CARL THEODOR DREYER

What I have done here is arrange in chronological order entries about films by Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer that appear in two lists included elsewhere on this site, the 100 Greatest Films and the 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria.

1919
LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK. D. W. Griffith ponderously made Intolerance (1916) to prove he wasn’t the sentimental racist that The Birth of a Nation (1915) showed him to be. For me, the film is soporific. My opinion hasn’t prevailed. Filmmakers at the time, and since, have felt the film’s enormous influence.
     Its collection of stories depicting different historical times and places within a loose philosophical framework informs Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book.
     I reject much of the film, for instance, the segments on the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, where his sense of decorum finds Dreyer siding with reactionary forces. Nevertheless, the first two segments, on the Christ’s Passion and the Spanish Inquisition, are brilliant.
     Naturalistic and unaffected, the Christ material has been surpassed only once, with Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (At his death, Dreyer left unfilmed a long-planned film about the life of Jesus.)
     According to Leaves, Judas is seduced into betraying Jesus by the argument that Jesus’s death is preordained and necessary for the completion of his mission. But the segment on the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition is the film’s most trenchant revelation of the workings of evil in our world. The terrifying opening shot is of torture devices in a dungeon. For a monk who is smitten with the aristocrat’s daughter he is instructing, an image of a saint assumes her sensuous form. Satan, the “Grand Inquisitor,” manipulates his unacted-on feelings, impressing the monk into service to the Inquisition, in which capacity he is ordered to condemn the woman he loves as a heretic—a rough sketch for Day of Wrath (see 1943).
     For Dreyer, whose The Marked Ones (see 1922) is the most compassionate Gentile film ever made about Jewish suffering, religious persecution is unfounded in faith.

1920
THE PARSON’S WIDOW. Carl Theodor Dreyer made comedies as well as tragedies, but none so lunatic or fantastic as his Swedish The Parson’s Widow.
     In seventeenth-century Norway, a young divinity school graduate wins an appointment to a parsonage that is intended to facilitate marriage with his sweetheart. Unfortunately, along with the parsonage comes the obligation to care for the previous parson’s crone-like widow, whom he reluctantly marries, while passing off his true beloved as his sister. Hopes for the sturdy woman’s demise end in disappointment, and doing away with her proves an impossible task, as she seems to possess supernatural powers. Can this all end happily?
     Although very funny, The Parson’s Widow is not without purpose. Dreyer shows (along two paths) that the course of true love never did run smooth, and plumbs the tension between self-determination and moral obligations to others, between self and community. It is the Protestant Christian balance that Dreyer pursues—a point his protagonist’s résumé underscores. The resolution of the cleric’s crisis ends the film on an unexpectedly warm, humanistic note.
     Perhaps the film is most perceptive in its analysis of guilt—the rationalizations that allow good people (such as the parson) to do or to contemplate doing bad things. The young man proposes marriage to the parson’s widow only when, inebriated from drink she has provided at dinner, he imagines her young and lovely—a fantasy suggesting his struggle to reconcile himself to his obligation to care for the woman. When, later, he dresses up as Satan in order to frighten her to death, we are, ironically, faced with his moral self-image for attempting thus to murder her.
     With its touch of Boccaccio, The Parson’s Widow is likely to expand anyone’s narrow notion of Dreyer’s range.

