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Related Reading: Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Raymond Carney and My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum.
Related Article: Carl Theodor Dreyer, featured in the Great Directors series of Senses of Cinema.


Prästänkan, 1920
[The Parson's Widow]

CarlbergA young theologian of modest means named Söfren (Einar Röd) has long courted his beloved Mari (Greta Almroth), but their hoped for marriage has been indefinitely postponed by Mari's father until Söfren has been able to find a respectable post as parson of his own church. One day, an opportunity presents itself when the parson of a nearby village passes away, and the local church issues an open invitation for interested candidates to conduct a sermon before the entire congregation. The first candidate (Olav Aukrust), a prosaic and uncharismatic orator, soon lulls the parishioners to sleep with his laborious speech on the origin of sin in the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the devious Söfren decides to undercut his remaining rival's chances by playing a practical joke on the distracted and oblivious second candidate (Kurt Welin), infusing unintentional humor to the solemnity of his sermon. Given the lackluster and amused response to the other candidates, Söfren delivers an impassioned and inspired sermon that captivates the audience and makes him the immediate front-runner for appointment to the post. However, the parsonage also comes with an unexpected obligation: the care and responsibility for the late parson's dour and stern widow, Dame Margarete (Hildur Carlberg), who has already outlived her three previous husbands. Drawn to the privilege of the position - and perhaps bewitched by the inscrutable Dame Margarete - Söfren proposes and reluctantly marries her. Rationalizing that Dame Margarete's advanced years only proves to be a brief setback in their marriage plan, Söfren brings Mari into the parsonage under the pretext that she is his sister, and begin to concoct schemes in order to expedite the widow's demise.

Carl Theodor Dreyer creates a humorous, poignant, and compassionate domestic satire on aging, obsolescence, and the social status of women in The Parson's Widow. Using recurrent imagery, doppelgängers, and plot repetition, Dreyer affectionately illustrates the transience and unalterable cycle of life: the repeated shot of Söfren and Mari by the waterfall at the beginning and end of the film; Dame Margarete's perceived appearance as a young woman; the dilemma that Dame Margarete and her first husband (her true love) similarly faced as Söfren and Mari on the road to the parsonage. Inevitably, by presenting Söfren and Mari's comically misadventurous path towards reconciling the diametric forces of moral obligation and personal integrity, perseverance and humanity, social duty and emotional need, Dreyer reveals the immutable process of life and the innate human struggle for spiritual and secular equilibrium.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Blade af Satans Bog, 1921
[Leaves from Satan's Book]

NissenThe prologue to Leaves from Satan's Book recounts the familiar tale of Satan's banishment from Heaven. In order to return, Satan is doomed to perform acts of temptation upon humanity with the stipulation that for every soul who yields, 100 years will be added to his time on earth. However, for every soul who resists, 1000 years will be commuted from his judgment. It is through this unorthodox perspective that the film follows the destructive path of the fallen angel, appearing through the ages as an opportunistic instigator in times of war and conflict. The first chapter takes place in Jerusalem in the year 30 A.D. as Satan (Helge Nissen), in the guise of a Pharisee, attends a gathering with other religious elders at the home of Caiaphas in order to discuss the unconventional ministry and reported miracles of Jesus of Nazareth (Halvard Hoff), and subsequently finds a potential conduit in the faltering faith of the apostle, Judas (Jacob Texiere). The second chapter occurs in 16th century Seville as a learned monk named Don Fernandez (Johannes Meyer), harboring a profound desire for his beautiful student Isabella (Ebon Strandin), resignedly abandons their private instruction to join the Spanish Inquisition, only to find himself overseeing the fates of Isabella and her father, Don Gomez (Hallander Helleman) after they are charged with heresy. The setting of the third chapter is 1793 Paris, as a young man named Joseph (Elith Pio) - the humble and dutiful servant of the benevolent Chambord family - finds immediate social prominence during the turbulent early years of the nascent French Republic when he is inducted into the inner circle of the Jacobins, and soon begins to lose sight of his solemn promise to the late Count de Chambord (Viggo Wiehe). In the fourth (and final) chapter, Satan assumes the form of a Russian monk in the rural, occupied Finnish town of Hirola in 1918, and presents an impossible choice to a devoted wife named Siri (Clara Pontoppidan) when an unwanted suitor, Rautamiemi (Carl Hildebrandt), denounces her husband Paavo (Carlo Wieth) before the Russian authorities.

