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Ecstasy and Gustav Machaty

In 1933, when she was barely out of her teens, the Viennese-born actress Hedy Lamarr (still known in those days as Hedy Kiesler) launched herself to international stardom courtesy of a ”legendary“ nude scene in the Czech film Ecstasy. I say legendary in quotes, because no two accounts of this little contribution to history quite square with each other. At first, censors and collectors plucked and tweezed at the film as it steamed around the globe; then an Austrian munitions millonaire who’d briefly won Lamarr as a trophy bride jealously bought and burned every print he could lay his hands on.

Fortunately, she divorced him before he succeeded, but the surviving copies have been tangled ever since in a Rashomon-like myth. Accounts of what‘s missing have swollen to near-pornographic proportions, and Lamarr (whose acting gifts never quite allowed her to transcend its reputation) was reduced to calling her autobiography Ecstasy and Me. Yet, if one sees Ecstasy now, especially in relation to the other films of its director, Gustav Machaty, what jumps from the screen is pure discovery. With Machaty we’re in the hands of a virtuoso storyteller whose best passages so combine a contagious rapture with a love of mischief, they overwhelm the loss of any phantom skinny-dip snippets -- they‘re that alive.

Born in Prague in 1901, Machaty started as a pianist in a movie house at 15, got a job acting in films at 17, and by 18 had already directed his first feature. He spent his early 20s in Hollywood, working as an assistant to D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim. The cinematic mastery he’d osmosed in that company is plain to see in the films he made after returning to Prague. Erotikon (a.k.a. Seduction, 1929) bursts with energy right from its opening images. A speeding locomotive, a midnight blizzard, a yapping dog -- the film is silent, but Machaty‘s cuts and tilting compositions interact with a percussiveness that fills the mind’s ear. When a city-bound sophisticate staggers out of this storm to find refuge in a rural train station, he and the stationmaster‘s daughter eye one another in a pair of tight close-ups. Machaty cuts smoothly from face to face, rhyming shape and expression so seamlessly that the totality of their attraction need never be stated aloud; they’re unmistakably halves of one desire.

A very different wish, to find love without cheating virtue, drives the prim heroine of From Saturday to Sunday (1931): Offered money for sex in a posh nightclub, she slaps her escort and storms off. Caught in a downpour, soaked to the skin, she resists the invitation of a kindly stranger to dry off at his place. Then she relents, sensing he is gentle and authentic. The sequence that follows at his apartment is terrifically erotic -- the more so for being fully clothed and unfolding in such expressive silence. Machaty is so sophisticated, subtle and funny about love and longing that he was too far ahead of his time to last. Ecstasy is a sound feature with less than 15 lines of dialogue -- and three of those are ”Hello.“

His use of music and incidental sound was superbly judicious, his command of pantomime as refined as Chaplin‘s, but his loathing of dialogue was also a reaction against the then-cumbersome nature of sound equipment. Machaty’s camera craves wings, and that proclivity either chains him to the silence of the 1920s, or commends him (along with his delightful sexual sophistication) to our own hyperkinetic times. He escaped from Hitler to Hollywood in 1936, though without his former success, and died in 1963. But his best work more than survives -- it‘s ripe for rediscovery. Like auto accidents, giddy parties or incidents of erotic display chanced across in everyday life, Machaty’s films catch the disobedient magic of experience itself. Small wonder they sprout legends.#