“My Only Great Passion” – so said Carl Th. Dreyer of his lifelong love affair with the cinema. Few if any filmmakers have come close to translating this passion so completely into their work as Dreyer. Although he made relatively few films during his long career (only 14 features from The President in 1919 to Gertrud in 1964), quality well and truly took precedence over quantity and what he gave to us is a collection of films that are quite simply without equal.
Far from wallowing in clichéd Nordic gloom, and contrary to many people’s view of his work, Dreyer’s method is so quiet and so open that his films positively glow with the day to day act of living: of enjoying happiness, of suffering pain, of feeling love and of needing love. The day to day experience of existence. We may find ourselves in obscure or unfamiliar historical surroundings but the convictions and transgressions are the same as they’ve always been and always shall be. It’s this unflinching and uncompromising approach to truth that goes towards making his films such overwhelmingly intense experiences.
Those partial to films about silent, empty, breathing spaces will find in Dreyer’s films a true kindred spirit. So much of his work feels next to impossible to sufficiently articulate in words (always a mark of great art/cinema). They are filled with open routes to an abundance of meanings and levels of nuanced human understanding. What it is that draws us into these austere landscapes is, of course, a lot to do with what’s going on in our heads. It’s about the spaces that open up and the thought processes which are ignited to fill it. These voids which Dreyer creates kick off our own subconscious memories and it’s that marriage of the work with the viewer that gives Dreyer’s work such ambiguity and longevity. Not finding definite answers to difficult questions is a wonderful side to our existence. It’s stokes the fires of our curiosity, it keeps us going and sustains our inquisitive nature. Thankfully, some things are mysterious and they will forever remain that way. And that’s certainly the case with a Film by Carl Dreyer.
He was never afraid to tackle “big themes”. He was only concerned with his own ability to match his own expectations. He accepted nothing less than what he wanted and his work was all more beautiful for being so unsparing. This unshakable unwillingness to compromise certainly contributed towards his long periods of inactivity and when things did go array, as was the case with his 1944 film Two People, he wasted little time in voicing his distain and disapproval. Disowning the film almost before it was released. But when everything fell into place, as was the case with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and with Gertrud, the results were remarkable.
His unparalleled mastery of structure and space (both on-screen and off-screen space) is akin to an almost primeval gift for alchemy. So much is achieved by – apparently – doing so little. For instance, you can never be entirely sure who is sitting or standing just out of frame or when or where from a particular character may reappear. Are they alone, or are they being watched? It’s a disorientating yet thrilling sensation. Gesture and the way that characters carry themselves are just as important in Dreyer’s films too. Throughout his filmmaking life he remained steadfastly a man of the silent screen and this startlingly cinematic and economical means of relaying information was always profoundly important to him.
Ordet, which Dreyer himself said was the film that he had most affection for, is especially wondrous in this regard. As with the rest of his mature works, it is completely devoid of embellishment or needless excess. Stripped bare of anything and everything that is either indulgent or unnecessary. Even the credits for the film consist of nothing more than the main title card: “Kaj Munk – Ordet” (Munk, the author of the original play, was murdered by the Nazis in 1944). Not even Dreyer’s name appears anywhere on the finished film.
Even though they live a remote rural existence in a devoutly religious corner of a far off foreign land, the Borgens are a recognisably real family. Theirs is a house of love and laughter, of daily routines and chores, and of a deeply felt concern for the mental state of one of their kin. At the Borgensgaard farmstead we find old man Borgen, as stubborn in his ways as he is stubborn in his faith; Mikkel, his eldest son, a pragmatist and a man who no longer has any time for the petty superstitions of religion; Johannes, the second son who, for reasons not fully explained, has seemingly lost of mind and is now of the belief that he is the risen Christ; the youngest son Anders, a gentle soul on the brink of adulthood and longing for the hand of the tailor’s daughter; and then there are Mikkel’s two young daughters, Maren and Lilleinger, innocents whose cherishable youth grants them the uncomplicated capacity for unwavering trust. Finally, at the centre of them all, there is Inger. Beautiful and wonderful Inger: Mikkel’s wife and a loving mother to the two girls. She is also expecting their third child. An earth mother if ever there was one, she is a woman of wisdom, humour, fortitude and never-ending diplomacy.
As in all his major films (and principally in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Day of Wrath and, in what is for me his greatest film, Gertrud) Dreyer presents us with an almost mystical portrait of womanhood. Inger is the very heart of the household and she binds the family together: a mum, a sister, a daughter and a rock that they all adore and rely upon. She embodies that inner strength which to a greater or lesser degree we all possess so that we’re able to cope the best that we can with the trials and tribulations that life throws at us. And the Borgens have a tragedy to cope with that will put them all to the test.
Although championed as a masterpiece of abstract and spiritual enlightenment, it’s the physically of human desire and of human contact (hands holding hands, lips touching lips, flesh pressed against flesh) that is most central to Dreyer’s view of our life’s blood. To have lived and never loved must be a dreadful thing and Dreyer’s characters fight against this torment for all they’re worth. Never more so than in the devastating final act when the rational and the miraculous converge and convince in a way that utterly defies description. [Minor plot spoiler ahead]: The gut-wrenching cry from Inger’s broken husband (“But I loved her body too”) has to be the most violently honest and shiningly beautiful proclamation in all of cinema. It chills to the bone and you almost feel ashamed to have been witness to this most private of declarations.
For me, Ordet is also at its most extraordinary when capturing those moments from childhood that we all remember; fleeting memories that immediately transport us back to those Blue Remembered Hills. The sound of washing flapping in the wind; the smell of baking drifting from the kitchen; the dappled sunlight casting shadows through the curtain lace; a kiss before bedtime. Sounds and images that trigger off all sorts of distant reminiscences of times long past. Life is transient, ephemeral, nothing is forever, and although it might sound like an obvious thing to say, you really get a sense with Dreyer that we all live our lives through our own experience.
Our walk with love and death is mediated by our own personal histories and by our upbringing. Whether they be sacred or profane, we are the sum total of our beliefs and circumstances. These are the devices and desires that have made us who we are. Rather than searching for any godlike presence, Dreyer’s characters seek peace and solace primarily with themselves, yearning to fulfil their mission in life, a mission that thrives on the physical longing for spiritual fulfilment. To be able to say nothing more than: “I am content”.
You cannot leave a Dreyer film as quite the same person you were when you entered it. The intensity and beauty of his films leave no stone unturned when it comes to burrowing into our very core. But Dreyer never positions himself as preacher or as either judge or jury. His films astonish us through their bold simplicity as he seeks to illuminate our understanding of ourselves and of our place (or role?) in this world. To sit before The Parson’s Widow, Master of the House, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet or Gerturd is to be in the company of the richest and most rewarding films ever made. They are not films to be revered from a distance but rather living works that both require and deserve to be experienced and remembered in just the same way as the sight and sound of that blindingly white linen, fluttering in the breeze.
Paul Marygold – Projectionist