Ordet Dreyer Critique Essay
Ordet, which means 'The Word' in English, is not only one of the greatest films ever made, but one of the most spiritual films I have ever witnessed. It was directed by the legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who is considered one of the great masters in the art form of the cinema, and like his similar masterpieces The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, this film deals more about faith and spirituality, than just the fundamental basics of Christianity. Religious or Atheist, this film touches on so many universal issues that we all question and hope exist including love, faith, forgiveness and redemption, which is all the more amazing because of the poetic way Dreyer presents it to us, which doesn't give out the feeling that he is merely preaching; which I believe is an extraordinary achievement. Like most of Dreyer's films Ordet is a film that is shot with low ceilings and dim lighting all the while establishing characters within the fabric of its storyline. When each character speaks, everyone listens. The dialog takes its time, the pacing is very slow and the rhythmic is measured by its own chamber space and real-time, all the while you listen to the diegetic sounds within the environment, like the ticking of the clock, the scratching of a pen writing, or the treacherous winds outside the home. By pacing the film slowly, each pause in the dialog is filled with a movement or a character reacting and listening; something you almost never see in films. A film like this might take some getting used to, but once the dramatic events slowly start to unfold, Dreyer sucks you into its hypnotic world.The main themes throughout Ordet explore faith, or the lack of, and that the idea that miracles are something that can no longer occur in modern times. The story of Ordet is based on a play by Kaj Munk (a Danish pastor martyred by the Nazis in 1944), which involves a family who have conflicting issues in their belief systems, and when a tragedy strikes their home they have to learn to cope with it in their own different ways. Sadly, this was the only film that was a commercial success for Dreyer, which is unfortunate since he made so many beloved films before and after this one. But Dreyer was the stepping stone for these type of spiritual bleak chamber-dramas. The directors that remind me most of Dreyer's style and themes are Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, all artists who followed in his footsteps while developing their own unique auteur. The amazing triumph of Ordet is that it's such a odd and unique work, that if you try to simplify it, or look at it realistically, you lose the strange spiritual awe that the characters and the images are trying to express on the screen. The reason films like this don't seem to touch people quite easily is because the film demands the audience's love and attention to the world Dreyer created. If open to it, than this film has more to offer then almost any other film I've seen.
It tells a story about the Borgen family that live on a farm in a small town in rural Denmark during the winter of 1925. The father Morten is a widower and a proud member of the local church. He has three sons, the youngest is Anders, a young man who is unfortunately for Morten, in love with Anne - a daughter of Peter, a man of a local religious sect that is not the same religion as Morten's. The oldest son is Mikkel, a man who does not believe in God and has two children one named Maren and a wife named Inger who is currently pregnant with their third child. And than comes the middle child Johannes, who went insane studying Soren Kierkegarrd theology and soon after went into a sleepwalk like state and now believes he is Jesus of Nazareth.
The opening scene has Ander's waking up in the early morning on the Morton farm hearing the hens. When looking out his window he sees Johannes walking outside into the dunes. He quickly wakes up his father to let him know that Johannes got outside again. Morten gets up and decides to help Ander's in which wakes up Mikkel and his wife Inger. Inger says to her husband, "Don't you think one should pity him? 27, and incurably mad."
Mikkel just says, "perhaps he's happy the way he is." Mikkel gets dressed to help his brother and father retrieve Johannes and pull him inside the house before neighbors start talking. There's a beautiful shot of Johannes in the crop fields with the wind blowing as he preaches to himself. "Woe unto you, hypocrites, unto you and you. Woe unto you for your lack of faith. Woe unto you who do not believe in me, the risen Christ. God has summoned me to prophesy before his face, for only those who have faith shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. Amen.”
His family finally catches up to him and take him back to the house. That evening Johannes is walking around the house sprouting words and lines from the bible and lighting candles; and his father asks him, "What good does all this do, Johannes?" During dinner everyone talks about Johannes and how crazy he is for believing he's Jesus and wondering if it he will ever snap out of it.
They believe he went crazy when he went to school to study theology and when arriving home was never the same again. Mikkel says to his father, "He should never have been made to study." Morton replies, "I did it because he had a talent in it. With Johannes's special abilities I thought he might be the spark that could fire Christendom again from this farm." Inger tells her father in law that Johannes will eventually be the same again and for Morton to keep praying and to not give up.
In bed, Inger says to Mikkel how she feels sorry for his father. When Mikkel says he feels sorry for his brother Johannes his wife says, "Johannes is perhaps closer to God than the rest of us." Mikkel then tells Inger on how he can't stand his father's righteousness and how his father always judges him because he doesn't believe what his father believes. Inger asks her husband, "But Mikkel, you do believe in God, don't you? You have no faith?" Mikkel answers, "Not even faith; in faith."
The next morning Anders comes forward and tells Mikkel and Inger that he loves Anne. Inger says she will help him out and talk to his father about Anne and to try have Morton understand that love is more important than the differences of religion. Anders in the meantime will head over to Anne's fathers house and talk to him. That afternoon Inger confronts Morton about Anders wanting to marry Anne and asks him if he would accept her into the family. Before they slide in that discussion, Inger sees the new preacher of their church walking from home to home greeting everyone. When she makes Morton coffee she then brings up Anders loving Anne and during their discussion at the table the camera pans to the right as Johannes interrupts and says, "A corpse in the front living. A corpse in the living room to the glory of my Father in Heaven."
Morton tells Johannes to leave the room and after he does Inger asks Morton, "What on earth was he talking about?" Morton tells her, "Who worries about what he says, Inger?" The two continue their conversation on Anders and Anne and Inger even promises her father in law that if he agrees to the young couple's marriage she will have a son like she always promised him. He smiles at Inger but still refuses Anders and Anne's marriage because he doesn't like Anne's father Peter who is a local tailor in the town. Morton does not like Peter's church, or his religious ways, and when he finds out Anders is at Anne's father's place to propose to her at that very moment he is angry because everyone in the family knew about this but him; believing his family is plotting against them with secrets.
