The key of Dreyer’s first film has been variously turned in Hitchcock’s The Manxman, Mamoulian’s We Live Again and Altman’s Gosford Park. The meaning is expressly revealed in Ordet, the structure is essentially that of Gertrud.
Subsequent directors therefore provide a running analysis, the life of the girl and her vicissitudes are of moment to Dreyer.
The title refers to an appointed municipal office just below the county seat or its equivalent in the provincial government, a judicial function evidently.
The Parson’s Widow
She who must be married, by local custom, before you get the job, she’s old, with a forbidding face and three husbands in the grave, she runs the parsonage. The new parson beats out a silly fool and an ass for the post, then the custom is brought forth.
He’s worked hard, his girl has waited, her father won’t let them marry until he has the job.
Set in Norway, directed by Dreyer for Svensk Filmindustri.
The widow might be a witch (cf. Vampyr), he installs the girl as a servant, plots and schemes.
It all turns out quite differently, with its reverberations of Jacob and Laban or Abram and Sarai at the court of Pharaoh. Prästänkan, brought to New York in 1929 as The Witch Woman (the New York Times found it “somewhat ingenuous”).
Blade af Satans Bog
He is a Pharisee, the Grand Inquisitor, a Jacobin, a Red monk, Leaves from Satan’s Book. Temptation is his charge from God, redemption his wish.
Foolish and grasping victims are all in the mold of Judas.
A magnificent panoply for this analysis displays how far advanced and very knowledgeable Dreyer’s art is at this time, there is even among the comprehensive scenes a shootout on horseback, Western-style.
The fictional account of a pogrom is remembered by Hitchcock in Psycho (the nightmare) and The Birds.
Dreyer injects a note of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (axe and door).
Frankenheimer takes general stock of the situation in The Fixer.
The accuracy of the depiction is attested to by subsequent events in Berlin, where it was filmed.
The entire film is curiously placed in Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine, which thus is probably the best analysis.
The stations of Claude Zoret’s cross, painted by himself (cf. Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth), The Victor, posed for by his adopted son, the title character, Caesar and Brutus, in which the latter’s features are evidently modeled on Michael’s, and Job, evidently representing the artist in a triptych with a male figure left and a female figure right.
“Proposed,” Time Out Film Guide hazards, “that Dreyer be frogmarched out of the Pantheon,” thus a young Oxford Union chap attempted to convey in the midst of a debate on Comedy just what your Yank is missing of “leapfrog in the public schools,” to which Alan King responded incredulously, “they don’t know who the fuck I am!” Since Mordaunt Hall (New York Times) also saw a likeness (it was Chained), be it said that were these Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde, Jules the Majordomo most assuredly would be George Bernard Shaw.
Master of the House
A man who stands his son in the corner wearing wet shoes because a cold would teach him a lesson is made to stand in the corner himself before his wife returns from a rest cure, her mother and his old nurse see to that.
Fellini parodied this in City of Women, and so we have Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) announcing its “feminist theme,” and Film4 describing “one of the great miserabilists of early European cinema,” with reference to Ingmar Bergman and, by implication, Arthur Crabtree (They Were Sisters).
The theme is simply developed from The Parson’s Widow to give a picture finally of the well-run, happy household. Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife (Du skal ære din Hustru).
“A type that is extinct in this country, but still exists abroad.”
The structure is of the utmost simplicity, to express its two great points. “God does not desert those whom He loves.”
“Love is a gift from God we mortals shall not interfere with.” The effect is the thing in itself rather than a representation or a description, able to bear the latter. The Bride of Glomdalen (or Glomdal, or Glomdale) wears the wedding crown at last, after an interval in which her father seeks to marry her to a rich man’s son. Without a boat, the bridegroom rides a horse across the river, losing his mount, he avails himself of a log through the rapids, defeating his homicidal rival.
It was at first a little more than half again as long.
“Minor,” says Time Out Film Guide, “but very pleasant all the same.”
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
“L’un des documents les plus extraordinaires de l’histoire du monde.”
The scene is fixed like ink on vellum. The offer of imprisonment is an anomaly in the history of witch trials, yet this is a prime example in that the motive is invariably the desire to rid the accuser of an enemy and seize his property.
