Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dangerous friends… Erotikon (1929), Barbican with Lydia Kavina and Thomas Ang

Director Gustav Machatý provides some stunning visuals in this morally confrontational essay on passion and perfume – read on – and pre-figures the sexual liberation of Ecstasy with Ita Rina his proto-Hedy Lamarr. Ita has the air of a young Joan Crawford and delivers a performance rich in abandon as well as nuance as a young woman spurned then forced to choose between two different types of love.

Erotikon was showing as part of the Barbican’s Cheap Thrills season, although not cheap it is a cinematic thrill, as well as the Czech Centre’s 20th Made in Prague Festival – details here. It has been restored by the Czech National Film Archive.

Ita Rina
Machatý works well with the language of silent film and this feels like a much stronger vision than Ecstasy. He hits the ground running: a train pulling away, hard rain falling, a man running for shelter then spotted by the stationmaster.

The man Georg Sydney (Olaf Fjord), slowly reveals himself to his rescuer, (Karel Schleichert) who becomes increasingly helpful the more expensive gifts Georg pulls out of his well-travelled case: a bottle of Scotch a cigarette lighter. But the appearance of the stationmaster’s daughter Andrea (Ita Rina) offers Georg something he wants.

Georg passes the bottle of Erotikon
There are some fruity POV shots as Georg admires Andrea with scarcely concealed lust; the young woman responds with a coy smile but initially refuses his offer of a bottle of perfume labelled Erotikon… He’s persistent and she heads off to her room to daub herself with this fragrance and to being a fitful sleep.

The telephone rings and wakes Andrea up… it’s a false alarm, the storm perhaps, but it’s the opportunity Georg needs to make his move. He kisses Andrea’s finger and she dissolves into a blur of hyper-sexualised movement. The sex scene is as audacious as Ecstasy and must have pushed the boundaries of good taste. To modern eyes it is still sizzling and poetically-restrained: whereas Hedy had pearls spilling on screen, here raindrops intermingle on the window pane to signal love’s labour’s spent.

Erotikon: it does what it says on the label...
Dawn and the realisation that Georg will not be staying. Steam engine wheels turn, Andrea waves goodbye cast against the bright, cloudy sky by a low camera shot and she slumps back home.

How quickly people forget… reads the title card and back in his world Georg is soon seen carousing with a married blonde Gilda (Charlotte Susa), whilst Andrea finds herself pregnant and mourning her lost moments with this doe-eyed sophisticate.

Gilda bounces in the background
Andrea travels to her aunts to give tragic birth to a still-born baby – she cradles the dead mite in heartbreak as a maid casually but brutally removes a cot it would have needed. She is out of money though and is cast out into the cold.

George meanwhile carries on as if there are plenty of tomorrows although a chance encounter at the tailors has raised the suspicions of his lover’s husband, the ungainly but well-heeled Hilbert (Theodor Pištek).

Out on the road to nowhere, Andrea is given a lift by a man who then tries to rape her only to be rescued by Jean (Italian star, Luigi Serventi), a handsome middle-aged man arriving in an expensive car. In the ensuing conflagration Jean knocks the assailant out only to be stabbed in his ribs. He makes it to a hospital where Andrea has to give blood to help save him – a favour returned and an intimate bond established.

A quick narrative fast forward and we find the couple now married and in search of a grand piano… and who should also be purchasing a keyboard but Georg. There’s a shock of recognition, an attempt at repulsion and the inevitable... complications. A ”dangerous friendship” begins and is encapsulated perfectly by a game of chess in which Andrea wants Georg to win even as she sits by her husband’s shoulder…“I fear you are going to lose your queen” he warns Jean.

But George still has to free himself not only from his relationship with the dynamic Gilda (Susa has similar energies to Olga Backlanova) but the obsessive jealousy of her husband: the outcome is far from clear cut…

Not giving up lightly...
Erotikon’s extensive use of symbolism, drifting focus and sometimes obscure angles reflected the input of leading avant garde players of the time including the poet Víteszlav Nezval who co-wrote with Machatý, art director Alexander Hackenschmied (later Alexander Hammid in the USA) and cinematographer Václav Vích. At times the use of close up and swirling found images reminded me of Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Brumes D’Autumne (1929) who focused as much on his lead Nadia Sibirskaia as Machatý does on Ita Rina. Both films play with abstract emotionalism to create a cinematic reverie for the watcher.

The accompaniment from Lydia Kavina on Theremin and Thomas Ang on piano got off to a cracking start with suitably romantic intensity from Ang but some found the Theremin more of a challenge as a lead instrument. Lydia Kavina is a very experienced player having studied with Theremin himself and she attempted an ambitious duet with the piano often pushing out complicated lines using just the proximity of hands to electric field. I’ve never heard the Theremin used to the fore in this way and in spite of the skill involved it didn’t always match the lush emotionalism on screen none-the-less it was a bold experiment; one fitting given the film’s artful ambition.

The chess players
The orchestral score from Jan Klusák on the Czech DVD is perhaps a better servant to the narrative and features some lovely period detail and hugely romantic clashing chords. The DVD is available quite cheaply on eBay or direct – all in Czech – from the Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze.

By showing less and inferring just as much as Ecstasy it is an important example of vibrant European silent cinema.

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