Das Mirakel


Germany 1912

Screen adaptation: Michel Carré
Production Company: Ingenieur Jos. Menchen (Berlin)
Producer of stage production: Max Reinhardt
Producer: Joseph Menchen
Author of stage production: Karl Vollmöller
Cinematographers: William Jeapes, Harold Jeapes
Composer of accompanying music: Engelbert Humperdink

Cast: Maria Carmi (The Madonna), Douglas Payne (The Knight), Florence Winston (The Nun), Ernst Matray (Spielmann/The Minstrel), Josef Klein (The King), Agathe Barescu (The Abbess), Theodor Rocholl (The King’s son), Ernst Benzinger (The Robber Count), Marie Von Radgy (The Old Sacristan ), Alfred König (The Lame Man), Ernst Lubitsch

Distributed by Joseph Menchen
1,459 metres (four reels)

It is day four of the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films, and this evening we find ourselves in Oxford Street. We hope that the message got through to festivalgoers that we have had to move from the scheduled Pyke House (which will serve as our venue tomorrow) further down Oxford Street to the larger venue, the Picture House at 161-167. This fine new building seats 760, and some may remember that it was one this spot in 1906 that Hale’s Tours of the World (films exhibited in a mock railway carriage) was first seen in this fair city. Opened in January 1913, the Picture House is held to be one of the most delightful cinemas in London, exquisitely lit and upholstered, with a perfect view guaranteed for every attendee. We needed the extra space to fit in an orchestra and choir, with a most notable conductor – but first we must tell you a little about what you are to see.


Our film this evening was a legend before it was even a film, so to speak. It is Das Mirakel, to give its German title, or The Miracle as every one of you will know it from the sensational exhibition of the stage version at Olympia in 1911. The producer of that epic piece of dumbshow theatre was Max Reinhardt (left), the Austrian theatrical genius, whose inspired use of lighting, mechanical effects and spectacle (particularly crowds) has so startled audiences across Europe. Like Vselovod Meyerhold, whose work we saw two days ago – but with very different results – Reinhardt’s great desire is to free theatre from the confines of literature and to revel in the space that it offers. The Miracle, a play written by Karl Vollmöller, is extraordinary in the first instance for being silent, told only through dumbshow and the music of the great composer Engelbert Humperdink – and, yes, it is maestro Humperdink who, at extraordinary expense, the festival has brought over from Germany to conduct the orchestra for us tonight, together with a chorus of eighty.

The Miracle retells a medieval legend of a nun who dreams of temptations to be found in the outside world and flees from her convent with a knight. She suffers various adventures and privations, eventually finding herself accused of witchcraft. While she is absent from the convent, her place is taken by a statue of the Virgin Mary, which comes to life and undertakes the nun’s various duties. Upon the penitent nun’s return, the Virgin becomes a statue once more. That we saw the play in London was thanks to that most enterprising of theatrical entrepreneurs, C.B. Cochran, who was looking for an entertainment to fill the vasty space of Olympia. Enthralled by seeing Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex in Germany, he invited him to come up with an epic production which would make best use of Olympia. Reinhardt’s idea (after toying with the possibility of recreating the Delhi Durbar) was to stage a medieval tale with a cathedral setting. Vollmöller then came up with the play. The huge space at Olympia made it essential that the story be told without words, simply because the audience would be unable to hear them. 1,000 performers and 500 choristers filled out the epic drama, supported by a wonderful array of stage machinery, ingenious theatrical effects and uplifting music.


Newspaper illustration of the The Miracle at Olympia

The success of that production needs no re-telling here – simply to say that for many it was a theatrical event like no other. What concerns us is the film that followed. A spectacle in dumbshow was an obvious choice for Herr Reinhardt’s first foray into cinema. News that a film was to be made, and that it would be produced in London, first appeared in May 1912. Then there was silence for quite a time, until we learned that the film was to be produced in Austria while the theatre company (including, it is believed, one Ernst Lubitsch, a comic actor of notable promise, we are assured) was based in Vienna. Filming took place in three weeks over September and October. The great surprise to all in the industry was that the film was photographed by a British newsreel manager, William Cecil Jeapes and his brother and fellow newsreel expert, Harold. Now Billy Jeapes is well known in Wardour Street, and manages that popular newsreel Topical Budget. He would be the first person one would call for should a speedy news report be required, but he is not known for his work with dramatic films. And yet, as an interview for The Bioscope that Mr Jeapes kindly provided just a few days ago, he was the person who, as they say, ‘got the call’:

[TB] So, Mr. Jeapes, how was ‘The Miracle’ taken?

[WJ] Well, it’s a rather long story, but I’ll do my best to give you the main points as briefly as possible. In the first place, I may say that my own connection with the undertaking commenced just about twenty-four hours before I actually entered upon it, so you can imagine that there wasn’t much time for preparation. I received and accepted the request that I should take on the business, grabbed camera, films and baggage; caught the first train that was available, and, in almost less time than it takes to tell (as the novelists say) I was starting on the first preliminaries with Professor Reinhardt and M. Michel Carré (who adapted the play for the camera), near Vienna.

I left London on September 21st, and I returned on October 15th. During that time we were working regularly from the early morning until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at which hour it was necessary for the company to start back for Vienna, where ‘The Miracle’ was being played nightly – at the Rotunda. We did nothing on Sundays.

[TB] And how, Mr. Jeapes, does the film compare with the original production, as we saw it in London?

[WJ] Favourably, I think I may say, in every particular. It is obvious, of course, that the enormous scenic advantages of the cinematograph have made it possible to present in realistic detail all sorts of incidents which could scarcely be more than hinted at in the arena at Olympia. The character of the production, as a ‘wordless play’, obviates any loss through the absence of speech, and, since the film is being coloured by hand in Paris, the wonderful effects in this respect will be quite as striking as they were when seen in actuality.

