On 9th August 2003 Karsten Fundal’s newly composed music for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film Mikaël was premiered by the Copenhagen Philharmonic conducted by Martin Åkervall.
Mikaël was produced in 1924, and is based on one of Herman Bang’s last novels from 1904. Benjamin Christensen plays the title role. The film is about an unsuccessful father-son confrontation. Mikaël is an apparently fatherless young man who goes to see the famous artist Master Zoret with some sketches. Zoret rejects the sketches, but since Mikael is physically beautiful the Master begins to use him as a model, and in the end takes him over as his foster-son. A young Russian woman, Zamikov, enters the picture. She persuades the Master to paint a portrait of her. Both the Master and Mikaël become interested in her, and in the end she starts an affair with Mikaël – an affair that has something morbid about it. The relationship ends with Mikaël beginning to betray Zoret, and the betrayal becomes worse and worse while Zoret becomes more and more indulgent towards Mikaël. Finally, overcome by sorrow, Zoret lies down to sleep and die. On his deathbed he tells his Servant and best friend, who has always remained close to him, that he can die calmly because he has seen a great love.
Karsten Fundal was in no doubt when he was presented with the idea of writing music for a silent film. It would give him more of a free hand than a talking film would. He was given three films to choose from, and after seeing them he immediately chose Mikaël. The dramatic rhythm of the film was good – almost operatic – and then it went in the opposite way from most films. The tempo in the film was at first restless, then suddenly it changed gear, and towards the end there was a sudden jolt and the film almost came to a halt. This meant that Karsten Fundal could structure the music: at the start the music is very ‘horizontal’ and melodic, later it becomes more ‘vertical’ and it is the chords that predominate. Finally the music almost comes to a stop.
Karsten Fundal says of the music: “The music has been composed such that each person has a different theme. When several people appear at once I interweave the motifs with one another, and thus it becomes both polyphonic and monophonic. Each person’s theme has its own pulse and its own instrument. So when there are two people you can hear two pulses, and it becomes shadow-like. The point is that each person experiences the situation differently. But sometimes there is also unity in the situation: at the start when everything in the film is bright the melody resulting from the various melodies of the strings is like one melody. And gradually it all becomes more and more shadow-like, because several instrumental groups play different versions of the same theme. The music follows the psychological problems in the film, which shed light on the characters.”
Fundal says of the film: “What is quite fantastic about this film is that when you look at it and what has been made since, Dreyer has simply invented it all. It’s a film without any effects at all, where the most important thing is the close-ups and the result is that the drama is much greater. You experience the human grief as something much closer than usual. The personally intimate simply becomes universally human, and it works powerfully.”