Cinematic Contemplation: The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection – Blu-ray review
Carl Theodor Dreyer might be the best filmmaker that the wider world has never heard of. Even the heavyweights of European art-house cinema (the Fellinis and Bergmans of this world) have some degree of name recognition, yet the Danish auteur remains relatively unknown despite outscoring Kubrick or Scorsese in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, with three of his films lodged in the top 50.
Two of those – Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) – are the star attractions of this superb BFI set, a chance to redress the balance in Dreyer’s favour. (The third Sight & Sound hit is the silent classic The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), already available through Masters Of Cinema and probably the director’s best-known film.) Instead, the silent era is represented by Master Of The House (1925), with Day Of Wrath (1943) – my pick of the set – bridging the gap between that and the late-career masterworks, while all of Dreyer’s short films from the 1940s and 1950s, plus another disc of documentaries.
To those who have heard of him, Dreyer has the reputation for austere, if not severe, dramas about religious faith and existential struggle – and the stereotype is broadly true. Even so, the biggest shock if viewing this set in chronological order is that Master Of The House is a comedy. Admittedly, that genre description comes with the caveat that this is a comedy written and directed by Dreyer: an austere comedy.
The premise is strong enough. It’s the study of a tyrannical husband and father, Viktor Frandsen, who builds his life around incredible cruelty and arrogance: the kind of guy who sleeps in while his wife Ida prepares breakfast, but then berates her over the tiniest detail. And so the man’s one-time nanny and family friend (a formidable performance by Mathilde Nielsen) decides to take the situation in hand and teach the man a lesson by moving in and making Viktor do all the hard work.
Satire, then, and startlingly feminist for 1925 – the old woman even gets an address, more or less to camera, berating mankind for its faults. Yet it’s an idea that is funnier in concept than in execution, because Dreyer’s preference for moral fable means he seriously overdoes it. The opening sequence borders on being depressing; later Dreyer labours the point by providing mirror-image pay-offs for every incident set up during the film’s opening stretch, as if Viktor has to atone for each slight by dotting every ‘i’.
The real interest lies in Dreyer’s staging. The camera rarely moves and close-ups are relatively few. Instead, Dreyer favours static medium shots, allowing him to focus on the space in the home. The brilliant set design maps out the ‘house’ (in reality, a handful of rooms) to achieve a precise psychological effect in the way that Viktor moves about – initially haughty and commanding, but with increasing humility and meekness. So while this doesn’t quite work as a comedy, it highlights the director’s facility with environment and how to place the actors within them, something that pays off in the other three films.
Between 1925 and 1943, Dreyer only directed three further films – The Bride of Glomdal (1926); the afore-mentioned The Passion Of Joan Of Arc; and Vampyr (1932). Their absence from this set is understandable, given that Dreyer travelled across Europe to make these films; rights issues restricts the BFI to films that Dreyer made in Denmark. But despite the 18-year gap, there is a striking consistency of style between Master Of The House and Day Of Wrath. The difference is that, here, comedy isn’t on the agenda.
As you’d expect from a director who hadn’t made a film in 11 years, Dreyer had learnt to take his time. The austere style has been refined so that, in place of Master Of The House’s largely static camerawork, now the camera moves freely around the cleverly constructed sets… but it moves slowly, methodically, tracking the movement of the actors in elaborate arcs that tie them to their context, loaded with the weight of their journeys.
And troubling journeys, at that. Day Of Wrath is set at a time of medieval superstition in an unspecified Danish town where rumours of witchcraft so abound it has been codified into a ‘legal’ and ceremonial process, complete with choirboys practising their pyre-side entertainment (the title refers to the hymn they sing when a witch burns). Shots of parchment scrolls, and of hands busily writing their judgements, set the scene: there is no escape because what defence is there against solemnly conveyed irrationality? The opening shot proper shows a woman, Herlofs Marte, who has found strong herbs under the gallows; before the camera has had a chance to offer an alternative viewpoint, she has raced out of her home and out through the pigs’ exit.
Day Of Wrath isn’t her story but that of Anne, the young pastor’s wife who tries, in vain, to hide the suspect and is intoxicated with rebellious thoughts, eventually having an affair with her stepson. Dreyer plays the film for ambiguity: she might indeed be a witch; an object of retribution to take revenge on the pastor for his role in the woman’s death; or just a bored housewife who has seen something better.
It doesn’t matter, really, because the focus is on how Anne’s difference disrupts the status quo. Whereas process is defined by those long takes – especially the circular pan that makes the whole community of elders complicit in the torture of a witch – Anne (as played by the superb Lisbeth Movin) is so sensual she causes the camera to pause in admiration, or cut away in embarrassment. As she embarks on an affair with her stepson, there’s unbridled lust (“take me and make me happy”) but Dreyer doesn’t judge – she did, after all, ask the same of her husband, only to find him too aloof, too hidebound by the strictures of his society, to bed her.
And so the hypocrisy and corruption of power is dissected, with the priests like horny voyeurs at the torture or the burning. Made during WWII, its fable of persecution has inevitably been compared to the Nazis but Dreyer strikes a more timeless (and somehow, in the latent feminism, more modern) allegory. The attention to detail helps; the designs, costumes and framings are convincing enough to make dating the film quite difficult. This could be the 17th century; it might be 1943; with its accomplished technique and moral authority, you wouldn’t blink if somebody had told you it was made yesterday as an allegory of corrupted religious faith.
Which leads us nicely onto Ordet. Religious faith might be the most private and internal of thought processes, making it notoriously tricky to depict externally. How to capture that devotion on-screen? Everything from The Name Of The Rose to Sister Act goes for overt gestures: shrill exhortations, eye-rolling fervour, a big song and dance. Ordet makes you realise that such kitsch isn’t necessary: simply to have faith in your material is enough.