He angrily walks outside heading to the barn with Inger following him to calm him down. Inger and her father in law have a very close relationship and in the barn the two of them are sitting and talking about faith, God and praying and how Morton sometimes questions the use of praying any longer. Theres a tender moment when Inger says to him, "I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly; God hears people's prayers, but he does it kind of secretly." Anders heads to Peter's house and when he asks his daughter's hand in marriage Peter bluntly tells him no. Anders asks Peter if he believes he is not good enough for his daughter and Peter says, "No, Anders you are not good enough. What's wrong with you is you are not a Christian."
Peter then escorts Anders out as he welcomes in his church guests for a prayer meeting. In one of the best scenes in the film the town's new minister of the families church comes by to pay his respects to the Borgen family. Unfortunately the only person in the home at that time is Johannes, and the minister's reaction to Johannes's religious monologues don't go over to well with him.
"I am the new minister."
“My name is Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Jesus? But how can you prove that?”
“Thou man of faith, whose own self lacks faith! People believe in the dead Christ, but not in the living. They believe in my miracles from 2000 years ago...but they don’t believe in me now. I have come again to bear witness to my Father who is in Heaven, and to work miracles.”
“Miracles no longer happen.”
“Thus speaks my church on earth...that church which has failed me, that has murdered me in my own name. Here I stand, and again you cast me out. But woe unto you, if you nail me to the cross again."
“That’s absolutely appalling.”
Mikkel walks in the house and welcomes the minister to the Morton farm. When Mikkel realizes the minister already met Johannes he apologizes for his brother and says, "we don't talk about it up here, but with you...Johannes studied theology. He was alright at first but then he had a difficult time with speculation and doubts..."
Later that evening when Anders comes home and starts to cry he tells the family that Karen's father Peter turned down his proposal to marry his daughter because he is not good enough and threw Anders out. Morton says, "Is my son not allowed to have Peter the tailor's daughter?" Morton get's very upset that Peter thinks his son isn't good enough for his daughter and tells Inger to get his coat. Morton then asks Anders if it's serious between him and Anne. Anders says, "would I have let him throw me out otherwise?"
Now, because of arrogant family pride Morton now approves on Anders and Anne being together and now wants to have a talk with Peter to see if Peter the tailor would say his families not good enough to his face. When arriving at Peter's sect with Anders they interrupt Peter's mass and Morton says to Peter, ""I've not come to attend your meeting. I've come to have a word with you." Peter asks Morton and Anders to take a seat, and the they both wait until Peter is done with his mass. After Peter's guests leave Morton wants to talk to Peter alone and so Anders goes in the kitchen with Anne and her mother.
There's an interesting scene of the two young lovers in the kitchen looking at a religious picture in a book that shows Jesus about to heal a dying man on his death-bed which is a foreshadowing of the climax of the film. While Peter and Morton are politely smoking cigars and discussing their children's affairs, Morton tells Peter, "I've tried to see things from your point of view. There's no reason for our children to suffer because we two don't see eye to eye on religion." When Peter says Anna will marry someone of her own religion Morton responds by saying, "We have no intention of taking God from her. I wont say anything against you and the others but I can't stand you; I'm darned if I can. First and foremost all your conversion rubbish."
Peter then snaps back by sarcastically saying, "No, you have the bright, happy Christianity, while we, are the dark of soul and undertakers. Then why do you always look so miserable when one meets you? I feel so free and glad, because I know there is a place waiting for me in heaven." Peter tells Morton that he will only will permit the marriage of his daughter if Morton and his family join his sect. When he questions Morton on his relationship with God and of his faith that angers Morton and the discussion collapses into sectarian bickering. You can tell from the way these two go at it that they've known each other for years, and could of been friendly if their religious beliefs didn't divide them.
While arguing Morton suddenly gets a urgent phone call from home saying that Inger went into difficult labor. Him and Anders quickly leave but not before Peter tells Morton that his daughter in law's difficult labor is a sign that God is striking down at him for not being a true Christian. Morton shocked at Peter's comments then asks him, "What are you saying? I believe you actually hope my daughter in law will die!" Peter replies, "yes, if there is no other way." Morton grabs Peter because of those harsh comments and they start scuffling. Anders breaks the both of them up and they quickly leave returning home.
When arriving home the doctor and pastor are there and the doctor informs Mikkel that he might be forced to abort the baby, he to save Inger's life. Hours pass while the family is hoping and waiting for Inger to come out of surgery OK.
Morton is sitting alone patiently waiting for news on Inger ignoring Johannes's ramblings and when Mikkel comes out he tells his father that the child has come. When Morton asks him if it was the boy that Inger promised him, Mikkel says, "yes. It was a boy." Morton is happy and says that the Lord does not fail, until Mikkel says, "he's lying there, in the pail, cut into four pieces." Morton is shocked and says to his son if only he could pray to god. Mikkel looks at his father and says, "you can do that, father."
Mikkel leaves to attend to his wife who is still near death and Morton sits down full of shock and sadness. When Johannes enters the room again rambling on with his biblical words, he now bothers Morton saying, "how great must your need be before you listen to me? You see him? The Lord. You are drawing nearer to God but it will cost you but one word." Morton says to Johannes, "if you want to do your old father a favor, go to your room." When Johannes keeps speaking saying, "the man with the scythe, he has come back...to fetch Inger," he starts to really anger Morton. "No...no...go away," Morton says. "Go away! I tell you, or you will make me mad, too!"
When Johannes leaves into his room little Maren comes out and tells her grandfather how her mother has told her that she was going to get a younger brother. Morton tells her, "our Lord has decided not to send the little brother just yet." When Morton tells her to go back to bed and pray for her mother to get better Maren says that she was told her mother was going to die that night. Morton is shocked at her comments and asked her where she heard that from and Maren says, "Uncle Johannes says so. And then he'll call her back to life...just like the man in the Bible, you know."
Morton can't believe that rubbish and tells his granddaughter to go to bed. Morton then sees Mikkel walk out and say that he can't bear to be in that room seeing his wife suffer. Morton tells his son to be strong and Mikkel tells his father, "I won't bear to lose her. If Inger dies...will you promise me that you will live until Anders and Anne are married so that the children have a home?" Morton tells Mikkel "it must not happen. Oh! God! Don't take Inger from us." Morton then offers for the both of them to go in and see Inger with Morton holding God's hand.
