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...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.