First American Art Film: Salomé
PD Dr. Torsten Voß
Photo: UniService Transfer

The linking of sexuality and crime with the spheres of the sacred

Germanist Dr. Torsten Voß on the first American art film "Salomé

On February 15, 1923, a very unusual film celebrated its premiere in the United States: Salomé. It is based on the tragedy of the same title by Oscar Wilde, which had already been published in 1883. What is it about?

Voß: At first glance, it is the dramatization of a biblical story, transformed into the aesthetics of décadence, symbolism and aestheticism. The death of Saint John the Baptist at the behest of the adulterous monarch Herod Antipas, who was publicly accused by the then influential hermit John, brought about by the dance of his stepdaughter Salomé, which has become a myth, is tied in Wilde quite strongly to the connection between the penitent preacher and Salomé. John must have been a terribly noisy man who publicly denounced the adulterous Herod, who had taken his brother's wife as his wife. We all know, through the dance of his stepdaughter Salomé, which has become a myth, John is the one who is then beheaded.

The focus is on an unrequited and unrequited desire of the king's daughter towards the Baptist, which is also the real motivation for his beheading. An excerpt from Wilde's tragedy reads: "Salomé: I am in love with your body, Jochanaan! Thy body is white as the lilies in a field that never touched the sickle. [...]." And he answers, "Back, daughter of Babylon! Through the woman evil came into the world." This is the dispute between the two protagonists of this battle of the sexes: the saint withdraws from Solomon's lustful desire and rejects her. She thereby becomes the actual driving force behind his murder, fulfilling in Wilde the decadent motif of the 'femme fatale' or the 'belle dame sans merci,' the beautiful lady without pity, which becomes a male fantasy in its own right in the 19th century.

Oscar Wilde had written the tragedy in French and, since English censorship forbade the work, had it premiered in Paris in 1896 as well. What bothered the English guardians of public morals?

Voß: The English guardians of morals often had problems with literature. The real scandal was that the transfer of the biblical myth into an erotomania is a common procedure in decadent literature and painting, just think of the paintings of Gustave Moreau or the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, who also illustrated Wilde's tragedy. In his drawings, Salomé holds the severed and bleeding head of the Baptist in her hands and leers at it. With such drawings, he repeatedly offended Victorian society. A sexual-pathological instrumentalization of sacrosanct figures was enormously provocative. It was not only Oscar Wilde who had to contend with such moral guardians in the late 19th century. His contemporaries Charles Baudelaire ("Fleurs du mal"), Algernon Charles Swinburne ("Poems and Ballads"), or Gustave Flaubert ("Madame Bovary") were subjected to a partial ban, even censorship, of selected poems due to accusations of blasphemy and corruption of morals. Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary" became a scandal because of its merely suggestive eroticism. Wilde himself felt - also through his friendship with the great symbolist lyricist Stéphane Mallarmé - an author, by the way, to whom we also owe a drama fragment on this very subject under the title "Hérodiade" or "Herodias"; there, by the way, John has to die because he saw the title figure beyond her artificiality, i.e. in the flesh - much more connected with the French culture and aesthetics of aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle than with his own. He felt himself to be French, so to speak.

The film caused a scandal. The leading actress, Alla Nazimova, reportedly let it be known that the cast was made up of mostly bi-sexuals and homosexuals as a tribute to Oscar Wilde. The film was subsequently heavily censored for its open depiction of homosexuality. Didn't that fit with a biblical theme?

Voß: What Nazimova did was very brave at the time, not only because she brought homosexual men and women into this production, but the interesting thing is that she supposedly let it be publicly announced. If it had been swept under the rug, it wouldn't have had that provocativeness. But that was something you had to dare to do in the thoroughly puritanical Hollywood. You have to remember, you could have five illegitimate children, but you had to be able to trace the father somehow. At the same time, it must also be said that the Torah already forbids "lying with a man as with a woman" and threatens those involved with the death penalty. So it sanctions the act of love, of sexuality, with corresponding damnation. Piquantly, Oscar Wilde also put on Salomé's veil. There are photographs of this variant of cross-dressing or gender-switching that show Oscar Wilde in the garb of Salomé. Such a free re-casting of canonized and biblically legitimized figures and the associated roles on stage or in film did not fit into the contemporary established discursive norm of gender, nor into the understanding of the Johannine myth. And one did not want to mess with the actual institutions of moral representatives, be it church or state, in this way at that time.

In Europe there were already successful art films, 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari` (directed by Robert Wiene) from 1919 or 'Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror` from 1922 (directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), both of which were also successful in the USA. Salome` was the first art film in the USA, and in spite of the fact that Life Magazine wrote: "The persons responsible for Salomé deserve with all their souls the gratitude of everyone who believes in the possibilities of film as art", the film was a total failure. What was the reason for that?

Voß: Life Magazine wrote only one of the few positive reviews, other American cultural magazines or dailies wrote about it very polemically and negatively, apostrophizing the film both as an intellectual overload and as a sick work of art.

The first two works in the above question, unlike "Salomé," are thrillers and horror films, respectively. These cinematic adaptations of literary material from the realm of black romanticism and the Gothic novel, the English gothic novel, were more likely to appeal to an average audience, since they satisfied the desire for thrill despite all their artistry and thus did not overtax the recipients. Bryant's "Salomé," on the other hand, was quite different. The overabundance of mannered gestures, facial expressions and motor activity in the 1923 film - although what are silent films supposed to do other than offer an overabundance of theatricalization and choreographic pathos, since they lack language and can only be relied on to concentrate on the visual - seemed alienating in the context of the religious theme. Vampires, villainous figures and Mad Scientists might be more acceptable, but figures from a salvation story are weighted quite differently and accordingly unorthodox. Of course, both Wilde's and Charles Bryant's cinematic adaptations also focus on the desire to generate attention through revolutionary aesthetics and a thwarting of established moral concepts. Film audiences at the time were probably also very overwhelmed with all of this. Indignation was coupled with boredom and disinterest during the reception, which was probably also due to the aforementioned type of choreography.

Nevertheless, the subject itself continued to fascinate. Wilde's play then became famous as a so-called erotic and murder opera by Richard Strauss - last seen in Wuppertal in the 2014/15 season - which will be shown this year in productions in Berlin, Milan and Zurich, among others. And Al Pacino has also dealt with it in his second film directorial work entitled "Wilde Salomé". What is it about this theme that still attracts artists today?

Voß: The linking of Eros and Thanatos or of sexuality and crime with the spheres of the sacred has already carried something fascinating in itself due to its provocative verve, since art can autonomously disregard conventions and adopt a subversive counter-discourse. It thereby makes the sacred its own stylistic device. This is something that art should ultimately always do if it wants to be good and be perceived: to speak a language that also knows how to emancipate itself from established discourses. Otherwise it would simply be propaganda that confirms convention.

Uwe Blass

PD Dr. Torsten Voß is a lecturer in Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität.

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