When they are in there Johannes comes out and sits down and Maren walks out and asks Johannes if her mother is going to die so then he can bring her back to life like he had told her. Johannes says to her, "the others won't allow me to. Then mother will go to heaven. Little girl...you don't know what it's like to have a mother in Heaven. A child that has a mother in Heaven doesn't get into trouble. When one's mother is dead, she is always with you." Maren then asks if Johannes can tuck her in bed and he tenderly picks her up and takes her to her bedroom.
Morton comes out of Inger's room and hopes that death will not come upon the family. The doctor eventually comes out and has good new saying that everything went fine and that Inger will be alright; she just needs some rest. Mikkel is relieved and offers the doctor and preacher to relax and he has his servant get them coffee.
While the doctor and preacher are sitting down having coffee, Morton approaches them and the doctor says to Morton, "you must pardon me, my good Borgen. I don't want to hurt your religious feelings, but now that it's turned out all right, allow me to tease you a little. Which do you think helped most this evening, your prayers or my treatment?" Morton says, "God's blessing, my dear doctor."
The doctor and the minister sit in the other room debating miracles and science, politely and yet respecting each others profession and beliefs. The reverend believes miracles are still possible since God is the creator of everything but does not do so because it would break the laws of nature. When the doctor asks the reverend on the miracle of Christ the reverend tells him those were under special circumstances; which of course makes the doctor laugh. Suddenly everyone becomes dead quite when hearing Johannes praying to himself in the other room.
When the minister suggests to Morton that Johannes might be better off in a home and that maybe a little shock treatment might cure him; Morton says, "My boy stays here with me as long as I am at Borgen's home." After the doctor and minister leave for the night Johannes walks in on Morten and Anders and says "death is nearby and will take Inger, unless Morten has faith in me. In the hour of faith you will have to bring her back." Right after Johannes says those prophesied words, Mikkel walks into the room and tells his family that Inger just died.
Morton, Anders and Mikkel go in to see Inger and Mikkel describes to them how she grew stiff in his arms and her eyes glazed over. Morton says, "the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away." Because of the sudden death of Inger; everyone in the Borgen family spiritually breaks down. Anders calls the doctor to inform him that Inger passed away in her sleep and when Johannes starts rambling saying that Inger is sleeping; Mikkel takes him in to see Inger to show him she isn't. When Johannes enters the room and is looking over Inger he says, "I, the Christ, have come from God, and with God shall I remain among the clouds of heaven..." and then Johannes suddenly faints and collapses.
Anders and Mikkel carry Johannes into the other room and when Morton asks if Johannes is dead Mikkel says to his father, "no father, these are not the ones who die. Not even that much mercy has been granted us." After setting a unconsious Johannes down in the other room, Mikkel angrily confronts his father on the death of his wife. "Why did she have to die? Why should we be torn from each other? It's all so meaningless, so meaningless! All I know is everything I loved and worshipped is now to be buried in the earth to rot, to rot and rot!" Then next shot is Inger's death certificate and then during the night Johannes leaves the home leaving by going out the window but not before leaving a note that says: "Yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me. Whither I go, ye cannot come." (St. John XIII. 33)
The next morning finding Johannes note; Morton and the rest of the family go out looking for Johannes in the dunes calling out his name but he is nowhere to be found. Inger's death is in the town paper and everyone is getting ready for her funeral to say their goodbyes. When Peter here's about the death of Inger he feels guilty on how he offended Morton; and how he should have turned the other cheek. Peter then decides to go to the Morton's farm to make his amends with Morton and the rest of the family.
There is a miracle that occurs at the end of the film that is relatively unexplained. When the day of the funeral arrives, Johannes is still missing as the family sit around Inger's casket. Mikkel thinks its best to put the cover on Inger's coffin, and when Morten tells him to wait for the minister to say a prayer first, Mikkel angrily says, "yes. We'll send her away with full honors." The minister and the doctor walk in to pay their respects. When the minister makes his prayer there is a beautiful shot of two windows; one on each side above Inger's coffin with light shining through the room.
After the prayer Peter walks in to reconcile with Morten and now agrees to allow Anne and Anders to marry; the both of them apologizing for their earlier behavior. Mikkel breaks down while everyone starts to say their final goodbyes to his wife including his children. "Goodbye my little sweetheart. Goodbye my little girl," Mikkel says to his wife right before they close the casket. And then in one of the most moving scenes in cinematic history, Johannes suddenly returns and interrupts the wake. He has found his wits again and says hello to his father.
He then approaches Inger's coffin and says, "not one of you has the idea of asking God to give Inger back to you again." His father tells him he is blaspheming God by his words but Johannes tells him that they all blaspheme God with their lukewarm faith. In front of everyone, Johannes proclaims that Inger can be raised from the dead if the family will only have faith and ask God to do so. He says, "if you had prayed to God, he'd have listened to your prayers. My brother...why is there not one among these believers who believe?" Mikkel looks at his brother and says, "what is all this? Standing here and shouting over my wife's dead body." Maren then takes Johannes' hand and says, "hurry, now uncle."
When Jahannes leans over Inger's body she suddenly opens her eyes and is brought back to life. Her husband Mikkel holds her tightly in his arms. Inger then asks him, "the child...is it alive?" Mikkel now having gained his faith says to his wife, "Yes...it lives at home with God."
The strangeness of Ordet is something that no number of viewings, God willing, will rub off. I want to stress this strangeness. That Ordet is a great film, one of the greatest ever made, only a rash or foolish person will deny. But even less than with other great films can we afford to let the category of greatness limit our response, because Ordet demands more from us, and has more to give, than almost any other film.
So we will want to hold on to those qualities of the film that, for many viewers, and perhaps to some degree for all viewers, make Ordet so striking, so odd, and—perhaps there is no need to avoid this last word, despite the risk of estranging the film toomuch—so difficult.
