Artwork of the Month, August 2020: Extase by Gustav Machatý (1933)

In 2019, a new version of Extase, the fabled 1933 movie by Gustav Machatý, won a prize for the best digitally restored movie at the Venice Film Festival. The aim was a faithful restauration of the Czech version, shown at the film festival in 1934. The movie’s rich history is full of scandals, outrage, censorship and Hollywood myths. The gossip focuses on young movie star Hedy Lamarr (then still named Hedy Kiesler), her nude scenes and the supposedly first female orgasm on screen (in a non-pornographic movie). Her illustrious persona and the scandals led to the emergence of an immense body of literature. However, it is the film’s aesthetic and its progressive story about a woman finding her sexual freedom that provides the film’s anchor in the often-forgotten realm of cinematic innovation in Central Europe between the wars. Machatý followed in the steps of filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Pabst, or Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, while expressly tackling the question of female identity. The article follows the narrative of the film and tries to assess the often ambiguous nature of Machatý’s ideas towards emancipation and his pictorial language.

Gustav Machatý was born in Prague in 1901, performed as an actor early on, and worked as a director for the first time in 1926 with Kreutzerova Sonáta, a film adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata.[1] The films Erotikon (1928), Ze soboty na neděli (From Saturday to Sunday, 1929) and Extase (Ecstasy, 1933) form an autonomous group in his oeuvre, in which Machatý dealt with female sexuality and eroticism. The trilogy outlines the most innovative phase of his career, in which the director, who was close to the artists’ group Devětsil, worked with the likes of Alexander Hackenschmied (set design) and Vítězslav Nezval (screenplay). Due to the great public attention gained by Extase he subsequently received film requests from Austria, Italy and Hollywood. In 1936, he moved to the United States. Unfortunately, he did not find success in Hollywood, working mostly as an assistant on film sets. Eventually, he returned to Europe and settled in Munich, where he died in 1963. Extase remains his last successful film.

All natural

Extase is about a failed marriage and a woman’s quest for sexual self-determination and fulfilment. The very first scene hints at the growing alienation of Lamarr, the female protagonist, from her partner. After their wedding, she and her husband, played by Zvonimir Rogoz, move into an elegant, but unfinished modern city apartment. The husband carries his bride successfully over the doorstep, and this should initiate what seals the bond for life – the consummation of their relationship. Yet like the functionalist interior of the apartment, the man exudes no vitality and warmth, but rather a cold temper and lack of interest in his wife. Her name is Eva after all, emblem of sin and lust. He is the only one with a full name, Emil Jerman, sign of his bourgeois identity. For him, life is about order and symmetry. Every action is planned carefully, everything has its place. When Eva enters the bathroom and asks him to help her undress, he is rearranging the toothbrush in the mug. Emil appears as pedantic and dull, so disimpassioned that feelings and tenderness are completely absent. The marriage is not consummated on the wedding night. Emil stabs himself with the clasp of Eva’s pearl necklace. He falls into a deep sleep, grotesquely taking on the role of Sleeping Beauty.[2] The wife remains alone in the bedroom, feeling disappointed and unfulfilled. The main conflict of the film is thus set.

Still from Gustav Machaty's film Extase

Still from Gustav Machatý’s film Extase: Bathroom struggles (00:08:34:13) – photo: Národní filmový archiv, Prague

The film then prepares for Eva’s departure from her husband. When visiting a buzzing restaurant in the countryside, he reads the newspaper instead of participating in the hustle and bustle. When a close-up scene shows him squashing a bee with the foot of the garden chair, it becomes clear that his behaviour is against nature. He stands against life, and thus, natural relationships. Shortly thereafter, Eva can no longer stand it and flees to her father’s house. With its seemingly chaotic interior, the latter resembles a safe childhood refuge and the counterpoint to the city life. In addition, as a horse breeder, her father knows more about life’s purpose and the meaning sexuality conveys.

When his daughter goes for a swim in a small lake, her mare runs away with her clothes (a modern trouser suit). From far away it smelled a stallion that it cannot resist – nature prevails. The horse passes a construction site, and a sturdy young worker comes to the aid of the naked Eva. He tames the horse and gives Eva her clothes back. His name is Adam; their meeting in the countryside echoes the union of the first man and woman in paradise, but this time only the woman appears half-naked. Adam stands for virility and a vigorous joie de vivre, for nature itself and a natural relationship between men and women. Clearly, the scene immediately crackles with erotic tension. When Eva stumbles and sprains her ankle after she leaves, he comes to her aid again. She hardly resists his somewhat rough treatment of her foot. They end up next to each other. A close up on a bee pollinating a flower clearly suggests the consequence of this acquaintance. This is the strength of the film; the simple symbolism always provides a comprehensible message, it never falls flat with its visual language. The viewer knows immediately how the symbol can be interpreted in one direction or another, either standing for Adam and nature, or for the aged intellectual Emil and the city.

