Show Me Cinema #25: The Wings & Michael

Still from Michael (1924)

Even if Pride Month is almost over, it seems like a good idea to discuss a movie for the occasion, a little bit of striking whilst the iron is hot. So then the question becomes, what movie should I discuss? I’ve already covered Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål and Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced, both of which were some of the earliest columns I ever wrote. I could of course have written about Persona, but since I just wrote about another Bergman film, Summer Interlude, I had the strong desire to write about something else. Then lo and behold, I receive a notification from one of my various streaming services about a Swedish silent film that is apparently one of the first, if not the first, fiction film to deal with overtly homoerotic undertones, and it’s a film I’ve ever heard of. It’s Mauritz Stiller’s The Wings (Vingarne). I read that it’s an apparent adaptation of a novel by the Danish writer Herman Bang titled Mikaël, and not only that but that apparently just a few years later, none other than Danish film icon Carl Theodor Dreyer adapted the novel into his own version when he worked in Germany titled Michael. So what I plan to do with this particular column is to talk about both The Wings and Michael and how they compare and which version is superior.

Mauritz Stiller’s The Wings was released in 1916, and Stiller’s thirtieth film (roughly) in the last four years since he began directing. Long before he turned Greta Garbo into a Hollywood icon, Stiller was working in Sweden churning out movies faster than Clint Eastwood or Ridley Scott on the purest cocaine. The Wings, I believe, is his oldest surviving film. For a long time in fact it was believed to be lost like an unfortunate amount of silent films sadly are, but the only known existing print was discovered in Norway in 1987 and has undergone a 4K restoration. But even then the whole film hasn’t survived. The entire prologue and framing device of the film is believed to be completely lost and all we have left of it are a few still frames. The Swedish Film Institute did everything they could to restore the film as much as possible to Stiller’s original vision, and now 53 minutes out of the 70 minute long film exists.

Exactly eight years later, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer set out to adapt Bang’s novel more closely for a German company Decla-Bioscop. Dreyer wrote the script alongside Fritz Lang’s wife and screenwriter Thea von Harbou, and the film was made with Benjamin Christensen (best known as the director of Häxan), Walter Slezak as the titular character Michael and Nora Gregor as the female lead. As stated earlier Dreyer’s version adhers much closer to the original novel, and reportedly contains slight autobiographical elements of a homosexual love affair (don’t quote me on this please, I can’t prove this and it’s just something I’ve heard). As it was also one of the first mainstream movies to truly deal with homosexuality on screen (but once again never explicitly), it was met with controversy and unease by critics at the time. However, with Dreyer’s growing reputation following The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael has been seen in much fairer light today even when it’s not one of his most discussed efforts.

Since both The Wings and Michael are adaptations of the same novel and basically follow the same story I might as well describe it briefly before comparing the two films. The story is essentially concerning a mènage à trois between an artist, his male model (technically his adoptive son which is weird) and a beautiful countess.

Now whilst we never see any explicitly homosexual content, the undertones are so obvious and clear that they’re impossible to miss frankly. It certainly makes it hard to miss in the case of The Wings when one considers the fact that Bang, Stiller, the screenwriter Axel Esbensen and one of the actors in the film Nils Asther were all gay, or at least bisexual. The gayest thing we see in The Wings is with the artist sculpting whilst Michael stands as model half-naked, and towards the end when the artist struggles to get to the titular statue and grabbing it by the thigh. The homosexuality is slightly more subdued and subtle in Dreyer’s version whilst never leaving the viewer in doubt of their relationship. In Dreyer’s film we see the artist and Michael silhouetted in a heart-shape almost, which definitely doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

What I liked about Dreyer’s film is that even when it’s pretty clear what’s going on and the themes in the story of impossible love, death and the aestheticization of lust, it manages to find subtlety within this melodrama so one doesn’t feel like one is being hit over the head with any of the themes. Even if there are weaknesses throughout, including what I consider a pointless subplot involving another love triangle (this one hetero though so obviously way more boring) and stretches of time when my interest started to wane, it’s still a relatively powerful experience seeing the film, especially when coupled with Dreyer’s iconic use of closeups. A particular standout moment that is all too brief is when Michael is assigned to paint the countess’ eyes, and the camera starts to dolly in on their faces as the two of them become infatuated with each other. It’s a beautifully cinematic moment and I wish there were a few more of them dropped throughout.

The most interesting aspect of The Wings for me is the framing device it uses, which ironically is the part of the film that hasn’t survived 100% intact, probably because it was cut out of most versions screening the film abroad. The film begins and ends with Mauritz Stiller finding inspiration to adapt Bang’s novel upon seeing the titular statue, a real statue in Stockholm erected (no pun intended) in 1910 by a sculptor named Carl Milles. It depicts a nude young apprentice lifting up a majestic eagle with its wings spread (real subtle there Mauritz). This particular framing device is a very meta fourth-wall break, and one I can’t say I’ve seen in that many films, probably because of the fear of taking the audiences out of the experience, and it also does remove a lot of tension that existed within the drama. It definitely caught a lot of flak from critics at the time, who otherwise praised the acting and direction. The film wasn’t much of a hit however. In Copenhagen it only played for a few days until the film was pulled from release. After that it fell into relative obscurity.

So which version is better? I think I personally lean towards Dreyer, but they’re both so similar in terms of their stories it’s not the easiest thing in the world to differentiate the two. But I think because of Dreyer’s use of close-ups and attempts at visual storytelling and atmosphere, and better casting as well. So if you’re curious about seeing one of the earliest gay-themed films, you’re probably better of sticking with the Dane on this one.

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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