The style in these narrow circumstances is an illumination from within that goes out on renunciation and is found again by bearing witness.
The blanched screen is inscribed with the visages of the participants in a strict reading. The melding of script and reality finally educes the epical comment of birds flying in an augur’s nightmare.
Ken Russell resumed the effect as a close study in The Devils. Hitchcock modeled half of Murder! on Dreyer.
The tragedy is that it made no money. Whistler and Rembrandt were bankrupts, too.
This is the secret, one should say occult meaning of Prästänkan. The penultimate scenes and much else are reflected in Ken Russell’s Altered States and elsewhere.
The nightmare nonpareil, the supreme of all frights, nothing like it in the cinema, only in your worst dreams, merely a tale of wedding jitters, the most frightful.
It’s a bag of tricks, but “some bag—some tricks.” Dreyer’s technical accomplishment is awesome and terrifying in itself, indeed the very precision of his dollywork adds nothing much more than a gasp to his nightmare vision.
The range and scope of his influences is lengthy and deep, Cocteau, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Polanski, Bergman, Wise, and every Dracula film. A close-up of the Doctor reveals the galloping Major of Huston’s Beat the Devil. Several shots key works by Kubrick, notably the entombment scene, which is one-half of the “Star Gate” puzzle (the other half is LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’s bombing run). There’s a bit of Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman in there too, and a touch of Robbe-Grillet elsewhere (Glissements progressifs du plaisir).
Some of his techniques are owed to Méliès (and Redon). Aspects of the finale were borrowed for John Sturges’ The Great Escape.
His complicated use of the texts David (or Allan) Gray reads is an interesting study. First, he takes the mickey out of his tale. Then he coddles you along with verbiage. Pretty soon, he’s telling you a scary story quite effectively, and before you know it, you’re part of the dream.
For the finale, see D.W. Griffith, Corner in Wheat (1909).
Mother’s Aid, a boon to Danish women who, by law, are given needed and desired assistance in or out of wedlock, one reel representing a typical case.
Day of Wrath
A simple and exact parallel between the Nazi occupiers of Europe and the witch persecutions of yore is heroically divided into two parts, one a straightforward account of denunciation, torture and death, the other an arrangement of tones to give the mental vanquishment of the accused.
The first part is the classical witch hunt, an everyday version of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The second is an anticipation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (dir. Raymond Rouleau), as in its examination of superstition and mob rule.
Dreyer’s panning technique renders interior space in the manner of Old Master paintings, as observed by Cézanne. In this, he is greatly helped by what is called Rembrandt lighting.
He violates the model by placing the camera in a fixed position on the small boat belonging to the illicit lovers, because he can’t resist the cumulative picture of a day’s outing. This prepares the great summation, in which a lateral pan accretes enough material to suggest El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz, vertically.
Dreyer begins by returning the compliment of Hitchcock’s Murder!, with reference to Rebecca.
The war in its latter stages already invites a view of the Liberation, coming to terms with that is Dreyer’s theme. It will be seen that Hitchcock’s Blackmail is at or near the root of this (Hitchcock resumes an aspect of style in Rope and Dial M for Murder).
Nabokov’s play The Event is very like the theatrical coup of action offstage, merely. Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste is a reflection of this, consciously or not (Dreyer is said to have repudiated this film, screenings are said to have been few, criticism rare). The Romeo and Juliet ending is rather like Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach and Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays.
Vandet på Landet
The rhyming title signifies water where you got ‘er outside of town, a rustic colloquy with illustrations reportedly never shown and presently in an imperfect state, “manglede scene” and all, a reel or so.
Sink of typhus, the hand pump and well on a farm without proper sanitation.
“Dey’s been cats drownded in dat water dat’s in yo’ pitcher,” says Twain’s Sociable Jimmy.
After the war, a vision of the Danish village church, presented in the form of a documentary that describes it over many centuries, Medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, brick.
Kampen mod Kræften
It takes place in clinics and hospitals, betimes, and culminates in radium therapy.
De Nåede Færgen
They Caught the Ferry, between Clair’s Entr’acte and Fellini’s “Toby Dammit”.
Ten minutes on the sculptor’s life and work, enough to reveal the intimacy of his neoclassical sculptures and the warmth and light they express. The technique treats them as music in the round, skillfully lighted for their surfaces, or plainly looked at in their settings.