Based on a play by Kaj Munk (a Danish pastor martyred by the Nazis in 1944), the film is concerned with a farming family and takes place mostly in the house where they all live together: old Morten Borgen, a widower; his three sons; Inger, the wife of the eldest son, Mikkel; and their two little daughters. Inger is pregnant. The second son, Johannes, has gone mad from reading Kierkegaard (the line of dialogue that tells us this usually gets a laugh at showings of the film—a reaction Dreyer probably anticipated) and thinks he’s Jesus.
It quickly becomes clear that Ordet has little plot in the familiar sense, and no single main hero. The possibility looms that the main action of the film will coalesce around the desire of Anders, the third son, to marry Anne, the daughter of a tailor. (Anne and her father, Peter, belong to a religious sect that stresses being born again as the requirement for escaping hell and that has long been at enmity with the Borgens and their “bright, joyful kind of Christianity.”) But Anders isn’t a hero (he’s just a pleasant young man who knows his place and whom we don’t get to know well—he’s very much the third son), and the pale, shy, and silent Anne is even less than that. And the young couple’s blocked happiness soon gives way as a subject for distress to the more urgent case of Inger’s difficult childbirth. Thus Ordet is not a “plot” film. It’s an intense and turbulent poem with several motifs constantly in action, ultimately to be harmonized by Inger’s resurrection.
Earlier I said that the film poses difficulties. The two main difficulties of the film—they are always remarked on—can be summed up like this: slowness, and Johannes.
The slowness cuts two ways. On the one hand, Ordet is a film of domestic rhythms, concerns, and relationships, and by pacing the script slowly, Dreyer gets us to feel the fullness of this kind of life. The pauses in the dialogue are filled with movement, with reaction, with characters hearingeachother in a way that they almost never do in films. The distinctive resonance of their voices in the chamber space reinforces this impression (emphasizing not the expository function of the dialogue, but the physical presence of these voices). So do the nonverbal sounds like the clock ticking in the parlor, the rolling of Inger’s rolling-pin, or Morten Borgen’s cough, offscreen, as the camera crosses the empty space of the parlor to reach Johannes.
On the other hand, the film’s narrative might seem too mild to warrant the abrupt turn to tragedy, were it not for Dreyer’s way of staging and shooting scenes. The characters who inhabit the gleaming ordinariness of Ordet are haunted by a significance that they themselves don’t acknowledge, a significance that can’t necessarily be reduced to “God” (although religious belief is one of the main themes of the film). This significance, and the characters’ flickering access to it, is written in the slowness of their movements and those of the camera.
The camera movements of Ordet are deeply embedded in the patterns of the film, and deeply affect our response to the film, in ways that even the most minute verbal analysis must fail to explain. The camera follows the characters, but also goes beyond them—suggesting both the real-time sympathy of an observer and a supernaturally exact foresight of when and where the characters will appear and move. The smoothness and deliberateness of the camera movements give us a unique sense about the reality of the film’s world, the sense that everything is both happening for the first time and happening in eternity. We get this sense not only from the sweeping, circular shot that establishes the parlor and its adjoining bedrooms, but also from the short, sudden (but hardly casual) pan that briefly encompasses Mikkel as he tries to stop Peter the tailor from speaking at the funeral.
As for Johannes, he is, in Preben Lerdorff Rye’s performance, a character so vocally and physically extreme that he shocks and alienates viewers. There can be no doubt that Dreyer sought this response. It’s because Dreyer sees the world in a double light that Johannes can appear at once a holy fool and something of an irritant.
Johannes’s counterpart is Inger, who, in her corporeal saintliness, represents all that is good in Dreyer’s world. Inger has her faults (notably the superiority she reveals in trying to get her father-in-law to consent to Anders’ marriage choice), but Dreyer places her closer to the viewer than any other character. Her serenity is the force that unifies the film, the human face of the mysterious assurance of Dreyer’s camera.
If we naturalize Ordet, if we forget what is so strange about the film, we’ll lose the ability to be awed by the film and its qualities of otherwordliness and ritual. Yet neither does Dreyer want us to regard the Borgens as remote, enigmatic, stylized beings or to see their lives as opaque and inaccessible. The triumph of Ordet is to bring us a moving, detailed image of a life that is rich, ordinary, practical, and physical—an image that makes us ache for such close comprehensiveness—and at the same time to purify this image so that it comes to us as new and absolute, so that we feel the necessity, justice, and marvelousness of the moment (stretched to eternity) when the dead Inger comes back to life.
Before Lars von Trier, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson there was Carl Th. Dreyer. The first great film artist to pursue the ineffable in cinema, Dreyer gave depth to what early silent filmmakers innately understood yet took for granted: that cinema’s ability to record reality also provided a view that transcended everyday reality. The tradition of filmmakers concerned with the cosmic and spiritual dimensions of life can be traced back to Dreyer: Kieslowski’s various explorations of time and morality; Tarkovsky’s use of the film medium to create visions of great immanence; Bergman’s intrigue with the female psyche and the question of God; Bresson’s diverse speculations on the modern soul (including Bresson’s own Joan of Arc film). These directors followed Dreyer’s singular path towards the transcendent by staying closely rooted to the earth, to the essential representative qualities of film and by keeping these interests (Dreyer’s interests) current.
The Danish film master produced five major works—ThePassionofJoanofArc, Vampyr, DayofWrath, Ordet, Gertrud—that established the stylistic extremes and metaphysical essence of the movie medium for the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, today’s biggest Dreyer proponent is another Dane, Lars Von Trier, whose Dogma 95 movement attempted to redefine the medium at the century’s end. Von Trier’s lo-fi, video-influenced aesthetic in the films BreakingtheWaves and DancerintheDark, would seem the antithesis of Dreyer’s purely filmic innovations (from the silent era into the heady 1960s) that emphasized what make the photographic properties of cinema uniquely expressive. But Dreyer was not just a great movie formalist (on par with the Soviet silent filmmakers). Starting with his first feature ThePresident (1919) and including at least one classic for the next four decades, Dreyer made intimately probing character studies that were quintessential examples of film as spiritual expression—clearly an inspiration for Von Trier’s decades later preoccupation with depicting spiritual struggle, repeating Dreyer’s emphasis on saintly female figures (in 1994, Von Trier actually made a video feature of Dreyer’s unfilmed script Medea). As our new century approached, Dreyer was seldom the topic of film buff discussion, yet he remains highly relevant as a giant of innovation and a prophet of mankind’s internal investigation. (“Film has a soul,” he is quoted as saying in the documentary MyMetier.) All filmmakers and film watchers who have a deep fascination with the way form expresses content must first experience Dreyer’s breakthroughs.
