Ecstasy, When Czech Cinema Scandalized the World

“In the garden of the Excelsior that evening, you could hear the breath of the extremely attentive spectators, you felt a thrill running through the audience”.

These words, written by the young Michelangelo Antonioni as a critic at the second Venice Film Festival, in 1934, give us a hint of the tremendous impact of Extase (Ecstasy), written and directed by Prague-born director Gustav Machatý, during that historic premiere.

Dubbed a “pornographic film” by the Osservatore Romano (the daily newspaper of Vatican City State), it even aroused Mussolini’s attention, to the extent that Il Duce actually requested a private screening. Despite the Pope’s attempts to block it, it was screened on 7 August 1934 and the Czechoslovak director was rewarded with the Venice City Cup.

According to a public survey, Extase was considered the best foreign film and Machatý the best director. A scandalous film, now considered a turning point in the direction of international cinema, which also marked the beginning of the career of the leading lady, Hedy Lamarr, later launched in Hollywood under the label of “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

Lamarr said the director tricked her into the nude scenes.

Here’s how the “tricking” happened, as recounted in an article published in the December 1938 issue of Liberty magazine:

When Lamarr applied for the role, she had little experience nor understood the planned filming. Anxious for the job, she signed the contract without reading it. When, during an outdoor scene, the director told her to disrobe, she protested and threatened to quit, but he said that if she refused, she would have to pay for the cost of all the scenes already filmed. To calm her, he said they were using ‘long shots’ in any case, and no intimate details would be visible. At the preview in Prague, sitting next to the director, when she saw the numerous close-ups produced with telephoto lenses, she screamed at him for tricking her. She left the theater in tears, worried about her parents’ reaction and that it might have ruined her budding career.

Hedy Lamarr

She went on to have a great career, but at the time, the film’s huge success was credited to what Variety lasciviously called “Hedy Lamarr in her naked youth”, plus the publicity gimmick of Fritz Mandl — a wealthy arms dealer, “Lamarr’s ex-mate” — spending a fortune trying to buy up all existing prints. This issue of Variety was dated October 3, 1945, because the film wasn’t allowed to be released in the US until 1940.

Film censor Joseph Breen said that Extase “is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code… it is a [story] of illicit love and frustrated sex, treated in detail without sufficient compensating moral values…”

The New York Times review contained such lines as this one: “Frustrated and searching for a quick roll in the hay to alleviate her sexual tension, Eva [the Hedy Lamarr character] offers herself to a roadway engineer.”

Extase is beautifully shot and like all silent (or near-silent films), there’s some wonderful visual storytelling.

But today, the film remains a prime reminder that sex sells. Without the sex, without that controversy, few would remember this film now.

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