Few people know that one of the most important periods in Austrian cinema was the 1920s. During this period, in fact, films with a biblical or epic character were mainly produced in Italy and Austria. This is the case (if we want to remain in Austria) with Samson and Delilah – directed in 1922 by the Hungarian Alexander Korda – as well as with the famous Sodom and Gomorrah, by Michael Curtiz.
From the Bible to the 1920s
If after the 1950s the successful trilogy by Ernst Marischka, which began with the feature film Sissi (1955), scored the highest box office in the history of Austrian cinema, few people will know that one of the most prosperous periods in the history of Austrian cinema was the 1920s. In this period, in fact, while every European and non-European nation was slowly finding its way into the world of the Seventh Art, in Italy and Austria were mainly produced films with a biblical or epic character. This is the case (if we want to remain in Austria), for example, with Samson and Delilah – directed in 1922 by the Hungarian Alexander Korda – as well as with the very famous Sodom and Gomorrah, by Michael Curtiz (when he had not yet become famous in the United States) and shot in the same year.
Both flagship titles of this years’ cinema, both forerunners of a long series of films focusing on the same biblical episodes, Samson and Delilah and Sodom and Gomorrah represent the major Austrian successes of the turn of the century, which were also fairly well received abroad.
Focusing exclusively on Korda’s film, however, we immediately notice that this is a kind of “atypical” epic film, as the famous episode concerning the story of Samson and Delilah is placed within a narrative framework that recalls the contemporary world of show business and, therefore, is actualised thanks to numerous parallels with the story of the fascinating opera singer Julia Sorel (played by Maria Corda, the director’s wife), who is about to play the character of Delilah on stage and disputed between the charming prince Andrej Andrewiwitsch (Franz Herterich) and a mysterious young rebel (Alfredo Boccolini) who takes the two of them hostage at sea, together with the entire crew of their boat. More than the biblical episode itself, the central theme is the role of women and their extraordinary power over anyone who meets them.
This interpretation, conceived to be contextualised in contemporary times, could also seem quite interesting. Yet, a feature film like Samson and Delilah has several problems. First and foremost, precisely the narrative framework that acts as a parallelism with contemporary times: too forced, with an excessively weak structure and so pretextual expedients which totally lose verve, as well as credibility. And many people seem to have realised this, even several decades ago. But that’ s fine. Apart from any possible severe criticism of it, the audience was, in any case, absolutely amazed.
Yet, despite everything, a film like this one has many interesting aspects, especially if contextualised in its historical period. If, in fact, only two years earlier, in neighbouring Germany, Robert Wiene had directed his The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, marking one of the milestones of German Expressionist cinema, it seems that in Austria this important current didn’t initially exert much fascination. On the contrary, given the similarity of themes and film genres, it seems that it was Italy that influenced Austrian directors in one way or another. If, in fact, we think in particular of the outdoor scenes in Samson and Delilah, we are immediately reminded of the magnificent scenographies of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1915), as well as a similar direction of the extras (also very numerous here). The same applies to the indoor sets.
What, however, is most impressive in Korda’s film are Delilah’s costumes: mischievous, seductive, tight and close-fitting to the right point, designed to emphasise the character’s perfect silhouette, they hardly remind us of the costumes of the time, but rather evoke the evening dresses in vogue in the 1920s, as if to further emphasise the parallels with contemporary times. As well as giving life, of course, to a different Delilah from how we might imagine her.
Maria Corda herself, for her part, seems perfectly at ease in the role of this seductive Delilah: her sometimes sudden movements and her often severe or three-quarter poses perfectly convey the idea of her dual nature and remind us so much of the movements and attitudes of the unforgettable Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis (1926), a milestone of science-fiction cinema. What if the German actress was inspired by Corda herself for her important role? This, despite the lack of concrete evidence, cannot be ruled out.
Small curiosity. It is interesting to observe how two feature films like Samson and Delilah and Sodom and Gomorrah – both so important for Austrian cinema – were financed by two different production companies, one in strong competition with the other. While Curtiz’s film was produced by Sascha Film, Samson and Delilah was made by Vita Film, founded in 1919 by seventh art pioneer Louise Kolm-Fleck (together with her husband Anton), author of feature films such as The Ancestress (1919), A Girl of the People (1927) and The Right to Love (1930). Is it just a coincidence, then, that two works of such magnitude were produced in the same year?
Original title: Samson und Delilah
Directed by: Alexander Korda
Country/year: Austria / 1922
Running time: 88’
Genre: epic, biblical, adventure, romance
Cast: Maria Corda, Franz Herterich, Ernst Arndt, Oskar Hugelmann, Alfredo Boccolini, Franz Hauenstein, Paul Lukas
Screenplay: Alexander Korda, Ernest Vajda
Cinematography: Nicolas Farkas
Produced by: Vita Film, Corda Film Consortium