Of the fourteen features Dreyer directed, even the least of them—LeavesfromSatan’sBook (1919), or LoveOneAnother (1921)—have qualities of the profound. His dramas of troubled existence, of the way witches, clergy, common folk, and saints get caught between choice and expedience, have an air of the eternal about them.
ThePassionofJoanofArc (1928) and Vampyr (1932) are Western cinema’s eeriest achievements. In them, Dreyer made the uncanny palpable: one senses the temperature of the quiet, empty rooms in Vampyr and responds viscerally to the actor’s skin textures against the abstract, stylized sets of JoanofArc. This counterpose of the real and the imaginary defines Dreyer’s aesthetic. It is an essentialist’s cinema located in the values of black & white photography and the fundaments of film. But there’s more than realistic representation going on here. Dreyer’s stories play out a stark morality but are filled with tonal gradations of the ineffable. A humid sense of fate heats up the director’s spare settings, which usually include a painting or household item—lone traces of the lives passing through.
Always a storyteller, Dreyer explored non-linear film narrative by controlling his images and creating significance through simplicity. MasteroftheHouse (1925) and TheBrideofGlomsdale (1926) are grounded in the physical, the quotidian. Dreyer respects their real-world essence (a quality Andre Bazin would later specify when discovering Italian Neorealism and the phenomenological work of Roberto Rossellini, another Dreyer disciple). Dreyer usually refrained from manipulating reality—except for the almost baroque surface of his 1924 film Mikael (made in Germany as part of its expressionist school), which is as stuffed with objets d’art as Kane’s warehouse. Dreyer’s art sense commands both extremes of mise-en-scene.
His silent films, especially, preserve the moment film craft improved on the fecund symbolism of the theater. These philosophy-heavy Danish chamber dramas vibrate with senuality or expand into metaphysics as easily as a thought flickering across Lisabeth Movin’s face in DayofWrath (1943) or the moonlight on waving fields of grass in Ordet (1955). Often Dreyer demonstrates his mastery with Griffith’s cross-cutting or his own pronounced camera movements.
An immediate thrill comes from the prescience inherent in watching Dreyer dynamize action: the excitement of cantered angles, moving perspectives, microscopic close-ups, and juxtaposed spaces. These tricks promise that the normal world is being penetrated or at least omnisciently perceived. Consider Dreyer’s government short, TheyCaughttheFerry (1948), in which he magistrates speed and cutting to portray a motorcycling couple’s rendezvous with road-hog Death. In an inspired moment, the camera pauses at a fork in the road, observing the couple’s fatal left-or-right decision. It powerfully translates TheyCaughttheFerry into "They Bought the Farm."
In the current explosion of technology and the past decade of independent navel-gazing, the idea of film art as great visual art seems to have evaporated. Dreyer’s films—the rarely seen Mikael, MasteroftheHouse, TheBrideofGlomsdale (his richest period) or two essential Danish government shorts made during a hiatus, TheStruggleAgainstCancer (1947) and TheyCaughttheFerry—revive the idea. This idea was last on display during a complete Dreyer retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jytta Jensen that toured the U.S. in 1989.
Lucky cineastes who caught that tour got a bonus in recognizing a trope borrowed by Martin Scorsese’s in his segment of the omnibus NewYorkStories: in Mikael, the painter-hero is captured at a moment of painful isolation, then swallowed up in a darkness that brings his painting into luminous focus. Scorsese’s cinematographer, the late Nestor Almendros, finally tracked down Mikael during the 1989 tour. “I’ve been waiting all my life to see this film,” Almendros said with stunned satisfaction.
Scorsese’s homage is only one expression of a filmmaker’s esteem for Dreyer. What Bresson and Bergman didn’t need admit during the ‘50s was later paid tribute to at the 1964 Paris premiere of Gertrud where Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Henri-Georges Clouzot expressed their respect for the master. They understood—as Scorsese and now Von Trier does—the purpose and imagination that informs Dreyer’s every shot.
That’s what’s most mysterious today: Dreyer’s dedication to ideas—not merely to advancing the plot. And that he maintained this rigorous, impassioned way of working, this awareness of making art, for over 50 years (In 1989 even Pauline Kael remarked, “Everything that son-of-a-bitch did was great.”). Our era of the indie auteur can learn much from Dreyer’s work as a non-commercial filmmaker who, from the silent era on, kept mindful of film theory—he was New Wave and Indie before those terms became fashionable. Even into the sound era, Dreyer maintained the film pioneer’s fascination with form. That should explain the remarkable concentration on composition, theme and process that distinguished his filmmaking debut with ThePresident to his final work.
Allegory becomes in Dreyer an intensified truth, symbols become facts and the otherwordly seems present. For this reason Mikael, the film about the art world and created environments is important and should become a regular part of the Dreyer repertory. Set in the hot-house atmosphere of German Expresionism, Mikael crosses the uses of art with the vagaries of living. Its hero, celebrated as MalerdeSchemerzen, “the painter of suffering,” resembles Dreyer not autobiographically but temperamentally. At the same time that Dreyer goes deeper into motive and higher into spiritual quest, he sustains a portraitist’s eroticism. Mikael’s boldly suggested love story between men confirms Dreyer’s sophistication while expanding the panoply of erotic gestures—a wife’s fingers on her husband’s neck in MasteroftheHouse, the carnal, reawakened embraces of both TheBrideofGlomsdale and Ordet—that prove Dreyer cinema’s most sensual director.
