Carl Theodor Dreyer made two of the greatest films ever made. He made one of the most important early horror films. He made dramas, historical epics, chamber dramas, prestige dramas, comedies, and even a fairy tale. He was a versatile, talented, and literate filmmaker who made nine of his fourteen films in the first decade of his career. The last five were spread out over the final 32 years as he struggled to find any kind of funding source, eventually becoming a film critic, court reporter, and even making a series of short films for different interests including the Danish road safety council.
That was a shame because I feel like given the resources, the incessant researcher, precise framer, and exacting director of actors could have told a dozen more stories through the movies. It’s hard to argue with the results. Would we have gotten the quiet anger of Day of Wrath or the examination of faith that is Ordet without a decade between projects? Much like Stanley Kubrick, who also ended his career with similarly long gaps between films where both worked diligently to get whatever they could off the ground, Dreyer left behind a relatively small body of work compared to other film directors.
Still, with his four best films, it’s hard to deny that he didn’t create an impression that has lasted with time.
Below is my definitive ranking of all fourteen of his films (including the partially lost Der var engang). Be sure to check out the other definitive rankings while you’re around.
“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.”
“It’s surprisingly thin and light for what should be a strongly penetrative dual character piece. The central section is dominated by a conflict that feels wrong and out of place. However, the actors are fine, it’s never visually boring or repetitive, and it moves quickly for what it is.”
“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.”
11. The President
“I have a feeling that this Carl Th. Dreyer person may have some more good movies in him.”
“This is an ambitious film from a young director that took him two years to make. It’s not a perfect film at all, ending far less well than it starts, but there’s a very strong sense of visual composition, thematic purpose, and clarity of narrative that it represents Dreyer overreaching his grasp, but only so much.”
“It’s a formally impressive film with very precise and almost mannered performances, nearly all done in very long takes that allow actors time to breathe. I just wish I could have been with Gertrud more on her journey. “
“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.”
“Still, this is a delightful and warm comedy. It’s appealing and focused with a lot of heart and some very nice performances.”
“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.”
“Outside of that, this is my kind of horror movie. No jump scares, just a film that knows how to get at the subconscious and mess with it.”
“These are large emotions played small. And this is Dreyer bringing a complex emotional story to screen with extreme alacrity and skill. This is his best film up to this point, and his first great one.”
3. Day of Wrath
“It’s a quiet film that builds over its runtime, creating an incredibly memorable experience. That it was disregarded upon its original release is a shame. If it had been better received, Dreyer may not have been limited to just two more features across the last twenty years of his career. “
“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. “
“It was the greatest movie ever made in 1928, and I think it very well may be the greatest movie ever made through 2019 still.”