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Kino on Video presents
"You owe him a lot, Michael. But the Master owes you a lot, too. Only the paintings for which you modeled finally sealed his fame."
DVD ReviewAlthough Kino on Video is marketing this early feature by Carl Theodor Dreyer as part of its Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era series, it is not so much about sexual orientation as about the nature of art, creativity and the complex interactions between the artist and inspiration. The homosexuality implicit in the story is really quite secondary.
The older and successful artist Claude Zoret, referred to as The Master most of the time (Benjamin Christensen) has taken on as his son (and impliedly his lover) young Michael (Walter Slezak), who has acted as his muse for four years. The relationship has produced several masterpieces, but Michael, a failed artist himself, is chafing at his subordinate role. Destitute Russian countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor) asks Zoret to paint her portrait. Reluctant at first to do so, the artist agrees, but before long Michael has begun romancing the countess himself, while stealing and selling the Master's art to support his own increasingly decadent lifestyle.
Although there's something similar to the relationship in Death in Venice here, this picture also demonstrates a combination of paternal affection and concern mixed with the obsession with attractive youth. In response, Michael, the callow youth, moves into an adolescent rebellion, acting out in ways that will be familiar to those who have spent time around teenage boys: tantrums, self-centeredness, and a proclivity for theft all in the service of overactive hormones.
Yet the love of Zoret continues, disappointed though it may be, whether romantic or parental. The Master's suffering at the hands of his protégé/model is accepted due to the symbiosis between the two men, as they shift in the power relationships between them. This is most powerfully symbolized when the Master is having difficulty with the portrait's eyes, and Michael touches them up; when the critics single out the eyes for particular praise, the role reversal is complete. Not only does Zoret's ability come into question (at least in his own mind and Michael's), but it gives an indication as to exactly how much Michael has transferred his affections to Zamikow. Love is also problematic in other relationships in the film; the young Duc de Manthieu (Didier Aslan) falls in love with a married woman, Alice Adelsskjold (Grete Mosheim), which comes to an inevitably bad end. There is little at all happy about love in this bleak picture.
Slezak does a fine job as the unappreciative and frequently vile title character, while Danish director Christensen is particularly fine in portraying the sensitivities of the artist. Great cinematographer Karl Freund makes his one onscreen appearance as an art dealer; not insignificantly, he uses a paper prominently marked "L'Art" as a dustpan as the relationship between Zoret and Michael disintegrates and distracts the artist from his creative work.
Dreyer uses fairly languid pacing in this picture, eschewing the tableaux style that had reigned in Scandinavia. Instead, he uses lengthy close-ups (though not yet to the extent he would in 1928's Passion of Joan of Arc) and exchanges of looks to tell his story; very little dialogue is necessary in the intertitles. The script by Dreyer and Thea von Harbou (Fritz Lang's wife and frequent collaborator during the 1920s) faithfully adapts the novel by the same name of Hermann Bang. The result is a compelling look at the creative urge and the often-difficult call of the muse, especially when the muse is unfaithful in turn.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: There are obvious limitations inherent in film that is 80 years old (especially one thought lost for years), but on the whole this is a very nice transfer of an attractive source print restored by the Murnau-Stiftung. Modest speckling is visible throughout, but other than a few briefly splicey bits there's not any serious damage. Greyscale is reasonably good, with few instances of blown-out whites. Unlike some other recent Kino European silent films on DVD, this doesn't appear to be a PAL-NTSC transfer; at any rate there are no conversion artifacts that I noticed.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Neal Kurz's piano score sounds fine, with a mild amount of hiss audible but not to an annoying extent. The range and presence are quite acceptable for a modern score recording.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film scholar Casper Tybjerg
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: As befits a film by an important director such as Dreyer, Kino provides a substantial commentary by a Danish film scholar. His English is good, though the accent is a bit thick. He has plenty of information to relate on the background of the film and the book, their reception, and interpretations of the film. There's seldom an empty moment and once one adjusts to the accent it's quite accessible. The only other extra is a single screen filmography for Dreyer, which purports to be complete but is missing such items as The Parson's Widow.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsAn intriguing look at creativity and artistic inspiration, with a very good commentary and a nice transfer.
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