After the interior-set, internalized romance of Mikael, MasteroftheHouse marks Dreyer’s greatest shift. Here he used a pure, ritualistic survey of a household that—long before JeanneDielman or TheSilence—concentrates patriarchal social tensions into a virtually one-set drama. Far more extreme than neorealism, Dreyer’s exactitude feel so like real time that the painstaking details of domestic living—cleaning, cooking, leisure—become numinous. This slate-grey parable (aka ThouShaltHonorThyWife) could be an existential version of TheHoneymooners. The tyrannical husband-father is humble and, in fact, redeemed by the company of women. The feminized home is a testing ground, a threshold for transcendence, a locale that reveals the human essence.
Reality is severely distorted while Dreyer tightens his emotional grip. Vampyr is so thoroughly disorienting that one’s inability to fully comprehend its spellbinding images and spectral atmosphere becomes a frighteningly trancelike experience. His dramas gain power past the point of melodramatic climax. TheParson’sWidow (1920) becomes extraordinary once the young-lovers-in-hiding plot is exhausted and the theme of aged wisdom vs. impetuosness takes over. TheBrideofGlomsdale’s exuberant nature celebration steadily sheds its bucolic heartiness until Dreyer’s couple become figures of primeval destiny. The final astonishing sequence remakes Griffith’s WayDownEast as an elemental myth in which the groom, crossing a river on the way to his wedding, is swept away by the rapids but “struggles against the current so as not to be a passive victim”—the key Dreyer condition.
With the valedictory Gertrud, Dreyer’s long interest in the struggle for love and salvation is personified by the social predicament of women, a view popularized by Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman’s films with Liv Ullmann and Von Trier’s recent work with Emily Watson and Bjork. In Gertrud, Dreyer reduced his already self-conscious style to basic locations and a gestural, hieratic manner of performance that avoids false pathos. There remains a clarity of vision in Gertrud’s extreme artifice. In a scene where Gertrud discovers her previously described dream in the subject of a large tapestry, we have a paradigm for Dreyer’s filmmaking: transubtantiation.
That word is meant to describe what makes Dreyer films unlike anyone else’s. Ingmar Bergman may owe his entire reputation to the wide unfamiliarity with Dreyer, who got to the same psycho-socio-religious themes first and took them farther. Those issues are less popular in today’s cinema, still they come alive to anyone seeing the way Dreyer gave direct access to the ineffable; he knew the worth of a film image and never assumed that reality is fixed concept. Dreyer’s “purified” style does not result in less emotion, rather, by aestheticizing characters torments (similar to Kieslowski’s use of color-fields; Tarkovsky’s nature etudes), Dreyer raises our understanding above the mundane. His next-to-last film, Ordet, does not jerk tears over death, but its story of resurrection questions what life is and disturbs viewers utterly.
Dreyer’s greatest legacy may be his devotion to the face for its traces of experience and mortality. Renee Falconetti’s Joan is the most celebrated example, but Hildur Carlburg in TheParson’sWidow, or the exchange of farewell glances between mother and daughter in MasteroftheHouse are stirring, too. Most surprising is a nurse’s expression in the short docu-drama TheStruggleAgainstCancer, in which her grieving frown instantaneously lights up with optimism. There is psychic struggle in that transformation and, by sneaking paradox into a public service announcement, there is also an artist’s perfect, timeless triumph.
After Von Trier, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson there is Carl Th. Dreyer.
Ordet is a film that is shot with low ceilings and low lighting and is usually very dark, with characters most of the time holding candles and lanterns that light up the claustrophobic house that the Borgen family live in. There are not many characters in this film, probably seven or eight, and yet the way Dreyer has these characters get established and grounds them all in the fabric of the storyline is amazing. When each character speaks, everyone listens. The dialog takes its time, the pace is very slow and measured by its own chamber space and time, and the sounds you hear in the background are very subtle like the clock-ticking, the rolling of Inger's rolling-pin, the wind outside or Morten's cough.
The slowness in the film is domestic rhythms and by pacing the film slowly, each pause in the dialog is filled with a movement or a character reacting and listening; something you almost never see in films. It might be difficult to get used to the pace and style at first but the way the events slowly unfold, sucks you into Dreyer's hypnotic world. The characters are all very fleshed out and each have strong character traits. Mikkel is the most bitter and does not believe in his father's strong religious teachings. He believes his father judges him because he knows his father is disappointed and secretly judges him because Mikkel never developed a relationship with God as his father wanted him too. Ander's is young, impulsive and in love. He believes love is more important then the faith you believe in and is perfectly happy marrying a woman who has a different faith then him.
Inger is the sweetest and most pure hearted of all the characters because she has faith in God and yet still believes her husband is a good person and does not judge him for not believing what she believes. She is very patient and sweet with her father in law and the two of them have a very tender bond. She even believes that Johannes might not be truly crazy and might be the one who is closer to God then any of them. Morton is a very loving but stubborn father who is very stuck in his old customs and traditions, and as much as he preaches about has faith in God; he himself reveals to Inger on how he doubts his faith all the time. He believes the Borton family has lost the spiritual faith that he believes they once had and he feels that he personally is guilty for having that happen. I find it humorous that one minute he does not approve of Anders and Anne's marriage and yet when he finds out that her father Peter does not approve of the marriage as well; he is now for it because of spite, pride and arrogance.
