The Venice Film Festival has set its pre-opening night event with the screening of Ecstasy, the Gustav Machaty-directed erotic romance drama that caused a scandal on the Lido when it was originally shown during the 1934 edition. The Czech-language film stars Hedy Lamarr (then Hedy Kiesler) and stirred controversy as the first mainstream (i.e., non-pornographic) movie to display full nudity as well as including the first-ever scene of sexual intercourse. Kiesler/Lamarr, who was not yet 20-years-old when the film was shot, later said that she had been duped into the nude scenes, making this a curious choice for Venice in the #MeToo era.
Ecstasy is also notorious for unsuccessful efforts by the actress’ husband, arms dealer Fritz Mandl, to buy up all copies in circulation; and for a general trend in many countries to censor the film for its overt eroticism. It was not released in the U.S. until 1940, playing mostly in art house theaters while being banned in some states.
On the Lido, Ecstasy nevertheless shared the Coppa Città di Venezia for Best Director. The audience named it Best Foreign Film and gave Machatý Best Director.
The story revolves around Eva (Kiesler), a landowner’s beautiful daughter who marries older man Emil. She soon realizes that her husband has no interest in her femininity. Eva returns to her family home, and requests a separation. In the countryside, Eva meets Adam, who accidentally sees her swimming naked in a lake. Soon the two young people fall in love. Eva becomes Adam’s lover. Just when they are about to run off together, Emil commits suicide, making this union impossible for Eva, who is overwhelmed by guilt. In an undefined future, she raises the child she conceived with Adam, while Adam himself finds redemption in his work.
The young Michelangelo Antonioni, who had gone to Venice as a film critic in 1934, wrote of the reaction, “In the garden of the Excelsior, that night, you could hear the breathing of the enthralled viewers, you could feel the shiver running through the audience.”
Ecstasy will screen in the Sala Darsena on August 27, the night before the festival officially kicks off. This is a new 4K restoration that was completed by the Czech Film Archive, thanks to the support of Milada Kučerová and Eduard Kučera and the collaboration of the Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary. The aim of the restoration was to reconstruct a version of the film as close as possible to its original Czech language version. No elements of the original release were preserved, forcing the Czech Film Archive to rely on other versions and Czech elements from subsequent releases of the film. Partners contributing to the restoration were the British Film Institute, Cinémathèque16, Cinémathèque suisse, CNC, Danish Film Institute, Filmarchiv Austria, Gaumont and Slovak Film Institute.