#14 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
This is the first Dreyer film where I’ve simply been disengaged completely from beginning to end. It was originally one hundred and fifteen minutes in its original run way back in 1926, and over time it’s been whittled down to seventy-four minutes. More than a third of the runtime has gone missing, and I think that’s a large part of why this movie doesn’t engage. Between the two melodramatic bookends, the movie is a largely staid affair of people being nice to each other about getting two people who love each other together, skipping over a character who feels like he should be central to the drama, especially since the action climax is all his doing.
Tore (Einar Sissener) is a young man coming back home to his father’s farm to help return it to its former glory. After a few years of working for other people, he’s going to become his own man. Shortly after arriving, his childhood friend, the pretty Berit (Tove Tellback) comes to visit. They tease each other about him needing a wife, and it’s obvious that they have deep feelings for one another. Her father, though, has other plans. Ola (Stub Wiberg) is planning on marrying Berit off to the son of a rich man, Gjermund (Einar Tveito), whether Berit agrees to the match or not. This leads to a blowup as Berit discovers the scheme, refuses to bow to it, and Gjermund becomes jealous enough to attack Tore at an outside dance.
This first act is really dominated by the kind of overbearing silent performances, especially from Tellback, that Dreyer had been moving away from for the past few films. This is the first film of his that I’d outright label as melodramatic. Berit decides to run away from her father, Ola, afterwards, and she ends up falling off her horse as she nears Tore’s land. He picks her up, takes her home, and lets her convalesce for some time while Ola promptly disowns her for now marrying the way she wants. When Berit mends, she decides that her love for Tore is too much and she won’t be able to keep control of herself in his presence. She runs off to the vicarage, the vicar’s wife being her godmother, without telling anyone. Tore goes after her, first showing up at the vicarage as a starting point coincidentally, and together they explain to the vicar what’s going on.
This is where the movie just kind of got boring. The next thirty minutes is a slow and steady progression towards this tangled web getting untangled without any real twists or turns. The vicar goes out to Ola and berates him for having promised Berit without her consent, an action he assures him could land him in jail. He then goes to Gjermund and his father, berates them for having promised him that Berit had accepted when she hadn’t, an action he assures them could land them in jail. Then they start planning for the wedding, and all is just so cheerful and rather dull. There’s no dramatic tension anywhere to be found in this middle section, no wondering if Gjermund will object or Ola will take back Berit. It’s just too straightly presented, but the ultimate failing, I think is around Gjermund.
Gjermund disappears from the movie at about the halfway point, having been chastised by the vicar. He then reappears in the hills over the wedding procession with an axe in the final few minutes. Gjermund was incredibly thinly drawn as a character, and I have to believe that a not insignificant part of the missing 41 minutes was dedicated to him. In the scenes he’s in, he’s barely a factor, only really doing anything when he attacks Tore early. His meek acceptance of his chastisement from the vicar doesn’t scream to me like he’s harboring great feeling or planning anything drastic, and then the next time we see him he’s wielding an axe. I was wondering if the movie was going to turn into a proto-slasher movie all of a sudden, but it was not to be.
The final reel of the film feels inspired by D.W. Griffith’s 1920 film Way Down East that ends with Lillian Gish being saved on an icy river. The river here isn’t icy, but an climactic sequence taking place on a river from a director with known influences from Griffith (most notably how Leaves from Satan’s Book is an attempt to mimic Intolerance) feels like a callback to me. Doesn’t make it good or bad, just noting it.
The action itself is fine, but I was so thoroughly disengaged by this point that it didn’t affect me at all. I kept thinking of my reaction to Love One Another, another Dreyer film that I felt started poorly and unconvincingly, wondering if I was going to have a turnaround of opinion the later this went on. Despite the fact that the river sequence is technically rather accomplished, I did not feel the same way. Love One Another was the culmination of a series of events and pieces that hadn’t been well laid out but coming together in grand fashion. This was just a final series of moments in a dull, unengaging little film with few stakes and not a whole lot to hold my interest.
I do believe that the missing 41 minutes would help the film, but they’re probably lost forever. I’m not sure how much they would help, though. Impossible to say without actually finding them, of course. And yet, as the movie stands today, I can say pretty affirmatively that Dreyer made his least film immediately before he made one of the greatest films ever made. Art is funny like that sometimes.