Inspired by the epic scope and thematic structure of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Leaves from Satan's Book is an ambitious, visually innovative, and innately idiosyncratic presentation of world history through the essential perspective of human experience in reaction to - and as a result of - divine consequence. Carl Theodor Dreyer incorporates a series of episodically distinctive experimental techniques and stylistic devices that would resurface in his subsequent films: the singular focus close-ups and application of austere kammerspielfilm elements in the Betrayal of Jesus and French Revolution episodes to create a sense of concentrated expression that is incorporated in the heightened emotionality of The Passion of Joan of Arc and the foreboding and otherworldly psychological landscape of Vampyr and Day of Wrath; the rigorously formal statuesque composition of Don Fernandez's self-flagellation and repressed thoughts in the Spanish Inquisition segment that is hinted in the languid, fragmented articulation of Johannes in Ordet, and is further realized in the inexorable stasis of Gertrud; the gentle humor and infused lightheartedness during the Finnish Revolution section that is also manifested in Dreyer's domestic dramas, The Parson's Widow and Master of the House (note the recurring image of the heart-shaped pendulum clock that is literally recycled in Master of the House). By portraying Satan as a deeply conflicted, perennial spectator attempting to find and test the resolve of souls in crisis as a redemptive opportunity for commuting closer towards eternal paradise, Dreyer provides a thoughtful and provocative examination of human weakness and provides a compassionate, universal metaphor for a soul's quest for transcendence.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Du skal ære din hustru, 1925
[Master of the House/Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife]


NielsenA departure from Carl Theodor Dreyer's general reputation as a director of severe, forbidding, and deeply spiritual films, Master of the House reflects the gentle humor, humanism, and innate social conscience that is often overlooked in the cursory assessment of Dreyer's stylistically identifiable and accomplished body of work. In Master of the House, Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm) is the definition of the archetypal Dreyer heroine: practical, self-sacrificing, conciliator, nurturer, and possessing deep personal conviction. Ida is the overworked and browbeaten wife of Viktor (Johannes Meyer), a financially struggling businessman whose attempts to suppress his own deep seated feelings of uncertainty and failure have resulted in unnecessarily cruel and self-indulgent behavior within the household: the coffee is never served on time, there is not enough butter on his bread, the children are unmanaged, and his shoes are in a state of disrepair (nor is there enough money saved to retrieve his other shoes from the cobbler). Viktor's former nurse and longtime family friend, Miss Madsen (Mathilde Nielsen), affectionately called "Mads" by the children, observes his tyrannical insensitivity with visible disapproval, but is sworn to passive acceptance and neutrality by the devoted Ida, rationalizing that his severity is a temporary aberration to the gentleness of his true soul. Despite Ida's expressed reluctance to defy the overbearing Viktor, Mads enlists the assistance of Ida's mother (Clara Schønfeld) and devises an underhanded plan to take Ida away from the responsibilities of the household and rehabilitate the self-indulgent Viktor in an attempt to restore domestic harmony.

