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Carl Dreyer’s "Michael": Digitalization and the Rediscovery of a Classic Kammerspiel-film

06 december 2017 / Stephen Larson

This brief article traces the popular and critical reception of Dreyer’s Michael (1924) from its theatrical release to its DVD editions. Michael was largely considered a lost and forgotten Kammerspiel-film until the British video distributor Eureka released a deluxe two-disc set to commemorate its eightieth anniversary. The UK DVD of Michael enhances its status as a Kammerspiel-film while the US DVD denigrates its reputation by not only creating a new set of intertitles, but also by overwriting filmed images of printed text.

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Inside the great hall of Claude Zoret's home, from Michael (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1924). Still: DFI Stills & Posters Archive.

Introduction

In “What Is an Author?” (1969), Michel Foucault argues for a reinvestigation of the functions of authors and the modes of discourse in which they operate, alive or dead. While Foucault identifies the theme of a kinship between writing and death, in which writers become victims of their own making (an inversion of the Greek narrative or epic where writers would forestall their heroes’ death or send them into immortality), he is considerably less pessimistic than his French colleague Roland Barthes about the fate of an author. Foucault observes that even when an author perishes (in a physical sense), the “ownership” of his/her work is not really relinquished. In his example of Nietzsche, Foucault states that unpublished drafts, margins and notations, and a notebook of aphorisms from the German philosopher’s personal collection “can be extracted from the millions of traces left by an individual after his death.” (1969: 118-19). Foucault’s anecdote about finding Nietzsche’s lost artifacts implies that despite demise in flesh and blood, an author “reappears” through the creation of new discourses.

Reestablishing the existence of an author is an intriguing notion that Foucault shares with Jacques Derrida. Specifically, Derrida’s idea of écriture (a double meaning for the act of writing and writing as its own entity) pertains most to Foucault when he is seeking a presence in an author’s absence: “we should reexamine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance; we should attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations, and the reapportionment of this void.” (1969: 121). In other words, Foucault is saying that however many fissures left the author’s space blank, there are nonetheless ways to reconstitute and reclassify an author’s discourse. In contrast to Barthes, Foucault asserts that an author preserves the unity of his/her work and is able to “neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts.” (Foucault 1969: 128). (For Barthes, this would be left up to the reader.) Ultimately, Foucault goes in a different direction than Barthes by arguing for the resurrection of authors through the recovery of their work. For example, he asserts that authors of certain discourses must “return to the origin.” As Erika Mae Olbricht notes, what Foucault’s author function achieves that Barthes’s Death of the Author does not “is a description of ways of talking about the type of authorial discourse that has currency in textual criticism.” (1997: 73). What is important is “what the discourse of the ‘author’ accomplishes within the discipline, within the scope of its meaning. So the author is no longer dead—but is discursified: the author is given a certain function, a certain reason to exist in discourse.” (1997: 76).

While Barthes and Foucault focused on literary authors in a pre-digital age, their concepts of authorship can also be adopted to film authors in the electronic era. (Keeping in mind that authorship for film is a different matter than for literary authors.) This is especially the case for classic auteurs who made movies during the silent and early sound years. Their works are experiencing a digital re-birth on optical disc formats and digital media. For example, thirteen out of the fourteen feature films that Dreyer directed are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming platforms. A discursive revival of Dreyer occurred when, for instance, an original nitrate print of Die Gezeichneten (Love One Another, DE, 1922) was found in the French National film archives or, most famously, when a nearly pristine print of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, FR, 1928) was discovered in an Oslo mental institution. However, Dreyer became more widely discursified when his films were transferred from analog to digital formats and released to the masses. The exposure of his work is much broader and widespread than in the last century when a narrower and more limited audience would only get to see his films at a film museum or art theater. Dreyer’s films have become recoverable in the Foucaultian sense that they can carve out new discourses for future audiences to digest.