The reason I do not believe in organized religion is that it seems to be more of a political competitive sport then a true religion. Most people involved in it either seem to judge you for not believing what they believe or they pressure you into joining them. They seem to find it more important to get everyone to believe what they believe, and don't seem to realize that just because it worked for them, it does not mean it has to work for everyone else. Seeing Morton and Peter childishly argue on who's religion is the most correct and real one and how they will go to heaven and the other person will go to hell; feels more like two competitive sports players trying to prove to the other team that they will prevail and even seem to root and hope for the other team to fail. They sound like two stubborn and immature children fighting about who is the better person and it seems to me that they would become very good friends if they got past the arrogance of their religious differences and learned to agree to disagree. Most of Dreyer's early work began in silent films. His greatest and most famous of them all is his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc which is considered one of the greatest silent films of all time and is on my top 10 films list. There is also his horror film Vampyr which actually was Dreyer's first film in sound. So I can see the tone similarities from this film and from his early silent work because of the several long dead quite moments and the pace of the story. Day of Wrath is another amazing Dreyer film which told a story of an aging priest falling in love with his son amidst the horror of a merciless witch hunt in 17th century Denmark. His last film was Gertrud which tells a story of a woman and her unfulfilling marriage and how she goes on a journey to find ideal love. Besides The Passion of Joan of Arc; Ordet is his very best film. It is a hard movie to start out with, but once you get dissolved in the world that Dreyer has created for you, you become engrossed. Every character in this film has their life consumed by religion in one form or another, and yet I don't think this is a truly religious film. Carl Dreyer was considered not really a religious man and I don't think he was intending this film to preach a certain message, but instead ask questions. There is a miracle that occurs at the end of the film that is relatively unexplained. I can't really explain what the miracle meant to me, when first witnessing it, but what occurred at the end of this film brought tears to my eyes, and made me look at life and film in a completely context that no other film has ever achieved. And that's an accomplishment that still has not been yet surpassed. Maybe it was because I really cared for the character of Inger. Maybe because I know miracles never happen outside the realm of film and so I knew this was my chance to finally see one. Or maybe it was because of Dreyer's genius of film-making, and that he got me so involved and caught up in this families pain and turmoil, that it made me want to believe, it made me want to see a miracle happen, and when something miraculous did happen, I was overjoyed. Clearly I'm not the only one this film has impacted. It is currently ranked as the third most spiritually significant film of all time by the Arts and Faith online community. There are also many poignant and transcendent themes throughout this film that are universal for people all over the world. Does it really matter if religions differ between two people who are in love with each other? Is being a non believer as ignorant as being a true believer? Are people who most would look at as insane, actually more sane than the norm? When Inger finally is brought back to life and opens her eyes her husband holds her tightly in his arms. She then asks him, "the child...is it alive?" Mikkel now having gained his faith says to his wife, "Yes...it lives at home with God..."
Ordet (1955 Denmark 126 mins)
Source: NLA/ACMI Prod Co: A/S Film Centrlen Palladium Prod: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Erk Nielsen, Tage Nilesen Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer Scr: Dreyer from the play by Kaj Munk Phot: Henning Bendtsen Ed: Edith Schlüssel Art Dir: Erik Aaes Mus: Paul Schierbeck
Cast: Henrik Malberg, Gerda Nielsen, Preben Leerdorff-Rye, Ove Rud, Henry Skjær, Edith Trane, Emil hans Christensen, Cay Kristiansen, Birgitte Federspiel
What Dreyer has to show us is exactly what we may be in danger of losing in our age of global capitalist commodification, namely the possibility of spiritual transcendence in the material world. His major films work on two levels, as Ole Storm points out in his introduction to Dreyer’s Four Screenplays:
The outer world rests, to all appearances, in harmony: everything in the actual picture has the dense, existential texture, the intimate, familiar quality, of a domestic scene by Chardin. What takes place, however, within the domestic setting is fantastic, and, as the action develops, gradually becomes unaccountable to reason…(1)
Completely rejecting the typical, Western division between the natural and the supernatural, Dreyer shows us a world where God is incarnate in the ordinary and where spiritual transcendence occurs in the face of oppressive religiosity. Kierkegaard writes in his Journals that “it was intelligence and nothing else that had to be opposed”, and Dreyer shares this point of view regarding the limiting nature of rationalism (2).
Born in Copenhagen in 1889 to a Swedish mother who died in childbirth, Carl Theodor Dreyer was adopted by a Danish family and given a strict puritan education. Going to work for the Nordisk Films Kompagni in 1912, he worked on many film projects as a writer of titles and scenarios, making his directorial debut with President in 1919 and following it that same year with Blade af Satan’s Bog (Leaves From Satan’s Book). After the success of his seventh film, The Master of the House (1925), he was invited to France where he made his first acknowledged masterpiece – La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), one of the last great silent films. Vampyr (1932), his first sound film, is a cult vampire movie that shows a strong influence of German expressionism. However, it is Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943) and Ordet (The Word, 1955) that represent the full expression of his world-view.
In Dreyer’s films, faith in God and the supernatural is never ridiculed, explained away or reduced to psychology. It is always a faith well placed because the spiritual realm is as present and real as the material realm, and both are completely interwoven. Although Dreyer is always a “severe, uncompromising critic of organized religiosity” (3), he is also always an inspired champion of incarnational spirituality. As film scholar Raymond Carney points out, “The expressions of the senses and the spirit are never separated or opposed in Dreyer’s work as they are in traditional Christianity…. For Dreyer, our bodies are the way we express our spirits” (4).
Set on a 20th century Danish farm, Ordet is about Morten Borgen, the Lutheran patriarch of the family, his three sons who have all strayed from their father’s way in their own individual ways and Inger, the woman who brings them all back to the fullness and beauty of life.
The oldest son, Mikkel has completely lost his faith, “Not even faith in faith” as he puts it with a smile; however, his pious and earthy wife, Inger, believes he will come around because of his good heart (5). As she tells him early in the film, “It’s not enough to believe, if you aren’t a good person as well. Which you are”.
The middle son, Johannes, is insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ. In a humorous moment (Ordet is quite funny throughout despite its sombre theme), the visiting priest asks Mikkel what caused Johannes’ madness:
Priest: Was it – love?
Mikkel: No, no, it was Soren Kierkegaard.
Living, in the words of Inger, “nearer to God than the rest of us”, he speaks with divine wisdom in the midst of his madness. For example, he tells the rather worldly visiting priest:
I am a mason… I build houses… but people refuse to live in them… They want to build for themselves. They want to, but they cannot. And so they live, some in unfinished shacks, others in ruins; while the greatest number wander about without a home at all.
Anders, the youngest son, is in love with a girl from a sectarian, fundamentalist church. Old Morten Borgen is dead-set against the match until Anders is turned down by Peter the Tailor, the pastor of the group and the girl’s father, as not being good enough:
Anders: What’s wrong with me?