Master of the House is a spare, compassionate, and astute social satire on domesticity, gender roles, and subservience. Using parallel imagery that further reflects a distinctive aspect of Dreyer's art, the film underscores the characters' profound transformation towards empathy, self-reliance, and equality: the resigned and methodical performance of chores; Viktor's contrasted behavior towards Ida's pet birds; the repeated ritual of parent and child folding a blanket. Dreyer further uses episodic recurrences to inferentially develop the plot while retaining the visual economy of the film. Using kammerspielfilm techniques such as spare and unobtrusive use of intertitles, compressed chronology of events, and confined one-room staging of the scenes, Dreyer effectively distills the narrative to its essential form of expression, transcending the inarticulate bounds of conventional dialogue to create a synthesis of implicit and universally accessible cinematic language of images and emotions.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928
[The Passion of Joan of Arc]


FalconettiIn 1431 Rouen, in the midst of a ravaging Hundred Years War with England, a nineteen year old French peasant girl named Jeanne (colloquially, Joan) was condemned to death by the church tribunal for heresy, and burned at the stake. Based on the historical transcripts of the actual trial, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is an eviscerating experimental film of faith, suffering, and redemption. The film opens with a tracking shot of the English guards outside the courtroom, then to the clerical judges, as Jeanne (Renee Maria Falconetti) is escorted inside. The inquisitors hover over Jeanne, relentlessly questioning her faith and patriotism, waiting for any incriminating statement that would seal her fate. Unable to ensnare her in their verbal traps, she is led away to her cell, only to be taunted by prison guards as the daughter of God, placing a woven crown upon her head. A monk named Loyseleur (Maurice Schutz) forges a letter from King Charles in an attempt to entrust him into her confidence. The judges follow Loyseleur to her cell to continue their questioning. Loyseleur initially reassures Jeanne through subtle visual cues, but then abandons her when asked if she is in a state of grace. A sympathetic young monk, Massieu (Antonin Artaud), warns of the danger of the posed question, to which Jeanne summarily replies: "If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me." Her response confounds the calculating judges, and compel them to employ a different tactic: physical torture. Confused and afraid, Jeanne collapses at the sight of the barbaric devices in the chamber. Brought outside the courtroom as a public spectacle, a weak and delirious Jeanne reluctantly signs the confession, and her death sentence is commuted. Returned to cell, her courage and faith are restored by the sight of the woven crown, and implores Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) that she wishes to recant. Unable to force Jeanne into submission, the judges sentence her to death.

Dreyer's startling and innovative camerawork in The Passion of Joan of Arc creates visual imbalance. The courtroom scene recreates the abusive atmosphere of the inquisition by filming the oppressive judges upward, which contrast with the images of a victimized Jeanne filmed downward. The pervasive use of variable distance close-ups (a technique similar employed in Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire) is claustrophobic, revealing the opportunistic judges' ulterior motives, as they carefully craft a means to ensnare Jeanne with their leading questions and insincere actions. The odd angle shots of the street performers, prison guards, and judges further exaggerate their physical features, creating a sense of the grotesque - in essence, an external manifestation of their innate inhumanity. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a profoundly moving, indelible film of courage and perseverance, spirituality and conscience; a fitting tribute to the memory of the Maid of Orleans: a heroine, a martyr, a saint.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Vampyr, 1932

Svierkier Filmed during the transition from silent to sound, Vampyr also represents a creative transition for Carl Theodor Dreyer. Having ended his association with Société Général de Films, the production company that had brought him to Paris and financed The Passion of Joan of Arc (he subsequently broke his contract and filed a lawsuit against them for undisclosed reasons), Dreyer was motivated to start his own production company, Film Production-Carl Dreyer with the financial backing of a young nobleman, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg on the condition that the baron would be given a role in the film. Also, having immersed in the culture of late 1920s Paris with its fertile avant-garde community, Dreyer was attuned to incorporating Dadaist and surrealist imagery into the medium of film, and a story based on the supernatural seemed ideally suited for integrating such a novel aesthetic. Within this framework, while Vampyr would seem an aberration in Dreyer's body of work in its darker themes of occultism and the undead - and especially within the context of a "religious director " label usually attached to him - it is a film that, nevertheless, closely embodies his realization of personal filmmaking.

