Carl Theodor Dreyer: A Film Primer

VampyrI had an epiphany recently. As epiphanies go, it wasn’t a very big one. In fact, it was one I have had too many times to count. Maybe I should call it by a different name. Maybe it was one of those temporary epiphanies.

I was on a lovely vacation. It was in a place somewhat isolated from mainstream culture, and thus, there were no movies. No theatres. No streaming. No DVDs. Cold turkey for ten days.

The epiphany was that I didn’t miss cinema at all. Never once had a hankering to catch the latest costume fantasy or foreign language indie. But the epiphany evolved into a bit of a problem, because when the vacation ended, I had no real interest in allowing two dimensional light projected at 24 frames per second to recapture its defining role in my version of reality. I couldn’t bring myself to watch anything. And since much of my life, both professionally and personally, revolves around film, I was in a bit of a pickle.

I was rescued from this, as I have been at other times, by a gentle Danish filmmaker of ferocious intensity, a man described by one of his actors as “stubbornness wrapped up in mildness.” I was rescued by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Dreyer made just 14 feature films in a career that spanned more than 40 years. Nine of those movies were made in his first ten years as a director. The remaining five were spaced out over 33 years, more due to his trouble in getting funding than to any inherent lethargy on his part. Indeed, he worked on documentaries and PSAs during those stretches when he could not secure financing for his features, and he spent a great part of the second half of his life developing his most precious project, one that sadly never came to fruition.

Though Dreyer’s career tracks more closely with a director like Stanley Kubrick, his artistic sensibilities are more aligned with Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. Most of his mature work examined the issue of faith. Bergman, Bresson, and Dreyer are often considered “difficult” directors because their work tends to be austere and the emotional intensity found in their stories is not the passive distraction offered by most movies. I leave Bergman and Bresson to their many defenders. My intention here is to offer a brief primer on Dreyer, one of the greatest filmmakers we have ever seen.

The Sense of Humour

While watching some of his later movies, it is easy to overlook the fact that Dreyer had a fine sense of humour. One of his earliest movies, The Parson’s Widow (1920) is full of laughs, some wry, some bawdy. Just watch the “audition” sequence and you will find highly sophisticated silent humour. In a different vein, his exploration of the undead, Vampyr (1932) is full of absurdist, surrealist humour that rivals early Bunuel and Dali.

The Griffith Debt

Like many early directors, Dreyer was highly influenced by D.W, Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). He would go so far as make his own version of Griffith’s epic, entitled Leaves of Satan’s Book (1920). Though not as good a film as Buster Keaton’s definitive send-up of Intolerance, (Three Ages, 1923), Dreyer surpasses Griffith’s overblown and narratively clunky film. The initial Christ sequence is rather weak, but the remaining three sequences have remarkable power, and also offer a very nuanced portrait of the Satan character. But more importantly, Dreyer learned the power of the close-up from Griffith, and he would employ that knowledge to astonishing effect in his Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928.

The Underdog

Dreyer’s compassion is remarkable. As mentioned above, he looked for the thread of humanity in Satan. Much of his later life would be devoted to finding the humanity in Jesus. His depiction of oppressed women is extraordinary. And in 1924, in the movie Michael, he created one of the earliest sympathetic portraits of homosexuality ever put on film. Think of that for a moment. Satan, Jesus, women, homosexuals – name another director who was interested in examining that range of characters with some degree of subtlety and compassion.

The Fallow Years

During his final 30 years, when he was between features, Dreyer never stopped working. He did a lot of work-for-hire while trying to develop his next big project. Though it is difficult to see most of these short films, it is not too hard to track down a copy of They Caught the Ferry (1948), an intense 11-minute PSA ostensibly about the dangers of driving too fast. It is a marvellous little film which shows how potent shorts can be in the hands of a master.

The Disowned

Common wisdom has it that Dreyer made just four talking features. But if you look at his filmography, there is a fifth, Two People, released in 1945. Dreyer reportedly was so disenchanted with the finished film that he refused to acknowledge it. I have never seen it, nor do I know anyone who has seen it, so it will have to remain a mystery for the time being.

