#6 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
This steadily won me over more and more as it went along. A light comedy with a surprising amount of pathos in the end, The Parson’s Widow, Dreyer’s second film, is a wonderful little find from the earliest days of cinema. There’s a confidence to the filmmaking and subtlety to the performances that had been largely missing from The President, his first feature, that helps provide a strong emotional base on which the movie’s final act requires in order to work.
It’s the story of a young parson, Sofren, fresh from the seminary with his fiancée, Mari, in tow. He’s walking his way to the remote Norwegian village where Sofren is applying to be their parson. He’s up against two other recent seminarian graduates, both educated at more prestigious institutions. The opening around this contest between the three is the broadest comedy of the film, and it works least. It’s amusing in its own way as we watch the first drone his audience to boredom and sleep while Sofren sabotages the second by placing a feather in his hair that turns him into a laughingstock. When the village elders decide on Sofren, they also outline a specific rule they have for their parsons. The new one must marry the widow of the previous. Margarete is very old and has been through this process three times before. She knows what she’s doing, so when the other two applicants run off at the sight of her, Margarete takes Sofren back to his house, gets him drunk off of schnapps, and gets him to propose to her.
Even sober it ends up making some sense to both Sofren and Mari. Margarete is old. She probably won’t last too long, and since Mari’s father won’t let Sofren marry Mari until he has a situation, this is a necessary and temporary situation for them to endure until they can marry. Margarete is also an imperious old woman who puts Sofren under her thumb immediately, so they have to hide Mari by calling her Sofren’s sister and bringing her into the household as a maid.
So is the setup for the bulk of the film where Sofren tries desperately to find time with his fiancée without either Margarete or her other two servants from finding out. Sofren grows more and more bitter as his efforts come to comedic frustrations that often lead him to accidentally sending amorous moves towards Margarete’s older female servant. It even comes to the point where they decide to try and kill Margarete by frightening her to death. Sofren dresses up as a picture of the devil in a book, and it begins to work until she notices Sofren’s slippers underneath the costume. Frightening him off, she immediately goes to his room in the middle of the night, letting Sofren suffer outside in the cold for hours until he decides to own up to it, costume head in hand, and confront his wife.
Everything changes when Sofren decides to take things a little too far. Margarete goes up into a loft, and Sofren pulls the ladder away. Walking away, he doesn’t realize that Mari is up there as well, and she falls down, breaking a leg and getting a concussion. Margarette becomes like a mother to Mari, comforting her as she convalesces, and this human side to Margarette convinces Sofren to simply tell her the truth. This decision to finally reveal what he wants softens Margarette. This tradition in the village isn’t new, and her first husband of 30 years was also caught in the same situation where he had to marry the previous widow for five years before they could marry each other.
All of the pathos of the ending is really built on the shoulders of the elderly actress Hildur Carlberg. Born in 1843, she was 75 years old when she made The Parson’s Widow (dying a few months after filming), and she provides an amazing performance as Margarette. She is conniving early as she plots her succession, of a sorts, and once Mari gets injured, she convincingly turns into a worried mother, baring herself to the husband that she had wronged. It’s very possible she understood the real situation between Mari and Sofren, choosing to secure her position jealously rather than allow two young people the love they shared, but when Mari gets injured, Margarette sees the error of her ways, the parallel to her own youth, and the humanity of her husband, and Carlberg sells it perfectly. It’s a great silent performance.
Outside of the movie’s fairly rote first act (that’s still entertaining enough on its own), there’s something really wonderful going on from the moment Margarette is introduced. That it ends with such deep emotion is actually rather surprising, but welcomed and earned as well.
This is a wonderful film, a second film that any director should be proud of. Confident and clear, The Parson’s Widow is a very strong entry in Dreyer’s filmography.