Herman Bang was something of the Danish equivalent of Oscar Wilde; he wrote with a gay sensibility veiled just enough to avoid condemnation. The veil on his 1902 novel Mikaël is surely the sheerest. The story was twice adapted for the screen, the second, 1924 adaptation by Carl Theodore Dryer being better remembered today. The first was made in 1916 by Mauritz Stiller. It had been lost for many decades before a somewhat abridged print turned up in Norway, which might explain why it was forgotten. It also didn’t help that it’s honestly pretty bad.
In Stiller’s film, “Vingarne” (or “The Wings”) is a sculpture by Claude Zoret, an artist who’s generally styled “The Master” (Egil Eide). It’s a depiction of Icarus with his wings melting away, just before his fall back to earth. (Actually, it’s Zeus adducting Ganymede — Vingarne is a real sculpture by Carl Milles, you can see it at the National Museum in Stockholm). Icarus is modeled on a young man named Michael (Lars Hanson), who becomes a favorite of the Master.
The Master adopts Michael and they had been living together for four years when Princess Zamikow (Lili Bech) appears. Zamikow is well known for her extravagance, which is leading her ever closer to bankruptcy. She commissions a portrait from the Master, evidently hoping to seduce the wealthy artist, but on that mission she fails. She does, however, capture Michael’s attention, and through him, sees an alternate way to the Master’s pocketbook.
It’s the gossip of the town, but the Master himself remains oblivious. It isn’t until Michael sells The Wings to pay Zamikow’s debts that it really hits home. The Master visits Zamikow and begs her not to take Michael away from him. She replies, “you’re too old, Claude Zoret, to understand love…”
The Master falls ill. One night, he becomes delirious. He stumbles out of the house and to the base of The Wings, where, gazing up at Icarus, he grabs his heart and dies away. In his will, he’s left everything to Michael. Zamikow, with her pay day in sight, tries to make love to Michael, but — evidently in realization — he rejects her advances and leaves her.
In Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1924 adaptation (titled Michael), although the word “homosexual” is never actually used, it quite ably makes it clear what sort of relationship exists between the artist and his model. Stiller’s adaptation is a lot murkier. The summary may make it sound more pronounced than it is; watching the actual film, while there are hints, few are strong enough to notice if you weren’t looking for them. There’s very little affection shown between the leads, and Zoret’s adoption of Michael does not read as a stand-in for marriage, as it plainly does in Dryer’s version. Vingarne also excises the parallel Adelsskjold subplot. (In Micahel, Adelsskjold is a friend of Zoret. Adelsskjold’s wife cheats on him and eventually leaves him for Duke Monthieu. It’s the mirror that Zoret, and the audience, looks into to understand what’s happened between him and Michael.)
What’s most memorable about Vingarne is its bizarre framing story. The film doesn’t actually begin with the Master and Michael. It starts with Mauritz Stiller (playing himself) in search of inspiration for a new film. He sees a sculpture called “The Wings”, and from this, gets the idea for Vingarne. He writes the script, basing it on Herman Bang’s novel Mikaël, and then goes about casting the characters. Nils Asther (himself) applies for the role of Michael, but is passed over in favor of Lars Hanson (himself).
When the film is finished, Asther attends the premiere. And then the title card appears, after an entire reel’s worth of this very weird cold open.
We reach “The End” and the picture fades out… then right back up again, returning to the theatre at the film’s premiere. Asther wonders aloud how anyone could abandon Lili Bech. He goes to see her at her real-life home and declares that the reason he didn’t get the job of Michael is clearly because he can’t live without her. Egil Eide (as himself) appears and chides him for his youthful foolishness. And as if this framing story wasn’t meta enough, it then goes another level deeper with Eide addressing the viewer with the words “thank God this film is over at last”. Blackout.
It’s played quite comic and jarringly contrasts with the serious tone of the main story. It seems primarily to exist as an assurance to the audience that Vingarne is a work of fiction and does not reflect the real lives of its actors. 1916 was not 1924, and Sweden was not Germany. Sweden’s censors were quite strict in those days, and it makes sense to read the framing story as a very elaborate “no homo”.
My rating: …you know, it’s not a good film taken on its own, and it’s vastly inferior when compared to Michael, but the presentation is just so bizarre, it’s something you have to witness. Meh.