• I wonder what film censors made of seeing this late silent film, "Moral," which is all about exposing--and cinematically so--the hypocrisy of moralists railing against the same materials and performances that they enjoy themselves. Even they must've grasped that the joke was at their expense. There's something inherently paradoxical in proscribing art as objectionable for others to experience in that the censors themselves must first consider its objectionable qualities. The irony being that if one wants to partake in a lot of risqué, filthy stuff, they can't do much better than attaining a position as a guardian of morality. At what point is something such as the MPAA just a gaggle of voyeurs. Heck, the restoration of "Moral" was even aided by contemporary censorship records held at the Czech Archives. And, there's a quip in the film where one of the members of the Morality Society brags about his extensive collection of smut--y'know, ostensibly to guard it from the eyes of others.

    All of this requires highly reflexive filmmaking. So, we have the Morality Society as the sanctimonious coots and self-appointed morality police who, to their own detriment, engage in the matter the actual police, who otherwise are depicted spending their time creeping up on couples kissing in parks. Then, there's the star of the show, the theatrical performer turned piano teacher (although she does very little actual piano teaching), Ninon d'Hauteville, as alluringly and stylishly played by Ellen Richter. Tellingly, in the play from which the film is adapted, it's reported that the character was a prostitute. One of the members of the Morality Society and a married man, to boot, attempts to sexually take advantage of her on a train--including showing her his "Uhu"--and not knowing she's the same d'Hauteville whose theatrical revue performance his group is to disrupt in protest later.

    See, she plays the Courtesan in "The Prince and the Courtesan," wherein the scene the Prince comes out from beneath her grotesquely-enormous hoop skirt. It is at this point that the Morality Society make a bunch of noise and even toss an egg in the actor's eye to shut down the play and which they follow up by threatening to boycott the theatre if such performances continue. Interestingly, they have no quarrel--one of them even suggests such dancing would make for good gymnastics for boys--with the unison dancing of the Tiller Girls, which was in real life a popular dance troupe at the time and predating the Ziegfeld Follies theatrical revues or the geometric expressions of Busby Berkeley movie musicals. It rather goes to a point in cultural and film critic Siegfried Kracauer's essay "The Mass Ornament," that the Tiller Girls weren't erotic as their bodies in motion and high-kicking bare legs might otherwise suggest. Eliding Kracauer's practically unreadable critique on capitalism in the same essay, his observation of the unison dance routines resembling abstractions of mechanical patterns instead of people, which is in turn reflected in the audience arranged in patterns of theatre stands to watch, is keen. The added abstraction here being that we're watching a film, via the mechanical cinematographic apparatus, of an audience watching this play-within-the-play.

    In addition to this, there's a film-within-the-film, the camera serving as surveillance for Ninon to record members of the Morality Society in the compromising positions of them individually coming to her for so-called "piano lessons." This is a brilliant sequence that seems uniquely modern--anticipating the prevalent use of cameras as surveillance nowadays, including hidden ones, as here. That the camera shoots through the masking of a hole in a door not only mirrors the action of one of the moralists looking through another door's keyhole to peep on Ninon dressing, but underscores the voyeuristic nature of visual art and us movie-goer voyeurs peeking at it. That Richter, with knowing looks and smiles, turns the tables such on the voyeur also unsettles any power imbalance of the dynamic of the so-called male gaze (so called by Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") by Ninon being in control of the female to-be-looked-at-ness. It's all the more intriguing, too, because "Moral" was directed by her husband, and this was his real name, Willi Wolff.

    And, on top of all that, there's a fantastic scene of film censorship by the one member of the Morality Society able to get control of the film-within-the-film, as he tears it bit by bit from its reels and flushes it down a toilet. Indeed, he is censoring himself from the film. That the other moralists ultimately receive their comeuppance is appropriate enough, but the one fault I would nit-pick about "Moral" is how its resolution relies on fairy-tale notions of a noble nobility, the prince being her only client to not be so hypocritical about it (albeit the subplot involves some of the film's humorous editing transitions). This contradicts, too, the semblance of a critique on classism that began the picture on a train, where the moralist solely occupied a first-class cabin with plenty of sitting room as the poors stood in the aisles. It's also rather against the spirit of the Weimar Republic where such productions could flourish--something that would soon not be the case under the worst of dehumanizing censorship regimes, the Nazis. Fortunately, as Jay Weissberg reported in the presentation of the film for the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, it was Ernst Lubitsch, one of the first German filmmakers to emigrate to Hollywood, who was able to vouch for Richter and Wolff (Richter, at least, also being Jewish) to flee Nazi Germany, although their film careers were effectively over.

    Rarely if never is censorship actually as fun as depicted in "Moral." Too bad we can no longer see its follow-up, either, with the tantalizing title "Unmoral" (1928), as it's now a lost film. This one, too, is missing some footage, including one scene that's reconstructed with the use of a publicity still and title cards. Nevertheless, what a commendable restoration job for an underappreciated gem of late silent and Weimar cinema.