In My Only Great Passion, the definitive biography of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean and Dale D. Drum devote approximately eight pages to dismissing Michael as “melodramatic” and “bereft of the nobility and idealism that characterize virtually all of Dreyer’s serious films” (105).
The biography, published in 2000, cites and dismisses “latent homosexual attraction” as the “common explanation” for the plot events which make little sense to the biographers. The story of an elderly painter who loves and is abandoned by the film’s namesake may have been adapted from a novel by a homosexual, but it is apparently inconceivable to the Drums that this is the correct or intended interpretation. “It is difficult to know why Dreyer chose to film [Michael] in the first place,” they opine, “since it is so unlike him” (107).
Almost all of the Drums’ claims that the film is atypical of Dreyer are thematically rather than formally based. On a formal level, they do mention that since the film was earlier than The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer had not developed “his ideas of simplification” (111). I would add that anyone who comes to Dreyer first through his later works (Ordet, Day of Wrath, and Gertrud) may be surprised by how much Michael clings to the techniques of silent films, often cutting between close-ups and medium shots in ways that distort and confuse the spacial relationships between subjects and objects. But as far as technique is concerned, this film is hardly an anomaly.
The bulk of the Drums’ claims that the film is an oddity in the Dreyer canon stem from the assertion that “genuine concern for more than the self” is “characteristic of all the other films of Dreyer” (106, emphasis added). The biographers go so far as to characterize the philosophy of the main characters in Michael as “antihumanism,” which made it impossible for Dreyer to incorporate his “romantic” desires to genuinely move an audience and portray narratives where that which is “right” prevails. Herman Bang’s novels were “filled with hopelessness and decadence” (104) and thus hardly an appropriate foundation for a Dreyer film.
This is a puzzling–almost maddening–conglomeration of circular reasoning and begging the question. The Drums deny any possibility that Dreyer meant to imply even “latent” homosexual desire but then cite early reviews critical of of Michael that interpret it as doing exactly that. They call the screenings of Michael that highlighted or drew attention to its homosexual themes as “one of the strangest and saddest fates a film ever suffered” (113). If the film is inferior to all other Dreyer films, why is it so strange and sad that it got negative reviews? If Dreyer visited and befriended Herman Bang before making films, how could he not be aware of the material’s rather obvious homosexual subtext? In what sense do films like Day of Wrath and Gertrud represent worlds in which right (in some traditional, moral sense) prevails?
Gertrud was, in fact, the later Dreyer film that I thought the most about when revisiting Michael thanks to Kino Lorber’s theatrical re-release as part of LGBT pride month. By the time they get around to discussing Gertrud in My Only Great Passion, the Drums appear to have forgotten the notion that Michael is somehow supposed to be singular in the Dreyer canon. Gertrud (the character) is described as “an unhappy and dissatisfied” woman who might only be said to embody the signature Dreyer element of “nobility of spirit” if we see her “ideal” of love as something greater than self for which she willingly sacrifices. How would such an interpretation of Gertrud make her significantly different from the artist, Zoret, in Michael? Gertrud is not presumed to be gay, but like Zoret, she ends the film with a claim that she has “known” love and that “love is all.” (It is perhaps a significant deviation or concession to the unspeakable nature of homosexuality in 1924 that in Michael the protagonist claims only to have “seen” love.) Gertrud is based on a play by Hjalmar Söderberg, and in almost a direct echo of their earlier comments, the Drums state that it is “difficult to know why Dreyer chose” the material he did since Söderberg was “not considered a writer of first rank” (250).
None of this is meant to try to pin a homophobic label on the Drums. Their biography is meticulously researched and indispensable for those with an interest in Dreyer. But we all have critical blind spots, and the more time we spend researching a beloved author or director, the paradoxically less aware of those blind spots we become.
Neither is this review meant to fly a “Michael is a Masterpiece” banner that I can plant on some critical hill and spend the rest of my life defending. As in most silent films I’ve seen, Michael‘s editing and pace can be a chore for those of us weaned on quicker takes and film budgets enabling footage from multiple cameras. As with most narratives written to skirt censorship, awareness of its subtext adds pathos to the viewing experience but doesn’t necessarily amplify its emotional impact.
What this review does mean to suggest is that perhaps our understanding and appreciation of great auteurs would be enhanced if we would stop dismissing and explaining away their marginal and marginalized films. If instead we sought to notice the ways these so-called lesser films were representative of the artists we love, we might come to love them more rather than spending all our time sweeping them under the rug or dismissing them as curious anomalies.
Like Gertrud, Michael portrays love as something that is often painful when it is not reciprocated but which nevertheless ennobles us when we are true to it. “Your sketches are nothing!” Zoret says when first meeting Michael. Is it possible that the elderly artist remembers that harsh dismissal of his less talented student on his death bed? When Michael steals Zoret’s own sketches to fund his love affair with Countess Zamikoff, why do we see Zoret’s lie that he gifted them to his student as any less noble than that of the priest who expresses God’s pardon to Jean Valjean by letting him keep the stolen candlesticks in Les Miserables? Perhaps Zoret has learned that it is not just Michael’s sketches but also his own that are “nothing.” Perhaps he learns that art, while capturing human suffering, can do little to alleviate it.
Zoret says he is going to a place where “my heart will find peace.” That place will not be in Michael’s arms, but neither is it implied that it will be a place where his love cannot speak its name. As in Ordet, the proximity and inevitability of death forces Dreyer’s characters to understand that their souls can only find peace by loving truly, not by being theologically correct.
Michael is currently available to stream from Kino Lorber as part of its “Pioneers of Queer Cinema” campaign, with a portion of the proceeds going to support local theaters impacted by COVID-19 closures.