Dreyer and his sixth feature, Michael (DE, 1924), are prime examples of the posthumously resuscitated author and the unearthing of one of his buried treasures. The movie is based on the eponymous 1904 novel, Mikaël, by Danish writer Herman Bang (1857–1912), who also deserves shared credit for the work’s authorship since it’s his material that Dreyer adapted for the screen. As was the case with Dreyer’s other silent films, Michael was also considered lost for many years until its rediscovery in 1958 by the East German Film Archive (Tybjerg 2004B: 1.19.50, Disc 1). When Michael was first shown in the United States, it was generally poorly received by the mainstream press. American critics either neglected to associate Michael’s stylistic features and narrative framework with the Kammerspiel-film or reacted indifferently to the genre that Dreyer experimented with. In their book, Film History: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell offer a succinct description of this genre (2010:95):

A Kammerspiel-film concentrated on a few characters and explored a crisis in their lives in detail. The emphasis was on slow, evocative acting and telling details rather than extreme expressions of emotion. The chamber drama atmosphere came from the use of a small number of settings and concentration on character psychology rather than spectacle. These were films set in everyday contemporary surroundings and they often covered a short span of time.

German film historian Lotte H. Eisner likens the Kammerspiel-film to intimate theatre, a small psychological drama consisting of a limited number of characters who live in an everyday milieu.

Critical Evaluations of Michael

In 1924, Dreyer traveled to Berlin to teem with renowned producer Erich Pommer (1889–1966) at UFA, the prestigious studio responsible for German Expressionist classics of the period. It was there that Dreyer adapted Bang’s novel, which consists of a European love triangle involving an aging artist, his young Czech artist, Mikaël, and a deceitful Russian aristocrat. Dreyer sets most of the film’s action in the palatial abode of German artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen), whose homoerotic relationship with his dashing protégé, Michael (Walter Slezak), is interrupted by the title character’s love affair with Princess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor). Dreyer shot Michael from November 1923 to June 1924; a majority of filming took place inside UFA’s Tempelhof studios.(Larsen: 2010b: 1). Michael had its world premiere on September 26, 1924, in Germany where it was greeted with enthusiastic reviews. Critics also praised the film when it premiered in Denmark nearly two months later, on November 17, although they paid more attention to its treatment of Bang’s novel.(Larsen: 2010a) On the other hand, when Michael (retitled Chained) finally made its US debut in December 1926, it was met with critical backlash.

While the German trade papers mentioned Michael as an example of the Kammerspiel-film (Tybjerg 2004B: 31.57), the genre eluded American press coverage of the film. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times calls the film “a dull piece of work, redeemed only by some artistic scenes” as well as Christensen’s performance (15.december 1926). Roscoe M’Gowen of the Daily News (NY) similarly describes it as a “dull depiction of a love affair between a boy and a girl and the resultant seemingly exaggerated unhappiness of, the boy’s foster father” (16.december 1926). The Evening World’s (NY) Palmer Smith comes close to identifying it as a Kammerspiel-film but provides a telling sign of how Dreyer’s work in the genre was lost among US critics. Smith recounts: “the Sunday evening audience sat spellbound, but I suspect that it was composed largely of self-determined ‘sophisticates,’ who went with intent to be spellbound if possible. This reviewer was considerably bored and must confess to a lack of that ‘sophistication’ that ‘relishes art for dirt’s sake’” (14.december 1926). The sophisticates Smith refers to comprise an arthouse crowd analogous to the élite who watched performances of Kammerspiel plays by Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), August Strindberg (1849–1912), and Max Reinhardt (1873–1943). One reason that Michael may have failed to connect with US audiences is that most German Expressionist films depict lower middle class life. Michael is set exclusively among the bourgeoisie so Smith probably surmised that the film sought to reach an audience of Europeanized well-heeled intellectuals. This discrepancy in social class portrayal may have befuddled and alienated the American film public from accepting Michael as a genuine Kammerspiel-film.

The poor reception overseas made Michael an unlikely candidate for revival at art theaters. The film vanished and no prints were believed to exist in 1939 when the first book on Dreyer went into publication. (Tybjerg 2004B: 1.18.44) Michael was mostly ignored in German film history books. For example, in the widely known From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), Siegfried Kracauer belittles Bang’s novel, Mikaël, and makes only a cursory reference to Dreyer’s film. Michael is left out of Eisner’s major work, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. However, in 1958, a print of Michael was found in the East Berlin archives and handed over for restoration to the Danish Film Museum. (Keller 1988: 28).

