1920s, 3.5/4, Carl Th. Dreyer, Comedy, Review

Once Upon a Time (Der var engang)

Der var engang (1922) - IMDb

#8 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.

It’s really unfortunate that so much of this film is lost. The Danish Film Institute’s restoration goes as far as possible, but there are still moments where scenes have to get played out in intertitles and use production stills to continue the story. It’s unfortunate because what’s there is actually quite delightful, an earnest and deeply felt fairy tale about a prince and princess falling in love with the help of a little bit of magic. Much like the earlier The Parson’s Widow, the earlier and more straightforward comedy gives way to surprising depth of feeling by the end so that even if the final few minutes are recounted with bits of text, there’s still a spark of warmth in my icy, cold heart.

This is the story of the Princess Illyria (Clara Wieth), a haughty and very pretty royal who refuses every prince coming along to marry her. The opening is her dealing with three princes in a row, condemning the first to the pillory and the second to the hangman (how she can do this to another sovereign’s prince is never really explained, but fairy tale). The third is our other main character, the Prince of Denmark (Svend Methling). Feeling generous at the return of her parrot, she lets the prince go without execution. Dejected, the prince returns home, wanders the woods, and encounters a woodsman descended from fairies who gives him a magic copper kettle that shows him who he will marry (the princess, of course). Sporting a goatee and some forester rags, the prince and his trusty servant, Kasper Roghat, return to Illyria and conceive a scheme.

The prince, disguised, uses the promise of the kettle to convince Illyria to let him sleep in her chamber one night in exchange for letting her look at the kettle. When she sees the prince in the kettle’s shiny exterior, she laughs at this vagabond, allowing him to sleep on the floor by her fireplace while her ladies in waiting observe. Kasper, though, comes to the King in the middle of the night, disguised as a knight, and convinces him that something is going on with the princess, so he goes to check. He finds his daughter with a strange man, and Kasper demands that the king exile the princess for the insult to the Prince of Denmark’s honor or else face war. That is how the princess and the prince (disguised as a woodsman) go to Denmark’s countryside to become potters.

Almost everything up to Kasper showing up in the King’s presence is whole, but almost the entire scene of the prince meeting the princess in her chamber, showing her the kettle, and the princess being exiled is all done in intertitles because of the lost footage. I’ve gone on small rants here and there about how intertitles kill silent films (like in Love One Another), but I find it hard to hold against Once Upon a Time here because it wasn’t a conscious choice but just a sad trick of fate that certain sections of reels have deteriorated or been lost.

What follows ends up being fairly predictable, but Illyria’s change from haughty princess to loving wife is very convincingly drawn. In their hovel, she tries to show authority, but the prince has none of it. He essentially laughs her off and lets the reality of living in poverty get to her. She’s given a new sense of life when she discovers that she has a talent for pottery, and they work together to make their first batch for sale. She breaks them all, though, after they separate on their way to town when he stops to help someone, and the local foresters chase her, tossing her wheelbarrow over. This time is where she becomes humbled, especially the moment they find the corpse of a poacher hanging from a tree, a direct callback to her earlier calls to have her suitors hanged for merely boring her. The sight of real death horrifies her. The travails of real life make her appreciate that life is more than just a parade of niceties. She looks to the man whom she lives with and begins to fall in love. It’s a bit Stockholm Syndrom-y, but it works.

The acting here needs to be noted. Up to this point in Dreyer’s career, the performances of his actors have varied wildly in type and quality. If the actors knew what they were doing on their own, they tended to deliver the kinds of quiet, grounded performances his films called for. If they didn’t, then they were prone to the wild extremes of silent acting with a lot of flailing limbs. I think it’s about here, in Once Upon a Time, where Dreyer began to really assert himself in terms of directing his actors in very particular ways. There’s a moment when the princess falls against a door, and we get a close up of her. After a second we can see the small exhale of breath that demonstrates her sudden feeling of calm because of her sweet forester’s aid in a matter. It’s a tiny moment, but it sells the moment so much more than something larger would have done. We can’t forget Clara Wieth in this, of course. She sells the emotion with such simple austerity so that it works.

The final turns of the plot are when the prince feigns sickness and sends the princess to the castle to beg for food. Given a job in the kitchen in exchange for the food, she is met with the announcement that the prince has returned and needs someone who fits his foreign princess’s dress to take part in the mock wedding since his foreign princess cannot come. She, of course, is the only one who fits, and she ends up proving her love to the haughty prince she doesn’t realize, freshly shaven and well-dressed, is the man she’s fallen in love with. In terms of the surviving materials, the vast majority of the ending is lost, told through intertitles and the occasional production photo. And yet, even as I knew that I wasn’t going to see another frame of footage, I enjoyed the descriptions of Illyria’s defense of her poor potter in the woods and the prince’s final reveal of his true identity.

No, it’s not challenging stuff. It’s a straightforward telling of a fairy tale, essentially, and I found it kind of wonderful by the end. Illyria’s journey from haughty princess to loving wife feels real and earned. This is a gem of Dreyer’s career, even if about 25% seems to be lost.

Rating: 3.5/4

3 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time (Der var engang)”

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