The Great Dane: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Carl Dreyer (1889-1968) ranks, for me, among the very greatest film-makers, and the 2003 retrospective at the National Film Theatre presents an opportunity to reassess his work.

Born in Copenhagen and raised in a Lutheran environment, Dreyer brought a strong spiritual input to most of his major films, an input generally critical of the church authorities in the places where they are set. He was one of the most passionately feminist directors; he also developed a disorientating editing style which make his films fascinating to watch.

In this article I shall consider what I take to be his major films, namely the five features made over the lengthy period 1928 to 1964 (excluding the minor 1945 drama Two People). Some of his eight earlier silents are well-regarded by many, notably Master of the House (1925), a comedy where the woman teaches her husband a well-deserved lesson, but it was La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) which stamped him as a genuinely great director.

This film originated from the popularity in France of Master of the House. On being invited there he proposed three subjects for a film, and it was only by drawing lots that Joan of Arc was decided upon. (She is probably the most-filmed of all historical characters; interestingly, two of my other “very greatest film-makers”, Bresson and Rossellini, have also filmed her story, and there is another fine version by Rivette.)

Dreyer cast Renée Falconetti, a little-known cabaret artiste he had seen, and in her only film she produced what is widely regarded as the greatest-ever screen performance. In a film consisting largely of close-ups of faces, with no use whatsoever of makeup (it is literally “warts and all”), she displays a range of emotions so overwhelming that it is difficult to imagine any viewer failing to find La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc a shattering experience. This is especially so when it is accompanied by appropriate music; I have seen it with full orchestra and with piano (both live).

Dreyer’s radical editing results in the viewer never being able to envisage the courtroom as a whole. He breaks all the filmic conventions about continuity, and we are never sure of where the characters are positioned in relation to each other. This enables us to concentrate more on the (intertitled) dialogue, based directly on the trial transcript, and in particular on the raw emotions being experienced by Joan. It is no distraction that Falconetti was actually some 15 years older than her character is supposed to be. (Ingrid Bergman was some 20 years older in the Rossellini version.) The film also features a memorable performance as a monk by the radical drama theorist Antonin Artaud.

Joan is one of the strong, heroic women Dreyer would have at the centre of his later films, Anne in Day of Wrath (1943), Inger in Ordet (1955), and Gertrud in his 1964 film of that name. But first he would make Vampyr (1932), sometimes described as the greatest of all horror movies. Based on a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu, this is a dream-like shadow-filled story of a man encountering a vampire, making little narrative sense from a conventional viewpoint but drawing the viewer into it as a kind of sleep-walking experience. Dreyer stated that he was trying to show that horror comes from within, not from outside forces.

In Day of Wrath Dreyer returned to a more conventional tale, set in the Denmark of 1623. Anne is the young wife of a much older widowed clergyman who has a grown-up son. The two young people fall in love, and when her husband suddenly dies Anne is branded as a witch; she even comes to believe this herself. Dreyer shot the film in the style of paintings of the time it is set, but his editing is more conventional than his usual radical approach. Composition and lighting are superb. Because of when the film was made, it can be seen as an implicit protest against the Nazis, rather like another historical film of the time, Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis.

Ordet is a fascinating and much-discussed film. Set in early 20th century Jutland, it tells of a robustly Lutheran farmer living with his three sons who all give him problems: the eldest, married to Inger, has lost his faith; the middle one, Johannes, has gone mad and thinks he is Christ; and the youngest is in love with the daughter of the leader of a rival sect. Inger, with a young daughter and pregnant again, is the strong heroic woman who constantly tries to bring the warring factions together. When she dies in
childbirth all are devastated, until Johannes, having apparently regained his wits, prays for Inger’s recovery and, lo and behold, she rises from her coffin.

Put like this, Ordet’s ending seems absurd and manipulative. The “miracle”, however, is intensely moving, and has been argued over at length. For me the most ludicrous interpretation is one suggested in an interview by Dreyer himself, namely that it is something to do with the ideas of modern physics, the “uncertainty principle” or “chaos theory”, by which the particles making up Inger’s body somehow restore her to life by pure chance. But perhaps the interpretation doesn’t matter, because the point of the film is that, through this woman living among all the squabbling men, not only is the family restored to harmony but peace is also reached between the rival Christian sects.

Unlike Day of Wrath, Ordet is filmed as far as possible with a “one-shot-per-scene” approach. The camera slowly glides around the room like a silent observer; a character can disappear near the start of a shot and reappear several minutes later during the same shot; we can be disorientated by the sudden appearance of a character in a position other than what we have been led (by conventional film-making) to expect. Only in the funeral/resurrection scene does Dreyer resort to the conventional shot/countershot approach, almost as if “normal” editing is needed when “abnormal” events occur.

At the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Antonioni’s L’Avventura caused a near-riot by uncomprehending spectators. By 1962 it had come second in Sight and Sound’s critics’ poll of best-ever films. Dreyer’s Gertrud, another modernist masterpiece, had a similar early history: the booing spectators at its Paris première thought the 75-year-old director had gone quite senile, with an utterly boring piece of “filmed theatre” about people sitting on sofas having conversations in monotonous voices. Yet, while never achieving the commercial success of L’Avventura, Gertrud soon became an established, if seldom-screened, favourite among “arthouse” patrons and critics.

In my view it is an exquisite, and quite perfect, work of art. Gertrud is another of Dreyer’s strong, independent women who, in her 40s and married to a government minister, comes to the conviction that no man, not even her busy husband, is prepared to devote himself totally to her, and that she therefore prefers to live alone and without love. The stationary shots of “sofa-conversations”, lasting up to 9 minutes, contain virtually no physical movement, yet the violent emotional turmoil in Gertrud’s heart when she discovers, for example, that her young lover regards her as just another conquest can leave the attentive viewer quite breathless. The slow expressionless speaking style, and the fact that characters hardly ever look at one another, add to the emotional intensity. And again Dreyer disorientates us with his unorthodox editing; typically, a character leaving the frame cuts to a door where we expect him/her to exit, but instead another character enters. And just as Ordet presents us with a variety of religious opinions, so Gertrud offers us a variety of opinions about love.

Carl Dreyer’s lifetime ambition was to make a film about the life of Christ, for which he wrote the script but could not get the finance. That would have been something to see, and doubtless quite different from the attempts by DeMille, Ray, Scorsese, Stevens, and others. At any rate, we have some wonderful Dreyer films to be going along with.

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