Michael began to experience a second life. For example, film critic and director Paul Schrader’s book, Transcendental Style in Film (1972), devotes a section on the Kammerspiel-film in his chapter on Dreyer and displays a production still from Michael to illustrate cinematic techniques inherent in the genre such as careful staging and emotive gestures from the actors. Schrader lists Michael as the first of Dreyer’s films to employ a singularly identifiable style in the Kammerspiel mode. The film also gained critical cache abroad. In his book, The Cinema of Carl Dreyer (1971), the late British film critic Tom Milne refuses to label Michael an apprentice work, anointing it instead as Dreyer’s first masterpiece. Although Milne does not overtly cite Michael as a Kammerspiel-film, he clearly understands its genre conventions. He recognizes the demi-mondaine of its setting where a fading aristocracy is the site of social satire, observation, and criticism. Milne also uncovers another generic trope; the characters’ predilection for decisions is reflected in a cycle of psychological cause and effect. Milne extols Dreyer for achieving a harmonious emotional, spatial, and temporal unity in which the acting, décor, and camerawork work in perfect coordination with the editing. Film scholar Mark Nash, Milne’s colleague and fellow Brit, likewise delivers a laudatory reassessment of the film in his monograph, Dreyer (1977). Drawing on semiotics and psychoanalytic film theory, Nash unpacks how the film’s paintings and wine glasses function as signs of desire between the characters of Zoret, Zamikow, and Michael. While Nash’s piece is not a study of the Kammerspiel genre, it helped promote Michael for the London-based National Film Theatre’s complete retrospective of Dreyer’s films in October 1977. In the years following, Michael continued to play sporadically at repertory cinemas and museums but it remained relatively unknown.

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Princess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor) comforts Michael (Walter Slezak) in a splendid bedroom full of fine art. Michael (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1924). Framegrab.

Re-Birth of Michael on DVD

Michael was not really discursified until it was transferred to DVD in the next millennium. To celebrate Michael’s eightieth anniversary, the British video distributor Eureka Video translated the film’s intertitles into English for perhaps the first time since the 1920s. The digital debut of Michael in 2004 was celebrated as both an important film culture event and a commemorative anniversary. Eureka unveiled Michael as one of its first three releases in the label’s Masters of Cinema (MoC) Series that honors past and present auteurs. Eureka’s two-disc set inaugurated a shift in how the film was presented and received compared to when it was first shown. For instance, the back cover of Michael’s DVD and a catalog entry on Eureka’s website touts the film’s Kammerspiel style and compares its intimate theater to Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). The DVD’s booklet includes an essay by MoC producer Nick Wrigley who devotes about three paragraphs to Kammerspiel films. The Eureka DVD of Michael, along with the concurrent US DVD released by Kino on Video, were well-received by film e-zines and DVD review websites beginning in the fall of 2004. (See Megahey: 2004, Sinnott: 2004 and Zimmer: 2004). Boston University film scholar Roy Grundmann writes in Cineaste: “...Michael is a highly sophisticated Kammerspiel that constitutes an early peak in Dreyer’s creative trajectory and a notable experiment in style.” (2005: 65). The positive reaction to Michael’s DVD releases has extended to Dreyer retrospectives where the film receives recurrent screenings. In January 2012, Arsenal Cinema organized a “Magical History Tour” in Berlin around Kammerspiel films and included Michael in its screening lineup. The program identifies the film’s sumptuous interiors, lighting, and editing of close-ups as representative of the Kammerspiel genre.    

The digital mastering of two versions of Michael and the addition of new English titles contribute to the film’s recent recognition as a bonafide Kammerspiel work. Eisner brings up an important point about the Kammerspiel­-film when discussing director Lupu Pick’s (1886–1931) work in the genre. Pick’s style, like others (including Dreyer) during this period, was predicated on a deliberately slow pace. The characters exchanged carefully modulated glances and reactions with one other that resembled pantomime. The audience would watch intently as characters made an utterance and then stopped moving their lips. (Eisner 1969: 33). The audience was so immersed in every detail on the screen that any extratextual device presented in a movie house would pose as a disruption to its concentration. In the pre-digital era, the device of reading aloud translated intertitles during a 16mm or 35mm screening of Michael probably played a role in the mixed reception of the film. The task of listening to an art museum curator or film festival employee read a script, presumably in the front of an auditorium, adds an extra chore to an already challenging viewing experience. Because the audience is caught up in studying the film’s mise-en-scène, it has to redirect its attention from visual stimuli to active listening. A simultaneous focus on the screen image and a live speaker’s recitation of scripted material outside of the film’s diegesis is especially demanding. Not only must one connect the film’s settings and descriptions of the characters to a narrative arc, he or she must also process and absorb the meanings behind the characters’ mediated thoughts.

