25 August 2010 | Steffi_P
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Hollywood biblical epic was going through a genre-non-gratis phase, and would not really make a comeback until Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments in 1923. However, over in Europe they were still reeling from the mighty splendour of Intolerance (1916), and a small yet prestigious Austrian company called Sascha-Film was planning a big, moral picture of its own.
Like Intolerance, Sodom and Gomorrah has a modern-day framing story, which may seem quite improbable for such a resolutely Old Testament-style fable. And yet, in a self-confident bid to give it relevance a line has been drawn between jazz age excess and the unmentionable sins of the Sodomites. Of course, a little pragmatism may have been at work here too – after all, it's not easy to translate about half a page of bible text into several hours of screen time, especially when the sensitivities of the day mean you can't paint too vivid a picture of those aforementioned sins. Still, the writers appear to have taken a few liberties with scripture too, with Lot's wife cast as some kind of Bronze Age vamp, in what is an incredibly misogynistic take on the tale.
The look of this picture owes more to the Expressionist movement of neighbouring Germany than it does to the epics of Hollywood. Designers Julius von Borsody and Emil Stepanek have created a world of bizarre, angular architecture with mazes of furniture and other props. Cinematographer Franz Planer (later of some standing in the US) does sterling work with contrast, framing close-ups "Rembrandt" style (bright faces, dark backgrounds) while shooting mid-shots so that as actors approach the foreground they become silhouettes. The director here is a young Hungarian named Mihály Kertész. Kertész endeavours to create a look of confinement, with the numerous props hemming the characters in at every angle making them, to paraphrase Henry Higgins, prisoners of the clutter. This creates a palpable feeling of fatefulness, but Kertész goes all out to cover ever base, shooting many scenes through peephole lenses or from a stark, objective distance. Kertész's use of depth is rather neat however, enclosing the frame at the sides but often having a doorway open at the back of the set to give an eerie tunnel effect. Generally however the tone is one of Expressionist overkill.
Amidst all the business of the set, the actors themselves become little more than mobile props. The acting is not that good anyway, with most of the cast limiting themselves to one facial expression only, even a young Walter Slezak who is incredibly bland here compared to his masterful turns in his portly Hollywood heyday. An also-youthful Victor Varconi isn't much better, but with his devilish good looks he doesn't really need to act here, and with his commanding presence he makes a great angel of the Lord. Slezak and Varconi would both go on to become strong supporting players in Hollywood. Kertész too would find work in the states, under the name of Michael Curtiz.
This distinctly European take on the moral epic is an odd thing for the Sascha-Film to have spent such a fortune upon. Compared to its nearest stylistic relatives, the work of epics and horrors of Ufa studios in Weimar Republic, it lacks the austere Germanic mythical quality of such highlights Caligari or Nibelungen. Compared to its nearest thematic relatives, the films of Cecil B. DeMille, well
The paradox of DeMille's pictures is he always made sin look like good fun even as he condemned it. He always revelled in the grandeur of ancient monuments whilst railing against idolatry and materialism. For the Austrians to portray the world of sinners as dark and grim, and view those magnificent Sodom sets as if through keyholes is in fact perhaps the more logical interpretation from a strictly moralist perspective. However, as anyone who has enjoyed the debauched delights of DeMille at his most hypocritical will know, that would be missing the point.