Before coming to Hollywood, Michael Curtiz or (Mihaly Kertész) was a big name in Europe and this mammoth Austrian production was one of the biggest films ever made if you just go by the size of the sets and the number of extras. Okay, so the “orgies” are more mild spring frolics, don’t be picky.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Why so salty?
Producer Alexander Kolowrat wanted a spectacular epic and the inflation in post-WWI Austria meant that sets and extras could be had at bargain prices. Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (still going by Mihaly Kertész) was slated to direct and with him came his wife, Hungarian actress Lucy Doraine, and Hungarian leading man Victor Varconi. So, naturally, the film was set in the Middle East.
Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his saline spouse are all familiar even to people who are not particularly religious and the name recognition was likely why Kolowrat and Curtiz chose it.
When making a biblical film, there are basically three ways to go: you can try to follow the text as closely as possible with a few moments of dramatic license and speculation (Absalom), you can make up entirely fictional characters whose adventures run parallel to biblical figures (Ben-Hur) or you can do what Sodom and Gomorrah did and completely jettison most of the source material in favor of a new story.
This film was targeted directly at go-to-church-on-Sunday average citizens, not seminary students, and so faithfulness to its source and historical authenticity were not as important as Doraine parading around in ever more elaborate headdresses and closeups of the dishy Varconi. With cheap Austrian film resources, photogenic Hungarians and an ambitious producer and director, the Sascha film company was ready to make the biggest silent epic you’ve likely never heard of. With that in mind, I will not be doing a deep comparison of film to scripture. (Bible Films Blog covers the film from a more religious perspective.)
Quick disclaimer: I am reviewing the DVD release by the Österreichische Filmarchiv, as well as material I ferreted out of YouTube and there is still quite a lot of missing footage. I will keep this fact in mind while discussing the picture.
The story revolves around Mary (Lucy Doraine), a pretty young lady whose selfish mother has essentially sold her in marriage to the highest bidder. Jackson Harber (Georg Reimers) is a corrupt businessman old enough to be Mary’s father. She is actually just wild about a sculptor named Harry (Kurt Ehrle) and Harry is wild about her. Mary invites him to attend a party at the Harber mansion, which is going to be something of an engagement party.
Meanwhile, Harber’s son Eduard (a young and trim Walter Slezak) returns home from school accompanied by his teacher, a priest (Victor Varconi). Eduard immediately falls for his father’s fiancée and she considers using him to revenge herself on her unwanted husband.
Harry cannot face the idea of losing Mary and shoots himself in the chest in front of her. (This is not super clear at first but multiple flashbacks make it clear what happened.) Mary sobs over him for a bit but then orders the servants to keep the matter quiet and returns to the party. The priest comes to minister to the poor man but he later runs into Mary, who proceeds to try to add another notch to her list of conquests.
I am normally Team Flapper in these kinds of movies and I am not sure if the missing footage is to blame but Mary is all over the priest like a Labrador on a pork chop from the instant he wanders onto the scene. Between her artist boyfriend, the kid and the priest, I think Theda Bara would have likely decided that the kid was moving a bit fast. Both of Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik characters would have advised her that she was coming on too strong. So, the priest’s obvious irritation with Mary seems pretty justified from my point of view. You try to have a little vacation and you end up with a dying man on the third floor and chick wearing half a bead shop attached to you like a lamprey in the pavilion.
Mary falls asleep and dreams that she manipulates Eduard into killing his father but the priest is able to prove that she planned the whole thing and she is sentenced to the gallows. Mary makes another shot at seducing him but the priest responds with the most potent weapon in his arsenal: a biblical flashback.
Now, this whole modern frame with biblical center will obviously remind savvy readers of Noah’s Ark, which Cutiz made in Hollywood just a few years later and you are absolutely right but that’s another review for another day.
Anyway, we are shown the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as they prepare for their annual festival. Kurt Ehrle is back as Lot and Lucy Doraine is his wife, Lia. Lia is all in for idolatry and sacred orgies and so forth but Lot begs for God to condemn the cities. In response, an angel (Victor Varconi again) arrives in Sodom and Lot quickly hides him for his own protection.
The sets and all those extras add heft to the film, a genuine sense of scale that cannot be mimicked by even the finest special effects today. CGI is not so advanced that it can mimic the undulation and weight of a genuine crowd. However, for the most part, the scope of the film actually works against it.
The gigantic sets are so big that they create emotional distance and make it difficult to process the antics of those 10,000+ extras. (Some marketing materials claimed as many as 80,000 but most modern estimates cap the number at 10,000-14,000.) This confusion is especially apparent in the modern section with literally thousands of people prancing around in sync. It’s so unnatural and strange and unsexy that it undercuts the MANSION OF SIN theme that Curtiz and company are trying so hard to establish. If not for Mary’s vamping, we wouldn’t have a single sin to our name. Heck with sin, we don’t even have a single moment of anything beyond mild innuendo that doesn’t involve Mary and the boys.
