Archive for June 5th, 2018

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ecstasy, a German-language film shot in Prague and Austria by a Czech director with an Austrian star and an international cast, had a movie life that perhaps could only end in Hollywood.

The film was a sensation all over Europe when it premiered in 1933 primarily because its barely legal star, Hedy Kiesler, played one scene in the nude and appeared to have an orgasm in another. The film’s fortunes varied by country: Hitler banned it, perhaps because Kiesler was Jewish, but it was nominated for the Mussolini Cup at the 1934 Venice Film Festival and Il Duce kept a copy of it in his private collection. The film finally appeared in the States after its nude scenes and insufficiently moral message were “corrected” by the distributor. In 1937, Kiesler, like the character she played in Ecstasy, fled from her controlling older husband, a rich Austrian fascist named Fritz Mandl. She moved to London, where she met MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. He put her under contract, had her change her name to Hedy Lamarr, and launched her successful Hollywood career as “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film.”

Ecstasy no longer has the power to scandalize as it did in its own time. Nonetheless, the film continues to provoke because it does something that is still something of a rarity today—it offers an honest, unapologetic look at female sexuality from a woman’s point of view.

Lamarr plays Eva, a new bride waiting to be carried over the threshold of her new home by her husband Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz), a man who appears to be at least 20 years her senior. Eva is fresh-faced, optimistic youth personified; Emile is plodding, punctilious, and seemingly unaware that his life has altered in the least. Waiting impatiently for Emile to join her in the bedroom, Eva goes into the bathroom where he is engaged in his nighttime toilette. She begs for help with the strap of her slip and then with the clasp of her necklace, hoping that he will be prompted to unwrap her further. Alas, the scene ends with Eva laying alone in bed.

The months that follow show no improvement. Eva is bored and largely ignored by her contentedly oblivious husband. After watching and smiling at young couples dancing to a love song in a park, Eva turns to Emile, who is absorbed in reading his newspaper. He swats a bee that is bothering him and squashes it inadvertently under his chair. The symbolism of the act touches Eva and decides her on her next course of action. She returns to her father (Leopold Kramer) in the country and begins divorce proceedings.

Director Gustav Machatý leaves nothing to the imagination of his audience from here on out. The countryside is a garden of Eden where Eva swims in the nude and races through the trees and meadow after her runaway horse to retrieve the overalls she draped over its back. Naturally, her young, virile Adam (Aribert Mog) follows her horse’s trail to her. Both Adam and Eva are elemental creatures, emphasized when Adam catches a bee on a flower and offers it to her, a sharp contrast to the domesticated gelding she married. The sexual symbolism of the bee and the flower will reach its apex when Eva goes to Adam for a night of passion. Gilding the lily, Machatý offers a scene of suggested horse copulation following Adam and Eva’s tryst.

Ecstasy is nearly silent as Machatý lets his camerawork do his talking for him. A lot of it seems like trickery for its own sake, but certain scenes stand out for their psychological intensity. After Eva meets Adam, she finds herself restless and unable to sleep. She goes to the drawing room and starts playing the piano, an act used often in film to convey sexual tension. She breaks off and starts pacing in the shadows of the night, the wind blowing the diaphanous curtains as she gazes as a portrait of her dead mother, a wild creature like herself. Tormented by her longing, breathing heavily, she moves quickly through the night toward the object of her desire. Adam’s window, isolated in an otherwise dark frame, grows larger and larger in a series of jump cuts until Eva flings open his door.

Machatý also shows the particular humor often found in Czech films. On Eva’s wedding night, he cuts between an excited bride waiting in the boudoir and a tired bridegroom lolling in the bathroom. As Eva waits, we see Emile’s slippered feet start to slide along the floor. The longer Eva waits, and the more unhappy she grows, the farther the feet slip. Finally, she gives up, and the feet pop off the floor; Emile has dropped off to sleep on the edge of the bathtub.

Machatý spent four years in Hollywood learning the director’s craft from D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim before returning to his home country to begin his career. The latter’s roots in German cinema seem to have taken root in Machatý’s style, a combination of German Expressionism mixed with the en vogue currents of Soviet social realism and fascist nativism. A long sequence that shows work tools idle until the workers come upon them and dramatically set the day in motion comes at the end of the film, a strange sequencing that may not have been as the director intended. The final shot, Eva playing with a baby, might have been Adam’s daydream of what their life could have been like had she not left him, but it’s hard to know. With the various cuts made in various countries to satisfy censors, it’s possible that the message of female sexual awakening had to be suborned to the demands of the state: a workers’ paradise in the Soviet utopia, a world of Aryan ubermenschen and the earth mothers to bear them among the Axis nations.

Running throughout is a thoroughly absorbing, emotionally mature performance by Hedy Kiesler Lamarr. She manages to convey feelings of love for her husband and her sadness at her disappointment with him. She is thoroughly uninhibited in conveying sexual desire and happiness with her lover. It’s hard to believe she was only a teenager when she made this film, yet what better time to access the rich emotions of young love and sexual awakening. Hedy Lamarr, a woman of great courage and intelligence, shows she always had the makings of a star.

You can view Ecstasy on YouTube here.

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