Who was Carl Theodor Dreyer, and should you care? He was born to a Swedish mother, a maid, and Danish father, her employer, and raised by his foster father, Carl Theodor Dreyer (no senior, apparently the Danish don’t do Junior and Senior). His adult life before he entered the Danish film industry was primarily dominated by a short career in journalism and some stints with aviation, including one incident that gained some notoriety in Denmark for its brazenness. He started in film in the same way as Hitchcock, as a writer of intertitles, steadily working his way up through screenwriting and finally into directing his first feature film, The President.
Despite his strong directorial voice, though, he struggled to find any kind of consistent success. The only film of his that saw significant critical and commercial success was his second to last film, Ordet. He worked regularly for the first decade of his career, making nine films from 1919 to 1928, but after the critical success but financial failure of The Passion of Joan of Arc, things began to slow down. Vampyr he independently financed, mostly through the Russian aristocrat who starred in the film. After that, he couldn’t find work and ended up returning to journalism where he became first a film critic and then a court reporter. It took a full decade before someone decided to give him the money for his next film, Day of Wrath. That was not received well in its time (it’s one of his best films, by the way), and he spent another decade without making a film, eventually resorting to making a series of short films for an assortment of clients like the Danish Road Safety Council (in a surprisingly well made action-centric display, if I do say so myself). His final two films, Ordet and Gertrud almost end up feeling like Ingmar Bergman works in their spare austerity of form and attention on female performances. He died without ever having realized his pet project, a film about the life of Jesus Christ, the closest he ever got was a segment of his third film, Leaves from Satan’s Book, about the betrayal by Judas.
Beyond the History
That was a quick survey of Dreyer’s career, but that’s just a bit of history. Should you care about his films because he struggled to make them later in his career? No, that’s just detail. What makes him interesting to me is two major things: the evolution of his cinematic style and his thematic concerns around faith.
If I were being a bit facetious, I would break Dreyer’s stylistic approach into three periods: The Silent Period, The Late Period, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is oversimplified mostly because Vampyr shares more in common with The Passion of Joan of Arc stylistically than any of the other sound movies Dreyer made. However, it still points to the evolution over his career.
His silent period, eight films made from 1919 to 1927, is the sort of work one would expect from most practiced silent film directors. By the time he made Michael in 1926, he had developed the ability to tell stories mostly visually using a combination of different types of setups that allowed for movement vertically and horizontally within frame to create emotional and intellectual connections with the audience. They are accomplished pieces of film that don’t really break the mold of silent filmmaking in any real way. There are moments here and there where something unusual breaks out, but they are vast exceptions to the movies around them. Overall, his was the work of a man heavily influenced by D.W. Griffith.
Then The Passion of Joan of Arc came. Dreyer’s 1928 film is made up almost entirely of closeups with the only wider shots told in exaggerated angles that don’t fully capture the size and scope of the large multi-million franc set built for the film. He filmed the movie in chronological order, spending days with his star, Marie Falconnetti, in physically demanding situations, trying to get the perfect mixture of deeply emotional and blankness that he needed from her. I have a theory that when he set out to make the film, he commissioned the large sets not because he was planning on ignoring them but because he had every intention of making the same kind of use of them as he did with the large sitting room set in Michael. What ended up happening was that as he delved deeper into the weeks of shooting, focusing his first major block of the shooting schedule to the interchange between Joan and her interrogators that begins the film, he decided to make the film more consciously subjective from her point of view. Watching the dailies as they were developed, he decided that the whole movie needed to be made in this style, delving further into a style reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein that he had only briefly touched on in his previous films.
Vampyr, his seminal horror film, was filmed silent with dialogue added later, holding onto certain conventions of the silent film like extended expository text on screen, mostly in the form of a book on vampires. There’s an embrace of montage to tell the dreamlike story that has more to do with weird emotions than strict reality.