The Big Five

Ignoring Two People for now, Dreyer’s final five movies were the ones on which his reputation largely rests. The Passion of Joan of Arc, considered one of the greatest of all silent movies; Vampyr, the freaky examination of the undead; Day of Wrath (1943), an adaptation of the play Anne Pedersdotter about faith, love and sorcery; Ordet (1955), also based on a play, about belief and miracles; and Gertrud (1964), the ageing director’s ode to the miseries of love. Here is my own countdown of the big five:

Gertrud

This is lesser Dreyer, but lesser Dreyer is still better than most. I included this in a previous essay about great final films, so that should tell you I still admire the work. Nina Pens Rode plays the title character, a woman whose faith in love can be seen as a bookend to young Joan’s faith in God in Joan of Arc. Though somewhat slow and old-fashioned, Gertrud can be placed on a list of similar movies in which old, male directors explore the mysteries of love. It far outshines Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but trails pretty far behind Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Vampyr

Dreyer’s first talking picture is a strange experience all the way around. He employed a lot of text on screen to establish exposition, a device he would often use, and this allowed his camera great freedom. The narrative is a jumble, but he was exploring subjective camera technique, putting the viewer into the movie in a most disquieting way. Though you may not be able to follow the story, there will be imagery, like the disembodied shadow or the famous subjective “coffin” sequence, that you will not soon forget.

The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet (tie)

I cannot separate these two. They are among the greatest examinations of faith ever put on film. The searing close-ups which comprise virtually every moment of Joan allowed for one of the greatest performances by an actress in the history of motion pictures. Maria Falconetti, who never made another movie after this, fought with Dreyer about cutting her hair for the role. It was the first of innumerable tortures he put her through, all of which are revealed in her performance. And in Ordet, the moment of resurrection, in which Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) is brought back to life by the seemingly insane Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) is among the most sublime moments ever filmed. Its simplicity is hallmark Dreyer.

Day of Wrath (1943)

This is the movie that saved me. It is one of the greatest movies ever made. Common wisdom ranks it behind Joan and even Vampyr because it did not seem as technically adventurous. No less an authority than Andre Bazin considered it a respectable failure. Bazin understands film in a way that I never will, but he was dead wrong on this one. This movie, more than any of Dreyer’s, has grown larger over time. Its story of mob sentiment and persecution can be easily interpreted as a statement about occupied Denmark in 1943, but its themes are universal. Witchcraft, or anything unknowable, may simply be a wise woman’s superior understanding of the forces of life and nature. To destroy that which differs from the norm is to destroy mankind itself. Lisbeth Movin rivals Falconetti’s performance here, and as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, Dreyer’s inventive use of the pan/reverse track should put to rest the assumption that he was not a technical genius. It requires extraordinary craft to appear as simple and unadorned as Day of Wrath.

The One That Got Away

Dreyer spent a good part of the second half of his life trying to make Jesus of Nazareth. Dreyer’s idea was to treat Jesus as a realistic historical figure (one of the early titles was The Story of the Jew Jesus) emphasising both his humanity and his Jewishness. Simon Braund, in his entertaining book The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, tracks the tribulations through which the director journeyed over many years in an attempt to bring his vision to the screen. The miracle in Ordet was in no small measure an experiment in how to portray such things on screen, since the Jesus film would be full of miracles. The screenplay for the unfilmed movie exists. You can read it and wonder at what might have been.

But such wondering is ultimately a fruitless endeavour. Instead, we can content ourselves with what he was able to leave; a number of wonderful, meaningful, poignant movies, one of which, in a very small and mostly inconsequential way, has again saved me.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

7 thoughts on “Carl Theodor Dreyer: A Film Primer

  1. Vampyr has an ability to disconcert that few films achieve. It continually puts the viewer in a place that is comfortable – or at least familiar – and then tips him sideways by introducing a bizarre element. The old man who emerges from the room upstairs when Allan opens his door – brrrr!

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  3. Great piece, Jon, on a terrific director. The Passion of Joan of Arc is definitely one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and there’s nothing else like it. I think there’s a perception of his work, like Bergman’s, as being “difficult,” yet the truth is, it’s as accessible as any masterpiece; difficult, to me, is sitting through another Joel Schumacher, Baz Luhrmann or Michael Bay film. Now that’s tough!

  4. I only recently saw ‘Day of Wrath’, and I thought it was excellent. I know ‘Vampyr’, and ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, but have not seen any of the others. I watched the short film, and thought that the last scene recalled Charon, the ferryman who transported souls across the River Styx. Great stuff Jon, most interesting and enjoyable.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I was resistant to Ordet – I am not generally a fan of “miracle” movies – but I have to admit, when it works, it works.

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