1950s, 4/4, Carl Th. Dreyer, Drama, Review


Ordet (1955) - IMDb

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

This movie snuck up on me. I’m used to Dreyer’s films having great endings where the building blocks of the first three-quarters of the film come together in incredibly elegant ways to create a surprisingly emotionally effective finale. It happened on The Parson’s Widow, Master of the House, Day of Wrath and even Love One Another. However, this cuts deeply.

Dreyer was apparently not much of a religious man himself, though his films would seem to indicate otherwise. Dreyer had an unhappy childhood being raised in a strictly religious household in much the same way as Bergman. There’s an obvious wariness towards authority figures within church settings, as evidenced in movies like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, but the movies never move towards outright atheism or even agnosticism. There’s an embrace of religious fervor that requires no input from earthly authorities, and I think that’s most evident here.

Ordet is the story of a small Danish family in the countryside, the Borgens. They are some of the wealthiest members of their small community, headed by the patriarch Morten (Henrik Malberg) who has three sons. The eldest, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is married to Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), and together they have two daughters while Inger is close to delivering a third child. The youngest is Anders (Cay Kristiansen), a lovelorn young man who yearns for his sweetheart, Anne (Gerda Nielson), the daughter of the local tailor. The middle son is Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who speaks slowly and with an oddly pitched voice while convinced that he is Jesus Christ.

The first half hour or so of the film is about the family’s day to day and the introduction of the idea of Anders asking Anne’s father, Peter (Ejner Federspiel), for Anne’s hand in marriage. The problem is that Peter and Morten are of different denominations. It’s never quite made clear what they are, though I assume their two flavors of Protestantism similar to the kind shown in Babette’s Feast, but they are different enough so that both fathers automatically say no to the match because they will not allow their child to dilute their correct faith with a spouse of the incorrect faith. Word gets to Morten of Peter’s refusal first, though, and Morten immediately changes his mind. He runs over to Peter’s to demand that Anders be allowed to marry Anne. The first half or so of the film is essentially a light and often quite happy look at the lives of these people, ending with the meeting between the two patriarchs as they both bitterly and tiredly snipe at each other using well-practiced lines they have obviously sent back and forth before.

One of the cornerstones of this first half is really Inger. She’s a hardworking woman who lovingly takes care of the large family’s house, recalling Ida from Master of the House. She affectionately calls Morten “farfar” which means “grandpa”, and she takes up Anders’ cause to convince Morten of the match between him and Anne. Her efforts are filled with genuine love for both Anders and Morten, trying to find a way to make Morten happy with the match that she knows will make Anders happy as well. She’s a wonderful presence, and that is key to the film’s second half.

Inger goes into labor early, and the middle section of the film (the first part intercut with Morten’s visit to Peter) is dominated by Inger’s difficult time as she tries to get through the experience. Filmed chastely, we watch the village doctor arrive and do his work while Mikkel holds onto his wife’s hand, holding up a lamp for the doctor to see, and mostly just being nothing more than passive in a situation that he cannot influence. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, and it just keeps going and going. In this kind of movie, we can never be sure if she will be out of it or not, so even when the doctor announces that he was unable to save the baby but Inger will be fine, we can’t quite ease up. When Johannes shows up and announces that he sees Death arriving with his scythe and hourglass, we can’t help but imagine that he’s right, and when we do find out that Inger has died, we don’t want to accept it. We always knew it was a possibility, that it could happen, and we were even told that it was going to happen, but we loved Inger so much for what she did early that we fought against it.

The final bulk of the film deal with the slow process of preparing the family and Inger’s body for the funeral. The underlying issue for all of the characters is their lack of real faith. Morten spoke earlier of praying to relieve Johannes of his sickness, but that he only prayed out of a sense of obligation since nothing else had worked. Mikkel has turned away from the faith completely. Johannes, speaking as Christ, tells them that their faith is lukewarm, and will do them no good when they pray, and yet they refuse to pray genuinely.

It takes Inger’s death to ignite their faith again. The family, with Peter having seen past his poor behavior and acceded to the match between his daughter and the youngest Borgen and brought Anne to the house, along with the doctor and the minister, spend their final moments with Inger’s body. It’s here where their lack of faith gets fully addressed. Lost with the rock to their household and lives, they break down and are forced to completely give themselves up to God. When Johannes, cured of his delusion that he is Jesus, arrives and chastises them all for their lack of true faith, Inger’s eldest daughter comes up to him full of faith, and Johannes lets God work through him.

Now, the ending…Let me just say that with about 10 minutes left to go in this film, I was in tears. The emotional journey of the family after the loss of Inger was devastating. And then Johannes raises Inger from the dead. She slowly begins to reanimate before finally reaching up to embrace Mikkel weakly. This ending threw me, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I was so affected by the family’s embrace of faith in the face of death, that to see their faith actually rewarded with a miracle (a concept that had been considered more than once in the film) felt off. However, as time as gone on and I’ve allowed myself the opportunity to read a little bit and consider the ending in context of the film, I have come to accept it. It’s the appropriate ending, telling us that faith will be rewarded and has been rewarded for this family. They finally and fully embraced their believe in God’s power, so they were given what they asked for, the return of Inger.

If I wasn’t already long in saying that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the greatest film ever made, I’d be tempted to put Ordet above the previous film in terms of greatness within Dreyer’s body of work. This movie is emotionally devastating in ways that few films reach me. It’s challenging, elegantly assembled, and wonderfully acted. It’s the work of a mature filmmaker who was forced to take far too long between projects, allowing him the time to carefully consider every line of dialogue, every character, and every idea present. It’s structured perfectly, giving us the right amount of time with the family before things begin to splinter. This is a magnificent movie. This would work wonderfully as a companion piece to Bergman’s Silence Trilogy, most notably Through a Glass Darkly, acting as a more hopeful counterpoint.

Rating: 4/4

7 thoughts on “Ordet”

  1. Ordered this and Gertrud as a pack off eBay. Pretty rare to find a story, let alone a film, that can deal with religion intelligently, so I’m excited.


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