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Gustav Machatý’s 1930s masterpiece, a watershed in the history of the art of film, made a return to the Venice festival this summer

“In the garden of the Excelsior that evening, you could hear the breath of the extremely attentive spectators, you felt a thrill running through the audience”. These words, written by the young Michelangelo Antonioni as a critic at the second Venice Film Festival, in 1934, give us a hint of the tremendous impact of Ecstasy, written and directed by Prague-born director Gustav Machatý, during that historic premiere. Dubbed a “pornographic film” by the Osservatore Romano (the daily newspaper of Vatican City State), it even aroused Mussolini’s attention, to the extent that Il Duce actually requested a private screening. Despite the Pope’s attempts to block it, it was screened on 7 August 1934 and the Czechoslovak director was rewarded with the Venice City Cup. According to a public survey, Extase was considered the best foreign film and Machatý the best director. A scandalous film, now considered a turning point in the direction of international cinema, which also marked the beginning of the career of the leading lady, Hedy Lamarr, later launched in Hollywood under the label of “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

This year, 87 years after that historic screening, the film has returned to Venice, for the pre-opening evening, in a restored 4K version (a standard for digital cinema resolution and therefore with a more detailed image). But why did this film, dubbed in a manifesto of the time as “a symphony of love”, cause such a stir? And above all, controversy aside, why does it deserve to be rediscovered today?

To understand the context in which the film appeared a bit more, first of all, we should remember that the man behind the camera already had a tendency to find himself amidst controversy. Born in Prague on 9 May 1901, Machatý emigrated to Hollywood in the early 1920s, where he was fortunate enough to do apprenticeships with two legendary filmmakers, D.W. Griffith, director of the classic “Birth of a nation”, and Erich von Stroheim, another master from the first half of the twentieth century.

Having returned to Prague, Machatý immediately became one of the few Czechoslovakian directors known internationally. At home he cemented his reputation with an excellent Lev Tolstoy adaptation, “The Kreutzer sonata” (Kreutzerova sonáta: 1926). But shortly afterwards his desire to touch upon topics considered until then taboo emerged, when approaching the end of the silent film era.

With “Erotikon”, in 1929, the director wanted to put an end to the idea that showing eroticism on the big screen was socially and morally unacceptable. The film, the first in history to show a complete sexual act (albeit through hints and suggestions) actually triggered a mini revolution in the way of understanding film eroticism. Naturally 90 years on, the scenes that caused a sensation at the time seem today rather tame and harmless. The plot of the film, known in Italy also under the title “Seduction”, played on suggestion and the expressions of the protagonists without showing naked bodies or sexual acts. What happens is perceived through the faces of the actors, yet the director undeniably managed to create a remarkable erotic tension among his audience. The same winning formula was replicated four years later in “Estasi” (Extase: 1933), characterized by similarly suggestive erotic scenes.

The plot can be summarized as follows: having married a rich man, elderly, impotent and vulgar, Eva (played by Hedy Lamarr) returns to her father’s farm, to be in contact with nature, and she spends a night of passion with young Adam (played by Aribert Mog). Distraught, when she learns that her husband has killed himself out of desperation, she leaves her lover.

The notoriety of the film was essentially due to the nude scenes of the nineteen-year-old Hedy Kiesler, the actress who following her American exile would begin to be known as Hedy Lamarr, who in one particular scene swam in a lake unclothed. At the time it was the first non-pornographic film to represent a sexual act and a female orgasm, although visible only from the close-ups of the two protagonists.

The scandal caused was enormous. Pope Pius XI denounced the film publicly. Hitler’s Germany, also due to the fact that Lamarr was Jewish, banned it, only to redistribute it, censored, in 1935-36 and under the title of Symphonie der Liebe (Symphony of love) and edited differently. The guillotine in the form of the ban also arrived in Mussolini’s Italy, despite the permission granted to screen the film in Venice.

In the United States the film was released only in 1940, and apparently Fritz Mandl, the actress’s husband at the time of the film, driven by jealousy, tried (to no avail) to buy all existing copies of the film in the world and remove it from circulation.

The clamor that surrounded Machatý’s work could not help but arouse even more interest from the public and served as the best form of publicity. The film today remains a milestone in the history of cinema, but controversy aside, what are the genuine merits to be attributed to the film? The critics present in 1934 in Venice particularly appreciated the director’s ability to capture the magic of nature, the reflections of light in the fields and woods and waters, contributing to the tragic and fatalistic atmosphere with a beautiful fusion of natural, as well as sensual elements.

Over time, the film gradually gained importance for representing a particular historical period: the transition from silent to sound cinema. It is in fact, a film structured on the language of silent cinema and stands out for its expressiveness thanks to the clever use of editing, proving to be symbolic and allusive, which evokes the qualities of the masterpieces of cinema prior to the sound era. If on one hand it remains a highly appreciated work among the industry’s professionals, firstly critics and filmmakers, on the other it was the director himself who minimized its importance, when after many years he declared: “it was a work from my youth, and not to be taken too seriously”.

Yet, Venice has not been the only place outside the borders of the Czech Republic to pay homage to Machatý and his daring innovation. In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York hosted the “Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943”, an exhibition, particularly dedicated to the Prague director, to the bold symbolism of Erotikon and Extase, as well as to the his first sound film “Ze soboty na neděli” (“From Saturday to Sunday” from 1931), as well as the duo Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, and other stars like Hugo Haas and Oldřich Nový. An exhibition with the intention of demonstrating that Czech cinema has always been ahead of its time with an industry of the highest quality, something that public opinion often overlooks. However, it was precisely when its precise physiognomy was being created when the country’s cinematographic art was abruptly interrupted by Nazism and war.

The icing on the cake came with the screening of Extase at this latest Venice Film Festival and with the Venice Classics Award for Best Restored Film. The digital makeover of the film in 4K, presented as a world preview in the marine city, was done by the Národní filmový archiv (Film Library of Prague) at the specialized laboratory of L’immagine Ritrovata of Bologna.

A source certainly of great pride for the Czech Republic, a country whose national cinema today arouses very little interest abroad, but which boasts many jewels from the past to be rediscovered.

by Lawrence Formisano