#12 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
I don’t give up on movies, never turning them off if they don’t engage me within a certain amount of time. I’ll stick through anything to the end, and I think Dreyer’s Love One Another is an example of that benefiting me. The first hour is the worst filmmaking he’s had in his career up to this point, but the final half hour is, I might say, kind of great. The first hour is all about setting up the events of the last half hour, but it does it in such an unengaging and frustrating way. However, once that final act gets around to showing up, the pieces are all in place for a climax that a better movie could have actually deserved. It doesn’t save the whole movie, but it takes a dreary misstep in Dreyer’s career and makes it ultimately watchable.
I touched on this briefly when talking about Leaves from Satan’s Book, but intertitles kill silent movies. They are a necessary evil, at best, and should be avoided at all costs, striving to tell the story as purely through image as possible. Losing sight of our actors in their moments to see a black screen and a wall of text is a surefire way of disengaging an audience from the action on screen. The first hour of Love One Another feels like nonstop intertitles. There are moments where a wall of text comes up, explains some great movement in plot, politics, or character, we see a single shot that lasts for a second or two, and then we get another wall of text describing another great movement in plot, politics, or character. And it keeps happening again and again.
Dreyer, in an adaptation of a novel by Aage Madelung, is trying to tell a fairly large story in a relatively short amount of time. The story is about the Jewish pogroms that followed the Russian Tsar’s freeing of the serfs, as told through the eyes of a Jewish girl, Hanne-Liebe (Polina Piekowskaja). Essentially, she is caught up in the anti-Semitic feelings of the day, struggling to find a way to happiness, as a larger political situation stews and finally blows up around her. Taking a step back, it’s a relatively straightforward way to tell a character-based story within a larger, historical context. However, the path that Dreyer chose to take to get Hanne-Liebe to those final moments was a lugubrious one.
We start with Hanna-Liebe as a little girl, friends with the neighbor’s son Fedya, but the boy’s father is a noted anti-Semite and refuses their friendship. Hanna-Liebe gets sent to the local school where she’s barely admitted and faced with constant pressure because the school is run by Russian Orthodox women who demand at least outward signs of faith from the young Jewish girl. Time passes, and Hanna-Liebe grows up, nearing her graduation. One afternoon, she goes out and meets Sasha, a young idealist who is secretly sympathetic with the underground movement and planning to go to St. Petersburg to continue his studies and join the movement itself. They encounter Fedya post-coitus with another local girl, and in order to head off gossip around themselves, Fedya rushes back to town and spreads rumors of Hanna-Liebe’s own invented promiscuity which turns the town against her.
Then the movie takes a really strange turn. The film overall is a pretty serious drama with larger implications, but for about ten minutes it turns into a goofy romantic comedy. I mean, this is really jarring stuff when considering what’s around it. In order to try and settle Hanna-Liebe’s now tumultuous life, including getting kicked out of school because of the rumors, her mother tries to get Hanna-Liebe married, and, with the help of the local matchmaker, she settles on a young cloth merchant. The scenes here are just off as the young man tried to present himself in the best light only to have Hanna-Liebe almost cartoonishly revolted by him. So, she runs off to St. Petersburg to find her older brother.
Now, her older brother, Jakow, turned his back on the faith of his fathers and was baptized a Christian, an action that led his father to banish him. He takes her in, much to the completely unexplained consternation of his wife (based on the theme of the film, I would assume anti-Semitic feelings), and she meets Sasha again, who has become a radical and volunteered to “throw the first bomb” in a campaign against the Tsar that should lead to revolution and liberty. Up to this point, the intertitles have been bad, but I think it’s here where they get completely unmanageable. For instance, over the course of about a minute, Hanne-Liebe goes from free, to in prison, to back home, 95% done with intertitles followed by quick individual shots of the after effects.
Considering the film’s 95 minute runtime, there is simply far too much story packed into the first hour to actually give a real feel to anything that happens. This led to the overreliance on intertitles to do the vast majority of the actual storytelling. This opening hour is a complete drag because it’s not long enough. This feels like a Doctor Zhivago level epic that needed a similar runtime to do its story justice.
However, at about the hour point, things steadily turn around. Back home, Hanne-Liebe sends a note to Jakow that their mother is dying, and he must come home. At the same time, a Tsarist agent has been going around the small town, stoking anti-Semitic sentiment among the people with rumors that the Tsar was going to free only the Jews and have them rule the rest of the remaining serfs. Everything comes to a head when word from the Tsar that all serfs are freed comes. That the rumor turned out to be true doesn’t undo the brewing anti-Semitic feeling, and a Russian demonstration heads into the Jewish ghetto with disastrous results.
The sacking of the Jewish ghetto is an outright great sequence. It’s terrifying as Russians break into homes to ransack and murder. Its enhanced by the use of Hanne-Liebe, Jakow, and Sasha as they try to react to the quickly formed mob and get out alive. The editing is tight and exciting, once again showing Griffith’s influence on Dreyer’s work.
I’m glad I stuck through with this because the ending is great. It doesn’t really make up for the poorly told and overstuffed first hour that really needed either great expansion or a heavy slimming down, though. It’s something to note that I went from completely against the film to almost on its side over the final act.