The matriculation of digital media into the film industry rectified these limitations by bringing in far more subtitling options. For instance, a Blu-ray can store up to 32 text subtitles in nearly any language and display them in various fonts, colors, and positions on the screen. (Taylor 2009: 3–5). While it does not offer as high a storage capacity as its HD counterpart, a DVD can accommodate subtitle text when they are pre-rendered as graphic subpictures. (Taylor 2009: 3–5). To implement this feature, MoC enlisted the UK post-production facility Phaebus to perform digital authoring on the European version of Michael. MoC transferred a 1993 broadcast of the film courtesy of the Franco-German network Arte Television. The intertitles contain the original German text with translated English subtitles superimposed beneath them.

Conversely, the US presentation of Michael comes at the price of sacrificing Dreyer’s authenticity. The paradox is that although American audiences were probably presented with English titles in some form when they saw the film in 1926, they would have felt cheated if they watched the US DVD. Film Preservation Associates chose to replace the German titles with new English title cards. The company’s most egregious alteration was to “airbrush” or digitally erase the printed German text of a magazine article read by Zoret and replace it with off-white, shadow-embossed English characters. A cinematographic image of printed text within the film’s diegesis that has been rubbed out and replaced with extraneous electronic text is perhaps the most lamentable instance of Dreyer’s authorial voice being drowned out. Also, the English letters on the US version are distracting because they appear as if they’re generated on a computer monitor with annoying “dot crawl,” moving dots that permeate the letters’ edges. 

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The USA Version electronically overwrites the printed text on the review page. Michael (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1924). Framegrab.

By comparison, MoC displays the translated subtitles along blank white rows of space between the filmed article page. This contrast creates a binary tension of being sutured inside a transparent realm (the art world that Michael and others inhabit in the film) and then pushed out to a hypermediated realm (calling attention to the technical tools that a DVD author imposes on the organic matter of the film image).

The re-mediated titles depreciate the film’s artistic integrity and rob its textual authority. Michael is a Decla-Bioscop and UFA co-production, filmed in Berlin by German cinematographer Karl Freund along with sets designed by German architect Hugo Häring, and featuring a cast of European actors. The “textuality” of Michael—from Herman Bang’s novel to Dreyer’s adapted script—is of equal importance to the film’s Kammerspiel identity as are the actors’ performances, interior sets, paintings, and sculptures. Michael’s original titles, including any unique expressions that Dreyer brings from his screenplay, are not validated on the US DVD. The opening titles cite the F. W. Murnau-Stiftung (Foundation) as the restorer but the remaining titles, including the end credits, never specifies either who conducted a translation of the German text or who redid the intertitles in English. Usually, after the final credits of a film roll, a text credit or logo of a post-production facility flashes on the screen to attribute the subtitle work.

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The European Version preserves the original German text. Michael (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1924). Framegrab.

While it has survived in its entirety, Michael shares in common with other silent movies in the analog era a screening history that mainly presented the film’s original foreign-language intertitles to an English-speaking audience. Electronic subtitling, a tool that can (re)interpret and re-mediate a film’s aural language, raises a critical point about cinema as a visual art in the digital environment. In contrast to the pre-electronic age when it was more cumbersome and expensive to insert new sets of intertitle cards on film reels, today’s digital cinema allows for the seamless integration of intertitles with the original photographic images recreated via the digital intermediate process in film labs. I concur with Taylor et al. (2006) that subtitles are best handled by a subtitling house rather than an archive because preservationists could focus solely on allocating their time and resources to image and sound restoration.

Conclusion

This article has highlighted the discursified status of Dreyer’s work by placing Michael within the pantheon of German classics in the Kammerspiel-film genre. Book-length studies, monographs, and film museum brochures about Dreyer showed burgeoning signs toward critical reinterpretation of the film. However, the mass-produced DVDs, online promotion of Dreyer retrospectives at museums, online video catalogs, and viral marketing have all pointed toward a more dynamic media-cultural shift in the reception of Michael compared to its original release in the print medium era.


This article is based on a revised version of Stephen Larson’s doctoral dissertation ’The Birth, Death, and Re-Birth of an Auteur: The Analog to Digital Conversion of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Films’ (2015).