Still from Gustav Machaty's film Extase: A bee pollinating a flower

Still from Gustav Machatý’s film Extase: A bee pollinating a flower (00:39:26:16)  – photo: Národní filmový archiv, Prague

The fact that Eva’s new love for Adam is paralleled by active physical labour on the construction site unambiguously stresses the difference with her old husband. Adam and his workers are constructing a railway track in the middle of a beautiful untouched landscape. With their bare hands, they drive forward the route that will bring civilization to the previously undeveloped wilderness. The rational order of Emil, the aged urban man, falls behind the muscular strength of the young, energetic engineer.

The filming of the impressive natural scenes took place in Dobšiná, an area in Slovakia perfectly chosen to play the role of undeveloped nature. This followed a common tendency in interwar Czechoslovakia to set up a dichotomy between Slovakia and the more industrially developed lands of Czech Bohemia and Moravia. In general, Machatý was a poetic realist, who, together with his cameraman Jan Stallich, accomplished stunning outdoor shots, with wide angle shots of the mountain side, while also exploiting the photogenic quality of everyday life, with close-ups and sloping angles on singular objects, similar to the more advanced style of New Objectivity. The question is, does this emphasis on nature go beyond the general tropes when depicting women. Women were often imagined as being close to nature, and as a wellspring of elemental spirits, and purity. Machatý depicts this somewhat ironically, when Adam finds Eva naked hiding behind bushes. In Extase, nature and naturalness stand for the self-determined woman, able to make her own decisions and to choose the right sexual partner. Machatý doesn’t go beyond these older tropes, but transforms them into signs of success.

Still from Gustav Machaty's film Extase: Eva hiding behind bushes

Still from Gustav Machatý’s film Extase: Eva hiding behind bushes (00:34:33:04)  – photo: Národní filmový archiv, Prague

Eva gathers enough confidence to go to Adam’s hut after a stormy night. Machatý presents the famous love scene as a soulful sexual act, which focuses on Eva’s face during the culminating orgasm. In her rather controversial book Orgasmology, Annamarie Jagose used Machatý’s film scene to discuss how the female orgasm is conceptualized in terms of facial expression.[3] Cinematic representation contributed to this idea, which was then often copied in reality – along with the smoking of a cigarette afterwards.

Still from Gustav Machaty's film Extase: The orgasm scene

Still from Gustav Machatý’s film Extase: Orgasm scene (00:49:21:19)  – photo: Národní filmový archiv, Prague

The scene was certainly scandalous for the time, but of course, there had long been much more explicit depictions in pornography. Where this film was perhaps more progressive lay in the way it depicted the self-determined female enjoyment of sexuality. Rumours about Lamarr having an actual affair with her co-star Aribert Mog, who played Adam, and more delicate scenes in the extended cuts of the movie, including many more nude scenes, point towards the complexity of reception. Was the first female orgasm on screen an act of liberation, or just a scandalous provocation, or a gimmick? The focus on the female protagonist suggests this, while the later reception obscured most of its progressive vision, possibly intended by Machatý.

Hedy’s legacy

Hedy Lamarr, who was born in Vienna in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, child of a Jewish family from Galicia, received great attention for the scene.[4] Machatý discovered her in Berlin in 1931, where she had taken on smaller roles, on the recommendation of Max Reinhardt. She was 19 years old when she recorded the nude scenes in the film. With that and sexually explicit nature of the film, the myths about her began to spread. Undeniably, the Czech-Austrian co-production of Extase made her an international breakthrough. The screenings provoked a stir in every city in Europe in which it premiered, and later the complex process of reception spawned many scandals around further censored versions, especially in the US. It developed a life of its own. Even Hedy’s hasty arranged marriage with the influential Austrian arms manufacturer (and close friend of Mussolini) Fritz Mandl, was directly affected by the scandalous premiere in Vienna in 1934. Mandl forbade her to act entirely afterwards. In Germany, only a toned-down version of the movie was shown, called Symphony of Love (Symphonie der Liebe), which included a happy end. This was easier to digest for middle-class audiences and fitted the conservative ideas of women that developed after 1930. Lamarr objected to these constraints and fled to Hollywood in 1937, where she successfully starred in adventure or romance films such as Boom Town, White Cargo or The Strange Woman in the 1940s and 1950s. Those movies often put her in exoticized roles that veiled her erotic appeal – a holdover she carried with her after Extase, but also characteristic of the prude American movie scene, not interested in exploring new roles for women.

