SODOM UND GOMORRHA
(Die Legende von Sünde und Strafe ; The Queen of Sin and the Spectacle of Sodom and Gomorrah)
Director: Michael Kertész (later Michael Curtiz)
Production: Sascha-Filmindustrie AG, Vienna; black and white, 35 mm, partly colored. Originally in two parts: Part I, 2,100 meters, prologue and four acts; Part II, 1800 meters, 6 acts. Reconstruction by Josef Gloger, Filmarchiv Austria, in 6 reels, length: 3,253.7 meters; running time: 150 minutes. Released 13 October 1922 (Part I: Die Sünde ) and 20 October 1922 (Part II: Die Strafe ) in Vienna; released in Berlin, Germany, 15 August 1923. Filmed 1921/22 in Laaerberg, Vienna, in the city of Vienna, at Schönbrunn, at Hermesvilla in Vienna, Laxenburg near Vienna, and Erzberg in Styria.
Producer: Count Alexander Kolowrat; screenplay: Ladislaus Vajda, Michael Kertész; photography: Gustav Ucicky; art directors: Julius von Borsody (chief architect), Hans Rouc, Stephan Wessely; costume design: Remigius Geyling; music arrangement: Giuseppe Becce.
Cast: Lucy Doraine ( Miss Mary Conway; Sarah, Lot's wife; Lia, Queen of Syria ); Erika Wagner ( Mrs. Agathe Conway ); Georg Reimers ( Mr. Jackson Harber, banker ); Walter Slezak ( Eduard Harber; student; gold smith in Galilea ); Michael Varkonyi ( Angel; priest ); Kurt Ehrle ( Harry Lighton ); thousands of extras (some sources say 3000, others 14,000), including Willi Forst, Paula Wessely, Hans Thimig, and Béla Balázs.
Gottlein, Arthur, Der österreichische Film. Ein Bilderbuch , Vienna, 1976.
Fritz, Walter, and Götz Lachmann, editors, Sodom und Gomorrha— Die Legende von Sünde und Strafe , Vienna, 1988.
Pluch, Barbara, Der österreichische Monumentalstummfilm—Ein Beitrag zur Filmgeschichte der zwanziger Jahre , Master's thesis, University of Vienna, 1989.
Fritz, Walter, Im Kino erlebe ich die Welt. 100 Jahre Kino und Film in Österreich , Vienna, 1997.
Krenn, Günter, "Sodom und Gomorrha 96—Die unendliche Geschichte einer Rekonstruktion," in Österreichisches Filmarchiv Jahrbuch , Vienna, 1996.
Büttner, Elisabeth, and Christian Dewald, "Michael Kertész. Filmarbeit in Österreich bzw. bei der Sascha-Filmindustrie A.-G., Wien, 1919–1926," in Elektrische Schatten. Beiträge zur österreichischen Stummfilmgeschichte , edited by Francesco Bono, Paolo Caneppele, and Günter Krenn, Vienna, 1999.
* * *
Sodom und Gomorrha remained a near mythical film for many decades. Only a few fragments of the most grandiose film, not only of producer Sascha Kolowrat, but also of the Austrian silent film era, were available to film historians. The present copy, restored by the Filmarchiv Austria, presents a substantial portion of the original film with missing scenes replaced by intertextual commentaries to maintain the narrative flow.
The demise of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918 forced the enterprising Kolowrat to look for new business strategies and markets for his Sascha-Film industrie, the largest film company in Austria. On a trip to New York in 1919/20, where he set up the Herz Film Corporation as an American distribution outlet, he was inspired by D.W. Griffiths's Intolerance (1916) to create his own spectaculars.
For the biggest project, Sodom and Gomorrha , he assigned the direction to Michael Kertész, a Hungarian director with great organizational skills who had fled to Vienna for political reasons, but also because Budapest had become too small for his aspirations. Eventually he also outgrew Vienna and responded to an offer from Hollywood, where he became famous as Michael Curtiz. He co-wrote the script with his fellow Hungarian Ladislaus Vajda. The director's then wife, Lucy Doraine, played the leading role; soon after the film was completed they were divorced. The son was played by Walter Slezak, who also moved to Hollywod.
Other members of the crew went on to fame. Julius von Borsody became a highly regarded set designer for many decades in Austrian film. The cameramen were Gustav Ucicky, who worked as a director in Germany in the 1930s and from 1938 to 1945 at Wien-Film, and Franz Planer, who became a highly successful cinematographer in Hollywood. In short, the film was a concentration of young talents who later made their mark in Hollywood or Austria; among the crowd of extras were also the future stars Paula Wessely and Willi Forst.
The film opens at the London stock exchange, showing Harber as a ruthless capitalist. He wants to marry Mary Conway, the daughter of his former lover. The young girl does not love him, but both she and her mother want the life of luxury he can provide. She rejects her true love, the sculptor, who tries to commit suicide. Mary's personality has changed: she flirts with Harber's son Eduard and tries to seduce his teacher, a priest. To present her altered character, the first of the symbolic acts shows Mary as the cruel Queen of Syria, capable of ordering the execution of a young jeweller (played by the same actor as Eduard), who has tried to help her. The action returns to the present with Eduard and his father planning to meet Mary in the garden pavillon. Before they arrive, Mary falls asleep and dreams that Eduard kills his father in a fight over her. She now suddenly finds herself in biblical Sodom as Lot's wife, who serves the love goddess Astarte. The film revels in lavish orgiastic scenes until God destroys the town in punishment. Mary, denounced by the priest, is being led out for execution, when the horror of the situation awakens her from her nightmare. Purified in spirit she recognizes that a loveless marriage for money and her flirtatious behaviour will end in disaster. She returns to the sculptor Harry and a moral life.
With its elaborate structure—a frame story with a plot within a plot—there is no doubt that Sodom und Gomorrha is confusing. Kolowrat and Kertész were clearly striving for sensationalism with the enormous cast, the daring (for their time) orgy scenes, and the cruel, shameless, seductive behavior of Mary. Today the mass scenes border at times on the unintendedly comic, showing as they do hundreds of people moving around aimlessly waving their arms or palm fronds. Remarkable are Lucy Doraine's extravagant contemporary gowns, sexy historical skimpy dresses, and bizarre head wear in the biblical flashback, all created by Remigius Geyling, head set designer at the Vienna Burgtheater. Lucy Doraine plays the roles of Mary Conway, Lot's wife and the Queen of Syria.
The imposing buildings in the film, with the temple of Sodom as the centerpiece, were erected in the south of Vienna on Laaerberg; the studio in Sievering was much too small for such grandiose sets. In this time of economic depression the film offered work for many of the area's unemployed, including technicians, painters, carpenters, hair-dressers, sculptors, and extras. While the film cannot be considered a cinematic masterpiece, it commands admiration as the grandest monumental film of the Austrian silent film era and an important milestone in filmmaking.
—Gertraud Steiner Daviau