Set in an otherworldly landscape of autonomous shadows, ghostly apparitions, and wandering, lost souls that may or may not be the figment of a fanciful passing stranger, Allen Gray's imagination (who is played by Gunzburg, but credited as Julian West), Vampyr also articulates Dreyer's recurring themes of sacrifice, unreconciled death, and transfiguration - themes that, in a way, reflect his own personal demons (his biological mother accidentally died by her own hand during his adoption as a young child, and the film alludes to the morality of suicide as a way to deliver a tormented soul from eternal suffering). Using fractured, often mismatched cuts, and a transection of the space between shadow and light to create an atmosphere of imbalance and dislocation, Dreyer also suggests shifting points of view and an inconcreteness of place that reinforce the viewer's consciousness of the film's construction and permeable logic (an ambiguity that is also signified by the hero's surname). In essence, by cultivating an awareness of seeing a fictional construction, Dreyer evokes the spirit of Georges Méliès in the idea that cinema is simultaneously an act of conjuring and the art of the spectacle - for which the most spectacular act lies in the conjuring of the dead. This self-reflexive gesture crystallizes in the closing image of Allan and Giséle (Rena Mandel) emerging from the mist in the woods towards a clearing at sunrise, the rays of light triangulated against the contour of the land, resembling the scattering of projected light onto a screen. Cutting to a shot of mysteriously stopped interlocking gears at a mill, the seeming act of divine intervention becomes a metaphor for the role of the filmmaker as creator and conscience of the ephemeral image.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteur's Notebook, 08/20/08.

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Vredens Dag, 1943
[Day of Wrath]

Svierkier It is 1623, Denmark, a hundred years after the Protestant reformation, and religious tide has swung from the sale of indulgences to theological fanaticism. Witchcraft trials occur with certain frequency, and any aberrant behavior is cause for denunciation. Herlof's Marthe (Anna Svierkier), a morally weak woman who experiments with the occult, has been denounced as a witch, and implores assistance from Anne (Lisbeth Movin), the young wife of Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) to escape punishment. Years earlier, Anne's mother had similarly been accused of witchcraft, but was spared from the stake by Absalon's false testament in a reprehensible act designed to win Anne's affection. But despite threats to reveal his deception to the religious court, Absalon remains silent. Herlof's Marthe is sentenced to burn at the stake, and curses Absalon and the inquisitor Laurentius (Olaf Ussing) before her death. Soon, the Pedersson household is thrown into upheaval as Anne falls in love with Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), under the suspicious gaze of Absalon's mother, Meret (Sigrid Neiiendam). Meret has long disapproved of Absalon's marriage to the young Anne, criticizing their union as "scandalous", and Anne's overt fondness for Martin serves to reinforce her disdain. One evening, during a powerful storm, Absalon is called away to perform last rites for the terminally ill Laurentius. While awaiting his return, Anne admits to Martin her wish for her husband's death, and, in declaring her tainted thoughts, opens herself to denunciation.

Using richly symbolic, precisely structured mise-en-scene, Carl Theodor Dreyer creates a rigid and austere atmosphere in Day of Wrath. The dour countenance of Absalon and Meret, wearing dark, stiff-collared clothing sharply contrast against Martin and Anne's softer, accessible persona. Minimal lighting and shadows create a pervasive sense of darkness, reflecting society's cruelty and intolerance in an age of spiritual enlightenment. (Note the cross patterned shadows cast by the windows in Absalon's house.) Similar to The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer shows the inquisitors in long panning shots in order to create a sense of paranoid scrutiny. Day of Wrath is a harrowing portrait of ideological persecution - the tragic consequences of a misdirected cruelty borne of intolerance and repression.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Ordet, 1955
[The Word]