You will probably be struck by the continuity of the play in its film version as compared with its episodic nature at Olympia. It will not be necessary to keep our audiences waiting while we ‘change the scenes’ and we have, also, been able to fill up the gaps. Naturally, too, the superior possibilities of the cinematograph in illusion-making have allowed us to treat supernatural incidents with the greatest freedom.

From Mr. Jeapes we learn further that the exteriors were photographed in the grounds of Kreuzenstein Castle and at the cathedral of Perchtoldsdorf, Vienna. It is unclear from his account to what degree, if any, Max Reinhardt actually directed the film, or whether he simply supplied some instructions, and it was Michel Carré (a French film director)who took most responsibility. That Mr. Jeapes had some unusual influence over the production can be deduced from the fact that the part of the Nun is not played by the actress from the theatre company (all other parts are filled that way) but by one Florence Winston, not a known actress at all, but who just happens to be Mrs William Jeapes. It is all very curious.

But what of the film itself? Opinions are mixed on what is being billed as a ‘Lyricscope Play’, to a quite fascinating degree. That normally level-headed American journal Variety has gone into absolute raptures:

The ‘Miracle’, reproduced from the wonderful Reinhardt pantomime of the same name presented at the London Olympia, is probably the finest exhibition of the “Celluloid drama” ever conceived. In some respects it is superior to the original pantomime spectacle, in that the paths of the performers – or characters – may be followed more minutely and with greater detail than is possible in the original, due to the possibility of showing the scenic progression with the unfolding of the plot … The whole presentment is remarkably impressive in general effect, the pictures so beautifully to resemble natural colors, the scenes so plentifully interspersed with captions announcing the progress of the tale, and finally the awakening to a realization that it was all a ghastly, enervating “dream”, is extraordinarily vivid. No spoken play could be more so.

Variety‘s critic was possibly a little overwhelmed by the presentation of the film, which we are emulating today – a cathedral frontage over the proscenium arch, with doors opening to reveal the screen within; incense wafting into the auditorium; the choir entering in vestments and coming upon stage; the use of sound effects; the heavenly music. We hope you will be similarly transported, but we must note a soberer verdict from the British paper, The Bioscope, reviewing the film’s UK premiere in this very cinema. The Bioscope looks beyond the siren charms of theatrical presentation to what is actually presented on the screen:

The whole play seems to have been adapted for the camera with only the most cursory regard for the latter’s possibilities and limitations. It has been forgotten that a scene viewed through an artifical glass lens is a very different thing from the same scene viewed in actuality by the naked eye.

The reviewer chastises the film for failing to adjust the drama to the demands of the camera, and finds the staging maladroit, sometimes to ridiculous effect:

In the scenes showing the cathedral’s interior the stage is too deep, with the result that the players are constantly out of proportion with each other, and swell from midgets to giants in a fashion which is almost ludicrous as they move “down stage”.

Again, how much did Max Reinhardt have to do with the film itself? The Bioscope is uncertain, and we must confess to being unsure ourselves. Herr Reinhardt has not answered our telegrams, and Mr Jeapes has been curiously evasive. At any rate, you must be the judges of what you see on the screen. It is a film that is perhaps more an act of faith than a conventional cinema offering. The incense is not separate from it; it is an essential part of the experience. Also, it is a film that has to live in the imagination: not only is it a lost film, but there is not a single image from the film that we can produce for you. Our researcher recalls seeing some frame stills once, and recalls vasty spaces and isolated figures. But those images too, are now gone…

And then there is the matter of the second Miracle. For a great headache for Reinhardt, Vollmöller, Carré and the film’s American producer Joseph Menchen has been the existence of a rival film, which we are bravely (and uniquely) programming to accompany our main feature. The second Das Mirakel was made in Germany by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH in 1912. It was written and directed by Mime Misu, a Romanian who came to prominence in German cinema recently following the success of his dramatisation of the tragic storyof the sinking of the ‘Titanic’, In Nacht und Eis (1912). Misu has not only directed the film, but acts in it as well, alongside Lore Giesen and Anton Ernst Rückert.

Its existence has caused much confusion. A court injunction was applied for in this country to prevent the exhibition of the Misu Mirakel (it was registered under that title in Germany) by the Elite Sales Agency when it was announced as opening at the London Pavilion in December 1912, but it seems Elite subverted any charges of copyright infringement by averring that the story was based on legend, not on Vollmöller’s play. Nevertheless, they appear to have been playing things safe by taking the advice of the judge and exhibiting the film under a different title: Sister Beatrix (in Germany it has been exhibited as Alte Legende – Eine Das Marienwunder or Marienwunder – Das Eine alte Legende). Under this title it has been sold to many cinemas across Britain, who have sometimes advertised it as The Miracle, to the great dismay of the ‘true’ film’s producers.

We have not seen the film, and information on its contents is hard to find. The film is 4,000 feet, which means a long evening for you, but such an opportunity to compare these two films in the same venue is unlikely to occur again. Particularly if you also want the orchestra, choir, organ music, sound effects, special effects, cathedral gates opening onto the screen, hand-coloured images, or indeed the incense. This has been a unique evening.

Please join us tomorrow night for our final screening at Pyke House Cinematograph Theatre. It is a sobering and controversial production that we have programmed for our last show, but we hope that all festivalgoers will join us afterwards for an end-of-festival libation or two. A room has been hired at the Café Royal. Never let it be said that we do things by halves here at the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films.

Update (June 2011): There is good news for film, and bad news for a lost film festival – Das Mirakel is no longer a lost film. A print is held by the French CNC film archive at Bois d’Arcy. See the comments below for more information.