References

Eisner, Lotte H. (1969). The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Greaves, Roger (trans.). Berkeley, University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel (1969). “What Is an Author?” In: Bouchard, Donald F. (ed.). Bouchard, Donald F. and Simon, Sherry (trans.): Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (1977). Ithaca, Cornell University Press. 113–38.

Grundmann, Roy (Winter 2005). “Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era.” Cineaste 31 (1): 63–66.

Hall, Mordaunt (15/12 1926). “The Screen: Another German Contribution.” New York Times. sec. Hotels and Restaurants.

Keller, Keith (16/11 1988). “Michaël.” Variety. sec. Pictures: Archive.

Kracauer, Siegfried (1947). From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. NJ, Princeton University Press.

Larsen, Lisbeth Richter (3/6 2010a). “Michael: Reception.” Carl Th. Dreyer - The Man and His Work. http://english.carlthdreyer.dk/Films/Michael/Reception.aspx.

——— (3/6 2010b). “Michael: Shoot.” Carl Th. Dreyer - The Man and His Work. http://english.carlthdreyer.dk/Films/Michael/Shoot.aspx.

“Magical History Tour – ‘Kammerspielfilm.’” (January 2012). Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art. http://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/arsenal-cinema/current-program/single/article/3151/2803.html.

The Masters of Cinema (2004). Michael (80th Anniversary Edition). Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. DVD (PAL). Spine # 3. London, Eureka Video. http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/catalogue/michael/.

Megahey, Noel. (17/11 2004). “Michael | DVD Video Review | Film @ The Digital Fix.” The Digital Fix. http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/13329/michael.html.

M’Gowen, Roscoe (16/12 1926). “Censor Must a Slipped Up in Letting ‘Chained’ Loose.” Daily News (NY).

“Michael | Eureka!” (2004). Catalogue | The Masters of Cinema Series. www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/catalogue/michael.

Milne, Tom (1971). The Cinema of Carl Dreyer. The International Film Guide Series. New York, Barnes.

Nash, Mark (1977a). Dreyer. London, British Film Institute.

——— (1977b). “Carl Dreyer.” Program Notes. London, National Film Theatre. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. http://cinefiles.bampfa.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/DocDetail?docId=31444.

Olbricht, Erika Mae (1997). “Constructing the Dead Author: Postmodernism’s Rhetoric of Death.” In: Porter, Stanley E. and Olbricht, Thomas H. (ed.): Rhetorical Analysis of Scripture. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 146. UK, Sheffield Academic Press. 66–78.

Schrader, Paul (1972). Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Sinnott, John (21/11 2004). “Michael : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video.” DVD Talk. http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/13362/michael/.

Smith, Palmer (14/12 1926). “Reel Reviews.” The Evening World (NY).

Taylor, Jim, Charles G. Crawford, Christen M. Armbrust, and Michael Zink (2009). Blu-Ray Disc Demystified. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Taylor, Jim, Mark R. Johnson, and Charles G. Crawford (2006). DVD Demystified. 3rd ed. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell (2010). Film History: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Tybjerg, Casper (2004A). Full-Length Audio Commentary on Michael (80th Anniversary Edition). DVD (PAL). Spine # 3. The Masters of Cinema. London, Eureka Video.

Tybjerg, Casper (2004B). “Full-Length Audio Commentary” Disc 1. Michael (80th Anniversary Edition). Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. DVD (PAL). Spine #3. London, Eureka Video

Wrigley, Nick (2004). “Dreyer’s Michael – 80 Years Old.” In: Michael DVD Booklet. The Masters of Cinema. London, Eureka. 13–15.

Zimmer, Mark (9/12 2004). “dOc DVD Review: Michael (Mikael) (1924).” digitallyOBSESSED! http://www.digitallyobsessed.com/displaylegacy.php?ID=6696.

Suggested citation

Larson, Stephen (2017): Carl Dreyer’s "Michael": Digitalization and the Rediscovery of a Classic Kammerspiel-film. Kosmorama #270 (www.kosmorama.org).

Stephen Larson / Ph.D., independent scholar and professional film critic

Suggested citation: Larson, Stephen (2017): Carl Dreyer’s "Michael": Digitalization and the Rediscovery of a Classic Kammerspiel-film. Kosmorama #270 (www.kosmorama.org).

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