The biblical orgy sequences (and I use the term “orgy” very loosely) are strictly straight and Victor Varconi’s angel is threatened with death rather than a fate worse than. In fact, I would dare to say that these are just about the cleanest orgies that have ever been committed to film and there’s hardly a thing to make a Sunday school teacher blush or to force a parent into a premature “birds and bees” discussion. Anyone walking away from this film would be excused for thinking that a bacchanal refers to synchronized dances with feathers on sticks.
The people of Sodom are motivated to attack the angel out of xenophobia; the title cards helpfully inform us that no strangers are allowed inside the city during the festivities. Lia figures that the angel must have been sent to appreciate her hotness and tries to vamp him but that doesn’t work at all and so she betrays him to the priests instead. Divine wrath ensues and it’s all very exciting, though perhaps less so given that we are not particularly invested in Lot, Lia is a stinker who gleefully tries to set the angel on fire but we all know that the angel is going to be safe regardless. The turned-into-a-pillar-of-salt scene is done quite well though. (It’s also a little distressing because it’s likely many of those 10,000+ extras were injured. Curtiz was famously ruthless with his special effects.)
And we finally get to the center of this inception and we didn’t even need Leonardo DiCaprio to guide us! For those of you keeping score at home, we’re three layers into Mary’s psyche now.
This time around, she is the queen of Syria and Eduard is a young peasant who loves his queen. When her despotic reign finally causes a revolution, he shields her from harm and fights off his fellow peasants in order to save her life. But when a fellow monarch comes to her rescue, massacres the revolutionaries and puts down the rebellion, the queen has her young admirer executed because he now bores her.
The Syrian sequence is the most effective part of the picture. The sets are still ginormous but the story would have pleased the most severe Soviet official with its condemnation of despotic royalty, the casual selfishness and cruelty of its queen and the shockingly brutal end endured by the naïve young man. In fact, I dare say that if the film had featured this as its only flashback, it would have been much more powerful.
(Spoiler) The rest of the film concerns itself with waking Mary out of the various dreams, first Syria and then Sodom and then the execution site before she is finally returned to the Harber party. Once awake, she easily convinces her mother to leave and rushes to the side of the wounded Harry, who has just gone in for surgery. Meanwhile, young Eduard leaves his father’s home under the care of the priest.
The ease with which these matters are resolved makes Mary’s motivation to become a vamp even more murky. After all, a young woman being sold off by her mother would be understandably bitter but if all it took was a firm “no” then what was all the fuss about?
Lucy Doraine doesn’t help matters because her performance swings between hyper flapper and cackling vamp. I must emphasize that these swings may be due to missing footage. Quiet character moments were usually the first things to fall onto the cutting room floor. Still, I can only discuss what I can see and Doraine seems to be in over her head.
Walter Slezak is suitably innocent as Mary’s youngest victim in two time periods but Kurt Ehrle isn’t onscreen in conscious form long enough for us to build any attachment for him. This particularly hurts the Sodom sequence as the entire plot thread relies on Lot being at least somewhat interesting. Again, is missing footage to blame? Perhaps.
One aspect of the film that does work is Hungarian hunk Victor Varconi’s double role as priest and angel. I have never been particularly impressed by his performances in American films—which, granted, were generally supporting—but this part gives him something to sink his teeth into. Varconi has to strike a delicate balance of being the messenger of divine judgement without coming off as sanctimonious and he manages to inject more humanity into the film’s lone non-human than many of his co-stars managed with their more mortal roles.
I have already brought up that the film’s giant sets and thousands of extras work against it but there are some parts that work really well. There are some stunning shots of silhouetted figures and these simple moments are among the strongest in the picture, so kudos to cinematographer Gustav Ucicky.
The idea of dreams and visions warning them of the error of their ways is, of course, as old as humanity but for a more contemporary context, the trope was popular on both stage and screen when Sodom and Gomorrah was made. Edison took a stab at “family portraits come to life to shame the modern descendent” trope in An Unsullied Shield and Eyes of Youth was a play adapted for the screen as a Clara Kimball Young vehicle. (A pre-fame Valentino stole the show. The film was later remade as The Loves of Sunya with Gloria Swanson.)
For something a bit closer to home, the operetta Die Frau im Hermelin (1919) by Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch opened in Berlin, was adapted for Broadway and was later adapted for the screen several times. Its unique gimmick is that the sinner does not learn a lesson from his dream but rather thinks that his desires have been fulfilled and therefore leaves the hero and heroine alone.
There is a bit of debate as to whether this film was directly inspired by Intolerance. The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz points out that Intolerance did not open in Germany until after Sodom and Gomorrah was wrapped but Alan K. Rode writes in Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film that Alexander Kolowrat saw the picture during a trip to the United States. In any case, stills and other materials would have likely been available in movie magazines. Industry professionals were always better informed about international cinema than the average filmgoer and they had better access to the films.
So, Kolowrat likely saw Intolerance in America but I am not entirely convinced that Curtiz and co-writer Ladislaus Vajda had any firsthand knowledge of the film before production of Sodom and Gomorrah. The film features modern and historical sequences, of course, but the structure of it is entirely different from Intolerance.
