For years, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word), from Denmark, reigned as my idea of cinema’s highest attainment. It remains the most powerful film I know of, and it’s currently among my three favorite films. Its source material is the play, written in the 1920s and first produced in 1932, by Kaj Munk, whom the Nazis assassinated in 1944 for his opposition to the German occupation. (Gustaf Molander had made a film of the play, starring Victor Sjöström, in 1943.) Dreyer’s film is set in Vedersø, on the west coast of Jylland, where Munk had been vicar. Without doubt, Ordet is the finest and most passionate expression of Christian faith in cinema. It won the top prize, the Golden Lion of St. Mark, at Venice and both the best film and best director prizes at the Bodil Festival in Copenhagen. In the U.S., the National Board of Review named it best foreign-language film, and it won the Golden Globe in this category as well.
The setting is a prosperous farm in a remote parish in 1925. The patriarch of Borgen’s Farm is elderly Morten Borgen, who is set in his ways. His three sons live with him and help run the farm: Mikkel, an avowed atheist, whose wife, Inger, devout, anticipates his return to the fold on the basis of his decency and goodness; Johannes, whose study of Søren Kierkegaard has unhinged his mind (tell me about it!), convincing him that he is the risen Christ and prompting from him binges of hilltop preaching; and teenaged Anders, who has fallen in love with Anne, the daughter of Peter the Tailor, with whom Morten has long been locking horns over their differing views of Christianity. (Morten, whose Christianity consists of “the fullness of life,” feels that Peter’s consists of “self-torment” in a lifelong preparation for death.) Mikkel and Inger have two daughters, and Inger is currently expecting another child—a son, her father-in-law hopes, for what reason one wonders, given that Morten, one would think, has sons enough. However, he will have his prayer answered, but at a terrible price: the deaths of both infant and Inger.
Morten believes that the time of miracles is past, because faith has wavered. In his own case, his prayers for Johannes’s recovery have failed, he believes, because his faith, which seems monumental to us, was insufficient to draw God’s attention to them. He explains that he prayed hopefully rather than in the certainty of faith in God’s responsiveness. Meanwhile, the unbalanced son for whose recovery he has been praying preaches that God is immutable and that the time of miracles, therefore, is now. It will turn out that Johannes is correct and that the miraculous event with which the film culminates, Inger’s resurrection, signals the completion of a round of reconciliations, Johannes’s recovery, and Mikkel’s conversion of faith. Under the spell of this soul-shaking film, the viewer also experiences the truth that miracles remain the province of the still living and indeed eternal God.
Making certain changes to Munk’s play, Gustaf Molander’s earlier film version turned it into a drama, but Dreyer’s film, adhering to the Munk, creates a comedy instead; in this, it is heir to Dreyer’s silent comedies The Parson’s Wife (1920) and Master of the House (1925). But Ordet combines Dreyer’s comedic grace with the almost frightening power, not to mention the solemn, deliberate pace, of his great tragedies, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943). The slowly spoken dialogue and the exquisite slow tracking and panning shots all seem to belong to something other than a comedy, as does the full radiance of Nature’s beauty that recalls the incomparable haunting beauty of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). But this accounts for the freshness of the thing; Ordet seems destined for tragedy, and yet Dreyer fills it with unparalleled comic charm and overflowing delight. It is, on different levels, a film that makes one achingly glad to be alive.
The film’s signature image is the family laundry, whites outdoors on a line, furiously flapping in the wind—perfectly mundane, and yet an image of such power that it betokens spiritual possibilities. We see this activity in various shots, in different frame locations in relation to the rest of the mise-en-scène. The image becomes an aural as well as a visual motif. In the film’s last passage Johannes chides the believers who have gathered for Inger’s funeral for not believing fervently enough. Holding his little niece’s hand and invoking the name of Jesus Christ, he prays for Inger’s return to life in front of her laid-out corpse. Both the laundry and its sound in the wind reassert themselves, transmuted, indoors. The sheer curtains through which gorgeous natural light filters in evokes the laundry on the line; the sound of the clock which alone adorns the sheer white wall evokes the laundry’s flapping in the wind. It is the sound of time, the sound of life; embracing her, Mikkel tells his resurrected wife and sweetheart that he has found her faith at last.
With a crystalline sense of the eternal, the mystery in our midst that gives rise to religious feeling, this expression of Dreyer’s and Munk’s Christian faith encompasses, outdoors, then, an unsurpassed beauty of landscape and an almost palpable depth of air and, indoors, a miracle, an instance of resurrection whose depth of spiritual suggestion, revelation of human possibility through the agency of faith, and emotional power all remain unmatched in cinema. Characters debate dogma—human words obscuring God’s word.
Twentieth-century humanity’s remove from the natural sources of faith Ordet’s scene of rebirth, following death in childbirth, shatters in a tidal wave of passion; Dreyer burns “religion” down to its ancient core of wonder, taking us, believers and nonbelievers alike, to a summit of shared private experience where the pure air seems the very breath of God.
Henrik Malberg’s enactment of the role of Morten Borgen must be accounted among the greatest performances in cinema. Munk had originally wanted Malberg for the part in the 1932 production of the play, but this didn’t work out. Now in his eighties, Malberg finally gets a crack at the part, and we are all the better for it. As Mikkel and Inger, Emil Hass Christensen and Birgitte Federspiel are also marvelous, winning as best actor and best actress at Bodil. One must add that the film finds the most compelling love story in these two characters—and (rare!) the love story of a married couple, two souls no longer in the blush of youth or yet in their “golden years.” Cay Kristiansen is perfect as Anders, who looks after his brother Johannes as best he can. Preben Lerdorff Rye is a hoot as Johannes, who really looks as if he has read too much Kierkegaard.
Henning Bendtsen is the superb black-and-white cinematographer—Dreyer’s miracle worker-in-chief.
As a nonbeliever, no wonder I am so captivated by Ordet, which allows me to experience the wonder of faith without having to subscribe to the irrationality of faith. I appreciate that this may not have been Dreyer’s intent. But then who knows? Perhaps Dreyer anticipated the likes of me as part of the audience for his film. The God of Cinema, Carl Th. Dreyer works in mysterious ways.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.