My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum

The title of the book, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer refers to a quote from a 1950 Dreyer interview:

On October 23, 1950, Carl Dreyer was interviewed for the radio program New Perspectives on the Arts and the Sciences. He discussed Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath and talked about his proposed film on the life of Jesus. At the conclusion the interviewer asked, ‘What is film for you?’ Dreyer replied, ‘It is my only great passion.’

With such a preface, it seems inevitable that any biographical account of Carl Theodor Dreyer would revolve around the venerable filmmaker’s body of work, and yet the authors, Jean and Dale Drum, succeed in presenting a fascinating and complex portrait of an exceedingly polite, intelligent, mild mannered, introverted, singularly focused, and uncompromising human being who was driven as much by his heart as by the perfection of his craft:

Abandoned by a father who would not accept him, always yearning for a beautiful young mother who was kept from him by death, made to feel unwanted and unimportant in his adoptive home – these were real and they were strongly felt by Dreyer, even in his later years. The drive with its furious intensity that both terrified and captivated people (and also created great motion pictures) was due at least in part to his desire to prove that he was better than his adoptive mother thought he was, that he was, indeed, worthy of his real father’s acceptance, and, perhaps, most strongly, to prove to his true mother that he really loved her. All these, among other things, probably provided an overwhelming need to prove himself, to create something of worth – and the very insecurity of their origins in him probably produced a rigidity that a more truly confident man might not have needed.”

Dreyer’s image of his elusive birth mother – affectionate, suffering, exploited – instilled in the filmmaker a determination to expose intolerance, persecution, and human cruelty. It is this idealized female image that invariably manifests itself in all his films, not only in the oppression of Joan of Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), Ida Frandsen (Master of the House), and Anne Pedersdotter (Day of Wrath), but also evolved into the intransigence and emotional repression of Gertrud, and Peter Skraedder’s inhumane curse on the pregnant Inger in Ordet. His tireless campaign to promote tolerance and advocacy for the oppressed proved to be a formidable ideology during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II.

The authors also dispel the myth of Dreyer as a tyrannical, difficult, and financially excessive filmmaker, and instead, cite excerpts from personal interviews conducted with several actors and production crew members. Renee Falconetti described him as “the ideal director” by whom she was “astonished at his industry, patience, and strength of will.” His infectious pursuit of perfection and polite demeanor often inspired actors to a similar level of dedication to the film and implicit trust in Dreyer. Einar Sissener, who made his film debut in Dreyer’s film, The Bride of Glomdal, recounts how Dreyer convinced him to perform in a physically dangerous scene:

I was the story’s young hero and at the end of the film I was in a stream. For this a Norwegian swimming champion was hired. But when the scene was to be shot, he didn’t care to do it. I was at that time at the National Theatre in Oslo. Suddenly the telephone rang. It was Carl Th. Dreyer. ‘Sissener, hello. Do you have life insurance?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘Go and get insurance right away. Say goodbye to your family, bring two flasks of cognac with you and say nothing to the theatre manager. You must act in the waterfall.’ I went. The shooting took five days in September. It was forty-four degrees in the water. Dreyer gave the cognac to the horse. I only got cough medicine. Yes, Dreyer could get people to do anything he wanted. Long may he live.

Jean and Dale Drum present an impartial, accessible, and comprehensive biography on the intensely private and relentlessly perfectionist visionary filmmaker. The authors trace Dreyer’s life from his nebulous parentage, to his early career as a journalist and pursuit of adventure, to his dedicated life in the motion pictures, and ultimately, to his death from pneumonia in 1968. It is a reverent portrait that echoes the unbiased chronicle and social realism of Dreyer’s own cinema – a search to find emotional truth and profound humanity behind the enigmatic image.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.