Sodom and Gomorrah’s tone and theme is closer to Joan the Woman (1916), which makes the historical flashback specifically connected to the modern sequence and has it motivate the modern character to behave more heroically. This is very Sunday school and very much like what is used in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Intolerance, if you will recall, had the episodes play parallel, they do not intersect but all run on the basic theme of Griffith declaring that Griffith was horribly abused for (checks notes) being called out on the racism of The Birth of a Nation. As Intolerance reached its grand finale, the time between period shifts reduced in order to create a frenzied finale. Nobody in the modern story wakes up and realizes they have learned a lesson from Babylon, the Huguenots or even Jesus.
Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other hand, is layered with the inner dream sequences designed to teach Mary a lesson. We have modern reality, modern dream, the Sodom sequence, the Syrian sequence, back to Sodom, back to the modern dream, back to reality. The structure is not about building suspense in the ancient sequences (we all know Sodom is doomed) but rather to create a story structure that gets hotter in the center and then gradually shifts back.
There is a tendency to assume that fame in the modern era corresponds to fame in the silent era and that American fame translates to international fame and that everything that looks even slightly like a famous thing must have been inspired by it. That’s why we call it a Louise Brooks bob even if it’s on Colleen Moore and Harold Lloyd glasses even though bespectacled characters existed independent of him.
It’s also worth remembering that Ernst Lubitsch had found enormous success with his historical epics in Germany and had won a contract in Hollywood, sailing for America around the same time that Sodom and Gomorrah opened. Lubitsch erasure is all too common—he didn’t just make drawing room comedies, people!—but ignoring him in this context is particularly odd, especially since the same trick worked for Curtiz and he was soon in Hollywood merrily endangering extras in Noah’s Ark.
There are some definite flaws in this picture but I must always remind readers that this is not a complete film but a partial restoration of a film that fell victim to some rather ruthless cuts. Obviously, there was censorship in Austria and Germany to contend with but most of the damage was done in the United States. The film was renamed The Queen of Sin (of course it was) and the original eighteen reels were reduced down to eight. It seems that the entire Syria sequence was cut and heaven knows what else.
(Runtimes varied throughout the silent era but let’s just say for the sake of argument that we’re running it at sound speed, which is 24fps. That would mean a three hour movie had been cut to eighty minutes.)
In fact, for a decent portion of the twentieth century, the American attitude toward European films can be summed up by Bugs Bunny’s introduction of What’s Opera Doc? They took the entire eighteen hours of Richard Wagner’s Nibelungen and squashed it down to seven minutes. And unlike that classic cartoon, the result was usually an untidy patchwork that bordered on unwatchability. (See The Indian Tomb, TWICE TIMES TWO.)
Not that I would have objected to any member of the cast of Sodom and Gomorrah taking up a spear and shrieking “Kill the wabbit!” because we’re dealing with some standard vamp movie stuff and it’s all pretty much dead on arrival. Still, losing over half of its runtime could not possibly have done the film’s continuity much good.
That being said, it’s unlikely that there was much really, really hot stuff to begin with. While inflation made filming in Austria cheaper, there was still a fair amount of money at stake and making a film that would be immediately denied release for being too red hot was not an option. The American cut seems to have divided the critics with some suggesting that theaters coordinate with the local clergy for a sermon on the appropriate scriptures as a leadup to viewing the film. Others claimed that the film was not really family fare, especially the bits with Mary seducing her future stepson.
Despite the potential for epic boom-booms, censorship concerns likely kept Lot’s story from being adapted to the screen very often during the golden age of biblical filmmaking (approximately 1910-1970). There’s Lot in Sodom (1931), of course, and the 1962 Italian epic Sodom and Gomorrah, which centers around… salt mining? More like Sodium and Gomorrah, amiright? (Rimshot!) I get that they were likely doubling down on the salt theme due to the fate of Lot’s wife but it does seem rather overdone, no?
I could have done a Silents vs. Talkies feature but I can’t take much Stewart Granger under the best of circumstances and a solid sixteen reels of him would have tested me to the breaking point. In any case, I highly doubt that the 1962 production team (which included Robert Aldrich and Sergio Leone) consulted a fragmented Austrian silent for their inspiration but rather the handsome box office returns of The Ten Commandments.
For all of Sodom and Gomorrah’s flaws, I must applaud the restoration team for their efforts and was impressed by how seamlessly the Österreichische Filmarchiv managed to stitch the film back together. Seeing the background of the restoration of The Gun Fighter has given me even more respect for the editors who stitch these films back together—it’s essentially a jigsaw puzzle with overlapping pieces and no real guide. While there are some gaps in the plot, the film generally works as a film and there was no need to use stills or explanatory cards. That’s astonishing considering that the archive started the project with less than half an hour of material.
This rescued film is an inspiration for restoration teams everywhere and I hope that even more material emerges so that the Austrians can continue their fine work.
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD (it’s all-region) with German intertitles. I had to order mine from Germany as it doesn’t seem to be easily available in North America. Unfortunately, this version omits the Syria sequence entirely. Here’s hoping for an update!
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