Said material is stark and severe, the kind of thing on which Ingmar Bergman would later specialise in, but Dreyer pares things back even further. For the most part, this is a film that takes place behind closed doors in sparsely-decorated rooms… and even on the few occasions he ventures outside, Dreyer depicts the Danish landscape as a windswept wilderness.
Add to that characters who are traumatised by their own doubts, driven into pained, thoughful silences or – in one case – madness. Johannes thinks he’s Jesus, putting him at odds with his faithless brothers Mikkel and Anders and their devout father Morten. While the family struggles with worldly concerns (the imminent birth of Mikkel’s child; Anders’ courtship of a local girl) Johannes walks around in a seance-like trance, intoning scripture in an eerily reedy voice. [Note that Johannes is played by Preben Lerdoff Rye, the stepson from Day Of Wrath: a startling transformation.]
The result is weird and trance-like, especially given Dreyer’s camera style. A natural progression from Day Of Wrath, the film is blocked out like theatre, allowing the actors to sit and talk, or pace anxiously, in long takes – but the camera rarely stops, slowly panning or tracking back and forth to keep them in shot. Just as the characters are assailed by uncertainty, so too the camera never settles into comfortable stillness.
Hardly a barrel of laughs, then? Funnily enough, it isn’t as dark as its foreboding reputation suggests. Dreyer’s colour-coded costumes are rich in irony. Religious characters dress in black, the doubters in grey… but all Johnannes has to do is to add a black robe to his grey clothes to become ‘faithful.’ Dreyer is making a cosmic joke about how inept external signifiers are in symbolising internal beliefs.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the friction between Morten and Peter, the father of Anders’ prospective fiancée. The two dads have opposing attitudes to faith and their tribalism makes them enemies, but Dreyer’s direction makes them peas in a pod, huffily puffing away on pipes in identical dress. Both are hypocrites: Morten is adamant that Anders can’t marry until he realises that Peter feels the same, while the latter ponders the financial advantages of a union until stubbornness kicks in. For all those outward signs, this isn’t faith; it is rendered funny because it is frivolous, and were he so inclined Dreyer might have pushed the story into the realm of satire.
Instead, Dreyer remains true to his conviction in his themes, and turns the screws with a fatal tragedy that strips everybody bar Johannes of their faith – but that is enough to provide a means of convincing the others. To say more would rob the ending of its power, but Dreyer conjures up a set-piece that other directors of religious drama would do well to learn from. Miracles need happen not with a cinematic bang, but with such simplicity of style and directness of feeling that Dreyer magnifies the slightest transition in the characters’ faith into something approaching transcendence.
By Gertrud, Dreyer had got his style down to a fine art. Here’s a film of such long takes that it famously only took three days to edit. When those long takes replace the probing movement of Day Of Wrath and Ordet in favour of the still contemplation of actors in two-shot, speaking without ever quite looking at each other, we’re ever closer to the border between cinema and theatre.
And it has to be said; all of the films in this set draw on stage plays for their material. Yet Dreyer’s technique is to concentrate the attention, to achieve an intimacy that wouldn’t be possible in the theatre. This is an art of silence, no matter that the characters in Gertrud are free in their talk in the hope of exchanging fantasies (as Jean Renoir once described love).
It’s the story of Gertrud, a woman defined by an impossible idealism in love. She has made this her vocation, but she demands the same standard of treatment in return. A man who divides his attention between her and his work is no good; it must be total. And so Gertrud is in the middle of a steep descent in the quality of her men; having walked away from her best hope of a happy life in her ex, Gabriel, she is making worse and worse choices (boring husband Gustav, dilettante lover Erland) until she realises that perhaps solitude is her best bet after all.
After binge-watching Dreyer, this might seem a curious destination – love, after all, has survived humiliation and even death in the other films. Yet Gertrud’s attitude reflects Dreyer’s exacting standards – and, in the title role, Nina Pens Rode rivals Falconetti’s Joan of Arc as the definitive Dreyer performance, a force of quiet determination and heartbreak whose every whispered movement sounds like a bomb. Here is a film made by a director absolutely sure of his approach, no matter that it breaks so many of the accepted conventions. In 1964, it was loathed by a generation in the thrall of the freewheeling Nouvelle Vague, but Gertrud is radical because it is so simple.
Dreyer just needs actors and a camera, and he’ll achieve his focus (and, incidentally, Gertrud is as good a place as any to marvel at the director’s use of deep focus to keep his characters’ every nuance in sight). The camera guides but also commentates, its pauses suggestive of Gertrud’s own contemplation – should she stay or should she go? And the deviations from this strategy achieve an electrifying effect. One bombshell is accompanied by a sudden reversion to a classic shot/reverse shot formulation, as if her husband is trying to force the very film into the conformity he wants from his wife. Later, Gertrud repeatedly tries to walk away from her men, mid-shot, to sit in a new chair, only for them to follow her. In a way, Dreyer has come full circle. If Master Of The House had funny material rendered grave by the director’s telling, here the bleakest of material is leavened by the choreography of comedy.
Dreyer’s career is certainly a startling journey, all the more so when adding in the detour of Dreyer’s shorts, mostly government-commissioned documentaries – such as the bluntly-titled The Fight Against Cancer – that provide another angle on the director’s unique mix of austere style and empathetic subjects. In summary, despite its gaps, this is as good an introduction to Dreyer as you could wish for… and that’s without mentioning the extras, with the BFI having unearthed hours of additional content. When you dig so deep you find archive BBC interviews with Dreyer from the 1960s, you know that buying this set is money well spent.