Peter: What’s wrong with you? You’re not a Christian.
Anders: I’m not a Christian?
Peter: No, not what we down here understand by Christian.
Anders: I think I’m every bit as good a believer as you and Kirstine…
Peter: That may be, but you’re not of our faith, and that’s what I look for.
Of course, when Anders is rejected, his father is offended and proceeds to do everything possible to make the match happen.
Morten Borgen, himself, is having trouble with his faith. Although still a man of strong religious conviction, he is having serious doubts about himself. Mourning over his mad son, Johannes, he tells Inger:
It wasn’t God’s fault but my own. If I’d prayed with faith the miracle would have happened. But I prayed because it was worth trying. And when a father can’t pray with faith for his own child – then miracles don’t happen.
In the original play by Kaj Munk, Johannes was the centre of attention, but it is Inger, Mikkel’s pregnant wife, who is the central character of Dreyer’s vision. She is the catalyst for healing and change for all of the men in the story and Dreyer’s embodiment of the ideal Christian – the centre from which all the other characters have drifted to their own detriment. Mikkel and the visiting doctor have no belief at all, and the other Christians in the film besides Inger and her child Maren have either drifted into abstract and useless mysticism or have fallen into a hopeless Christian materialism. However, Inger beautifully balances the incarnational and transcendental impulses of Christianity within herself. Carney puts it well:
In the structure of Ordet, if Johannes, on the one hand, represents a state of spirituality estranged from social involvements and practical, worldly expression of its ideals, and Morten and Mikkel (along with the doctor, and, to a lesser degree, the minister), on the other represent conditions of human caring and involvement that have largely lost touch with, or faith in, spiritual realms, then Inger and Maren alone represent the possibility of drawing together the realms of the spirit and the body, the realms of love and the practical world of men and affairs(6).
The other characters in the film seem to sense her special qualities, and invest in her all of their different hopes and dreams.
Although I have tried hard to discuss Ordet without taking away from the pleasure of an initial viewing, it is impossible to talk about the significance of the film without revealing the ending – an ending absolutely unique in the history of cinema.
During the course of the film, Inger’s child is stillborn and she dies in childbirth. Mad Johannes, shocked by the tragedy, runs away in the night, and he comes back home in his right mind to attend her funeral, no longer under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ. However, as everyone grieves around her bier, he asks why no one has asked God to raise her from the dead. Quite reasonably, the family thinks he has slipped back into his mania, and the viewer cannot help but share their feelings. Johannes rebukes them (and by extension the viewer) for their lack of faith, saying: “Inger, you must rot, because the times are rotten”. Then because of the faith of a little child, Inger’s daughter Maren, Johannes raises Inger from the dead “in the name of Jesus Christ”. The scene is done with Dreyer’s unflinching realism. As Mikkel embraces her and she kisses him passionately, the viewer is inescapably confronted with Inger’s bodily resurrection, truly one of the most stunning and oddly uncomfortable moments in all of cinema.
Unlike supernatural thrillers or even a Bergman metaphysical drama, the story presented to us has been completely realistic, even – despite the piety of the characters – naturalistic, and in the end, what we see is the actual (as opposed to metaphorical or symbolic) intrusion of divine grace into the droll world of the Borgensgaard farm. Mikkel’s conversion is unequivocally achieved by the miracle. Just as Inger has been a means of grace to everyone in her family alive, her death gives grace to Johannes and her resurrection gives grace to Mikkel.
In a mistaken assessment of traditional Christianity Carney writes:
Dreyer offers a radically revisionary reading of Christianity that argues not only that the resurrection must be substituted for the crucifixion as the central Christian event, but further that, to truly count, the resurrection must be a resurrection to the physical body with all of its needs and cravings(7).
Traditional Christianity has always seen the resurrection and not the crucifixion as the central event. Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is what makes Christianity unique among world religions, unique because it affirms the Incarnation, the eternal union of flesh and spirit, thus destroying the classical temple of Greek rationalism (8). However, when one considers the state of modern Christianity, it is easy to see how Carney would think of Dreyer’s vision as revisionary. Christianity has largely become Manichean, separating the spiritual realm from the material realm. Modern believers tend to use the spiritual realm to justify their material well being in this life and assure themselves of a happy after-life.
By focusing on the resurrection as the first fruits of our redemption, Dreyer doesn’t allow us to keep God comfortably at bay, or merely use Him to rubber stamp our largely material and self-centred pursuits. Dreyer puts the emphasis back on the resurrection where traditional Christianity has always had it. Speaking of the author of the original play on which Ordet is based, Dreyer had this to say:
…for him [Kaj Munk] there was no difference between sacred and profane love… He understood that God did not separate these two forms of love. That is why he did not separate them either. But this form of Christianity is opposed by another form…which establishes a divorce between thought and action(9).
Dreyer believes the bodily resurrection means that God loves our bodies as well as our souls and that he wants to be fully involved in our material lives as well as our spiritual lives.
In our digital age, we are being inundated with movies that question the reality of the real and encourage us to retreat into fantasies that have very little to do with the real world, to the point that it is no longer only the ivory tower that doubts the material being of the world. Dreyer’s every frame gives us back a solid, real world. And if, in the minds of many, life is now nothing but a dream, any transcendent encounter with a personal God is now not even a dream; it is a delusion from which we have thankfully awakened. Any belief in the supernatural is relegated to the harmless realm of the personal and subjective. Dreyer’s films, however, all insist that the supernatural is real and ever-present, with or without our consent.
- Ole Storm, “Introduction”, Four Screenplays, trans. Oliver Stallybrass, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1970, p.15
- Kierkegaard quoted in William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, 1962, p.149
- Storm, p.21
- Raymond Carney, Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp.138, 147
- Carl Theodor Dreyer, Four Screenplays, 1970, p. 245. All subsequent quotations of dialogue taken from this source.
- Carney, p.251
- Carney, p.254
- Barrett, p.110
- Dreyer quoted in Andrew Sarris (ed), Interviews with Film Directors, Bobbs-Merrill, New York, 1967, p.114