Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon (1929) & Ekstase (1933): Cinema’s Earliest Explorations of Women’s Sensuality

Czech cin­e­ma gained inter­na­tion­al acclaim in the 1960s with films like Close­ly Watched Trains (1966) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967) – movies that con­flat­ed the polit­i­cal with the sex­u­al in ways that were as inno­v­a­tive as they were sub­ver­sive. Much of the fuel of this New Wave of Czech film was the utter absur­di­ty of the Com­mu­nist rule and the hor­rors inflict­ed by the Nazis. Yet beneath that, there’s some­thing with­in Czech cul­ture that seems nat­u­ral­ly skep­ti­cal of author­i­ty. Franz Kaf­ka was a native of Prague, after all. And one of the most beloved books in the Czech lan­guage is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Sol­dier Šve­jk (1923), a fre­quent­ly hilar­i­ous satire on the idio­cy of war.

The works of Czech film­mak­er Gus­tav Machatý weren’t overt­ly polit­i­cal yet they were still very sub­ver­sive. At a time when the bat­tles for uni­ver­sal suf­frage was still a recent mem­o­ry, Machatý had the audac­i­ty to show women as sex­u­al­ly autonomous beings.

Born in Prague in 1901, Machatý went to Hol­ly­wood at a young age and report­ed­ly appren­ticed under D. W. Grif­fith and Erich von Stro­heim. When he returned to his home coun­try, he start­ed mak­ing movies.

Machatý’s third fea­ture and final silent movie was Erotikon (1929), a sto­ry about a coun­try girl seduced by an upper-class cad only to get preg­nant and ostra­cized by her vil­lage. The film recalls F.W. Mur­nau in his empha­sis on faces and his expres­sion­is­tic use of the cam­era. This is per­haps most clear­ly seen in the scene above where the girl sur­ren­ders to her slick para­mour and dis­cov­ers sex­u­al bliss. The cam­era spins around as she writhes on the bed. Show­ing female sex­u­al­i­ty frankly was dar­ing at that time. Women in movies by D. W. Grif­fith and Char­lie Chap­lin were chaste and pure. They received male appetites, per­haps, but were not sub­ject to ani­mal­is­tic urges them­selves.

Four years lat­er, Machatý went even fur­ther with his movie Ekstase (1933). Ear­ly in the movie, we see the lumi­nous­ly beau­ti­ful Hedy Lamarr skin­ny-dip­ping in a pond. When her horse runs off with her clothes, she run naked over hill and dale to catch it. A bit lat­er in the movie, in a scene that recalls Erotikon, she has an earth-shat­ter­ing orgasm thanks to the strap­ping young work­er who finds her horse. Ekstase might not be the first non-porno­graph­ic film to have nude scenes but it was cer­tain­ly one of the first. And it was def­i­nite­ly the first film to clear­ly show a female orgasm.

The movie was an inter­na­tion­al sen­sa­tion. It received raves at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val only to be denied a prize because the Vat­i­can object­ed. Worse, it couldn’t get a prop­er release in the US. First Ekstase was seized by U.S. Cus­toms as pornog­ra­phy. Then, when it final­ly cleared that hur­dle, the movie ran afoul of Hollywood’s self-cen­sor­ing Hays Code. Ekstase only man­aged to screen in a hand­ful of inde­pen­dent the­aters in 1940, sev­en years after it first came out.

Nonethe­less, the noto­ri­ety of the movie turned Hedy Lamarr into a star and soon she was star­ring oppo­site Hol­ly­wood icons like Jim­my Stew­art and Clark Gable. (And just in case you thought that Lamarr was just a pret­ty face, she also co-invent­ed and patent­ed tech­nol­o­gy dur­ing WWII that laid the ground­work for things like Wi-Fi.)

Machatý had less suc­cess. As the threat of Nazism loomed, he fled back to Hol­ly­wood and end­ed up being an uncred­it­ed direc­tor for such stu­dio films as The Good Earth and Madame X. He spent the last part of his life teach­ing film at the Munich Film School before dying in 1963.

You can watch the entire­ty of Erotikon below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Fritz Lang’s M: Watch the Restored Ver­sion of the Clas­sic 1931 Film

Kafka’s Famous Char­ac­ter Gre­gor Sam­sa Meets Dr. Seuss in a Great Radio Play

Broke­back Before Broke­back: The First Same-Sex Kiss in Cin­e­ma (1927)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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