The Films of Carl Dreyer

THE FILMS OF CARL DREYER

We all know which movies to watch for Christmas, but what about Easter? Are you really satisfied with all those films about prophets treading over desert sand? No, the cinematic companion you need for Passiontide is the Danish director Carl Dreyer. The DVD distributor and film restorer, the Criterion Collection, has made available five major Dreyer films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. These are works you need any day of the year but they can make Good Friday just a bit more harrowing and Easter just a bit more hopeful. It’s all here: the corruption of the body and the self, and the transcendence of the body and the self; the spirit falling into the abyss, and the spirit reaching for the heavens. Not least of all, these movies look hard and steadily at radical individualism, a quality we Americans so reflexively approve that we have developed an American argot for it-“I need my own space,” “I need some down time for myself.” But if you want to be grateful for the true glories of individualism and deeply troubled by its dark side, put yourself in the hands of Carl Dreyer.

Did Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) become such an acute psychologist of individualism because he had trouble becoming an “I”? “Dreyer” was the name of the Copenhagen family who took in the illegitimate son of a Swedish woman and a Danish farmer when the birth mother died. Dreyer seems to have hated his foster parents because they never stopped reminding him that his mother had neglected her social responsibilities, first by bearing a son out of wedlock and then by dying. Since they expected the boy to recompense them for their charity as soon as possible, Carl took a clerical position with a shipping firm and dreamed of his employers sending him to the Far East. One day, an aging fellow clerk showed the apprentice a thick ledger packed with hundreds of columns of figures. “This is my entire life,” the old man said. Carl soon left the firm.

He became a journalist, a celebrity profiler of Scandinavian theater stars, then entered the (silent) film world of Nordisk Films to write intertitles, later rewriting scenarios and editing footage. Late in life, Dreyer said, “I’m not ashamed that I take the trouble to learn my job and know it from its foundations.” Each of the movies in this collection bears out this statement in every single frame.

First, a few paradoxes concerning Dreyer: His career, 1913-68, virtually spans the first half-century of cinema, yet he directed relatively few films, fourteen, as compared with the scores of works made by Hitchcock, Ford, Bunuel, and other midcentury masters. Dreyer demanded total control but had no taste for squabbling with studio executives. He was content to dream, revise his scripts, and do a lot of traveling (even to Hollywood) in search of any patron who would guarantee him financial freedom. Between Vampyr and Day of Wrath there was an eleven-year gap; between Ordet and Gertrud, ten years.

Dreyer was self-effacing and gentle. One of his actresses described him as having the appearance of a bank clerk. But when he looked his performers in the eye, they felt enclosed by his vision and obeyed him. (My fantasy: Carl Dreyer directs Barbra Streisand.) When technicians gave him guff, he simply repeated his orders until they gave in. The actor Baard Owe called him “a stubbornness wrapped up in mildness.”

Every Dreyer film bears his personal stamp, yet they are all adaptations of playwrights and novelists who had their own styles. Through photography, set design, tempo, camera angles, and a unique way of evoking ultimate intensity from his actors, the director made Dreyer movies out of disparate sources.

Three of the five films glanced at below are soaked in religious feeling (Ordet is based on a play by a clergyman), yet the heroine of his last, Gertrud, is an atheist who exalts sensual love as an earthly religion. Dreyer neither mocks nor criticizes her, though he does show the limits of such love. Dreyer, a heterosexual, was one of the first filmmakers to treat homosexuality with dignity and unlurid candor in the 1924 Mikhail.

The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer stated that he directed this film in the way he did-against stark sets, employing extreme close-ups of actors wearing no make-up-to let audiences feel that Joan and her clerical prosecutors were real people who had once walked the earth. For me, the movie’s greatness isn’t a matter of realism but in the way it turns its characters into archetypes. The close-ups make Joan iconic and transform her antagonists into gargoyles.

If Sartre was right in saying that everyone gets the face he deserves, Joan’s prosecutors are condemned by their own faces. Each crease, each line, crow’s-foot, wattle, eyebag, and fleshly hollow seems sculpted by pride of learning and fear that that learning be challenged; by delight in controlling the freakish, upstart girl; and by outrage that the freakishness cannot be obliterated. Collectively, these men form a portrait of Institutionalism Rampant. They have never experienced the holiness and ecstasy that founded the church and, upon encountering such holiness in Joan, they can only react with outrage and sadism. What is most amazing and frightening about them is that they are clearly enjoying themselves. This led Pauline Kael to the insight that “no other film has so subtly linked eroticism with religious persecution.”

Maria Falconetti’s face, on the other hand, is an image of freedom, terrorized but unquenched. Hair cropped, big eyed, lips parched, fly-tormented, Joan is like a child who has fallen into the hands of pedantic molesters. And yet she retains her insuperable strength: she has seen angels and heard the word of God. Her tormentors haven’t, and the more they fulminate, the stronger she gets.