1922
THE MARKED ONES. Critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) may be the most compassionate film ever made. A stronger candidate might be Dreyer’s Die Gezeichneten, sometimes called Love One Another. It marshals a multiplicity of plots to achieve a powerful vision of the plight of Jewish people in tsarist Russia during the failed 1905 revolution following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. (To locate the time, think Potemkin.) Adapting a novel by Danish author Aage Madelung, it was made in both German and Russian versions.
     Dreyer achieves a trenchant, detailed portrait of adverse living conditions, of squalor and cramped quarters, and painstakingly draws a causal relationship between these and human behavior, including the minutest inflections of such behavior. To accomplish this, he relies heavily on his actors, mostly Russian emigrés.
     His portrait of hatred and prejudice targeting Jews becomes ironical when violence is triggered against a village from St. Petersburg, to which Hanna Segal has migrated from the village, and where a man masquerading as a monk, along with a childhood friend of Hanna’s, helps whip up a frenzy of anti-Semitic hate.
     Indeed, more than the plot is ironical. The film’s opening movement features a good many instances of doors opening and closing—but to suggest the entrapment of villagers in their environment.
     The mass slaughter that ultimately erupts anticipates similar passages in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Dreyer’s own The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
     Dreyer, the devout Christian, embraces his Jewish characters as fellow and sister beings. In his essay “Who Crucified Jesus?” (1951) he likens the Romans to the Gestapo, and in another, “The Roots of Anti-Semitism” (1959), Dreyer credits Judaism for an idea that is central to his philosophy: that “all human beings are equal to God.”

1925
MASTER OF THE HOUSE. “Where are my slippers? . . . How many times have I told you to serve me coffee first?”
     From Svend Rindom’s play The Fall of a Tyrant, the suburban domestic comedy Master of the House, from Denmark, gives full expression to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s feminist sympathies. A man who tyrannizes his wife learns to appreciate her once she has absented herself from the home. Sensitive at last to the errors of his ways, he asks her forgiveness.
     Although there are fleeting moments outdoors (such as when the tyrant castigates one of his children for wearing down his soles at play, asking, “Do you think I’m made of money?”), the film takes place almost entirely in the family’s small apartment—“a world unto itself,” the film’s preface explains. We watch the wife, for instance, doing domestic chores and tending to the children, often not in closeup but, instead, with the camera at a sufficient distance to stress her involvement in these activities rather than the activities themselves. Hers is an uncomplaining life until her feminist fairy godmother, the elderly nanny, instructs her to rebel.
     It isn’t easy to suggest domestic tyranny in a silent film, absent physical violence, in which the husband does not indulge; but Dreyer and Rindom, who co-authored the script, found a visually effective way. The family has a pet canary. Its cage projects the wife’s feelings of entrapment, and equally effective is the difference in size between the overbearing head of the household and this tiny bird.
     Without being overtly selfconsciously composed, the film is gorgeous. Its characters really seem to be living their lives before our inquisitive eyes. Moreover, Dreyer achieves a perfect blend of lightness and gravity. The film’s humor and psychological realism are both assured.

1928
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. Who was the chief architect of her martyrdom? The English invaders, who imprisoned her? The French clergy, who tried and condemned her? God? The girl herself? The people, who identified with her and gave her martyrdom political purpose?
      Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer thus entered fifteenth-century France and collapsed the difference between present and distant past, not to construct an objective history, but to show opposing subjectivities at Jeanne d’Arc’s trial: her insistent faith; the heretic that her judges, at the behest of the English, felt compelled to subdue.
      Using composition, camera placement and camera movement to isolate Jeanne within the frame, and a dissonant editing style wherein consecutive shots sometimes appear deliberately mismatched, Dreyer lays bare the politics of official persecution. Moreover, he plumbs a solitary soul’s duress under this persecution and shows the transformation of the witnessing masses from an amorphous mob into a responsible voice—and fist—of moral protest. Transcending images of the exploitative circus that Jeanne’s execution attracts, Dreyer’s film achieves startling clarity.
      Her unadorned face in varied closeup, at the center of the film is Maria Falconetti giving a tremendous performance—in fact, among the most celebrated ones in all of cinema. What became of her? One legend claims she so identified with her one film role that she ended up in an insane asylum, convinced she was Jeanne. Likely, the actress returned to the stage. Falconetti’s “madness” surely is an antifeminist lie taking aim at so powerful a female image.
      Falconetti enrobes us in the silence of Jeanne’s destiny, much as Dreyer enrobes us in the silence of silent film, with which added scores or orchestral accompaniments uncomprehendingly tinker. Falconetti’s Jeanne helps make Dreyer’s Passion a mystery there is no coming out of.

