This is a quite astonishing film.
Made in 1913 and released in March 1914, Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X or Sealed Orders) displays a level of technique way ahead of most films I’ve seen from that period. Incredibly, it was also writer and director Benjamin Christensen’s first film. He had spent a number of years acting in theatre and then film and brought a huge amount of inventiveness and consistency of vision to the project.
Those who think the good stuff only really began in 1915 better look away now…
In this film, Christensen uses stunning outdoor shots, he shoots directly into the Sun, there are close shots, vertical and horizontal camera pans and multiple story strands intercut to generate the most breath taking of intricately timed conclusions.
He places clues and devices in the scenes that will come to propel the story onwards and makes superb use of mirrors in well-designed sets.
He seems master of all the light in this film and is also not afraid to use the dark with many scenes showing the action through a small portion of a day-lit door or under the dark of a locked hatch. He seems to be using natural daylight for some interiors or at least subdued artificial lighting: Dogme 1913 anyone?!
There are many beautifully composed exterior shots, not least the silhouette of the hill topped by the mysterious windmill. This is pivotal to the story and is an image repeated a number of times. The windmill is also the scene of an expertly shot summer party, midnight trysts for spies and, finally, a raging battle through which the heroine charges to find the truth – so realistically done, it’s a match for modern day action shots.
The story itself is perhaps typical for the time but is engaging and vividly brought to life by the direction and by the cast.
Christensen plays a naval officer, Løjtnant van Hauen who is called up on the brink of war and issued with the vital sealed orders covering the war’s first major action. His wife and children are the apples of his eye but the former, superbly played by Karen Caspersen, has become infatuated by the duplicitous Count Spinelli (Hermann Spiro).
Casperson (also known as Karen Sandberg and, born as Karen Kruse Kragh Moller ) is another amazement: very naturalistic and grimly understated as she endures the betrayals and bad fortune of the story. Christensen gives her plenty of direct close shots to show her emotional states and there are even a couple of times when the camera pulls in towards her during particularly emotional scenes.
Fru van Hauen’s flirtation with Spinelli proves disastrous as the latter reads the sealed orders and tries to alert the enemy. His carrier pigeon is intercepted and the home forces conclude that the Lieutenant is responsible. Finding out about his wife’s wandering affections, van Hauen elects to take all the blame and certain death at the hands of the execution squad beckons.
His son tries to rescue him and there are more excellent scenes when the youngster breaks into the naval base, through darkly lit ramparts. There’s a lovely sequence when he runs through a dark corridor, stopping, silhouetted in the alcoves to almost strobe-like affect.
Fru van Hauen’s attempts to find Spinelli, the boy’s rescue mission and the procedure through court martial towards execution all play out simultaneously and against the backdrop of the war. There's also a jaw-dropping sequence when the shape of her child's paper elephant is superimposed over a sleeping Caspersen as her dream reveals the location of the secret...
It’s a tightly directed film and Christensen edits the story well and things flow very smoothly. And that’s maybe the biggest surprise about the film. It is one of the most purely enjoyable silent feature films I’ve watched from this early period. I shouldn’t be surprised after watching the films of Urban Gad and August Blom which show a greater sophistication and more realistic tone than most Americana of the time.
Nor should the excellence of the acting be a surprise after seeing the controlled skill of Asta Nielsen. Benjamin Christensen is good at conveying his role and later went on to make an impressive appearance in the Dreyer’s Michael (covered elsewhere in this blog) amongst others.
Most notably, Christensen, directed the wondrously eccentric Haxan - a powerful and unique film that only gets more unsettling with time. Whether or not his fascination with light and so much dark was there from the outset is debatable. What cannot be denied is that he made an extraordinary innovative film using techniques that were not to feature in mainstream cinema until well into the First World War.
Det Hemmelighedsfulde X is available, alongside Blind Justice (1916) in an excellent quality print from the Danish Film Institute. It is accompanied by an expert score from Neil Brand who adds subtle tone and highlights to the film.
You can get it direct from the Institute or through Amazon. I got mine from those nice people at London’s BFI shop…lots of other treats there to go back for!
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