The 100 Essential Directors Part 3

George Cukor - John Ford

by PopMatters Staff

7 August 2011


Carl Theodor Dreyer

Carl Theodor Dreyer
(1889 - 1968)

Three Key Films: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Ordet (1955)

Underrated: Gertrud (1962) Dreyer’s final film, and only truly underrated if one posits it in comparison to his other more canonically revered earlier features, Gertrud is in many ways an apotheosis of Dreyer’s style and themes, and unquestionably as devastating as his other “key” films. Following the titular heroine, played with moving delicacy by Nina Pens Rode, as she searches in vain for an impossible ideal love. Sober, static, and so subtle that its full impact might not reach the viewer for days, Gertrud quietly matches The Passion of Joan of Arc in its commitment to an idealistic, independent, uncompromising female martyr. Gertrud does not burn at the stake, but her tragedy cuts open the viewer with the same blunt force.

Unforgettable: The word “miraculous” gets thrown around increasingly often as a lazy way to build up a film’s hype, but if there’s any scene in cinema it genuinely applies to, it is the finale of Ordet (1955), Dreyer’s monolithic exploration of faith and intolerance. A miracle, in the most traditional sense of the word, does occur in this scene, but it’s the way Dreyer stages it—in signature long takes, without a single trick or wink, in a somber crescendo of exposed emotion—that makes the moment so staggeringly powerful. As much a paean to the power of film as the power of faith, the scene demands to be seen with fresh eyes, so I will say no more: just make sure your schedule allows you at least an hour of meditation following your screening—it’s very likely you’ll need it.


The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Legend: Despite a relatively small filmography, Carl Theodor Dreyer is truly a revered figure in cinema history; his emotionally draining storytelling and mysteriously slow output rate have afforded him an almost mythic status. The illegitimate son of a Swedish housekeeper, Carl Dreyer would pass through multiple foster homes before his placement in the care of Carl Theodor and Inger Marie Dreyer, around the same time as his biological mother’s accidental death. Dreyer would later estrange himself from his adpoted family as a teenager, and though dismissive of the impact of his childhood in interviews, his past seems unquestionably tied to his cinematic ruminations of sorrow, interpersonal disconnect, and martyrdom.

Dreyer’s first forays into film were with the Danish Nordisk company in the 1910s; work from this period includes The President (1915) and The Parson’s Widow (1920). These early features show a concern for the suffering of women that would culminate in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a film any cineaste should be intimately familiar with. That film’s mystical power derives from Dreyer’s marriage of religious and spiritual tropes with intensely visceral depictions of torture—a marriage of the holy and human that defines Dreyer’s entire oeuvre. Renee Maria Falconetti’s legendary performance as Joan adds to the emotional depth: shot almost entirely in extreme close-ups, Falconetti’s bare, tear-stained face is one of cinema’s truly iconic images; her portrayal belongs not in the category of “performance” but instead “possession”.

Following Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s output pace slowed considerably; over the next four decades he would release only four features. The atmospheric Vampyr (1932) was met with mixed reviews upon its release, but its surrealist imagery and expressionist construction has since made it a genre classic and an essential piece of Dreyer’s oeuvre: thematically and stylistically it bridges Dreyer’s earlier output with his later work by showcasing an interest in the darker side of spirituality as well as pushing the boundaries of realist representation. Day of Wrath (1943) continues to explore the intermediary space between darkness and light, demons and angels: here we see Dreyer’s trademark tonal and sensory austerity in full effect.

His final films abandon the occult elements of the previous two works, but retain their austere style and emotional nakedness: Ordet (1955), based on the play by Kaj Munk, unfolds slowly but rigorously in its depiction of religious intolerance among a Danish farming community. Dreyer documents the various crises of the film’s central family with such sobriety and empathy that once the narrative content turns increasingly urgent, the viewing experience nearly turns physical. The same can be said for Gertrud (1962), Dreyer’s final film, which also uses long takes and carefully-constructed mise-en-scene to heighten the power of its emotional crescendo.

Despite tackling such disparate subject material, Dreyer’s films all feature a striking, overpowering understanding of what it means to suffer: their humanity and humility are the traits that have come to define Dreyer and his oeuvre, and indeed he remains untouchable when said subject matter is concerned. Lee Dallas



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