Rye A disconnected, soft spoken man wanders into the vast open field of the Danish countryside, as he often does, preaching to the wind, believing that he is Jesus Christ. His name is Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a theology student who suffered a mental breakdown pondering the fundamental questions of faith and religion. His younger brother, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), notices his disappearance from the family farm and sets out to find him with their father, Morten (Henrik Malberg). The eldest brother, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), a morally decent agnostic, is alerted of Johannes' disappearance by his wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), the sweet, kind hearted lady of the house, and Mikkel also joins in the familiar ritual. Morten is a pious man who believes in a personal, unstructured relationship with God, and is racked with guilt over Johannes' madness. Morten had encouraged Johannes to immerse himself in his studies, convinced that his son's charismatic personality and passionate devotion would make him ideally suited to restore the villagers' faith in God. Now, he prays for Johannes' suffering to end. One day, Anders confides to Mikkel and Inger that he is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of a strict, religious fundamentalist tailor, Peter (Ejnar Federspiel), a relationship that is certain to be met with disapproval. Encouraged by Inger, Morten reluctantly visits Peter, and their polite dialogue soon escalates into a war of words over their differing observations of faith. As Morten storms out of the house, he receives news that Inger has suffered complications from childbirth, and a venomous Peter declares his cruel wish for an unspeakable tragedy so that Morten will come to accept his way of thinking.

Using long panning shots and spare, precise composition, Carl Theodor Dreyer examines the complex nature of faith in Ordet. There is a glimpse of its elusiveness in Johannes' distracted, rambling speech, questioning people's skepticism and inability to accept the existence of miracles in the modern world. Peter's callousness and intractability reflect the intolerance of placing organized religion above compassion and human decency, an austerity similarly explored by Ingmar Bergman. Despite his innate goodness and sincerity, Mikkel's lack of faith prevents him from imploring God to grant what would seem to be an impossible wish. Similarly, Morten's faith also proves to be imperfect as he dismisses Johannes' visions as delusions. In the end, the words of the seeming madman prove to be enlightened, as Johannes provides the testament, the Word, that redeems the family from their overwhelming pain and misery. But what is the Word? It is a deeply personal question that is best answered in silence and introspection.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Gertrud, 1964

Pens-RodeGertrud is an emotionally restrained, yet profoundly compelling portrait of a life without compromise. Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is a captivating, privileged woman married to a diligent professional, Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe). She is disillusioned with her marriage, believing that Gustav's political ambitions impede his complete devotion to her. On the afternoon of Gustav's impending appointment to the cabinet minister post, Gertrud confesses her infidelity, and asks for a divorce. Using the pretense of attending the opera, Gertrud leaves Gustav to meet her lover, a young pianist named Erland Janssen (Baard Owe), at a park. But is soon evident that Erland's affection for Gertrud is also a frivolous whim, inspired more by the conquest of an unattainable woman of society than a union of souls. After declaring her complete love for him, Gertrud asks Erland to abstain from seeing a courtesan named Constance - a request, to which, he consents. During a banquet in honor of Gabriel Libman (Ebbe Rode), a romantic poet and former lover, Gertrud falls ill, and is visited by an old friend, Axel Nygren (Axel Strobye). Despite their comfortable intimacy and mutual affection, there is an absence of passion between them, once again, extinguishing any hope of finding ideal love. A pensive, disheartened Gabriel later visits Gertrud, recounting his experience with a crude young man, Erland Janssen, who boasted of his latest affair to the notorious courtesan. Gabriel expresses his consuming love for her, but is also spurned by Gertrud, citing his own careless words as a reflection of his true feelings: "A woman's love and a man's work are mortal enemies". A heartbroken Gustav implores the defiant Gertrud to reconsider her decision, but is inevitably rejected.

Carl Theodor Dreyer continues to defy conventional cinematic language in his final film, Gertrud. Through long takes, static shots, and minimalist mise-en-scene, Dreyer creates an austere, visually spare atmosphere, reflecting Gertrud's inflexibility and myopic determination in her search for ideal love. As in Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, Dreyer uses mirrors and non-confrontational dialogue to create a pervasive atmosphere of emotional distance: Gertrud's alienation from the career-minded Gustav; Erland's emotional immaturity and evasive deception; Gabriel's subconscious betrayal; Axel's logical, dispassionate nature. Unable to find ideal love and rejecting all pretenses of illusory and fleeting love, Gertrud chooses an independent life, unwilling to settle for incomplete love. In the end, Gertrud withdraws to a hermetic existence, isolated from the distraction of society, preferring to resign herself to her lost memories.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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