Why Czech film Extase, by Gustav Machatý, is important for the history of the Venice Film Festival
Extase, Czech film by Gustav Machatý from 1933, and its continuous connection with Venice Film Festival.
Extase (Ecstasy), the 1933 Czech film by Gustav Machatý, made news at the Venice Film Festival for many reasons. One, the film was the pre-opening night event of the festival. It was part of the Classics section, and was screened a day before the festival officially began, on 28 August.
Two, the restored 4K digital copy of Extase won the award for best digitally restored film. But even without all this, Extase is an important film in the history of this festival. It was screened at the 1934 edition, and caused a storm because it was the first non-pornographic film to show a fully nude female (Hedy Lamarr, then called Hedy Kiesler, and not yet 20), and also the first film to feature said female in the throes of an orgasm.
Later, Lamarr said the director tricked her into the nude scenes, which makes Extase a decidedly odd film to showcase in this #MeToo era.
Here’s how the “tricking” happened, as recounted in an article published in the December 1938 issue of Liberty magazine: “When Lamarr applied for the role, she had little experience nor understood the planned filming. Anxious for the job, she signed the contract without reading it. When, during an outdoor scene, the director told her to disrobe, she protested and threatened to quit, but he said that if she refused, she would have to pay for the cost of all the scenes already filmed. To calm her, he said they were using ‘long shots’ in any case, and no intimate details would be visible. At the preview in Prague, sitting next to the director, when she saw the numerous close-ups produced with telephoto lenses, she screamed at him for tricking her. She left the theater in tears, worried about her parents’ reaction and that it might have ruined her budding career.”
She went on to have a great career, but at the time, the film’s huge success was credited to what Variety lasciviously called “Hedy Lamarr in her naked youth”, plus the publicity gimmick of Fritz Mandl -- a wealthy arms dealer, “Lamarr’s ex-mate” -- spending a fortune trying to buy up all existing prints. This issue of Variety was dated October 3, 1945, because the film wasn’t allowed to be released in the US until 1940. Film censor Joseph Breen said that Extase “is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code... it is a [story] of illicit love and frustrated sex, treated in detail without sufficient compensating moral values…” The New York Times review contained such lines as this one: “Frustrated and searching for a quick roll in the hay to alleviate her sexual tension, Eva [the Hedy Lamarr character] offers herself to a roadway engineer.”
My favourite anecdote about Extase is that Michelangelo Antonioni had gone to Venice as a film critic in 1934, and noted the reaction thusly: “...that night, you could hear the breathing of the enthralled viewers, you could feel the shiver running through the audience.” My second most favourite anecdote comes from Flavia Paulon, official biographer of the Venice Film Festival. She wrote: “The presentation of Ecstasy caused a scandal when, through the bushes, the camera caught a glimpse of the beautiful Kiesler’s languid nudity. This film caused such an uproar, such outrage, that even Mussolini demanded to know what was happening…” The film was taken to Rome, so that Il Duce could pass his judgement, but “this was probably just an excuse so that he could enjoy that love scene personally”.
Extase is a mostly silent film with the occasional lines, and it wastes little time in letting us know what it’s all about. The first scene is one of many symbolic scenes. It’s just after the much-older Emil has married Eva (we don’t see the wedding, but she is in her bridal gown), and he brings her home. He fumbles with the locks, inserting key after key -- an apt-enough metaphor for the fact that this marriage is not going to be consummated. (In Freudian dream terms, her lock isn’t going to be opened by his key.) Eva grows frustrated. The symbolism multiplies. One beautiful summer day, Eva refuses to be contained in the stuffy house. She mounts her horse (cough, cough!) and rides out into nature. The open fields. The unfenced stream. That’s when she decides to become one with the scenery. She sheds her clothes and goes swimming.
Even today, an Indian film would balk at such nudity, though it’s very mild compared to what we see in Hollywood and European films. Extase is beautifully shot and like all silent (or near-silent films), there’s some wonderful visual storytelling. But today, the film remains a prime reminder that sex sells. Without the sex, without that controversy, few would remember this silly little film now. Eva’s horse runs away with her clothes and she runs after it (nude, of course), until a handsome young man stops the horse, and sees Eva hiding in the bushes and returns her clothes. An affair begins. The ultimate symbolism comes from the man’s name. He’s Adam. And she’s Eva. Get it? Hedy Lamarr went on to star with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, though she seemed to have little respect for what she had to do: “stand still and look stupid”. Much later, she became known as a scientist, who patented a radio guidance system that would form the basis of wireless networks, but that’s another story.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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