Erotikon (1929)

Barbican Cinema, London

5 November

As part of the Czech Centre’s 20th annual ‘Made in Prague’ Festival the Barbican was today screening what is now regarded as a landmark Czech silent film Erotikon (aka Seduction) (Dir. Gustav Machaty, 1929) with live musical accompaniment by Lydia Kavina on theremin and Thomas Ang on piano.

Erotikon tells the story of Andrea (Ita Rina) the beautiful but unsophisticated daughter of a rural railway worker. When rich, sophisticated womaniser George Sydney (Olaf Fjord) misses his train connection one stormy night he persuades the railway worker to let him stay at their house.  When the railway worker is called away George  seduces his daughter.  Leaving the next morning, George has soon forgotten Andrea and embarked upon a new relationship with the married Gilda (Charlotte Susa).  Andrea remains infatuated with George but, on discovering she is pregnant, leaves her village to avoid the shame.  Meanwhile Gilda’s husband (Luigi Serventi) discovers that George carries a picture of Gilda and confronts her but, when she threatens to leave him, he backs down.  After Andrea’s baby is still-born she walks out, dazed, into the night.  A passing cart driver offers her a lift but then tries to attack her.  She is saved by Hilbert (Theodor Pistek), a passing motorist.  During the struggle Hilbert is stabbed and, after Andrea provides the blood transfusion needed to save his life, they are soon married.  Later, while out shopping, Hilbert and Andrea run into George.  Unaware of George and Andrea’s past history, Hilbert invites George to visit and he and Andrea soon resume their relationship.  It is only after Andrea decides to leave Hilbert for George that she finally realises what a womaniser he is.  Meanwhile, Gilda’s husband has tracked down George and now shoots him dead.  Andrea is able to return to Hilbert before he notices her absence. 

With that sort of plotline, Erotikon could well have turned out to be a torrid, Hollywood style pot-boiler of a melodrama.  Instead, while overflowing with sexual tension, it is both directed and acted with great understatement and the lightest of touches. There is no cloying, overbearing sentimentality here but rather a beautifully naturalistic style and a refreshing frankness to the storyline.  The depiction of Andrea and George’s first night together is particularly striking in that it shows a level of female sensuality almost unheard of for the era. The scene with the chess game, in which Andrea furtively seeks to assist George in beating her husband, is so highly charged that it puts the McQueen/Dunaway version in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) firmly in the shade.  Similarly, a scene in a nightclub where all the main characters come together is a wonderfully choreographed amalgam of furtive glances, suspicious looks and meaning-laden gestures.     

Erotikon is also notable for its strong visual impact. Director Machaty, together with cinematographer Václav Vích and avant-garde set designer Alexander Hackenschmied, combined to create a very arresting style.  Studio and location shots alike have an astonishing beauty.  The actors are frequently shot in dramatic close-up, giving an intense impact and one which catches the subtleties of mood so effectively, be it suspicion, anger or desire.  Great meaning is often conveyed with just the smallest of expressions or gestures. The shots of Andrea and George’s first night together are particularly striking, with beautifully grainy, almost over exposed, footage, reminiscent of the solarised technique of stills photography developed by Man Ray and Lee Millar at about the same time. 

Central to Erotikon’s appeal is the outstanding performance of Ita Rina as Andrea.  She skilfully catches her character’s innocence and vulnerability at the beginning of the film but then also her desire as she resumes her relationship with George and her guilt towards Hilbert.  The stunningly attractive Rina was born Italina Lida Kravanja in Divica in what is now Slovenia but was then part of Austro-Hungary.  Her winning of a Miss Slovenia contest led in 1927 to an offer of film roles, initially with the German film company Ostermayer.  In her first film, What Do Children Hide from Their Parents, she played a chambermaid and over the next two years she had small roles in a number of other German films.  But after moving to Czechoslovakia in 1929, she gained celebrity in Erotikon. This and her role in the first Czech sound film Tonka Sibenice ( aka Gallows Toni), secured Ita Rina a lasting place in Eastern European film history. At this highpoint in her career she earned a star’s salary of 15,000 marks per month and had a large popular following.  But after her marriage to a Yugoslav engineer she moved to Belgrade in 1931, declined an offer to work in Hollywood and, at the behest of her husband, eventually gave up acting.  She made one last film in 1960, Atomic War Bride (aka War) and died in 1979. 

Olaf Fjord (image, right) puts in a solid performance as the womanising George, although it probably comes over a lot creepier today than it did back in 1929.  The Norwegian sounding Fjord was in fact born Ämilian Maximilian Pouch in Graz, Austria in 1897.  He began acting on stage in 1918 and in films in 1920, eventually appearing in almost 40 Austrian, German and French films.  Although he made the transition to sound films he turned increasingly to film directing.  He fled Germany in 1939 to live in the United States but returned to Vienna in 1945 where he died the same year. 

Erotikon’s director Gustav Machatý (image, left) was born in Prague in 1901.  He played piano in silent cinemas, worked as an actor, and directed his first film, Teddy By Kouril (Teddy Would Have Smoked) in 1919.  But much of his subsequent career is subject to uncertainty due to his over-embellishment of details in subsequent interviews.  He seems to have gone to the United States around 1920.  Most sources say he apprenticed with D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, or both, though he is only credited for Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922).  Returning to Czechoslovakia around 1925 he directed his second picture, The Kreuzer Sonata (1926), followed by Schweick in Civilian Life (1927) and then Erotikon, his final silent.  His most celebrated film was Extase (Ecstacy, 1932), renowned for its nude scenes with Hedy Kiesler (later to become Hedy Lamarr). Despite the uproar over its erotic content, Extase further builds on the female sexuality premise of Erotikon with the story of a wife escaping her drab existence through an illicit affair.  Despite the success of Extase, Machaty struggled to get further projects off the ground.  Fleeing to the US in 1936 as a refugee he had no more success there and returned to Germany in 1951, working as a teacher at the Munich Film School up until his death in 1963.  Although he died in virtual obscurity, more recent re-evaluation of his work has led to Machaty being seen as gifted and innovative director and a pioneer in depicting women’s sexuality on film. 

Upon its initial release, Erotikon was a critical success but attracted considerable criticism for its risqué subject matter.  One Catholic bishop wrote of the bedroom scene between Andrea and George “… First, they lie next to each other, and then one to another … It is true that the cover hides their figures, but it certainly does not hide their movements… The protagonists are shown in particularly long shots, especially Ita… A viewer can recognize her excitement, then her expression of anxiety mixed with longing, then the pain and at the end… I blush while describing the scenes”.  Of course, such publicity guaranteed that the film would be a popular success.  Long considered lost, this print of Erotikon has been beautifully restored by the Czech national Film Archive. 

Complementing the film superbly was a quite stunning score by Lydia Kavina on Theremin and Thomas Ang on piano.  I had never heard a live Theremin recital before and was amazed by the range, precision and quality of sound that could be produced.  In the hands of Lydia Kavina, probably the world’s leading Theremin player, sounds could range from the whisper of birds twittering to the thunder of a railway engine moving off. Together with  the highly accomplished pianist Thomas Ang they created a soundtrack which emphasised not only the passion and sensuality of the film but also brought out the drama and tension. 

(Erotikon is available as a Video Dimensions DVD release.  It can also be viewed online although in a version without English translations of the Czech inter-titles and with an at times wildly inappropriate recorded soundtrack.