Format: 35mm, color
Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse shows the progress of a media conspiracy led by Frau Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig) to create, corrupt and destroy the ultimate celebrity, Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff). Though Dorian begins as a wealthy man with no occupation but a seemingly endless string of appointments, read to him by his Chinese manservant, Hollywood (Toyo Tanaka), Dr. Mabuse starts Dorian down a more sensational road. At a performance of an opera about the takeover of the Happy Islands (modern: Canary Islands) by Don Luis de la Cerda, Infant of Spain (also played by von Lehndorff), in which Dorian’s onstage counterpart falls in love with the current queen of the Happy Islands, Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein), Dorian falls in love with the actress, who is also named Andamana. Their love forms the basis of the newspaper stories published by Dr. Mabuse’s media conglomerate, as the opera forms the basis of the story of the film. Notably, the narrator of the opera is played by Hollywood and the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who arrives to declare that the Islands must be exploited for all their natural resources despite what Don Luis would prefer, is played by Dr. Mabuse. Scenes from this opera, performed in expansive natural settings, are interspersed with the action of the film, when events replicate those of the opera. Other settings in the film include the Press Ball, in which every surface is covered with newspaper, Dr. Mabuse’s office, lined by televisions covered in barbed wire, with one central television showing the actions of the characters in the room in closeup, and the Underworld, which is actually underground, and looks something like a cross between a sewer (the hallways are formed by large pipes) and a garden (Dorian and Dr. Mabuse eat their dinner off of plates floated to them on the surface of the water in a fountain).
The film’s heavy use of symbolism, both from the opera and elsewhere, makes for a surreal experience. For example, when in a drug-induced trance, Dorian dreams of himself as a child being handed a pig’s head on a leash by a butcher, waking up to discover himself as an adult holding the pig’s head. He stands up and realizes he has been sleeping on a vaguely pig-shaped pile of rocks. This scene is reminiscent of a scene in the opera in which Don Luis de la Cerda goes exploring the “sea of stones” with a pig on a leash as a guide. Moreover, which may not immediately apparent to the viewer, Dorian Gray, the male main character, is played by Veruschka von Lehndorff, a female actress. Some of the otherwise unflattering and/or exotifying images of women and women’s bodies in the film, such as the comedic burlesque show involving full-figured women performing semi-nude ballet on point, their breasts and bellies rippling with every tiny step, and the Siamese twin sex workers whose dance performance for Dorian ends with them stepping down from their fountain-stage to embrace him, are tempered by this awareness of Dorian’s femininity. Andamana’s body becoming an object of the viewer’s gaze, as she performs mostly nude in the opera, is also somewhat changed by the fact that the reverse-shot of the audience consists only of Dr. Mabuse and Dorian, both actresses.
I believe the fact that Dorian is played by a woman is what prompts many sources to cite this film as a gay/lesbian film, but I would be cautious in that respect. Though there are scenes of gay men and lesbians in the Underworld, including a dance/knife fight/love scene between two male sailors (with mustaches), these are subordinate elements to the theme of performance and presentation in the film. The use of the opera throughout reminds the viewer that it is not only Andamana who is an actress. All the characters play staged roles, in the world of the opera, in the “real world,” as pieces of the media story of Dorian Gray, and in the world of the movie, as players for the benefit of the viewer. Only Dr. Mabuse cannot be seen on film, as a negative of an accidental photograph taken of her becomes an important problem for her plan. Those shown on film become objects of the media story, losing control of their own representation, and, in the case of Dorian, their own life.
Though very interesting and visually entertaining, the length of Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse is nearly prohibitive for an in-class showing. However, its visual elements and low-key yet metaphoric storytelling method as well as its direct exploration of the role of the media make Dorian Gray a useful resource for film and media studies classes, as well as any class dealing with film representations or new adaptations of literature. Moreover, since many scenes in the film are interesting enough on their own, removed from their narrative context, segments of the film may be used in class.
An anonymous Internet essay about the film that seems nevertheless to be sound:
A photo of Dorian Gray holding a newspaper with the headline “Dorian Gray Dead”:
Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse on IMDb:
Rickets, Laurence A. “My Last Interview With Ulricke Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond.” Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, ed. Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Seiglohr, Ulrike. “Women Film-Makers, the Avant Garde and the Case of Ulrike Ottinger.” The German Cinema Book, ed. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Other Films by Ulrike Ottinger on Tripod:
Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of no return), New York, Women Make Movies, 1979
Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia, New York: Women Make Movies, 1989 (VHS)
Madame X, eine absolute herrscherin, New York: Women Make Movies, 2000 (VHS)