A demi-reel of views taken on and around the bridge (construction footage to begin with), a splendid piece of engineering nearly two miles long, the last from a ship passing under the center span.
Et Slot i et Slot
Krogen og Kronborg
Dreyer’s beautiful, droll analysis of the castle might have a thing or two to say about Olivier’s Hamlet, as finally it turns upon guns and gun portals whilst revealing medieval Krogen behind or underneath familiar Kronborg.
Ordet is an analysis of Christ’s mission in terms of its central fact, to which the Crucifixion (represented by Johannes’ Deposition as he is carried from Inger’s death chamber, and his Entombment in his room) and the Resurrection (Johannes, watched over by sleeping Anders, slips out the window) are purposed, namely the raising of Lazarus, which is depicted as a right relation to God, in whom “we live and move and have our being”.
The construction of the image is closely related to Nicholas Ray’s technique in King of Kings, dead Inger awakes and clutches her atheist husband, whose faith is now restored (for the which see Pericles, Prince of Tyre, as directed by David Hugh Jones, for example). They are in a two-shot close-up, her face is nearer the camera as they embrace, she takes her breath in gulps from his proximity, from his very person.
Christendom is a lifeless rote of hymnbooks and “witness”, a humbug of doctrinal squabbles, rather than the choice of Moses. At the same time, there are the Pharisees and an expectant people. Jesus is a divinity student who thinks he’s God. This is a film, the precedent is Meet John Doe.
The final scene is expressly given as the Second Coming, hence the sequence of wipes from left to right, like a scroll, preceding it.
Johannes is changed, of course, grief is nearer. A voice in the wilderness to bewildered people. The camera moves among them, no longer a study of painting (as in Day of Wrath) but of the space between adequate, expressive compositions in perfectly realized settings where everything is familiar. The drama is that Peter Petersen will not let Anders Borgen marry his daughter Anne, Inger Borgen dies in childbirth and is brought back to life.
Jesus is among them like the Savior in a Renaissance picture, odd and beneficent next to recognizable portraits. They move through fields of wheat as in an illuminated manuscript.
The great surprise is the nudity and sterility of Dreyer’s camerawork after Vredens dag, there is the one image to which all this tends, and the rest is a great lassitude of acquired knowledge that he reviles as bitterness. The camera in motion no longer accumulates form, it dispatches an incommodious space of dullness, enlivened only by the objects and furniture like Blake’s musical instruments. Everything is there, without satire.
The godless drone through their prayers, hope for a Redeemer or keep the Law variously, even the atheist is rich in fellow-feeling, yet “one thing thou lackest”, and it is Dreyer’s business to drive Kierkegaard’s point home beyond all cavils and considerations.
The Catholic position is casuistical, owing to its neat identification here with the synagogue of the Pharisees, thus making the point. Protestants are more open-minded.
Dreyer saw the play when it opened in 1932, an extant photograph of the last scene shows how closely he remembered it. It was filmed by Gustaf Molander in 1943 with Victor Sjöström, doubtless in response to circumstances. Dreyer replaced two-thirds of the dialogue with pictures. Unused material from Vredens dag supplies the score.
The learned counselor and political sage is much too busy with his work and, even made Minister of State, cannot keep his wife.
She will have the young composer, but he is a libertine and not conscientious enough at his work, he will not have her (and there is another).
The poet is much too interested in his career, and besides, the final break with the composer sets her off on a course of studies in psychology and psychiatry, at Paris.
Neither beautiful, nor young, nor alive, as her one and only poem has it, but loving.
Certain of the monumental aspects of this satire are overwhelming in their monstrousness. On the other hand, you have the Surrealist photograph called Versailles, which simply represents a young woman in a doorway.
After this, Fellini would have to invent City of Women.
The really great writer ought to know something about the horse-leech’s daughter and vanity, n’est-ce pas?
Dreyer runs through himself and Beckett and Herzog and everything to the end of all things, dispensing wisdom all the way.
Thornton Wilder discusses all this in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (dir. Rowland V. Lee), it’s out, if you want to read, do so.
The poetry of earth is never dead...
Étant donnés, says Duchamp in Philadelphia.