1931
VAMPYR. A student of vampires, young David Gray is a “dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim”—an explorer given to “aimless journeyings.”
      Like Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Dreyer’s German/French Vampyr fully enters a magical world, a realm of sinister enchantment. Its images and sounds attempt to bridge the worlds of silence and sound. The film’s sparse additions of sounds and spoken dialogue interrupt and unsettle its silent or eerily quiet dreamlike state, helping the film to realize its momentous theme: humanity’s anxieties stemming from mortal awareness. Vampyr’s dreaminess goes beyond the suggestion of an anxious dream; it also suggests a desired, a willed, dream, whose aim is to relegate elements of anxiety-ridden reality to the realm of dream in order to conjure the possibility of waking up and having these elements dissipate and dissolve. The film implies, then, a permanently objective world fear of whose loss requires the landscape of a dream as a kind of safety hatch or escape route.
      After two title cards, the film per se materializes in a kind of dematerializing way. Gray appears walking up a hill, with the sea in close proximity. The shot is framed so that the dream possibility arises that he has walked out of the water; indeed, because we have just read that he is a dreamer, we associate the water with Gray’s unconscious. Gray is on land, which implicitly means he is firmly in reality, but the water, coupled with the butterfly net he totes, casts him symbolically adrift.
      What images there are in this film!—for instance, those shots, in shadowy silhouette, where a man is digging a grave, and we see, in reverse motion, the earth sail through space to the spoon of the shovel.

Please also see my full piece on Vampyr, which you will find elsewhere on this site categorized under “film reviews.”

1943
DAY OF WRATH. Although based on a play by Wiers Jensen, Dreyer’s Vredens Dag, from Denmark, is apt to remind Americans of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anne (Lisbeth Movin, wondrous), a parson’s much younger wife, falls in love with her stepson. After hearing her heart’s confession, her husband dies, and her beloved guiltily joins those denouncing her as a witch—a designation that she, broken, accepts.
      Dreyer discloses a seventeenth-century world of dark, spare interiors, where, like the stiffly dressed souls inhabiting them, light appears molded, constrained. Outdoors, the young clandestine couple steal respites of fresh, sunlit air amidst beauteous Nature. The “Dies Irae,” which opens it, also closes the film; on the latter occasion, the “day of judgment” is Anne’s. To her public confession, before she is burned to death, we bring our memory of The Passion of Joan of Arc (see above). Whereas he showed us Jeanne’s execution, however, Dreyer leaves Anne poised in the direction of hers; because she lacks Jeanne d’Arc’s sure consolation of a heaven-to-come, Anne is trapped and uncertain on eternity’s brink—like Occupied Denmark, which she embodies. Anne’s unquarrelsome move toward her terrible end makes comprehensible, as nothing else in cinema, the countless wartime acts of civilian courage and sacrifice committed by Europeans who, like Anne, felt certain that they also were on their way to the stake. Under their eyes, Dreyer took aim at his nation’s captors; but refusing this as his own day of judgment, he managed to escape to neutral Sweden. Anne’s fatalistic impulse to die, by its spiritual integrity, thus informed Dreyer’s impulse to live.
      Somber, spiritually radiant, almost unendurably moving, Day of Wrath is a work whose gravity and deliberate pace suggest human responsibility as it is perfectly weighed in the mind of God.

1954
ORDET. From Kaj Munk’s play, Ordet is cinema’s finest expression of Christian faith.
      In 1925, Morten Bergen lives on a remote farm with three sons: Mikkel, an atheist, whose wife, Inger, anticipates his return to the fold; Johannes, whose conviction that he is the risen Christ prompts him to chide “believers” for not believing fully enough; and young Anders, who has fallen in love with Anne, with whose father Morten has long been locking horns over their differing views of Christianity. Inger dies shortly after giving birth to a son whose wrong position requires the doctor to terminate the infant in an effort to save her life. Mikkel is left in inconsolable grief. Invoking Jesus Christ, Johannes resurrects Inger, bringing Mikkel to his wife’s faith and reconciling both families.
      Dreyer’s sublime Danish comedy accumulates the awesome power of his great tragedies. Its signature image is the family laundry, whites outdoors on a line, furiously flapping in the wind—perfectly mundane, and yet full of mysterious beauty that betokens spiritual possibilities. At Inger’s funeral service, the sheer white curtains through which sunlight filters and the tick of a wall clock are transmutations of the laundry’s sights and sound.
      With a crystalline sense of the eternal, the mystery in our midst that gives rise to religious feeling, The Word encompasses, outdoors, an unsurpassed beauty of landscape and an almost palpable depth of air and, indoors, a miracle whose emotional power and depth of spiritual suggestion remain unmatched in cinema. Twentieth-century humanity’s remove from natural sources of faith Ordet’s moment of rebirth shatters in a tidal wave of passion. Dreyer burns “religion” down to its ancient core of wonder, taking even nonbelievers to a summit of shared visionary experience where the pure air seems the very breath of God.

