Invited over to Ufa, Carl Theodor Dreyer reverses the Murnau blueprint: His own Nosferatu is the young woman who romantically intrudes upon the queer couple. The bedrock is Miltonís "thankless muse," played out in chambers opulently cluttered with the artistís bric-a-brac (a marble head has staring blank eyes but no nose, a huge crucifix hangs above the bed) and illuminated by extraordinary reserves of feeling. The callow painter (Walter Slezak) comes to the old master (Benjamin Christensen) with his sketches; his work is dismissed but his posing for Christensen energizes the older manís artistry. At the dinner table, a picture of a skull is passed around the guests and death is brought up to a variety of responses -- accepting, fearful, sentimental, oracular. To Christensen (and to Dreyer), death is the draining of creativity triggered by the loss of passion. A headless, limbless statuette displays the ideal female form, so, when Nora Gregorís wandering noblewoman comes to pose for a painting, itís the eyes that give Christensen trouble; Slezak takes the brush and, after a lyrical tracking shot shared with Gregor, splashes her luster onto the canvas ("Only youth has the knack," Christensen laments). Tchaikovsky plays at the opera, but the filmís dying swan is Grete Mosheim, the socialite at the apex of the parallel, straight triangle that ends in a duel between her husband (Alexander Murski) and her lover (Didier Aslan). Alone, the old painter summons up his last creative juices for a summarizing self-portrait: His twilight panorama of a broken man at the beachfront is unveiled, the verdict comes from a widow ("Hereís a man who's lost everything"), a shadow falls on the artist amid his colleague's cheers. Gertrud is prepared by the protagonist's deathbed vision, as Christensen's face, so fittingly Gothic for the director of Hšxan, turns ethereal at the realization of "true love," known and felt. Cinematography by Karl Freund and Rudolph Matť. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce