There are two instances of women listening to men in Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920). The first comes toward the end of the film’s sixth minute, when Marte Charpentier (Karin Molander) eavesdrops on a lecture being given by her professor uncle Leo (Anders de Wahl). Professor Charpentier is described in an introductory intertitle as “a shining light in the field of entomology.” His lecture is on giveaway signs regarding tree beetles’ sexual behaviors: red spots denote a polygamous nature, violet a monogamous one. The professor tells his all-male audience that the most important species is the Ips typographus. Otherwise known as the European spruce bark beetle, the Ips typographus “indulges in bigamy, gentlemen!”
Though the professor’s words relate to the insect kingdom, they’re designed to eroticize the subject, to make it relatable and appealing to his students. We rarely see the students, however—and when we do they look bored. The majority of cutaways during this sequence are instead to Marte, Charpentier’s doting niece, who listens in with embarrassed adoration and, through Molander’s suggestive facial and bodily expressions, something bordering on the erotic. For those inclined to such interpretations, said eroticism is present the very moment Marte walks to the lecture theater and reaches out to touch and hold the doorknob leading to it.
The study space remains off-limits to Marte. The wide shot of the hallway leading to the lecture theater begins as an empty frame, in the central background of which stands a serious-looking bust—no doubt that of some important scientific thinker.
When Marte enters the shot, then, she is framed as an intruder. Precluded from this man’s world, Marte is limited to snooping.
In the next cut-away, her engagement with her uncle’s lecture is clear. For a brief moment, Molander almost eyes the camera direct, her hand still positioned on the doorknob. Her lips part.
After Charpentier speaks some more, we again cut to Marte, whose other hand is now clenched; mouth still agape, she hunches over, contorting with excitement.
Though his students—who have had to be ushered away from his seductively innocent niece in order for the lecture to begin—remain visibly unengaged, Charpentier himself works up a sweat when talking about insect bigamy: “Generally two females will suffice – but one is never enough.” He wipes his brow accordingly, while Marte delights outside at the fantasies conjured by such talk. Her hand has tightened on the doorknob. Unbeknownst to him, the professor (who’s married; more on this below) has sparked illicit sexual desires in Marte while priming his own eventual courtship of her.
The second instance of a woman listening to men comes much later, and is an ostensibly less momentous occasion. It arrives when Preben Wells (Lars Hanson), a central character, visits Baron Felix (Vilhelm Bryde), the man he mistakenly thinks is having an affair with Professor Charpentier’s wife Irene (Tora Teje). Preben turns up at the baron’s home unannounced, sees a woman’s pair of legs sitting inside the lounge and rushes in, ready to catch Irene red-handed.
Seeing it isn’t her, Preben retreats, and Felix closes the door so that the pair can have a private word.
At this moment, Stiller cuts to the woman, who is stirred by Preben’s visit. She stands up and listens in on the two men in the hallway.
This otherwise throwaway moment is both a continuation of and a contrast to Marte’s eavesdropping earlier. In this second instance, the woman is once again denied access to the more private space of male-to-male understanding. Tellingly, though, this time there are no intertitles denoting a dialogue exchange between the two men. The woman listens in on them, and learns nothing. In the heat of hasty speculation, Preben is reduced to wordless impotence. Having initially cut her off from pressing matters, Baron Felix returns to his woman. Again, there is no dialogue. Though the circumstances are different, the woman, like Marte before her, is prohibited from entering a male, i.e. expressive, platform.
Preben’s race to get to the bottom of matters surrounding Irene Charpentier unfolds in parallel to Irene’s own self-exile from her suddenly unhappy home with husband Leo. In the scene immediately after that in Baron Felix’s home, Irene is seen being greeted at her mother’s home. In sharp distinction from other female characters, however, Irene enters the doorway. Though she seems palpably downtrodden by the preceding sequence of events, her arrival at an all-female space (the door is opened by her mother’s maid) marks a shift into a less prohibiting, more accepting mise-en-scène. Throughout the film, Irene refuses to listen to men, to dote on them, to defer to their authority and knowledge. Initially castigated because of such independence, hers is the truer happiness by the film’s end—and hers is the deeper erotic charge throughout.
I recently saw Erotikon—one of the great silents of Swedish cinema, and a worthy comparator to Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man, subject of the last Gestures piece—in Ingmar Bergman’s personal cinema, a converted barn where he watched two films every summer afternoon on his beloved Fårö, the remote island just north of Gotland, Sweden, where he lived and died. I’m writing this latest column on Bergman’s birthday. He would have been ninety-six. Bergman first discovered Fårö in 1960, when scouting locations for Through a Glass Darkly, and shot several more films there after moving to the island in 1967. Andrei Tarkovsky had wanted to make his final film The Sacrifice (1985) on Fårö, but owing to its then militarization had to settle for När, on the east coast of Gotland to the south.
Nevertheless, Fårö’s spirit is never too far away in Tarkovsky’s film. The Sacrifice not only features cinematography from Bergman’s chief collaborator Sven Nykvist (subject of the 2000 documentary Light Keeps Me Company), but also a central performance from Bergman’s regular actor Erland Josephson—who had also appeared in Tarkovsky’s penultimate feature Nostalghia (1983). Then in exile, the Russian director received funding from the Swedish Film Institute thanks in large part to influence from Bergman. The latter was a notable fan.
Just as Erotikon concludes with what is arguably a problematically neat resolution, I end with a quotation from one male artist about another. For while Bergman and Tarkovsky both belonged to a navel-gazingly self-serious and male-oriented artistic tradition, the Swede’s thoughts on the Russian’s 1969 masterpiece Andrei Rublev make for a fitting endpoint to a piece on gestures centered around doorknobs, doorways and something resembling an epiphany: “Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.”