Dreyer, through the theme of the subplot implies as much as he shows.

The other element of Dreyer’s great skill in the film is through the set design and the performances of the actors themselves. The elaborateness of the sumptuous sets and the rich lighting all support the baroque drama of the plot’s romance and tragedy, resembling the lush melodrama of Gertrud. At the same time, there is a hint of the austere expressionism of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan Of Arc, particularly in the superb naturalism of the actor’s performances, the silent expression showing depths of psychological complexity. Dreyer magnificently draws much meaning through the eyes of the actors rather than the exaggerated gestures we might be more familiar with from other silent films of the period. Michael hints at the greatness Dreyer would achieve in his later films, but in its own right it is a magnificent film from this era of cinema.

Michael is released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series (#3), released in collaboration with mastersofcinema.org. This follows their release of The Holy Mountain (#2) and the forthcoming re-release of Metropolis (#8). Michael is released as a two-disc set (although both discs are single-layer) containing a 86-minute US version of the film and a 90-minute European version. Apart from the quality of the print, there are no real differences in the two versions, the differences in the timings being down to the time the intertitles remain on the screen. A fine 20-page booklet is included with the set with several interesting essays on the film and its DVD release.

The picture quality on both prints is marvellous, but there are different problems with each of the versions presented. In the US version on Disc 1 there are certainly a number of serious marks on individual frames and one or two very bad scratches and tears on the negative – but overall the image is remarkably clear, showing fine detail in small objects and textures with a wonderful range of greyscale tones. The transfer bears this out well, showing the film at the correct film speed with a strong stable image. There are one or two elements of flicker in backgrounds and in narrow lines which could be the result of compression artefacting, but this is rarely an issue. The image is rather soft in some scenes, lacking the stronger definition of the European edition.

The European edition of the film on Disc 2 has far greater frequency of white dust speckling and minor scratching on the print, but there is less of the more serious damage seen on the US version. The image quality is generally clearer and sharper, showing more information, but it is slightly brighter than the deep contrasts of the US version. Cross-colouration video artefacts are visible, but I only noticed this when pausing the image and never during normal playback. The framing is different on the European version showing a little more at the top of the image, but less on the left-hand side and bottom.

Both versions have different points in their favour as well as shortcomings. Of the two versions, I preferred the US print, finding it warmer in tone and with less distracting marks even though it is clearly less detailed, but both are included so you can make your own choice. Comparison images can be seen below - US version above, European version below. Still screencaptures do not however give a full impression of the print quality of the moving image.

The US version of the film presented on Disc 1 comes with a new score by Neal Kurz (who also did the score for The Parson’s Widow), presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The original score is no longer in existence but used elements of Tchaikovsky, which Kurz also incorporates here. The piano score is wonderfully appropriate for the film, is lyrical and understated, matching the mood of the film but not driving it.

The European print contains a 1993 score by Pierre Oser using piano, clarinet and cello, which seems to be generally considered the better score, but I personally thought that it imposed a presence on the film whereas the Kurz score on the US version is less dominant and more sympathetic in tone. Again, the choice is there, but due to the differences in running times, they could not be included on the same disc.

The US edition of the film uses English intertitles and overwrites some of the text in the film itself. Purists will not be happy with that, but it is not that big an issue and the European edition is also included on a separate disc in any case. The European version has the original German intertitles, with fixed English subtitles below.

Commentary by Caspar Tyberg
The US version of Michael comes with a full commentary by the Danish film historian and Dreyer scholar, Caspar Tyberg. At times the commentary can be dry and academic, explaining what is going on, deconstructing the film and the emotions of the characters. This is not necessary, as a silent film like this should be allowed to work for itself on an unspoken, emotional level. However Tyberg only examines this in the early stage of the film when the characters and themes are introduced. Elsewhere the commentary is fabulously informative about the cast, their careers, the film’s background and its correspondence with the book it is based on, with some interesting facts about the author Herman Bang. He spends an inordinate amount of time however examining the alleged homosexual themes in the film only to conclude that they are there if you want to look for them, but the film could also operate without this reading. The information given here as a commentary could be more concisely given in the form of text in a booklet or in the customary Eureka visual essays.

Dreyer interview (25:50)
Recorded in September 1965 in the US at a screening of Gertrud, this radio interview covers much of Dreyer’s career, but doesn’t specifically address Michael. Some on-screen captions and images illustrate an interesting and invaluable audio interview.

It’s particularly pleasing to see Michael get the treatment it merits on this DVD release. I’m not sure that there is strictly any need for including two almost identical versions of the film, but they are there anyway for completeness at no additional cost and you have the choice of which version you prefer. Michael is not one of Dreyer’s greatest films, but that is only in comparison to the likes of Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc. By any other standard, and particularly in comparison to other silent films of this period, Michael is a very good film indeed – an interesting stage in the development of both silent cinema and Dreyer’s work. It more than merits the attention that has been lavished upon it as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection.

8 out of 10
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Last updated: 03/05/2018 03:33:36

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