When Hedy advertised American war bonds during World War II, the Department of War made good use of her fame, and promoted her invention of frequency-changing radio control for torpedoes as a great discovery. The goal was to increase funding even further. The surprising project arose from a collaboration with the composer George Antheil, whose experience with experimental music made him adept in programming complex devices, such as his automated pianos. She, on the other hand, was well aware of new weaponry and military vessels, left over from her unwanted yet representative involvement in Fritz Mandl’s circles. Rumours that Lamarr would have contributed to the invention of Wi-Fi and the mobile phone persist to this day (most recently in the exhibition Lady Bluetooth. Hedy Lamarr in the Jewish Museum in Vienna), despite the fact that her invention had long been known, or even was outdated at the time.[5] The still admirable effort illustrates her quest for a new role as her Hollywood career started to fade. Actors such as Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo built independent careers in the 1920s, while still remaining constrained by the corset of predetermined roles, especially in the later stages of their careers. With the invention, Lamarr tried to get out of the system.

The conclusion

In the movie, the consummation of love is gaudily paralleled by the ongoing breeding in Eva’s father’s stud. In the next scene, her father leads a stallion to a mare. The subsequent sexual act is symbolized indirectly with quick cuts and close ups of the bodies and faces of the horses. The last shot of the sequence has the camera zooming in on the mare’s rear, mirroring the penetration directly. Only that seems to matter, the functionality of the act as a sign of fulfilment – always thought of in contrast to Emil, the supposedly unnatural and impotent husband.

Emil pays Eva a visit in her father’s house and tries in vain to win her back. After leaving, the resigned husband bumps into the young lover, Adam, and unknowingly gives him a ride back to the city. As in classical theatre, recognition sets in when he sees Eva’s pearl necklace in Adam’s hands. Emil realizes that he has his wife’s lover next to him. Due to that revelation, he angrily tries to outrace a train, which almost ends in a disaster at a level crossing. Seemingly, after this last ditch effort against his unaware opponent, he soon passes out, so that Adam has to steer the vehicle back to town. So even in his own car, the other man is superior to him. Henry Miller in his essay from 1938 saw this agony before death as one of the main characteristics of Emil.[6]

The husband’s discovery of the two lovers ends in disaster. As a deceived man who recognized love for his wife too late, he ventures into suicide. After the tragedy, the new couple wants to escape the scenery and find themselves at a train station, but because of the excessive guilt the woman feels towards her dead husband, she decides to board the train alone and break up with Adam – the final step of her emancipation?

Machatý’s film can be considered a highlight of Czechoslovak film between the wars. At a time when a more conservative attitude prevailed towards women in society, the movie formulated a plea for a free, unadulterated female identity and space for self-determination. At the same time, the opulent imagery and clever narrative bring the work close to heights of interwar cinema. Through the scenes shot in Slovakia, it also formulated the wish for a refuge outside of civilisation. The dichotomy of two divergent life spheres that prevailed in the interwar period is visible here, too: nature and civilisation. The persistence of this ever-changing yet lucid symbolism over the entire length of the film makes Machatý’s film special. Still, the return to nature and archetypal forms of femininity and masculinity leaves the viewer with an ambiguous feeling and provides room for interpretation.

The film ends with a surprising change in style. No happy end is shown, but an epilogue that feels tagged on ironically. It praises the work life, performed with quick, steeply angled cuts and perspectives, reminiscent of those from the latest Russian avant-garde films by Sergei Eisenstein. At the very end, a Roma mother with an infant is shown, as an example of the so-called Lumpenproletariat, or as the other side of male labour, a fulfilling family, and Adam’s dream after all. After Extase, the director Gustav Machatý soon fell into oblivion, while Hedy Lamarr became a film star in Hollywood’s plastic world.

Christian Drobe

[1] Christian Cargnelli, ed., Gustav Machatý: Ein Regisseur zwischen Prag und Hollywood (Vienna, 2005); Jiří Horníček, Gustav Machatý: Touha dělat film: Osobnost režiséra na pozadí dějin kinematografie (Brno, 2011).

[2] Michal Bregant, ‘Eine Geschichte der Elemente: Mit drei Zwischenspielen (Ekstase),’ in Gernot Heiss, Ivan Klimeš, eds, Obrazy času / Bilder der Zeit – Český a rakouský film 30. let / Tschechischer und österreichischer Film der 30er Jahre (Prague and Brno, 2003) pp. 43–64.

[3] Annamarie Jagose, Orgasmology (Durham, NC, 2013) pp. 148–154.

[4] Michaela Lindinger, Hedy Lamarr: Filmgöttin, Antifaschistin, Erfinderin: Die Biografie (Vienna and Graz, 2019).

[5] Lindinger, Hedy Lamarr, pp. 41–46.

[6] Henry Miller, ‘Reflections on “Extase”,’ in Miller, Max and the White Phagocytes (Paris, 1938). In German: Armin Loacker, ed., Ekstase (Vienna, 2001) pp. 11–23.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/XVHBG

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