Michael, adapted from a novel of the same name by the Danish writer Herman Bang, is the story of a famous artist, called The Master, and his love for a young man, Michael, who is his model and protégé. The Master gets a commission to paint a portrait of the Countess Zamikow, but he can’t quite capture the expression in her eyes. Michael, however, can. He has fallen in love with her. Time and again Michael abuses The Master’s trust in him, and The Master keeps forgiving him. Tortured by loneliness and Michael’s selfishness, The Master creates a final, magnificent painting before he dies, uttering the words, "Now I can die in peace, for I have seen a great love." Michael is unable to free himself from the Countess’s embrace long enough to visit The Master on his deathbed.
This sophisticated film unfolds in sumptuously decorated interiors filled with extravagant objets d’art. Dreyer had a big budget and UFA’s state-of-the-art studio facilities at his disposal as well as Karl Freund, a top director of photography in his day. Michael is a chamber play, depicting a few people and their mutual relationships. All significant things remain unspoken. Dreyer has the camera tell the story in glances, facial expressions and objects. For Dreyer, working with the actors was what mattered, guiding them to give nuanced and precise emotional performances to be captured in close-ups.
The film was well received in both Denmark and Germany, where Dreyer’s fellow Danish director Benjamin Christensen, playing The Master, was singled out for special praise. Michael was not shown in France, however, and commercially this costly, prestigious production was probably not a hit. Although the homoerotic nature of the relationship between The Master and Michael is merely hinted at – Dreyer perfectly capturing the tone of Bang’s novel – it was enough for the film to be sharply denunciated in the US. Still, Michael appears to have been Dreyer’s favourite among the films he made before The Passion of Joan of Arc.