In the decade that followed Vampyr‘s disappointing public reception, Dreyer made some rather drastic changes to how he approaches his filmmaking. When he got around to making Day of Wrath in 1943, he had embraced a much more subtle visual style that emphasized long takes and performance. Why this is so interesting to me is that the shift in styles is both so markedly large and well handled. Day of Wrath is one of Dreyer’s best films, subtly creating a small world that seems very calm on the surface but is boiling with rage just underneath. This restrained, even austere, style would define the rest of his career. The little seen Two People, the absolutely devastating Ordet, and the extremely refined Gertrud are all built on quiet long takes that allow the subtle emotional work to slowly weed into the audience.
Like other directors with strong voices, Dreyer’s first film contains much of what he would explore thematically across the rest of his career. There are women lost in systems run by men, discarded when they become inconvenient, the men who must sacrifice their place within that system in order to do the right thing, and the delicate nature of the system itself that cannot take the body blow of controversy around its leaders. Everything there gets explored in different ways for the rest of his career from the purely domestic like in Master of the House or Gertrude to more institutional systems like in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Love One Another, Day of Wrath, or Ordet.
However, the one thematic concern that Dreyer deals with that I find the most interesting is his exploration of faith. From The Parson’s Widow to The Passion of Joan of Arc and through his final three major films faith is an underlying concept that helps shape the characters and their views and actions. Joan has to balance her faith in God and His messengers that what she did was right in the face of institutional pressure from the English church during her inquisition. An inversion of this happens in Day of Wrath where Absolom, the elderly parson married to his second wife, the young and attractive Anne, he has a fight within himself because he let Anne’s mother off of an accusation of being a witch that he knew was true at the time. Did he let go a real witch? If he doesn’t believe she was real, what does it say about what he’s doing?
The most potent example is Ordet, which translates to The Word. The film is the story of a family in a small Danish community. Anchored around the wife of the eldest son of the patriarch, she dies giving birth to her third child. The loss is devastating to the entire family, and the second son, who spends nearly the whole movie thinking that he’s Jesus Christ, ends up he clearest eyed about what the family needs to do to find meaning in the face of such a senseless death: have perfect faith. The subject matter, thematic focus, and subtle approach to the storytelling is one of the most emotionally affecting finales of a film I’ve ever seen.
The counterpoint is Gertrud, a movie that exists in an implicitly atheistic world. The titular character is housewife to a rising government bureaucrat about to rise to the position of cabinet minister. She decides to leave him, feeling like a prisoner in her own home, to run to the young beau artist whom she’s been sleeping with. Her decisions, removing herself from house and home in favor of selfish pursuit, ultimately leave her alone without family or loved ones beyond an old friend who comes to visit and her housekeeper. She says she lived a fulfilling live, but her antiseptic life seems to indicate that she’s lived an empty, meaningless life without the kind of personal relationships she once had and had since discarded. What does this have to do with faith in God? Well, the film is a fairly obvious homage to Ingmar Bergman’s work through the 50s, work that openly dealt with the question of God’s silence and very existence. There’s an implication in the film’s absence of talk of God combined with the outside elements of Dreyer’s previous film and obvious influences that squarely places the film in a particular place. The joys and sadness of the family in Ordet has been replaced by the staid emotionlessness of the ending of Gertrud.
Questions of faith in the real world often don’t have easy answers, and the way Dreyer approaches the issue isn’t to really give any kind of answer but to offer up a vision of faith’s highs and lows. It’s a serious wrestling with the idea, similarly as what Bergman went through, but one that seems to fall on the theism side rather than the more agnostic one that the Swedish director fell.
I don’t think Dreyer was one of the great filmmakers, though he did make some great films including two of the greatest (The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet). His is an interesting filmography undermined by the long spells between films that defined the latter parts of his career. I enjoyed going through his body of work, but it wouldn’t be one I would recommend to many to go through entirely. I’d recommend his three best films (the above two listed and Day of Wrath) to anyone with the patience for quieter, older films. His two main comedies, Master of the House and The Parson’s Widow are more general fair, but they’re also silent comedies at the same time.
Essentially, I want to recommend his work, but there’s just so much about the films themselves that many audiences would find difficult to get past. I enjoyed the run, though.