Please also see my full piece on Ordet, which you will find elsewhere on this site categorized under “film reviews.”

1964
GERTRUD. An Ibsen’s Doll’s House without agenda, Gertrud is Dreyer’s refined, rigorous valedictory—a last work of such nobility and clarity that it transports the viewer to astonishment and grace.
      Adding a haunting coda to Hjalmar Söderberg’s play, Gertrud shows the consequences of choice for a woman who, in the early twentieth century, leaves the security of a stifling marriage and ends up—calmly, with dignity—alone. Gertrud’s responsible life discloses her great spirit, releasing it from the distortion of a too highly placed wall mirror in her husband’s vast, cold, empty house; her exercise of free will, and her unquarrelsome acceptance of the disappointing results, help compose her integrity. Austere, poignant, mature, Gertrud is the patient revelation of the gravity and weight of a human life as it incrementally advances—moment by moment, choice by choice—in the direction of eternity. Bergman’s atheism seems crabby alongside Dreyer’s massive faith.
      Gertrud’s measured pace; the measured pace of the characters’ speech; the camera’s tactful distance in so many instances; the beauteous black and white; the solitude; the sheer calm: even in the exalted œuvre to which it belongs, Gertrud seems like nothing else. It captures life as life is measured against eternity. It is Dreyer as he prepares himself for God. For us, too, the film seems like some sort of momentous preparation—if only for our next viewing of this inexhaustible masterpiece. Gertrud is a movie to live by.
      Nina Pens Rode, as Gertrud, is sublime. Who can forget Gertrud’s final gaze, from her apartment door, as she bids farewell to a guest? Her sight seems to turn inward, approaching private reverie. What is it at the last that she sees? I think I know—perhaps the film that the rest of us have just seen. Gertrud.

2 thoughts on “CARL THEODOR DREYER

  1. “Falconetti’s ‘madness’ surely is an antifeminist lie taking aim at so powerful a female image.” To this perhaps excessively cynical person, that would be a feminist lie. Claiming that Maria Falconetti developed insanity would be a feeble way to attack Joan of Arc, the “powerful” “female image.” Film reviewers who can’t understand Joan or grasp her beliefs do a better job of attacking her. As for Falconetti, not apparently seeking to appear in another film sure looks to this viewer among the sanest decisions any actress (to use a currently forbidden word) ever made. When one thinks of Falconetti, one thinks of one of the greatest performances on film, ever.

    Elsewhere, one reads that she died in Buenos Aires in 1946. She left for Argentina during the war, escaping first to Switzerland. I think Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies said she taught school in Argentina.

  2. Carl Th. Dreyer is among the supreme masters of cinema. He’s an aritst wohse contibutions remain unparallelled among film directors. However, his anem remains less familiar even among circles of film enthusiasts. Some of his trademarks include using unprofessional or lesser-known actors, focusing on mystical themes like miracles, vampires, and witchcraft, creating idealized heroines, and lighting his sets with unparalleled beauty. Dreyer eventually developed a reputation as an over-bearing, excessively perfectionist director, which reputation hindered his later output of films. Dreyer’s third sound film was based on a play by W.O. Somin, and although it was widely considered a failure financially and artistically, its innovative camera movements paved the way for his masterpiece ‘Ordet’.

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