Joan is a Catholic saint beloved by Protestants-Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain-because she represents for them a truth-seeking that defies churchly convention and calcified law. In Dreyer’s film, however, the individualism of the saint isn’t linked with politics and law but with the ecstasy she has known in her direct communion with the supernatural. The Passion of Joan of Arc dramatizes the clash of natural goodness with self-worshiping and sensuous institutionalism. And the drama is all in the faces.

Day of Wrath In his excellent essay about this film (in Classics of the Foreign Film, 1962), Parker Tyler nails down its theme: “It is the virtually timeless revolt of the individual against the world and its legitimate ways.” The tragedy Dreyer sets forth is how “love may imbue a woman with the dark power of obtaining her personal desire by destroying anyone who provides an obstacle.”

Anne is a beautiful young woman living in a society (early seventeenth-century Denmark) that burns witches, and she herself is the daughter of a witch. Dreyer, in the opening scenes, shows us quite clearly that a witch may be nothing more than a wise woman with a great knowledge of herbs, but Anne herself is attracted to the idea of a supernaturally empowered person who can bend others to her will. Married to an old man who can’t satisfy her sexually and attracted to his son by a previous marriage, Anne seduces young Martin and gives her husband a fatal heart attack by revealing her adultery and, much more devastatingly, the pent-up sexual resentment that triggered the affair. She knows she is innocent of infernal rites or knowledge of Satan, but she also knows that she has seduced and killed with psychological precision. Having finally lost the love of Martin, she submits to the judgment of her society though she knows she is bigger and subtler and spiritually freer than anyone in that society. She’s like a Nietzschean heroine without the concomitant Nietzschean will to revolt.

Joan was a cascade of images neatly knit in the editing room. For Day the stylistic principle is the lengthy medium shot, with the horizontally tracking camera steadily viewing the members of a poisoned household stalking one another. In this movie, every person is someone’s prey.

The only reason I balk at calling Falconetti’s Joan the greatest film performance is that Lisbeth Movin’s Anne may be even greater, and she has far fewer close-ups to help her convey her character’s smoldering power. Though based on a play, Day operates on the viewer more as a novel does, drawing you into the invisible mental fluxes of each character, most especially Anne’s. Lisbeth Movin spares you none of Anne’s dangerousness, so brace yourself.

Ordet Joan and Day of Wrath are visually sumptuous films but Ordet looks like a well-made TV drama, c. 1955. In fact, because it is a Scandinavian family story with action confined mostly to a living room and kitchen, the movie reminds me of the antediluvian series I Remember Mama starring Peggy Wood. Ordet portrays the same loving domesticity, but it proves to be a domesticity about to be blown up by theological dynamite.

Old Borgen, the patriarch of his family, is strong in his joyous faith, but cannot translate Christian consolation to his eldest son, Mikkel, an atheist, when the latter’s wife, Inger, the loving lynchpin of the family, dies. The mad middle son, Johannes, imagining that he is Jesus (kindly pastor: “Because of an unhappy love affair?” Mikkel: “No. Kierkegaard.”), smugly reproaches the rest of the family for their lack of faith, then approaches the deathbed to resurrect Inger. Suddenly, he falls flat on his back, as if God had administered a titanic dope slap. When he wakes, he flees his home but, when he returns in time for the funeral, his insanity has been dispelled. Though Johannes no longer believes he’s Christ, Jesus is now truly inside his head. And, because of his new clarity, Johannes is able to do something truly astounding. This movie is a pokey, homely, softly murmuring shocker. And no shocker has ever been so filled with love.

Gertrud I wish I could say this was the late-flowering masterpiece of Dreyer’s career that many critics think it to be, but I sense something more like artistic arthritis than autumnal wisdom in it. The heroine is supposed to be a priestess of erotic love wrapped in late Victorian crinoline, but Nina Pens Rode is a parched, uninteresting actress who conveys no erotic feeling whatsoever. As for film technique, Gertrud certainly carries to its logical conclusion Dreyer’s urge to stage his scenes in as few shots as possible. But in art, logical conclusions are not always desirable. While Day of Wrath and Ordet conveyed an impacted power, Gertrud seems becalmed.

Vampyr I pull this film out of chronological order because it should be the dessert that follows any of the above heavy meals. A perfectly conventional vampire story (boy meets girl, boy discovers girl’s family is vampire-haunted, boy saves family and gets girl), but it’s not the story that counts. What Dreyer accomplishes here is the retrieval of images from the rich warehouse of fantasy literature and painting (Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Bram Stoker, Casper David Friederich, Edvard Munch) and the employment of them in pure play. Shadows escape from walls and replace their people. Trapped in slumber, the hero imagines being buried alive, and we see the internment from his point of view in the coffin. In a rowboat, a young couple floats downstream in loving contentment while in a nearby mill, the vampire’s minion drowns, not in water but in granulated white powder, which somehow increases manyfold the horror of drowning. Pauline Kael was right when she wrote: “Dreyer seems to prey on our subconscious, our unformulated fears; the mood is evocative, dreamy, spectral. Psychological surprise, dread, and obsession are the substance of the film; death hovers over everyone.” Yeah, and it’s fun, too.

Published in the 2005-03-25 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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