Friday, October 07, 2016

Erotikon (1920)



SE 1920. PC: AB Svensk Filmindustri. D: Mauritz Stiller. SC: Stiller och C:o [= Artur Nordén, Mauritz Stiller] – based on the play Riddaren av igår / A kék róka (1917) by Ferenc Herczeg.
    1764 m /16 fps/ 97 min
    Jon Wengström: "A black & white duplicate negative was made in the 1960s from a tinted nitrate print with Swedish intertitles. A Desmet print was made from this negative in 2005, using surviving frames from the original nitrate print as a colour reference."
    Print: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm.
    The original length: 2120 m /16 fps/ 115 min
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Il canone rivisitato.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Sub-Ti, grand piano: John Sweeney, 7 Oct 2016.

AA: Revisited Erotikon, an important film in many ways.

For Mauritz Stiller, Erotikon was the culmination of a favourite trend in his oeuvre. He would have wanted to follow it and made an effort to find scripts along this line but never again found ones that were good enough.

Stiller did not invent this trend of modern sophisticated comedy but he was the its greatest master so far. Cecil B. DeMille had started his cycle in a similar vein in 1918, films that would include Old Wives for New, Don't Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife?, and The Affairs of Anatol, usually starring Gloria Swanson. Stiller probably had seen seen early films of this cycle and at least must have been aware of them since they had been released in Sweden.

DeMille's films are excellent in a clever, witty, glossy, and a bit superficial kind of way. They were also daring, modern and path-breaking for American circumstances.

Stiller's Erotikon shares surface characteristics with DeMille but the approach of his satire is more complicated and its direction is different. The plotting plays with conventional and moralistic attitudes, but equally with liberated attitudes and expectations.

Comedy, bedroom farce, and boulevard theatre are based on convention. The audience enters with a knowing attitude. The characters tend to be puppets, the comedy is based on a mechanism. The mechanism of seduction, a basic concept in romantic and erotic comedy.

Miguel Pendás (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2012) sums it up well: "Erotikon revolves around the romantic entanglements of six stock characters from drawing room comedy: Professor Leo Charpentier (the clueless husband), Irene (the restless wife), their niece Marte (the flirtatious ingenue), sculptor Preben (the Bohemian artist), aviator Baron Felix (the pretentious flyboy), and Sidonius (the absentminded professor)."

But Stiller's dramatis personae refuse to be reduced to stock characters. Seemingly going through the motions of conventional comedy, they start to transform into something different. The characters do not become three-dimensional – the story-telling is too busy being clever and witty to leave enough room for that – but they remain unpredictable to the end.

Stiller is a genuinely sophisticated artist. Not naive. Not cynical. His films may be about sex, but more importantly, they are about love. They are about the life force which is stronger than social norms or conventions. That eternal conflict is the basis of his comedy. Stiller's hallmark is an underlying tenderness which is more fundamental than sophistication.

That tenderness is the main link between Stiller, Chaplin and Lubitsch. Chaplin admired Erotikon, and in America, Chaplin's A Woman of Paris (1923) would become one of the most influential films of the decade. It changed the cinema of Lubitsch permanently. Four of Chaplin's assistants in that film became directors in their own right in the jazz age cycle of Hollywood's sophisticated comedy, often starring Adolphe Menjou with his immortal moustache, discovered for this kind of role by Chaplin.

Before Chaplin, Lubitsch had been influenced by Stiller's Erotikon directly. That influence has been at times disputed, but Billy Wilder was among the ones who went on record on having heard Lubitsch praise Erotikon many times. (For instance, Billy Wilder interviewed by Barbro Hähnel for Dagens Nyheter, 17 Jan 1975). (Significantly, Lubitsch's mentor Max Reinhardt saw Erotikon in Stockholm in December 1920 and said that it is one of the best films he had seen.)

I have been seeing Erotikon once a decade since I first saw it in September 1980 at the Filmklubben / Cinemateket / Stockholm. I remember the heartfelt laughter of the audiences in Stockholm and in our screenings in Helsinki, but somehow Erotikon has always been elusive for me, although I am an ideal audience for it. Stiller's cutting is always careful; his continuity smooth and sparkling. Perhaps there is something in the rhythms and balances of the incomplete surviving version of Erotikon that frustrates me. There are 17 minutes missing if the projection speed is 16 fps.

As we know the negatives and complete prints of Erotikon probably burned in the Svensk Filmindustri fire in Vinterviken in 1941.

By 1964 there remained one nitrate print from the Swedish school film archive, reviewed by the Swedish film board in September 1925 at 1921 meters. "For pedagogical reasons" certain scenes had been shortened or cut altogether, and certain intertitles had been removed under the guidance of Gustaf Berg, head of the school film archive.

The sole remaining print was being used for screenings. In 1964 it caught fire, and a part of it was burned. In 1969 Svenska Filminstitutet created a safety duplicate negative and viewing prints of Erotikon. The remaining footage was 1769 meters.

Gösta Werner's recommendation for the projection speed was 20 fps, but I have no quarrel with 16 fps, either.

John Sweeney in his beautiful piano interpretation followed the music cue of the film itself and made Edvard Grieg's song "Jeg elsker dig" / "I Love You" his main theme.

I saw this 2005 print for the first time. Top work by the Swedish Film Institute from a challenging source which is duped and sometimes in high contrast. As usual, I have my reservations about heavy tinting on modern stock when the source is duped and would prefer black and white.

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