Corruption & Transcendence: The Films of Carl Dreyer

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, March 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

Corruption & Transcendence: The Films of Carl Dreyer


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


We all know which movies to watch for Christmas, but what about Easter? Are you really satisfied with all those films about prophets treading over desert sand? No, the cinematic companion you need for Passiontide is the Danish director Carl Dreyer. The DVD distributor and film restorer, the Criterion Collection, has made available five major Dreyer films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. These are works you need any day of the year but they can make Good Friday just a bit more harrowing and Easter just a bit more hopeful. It's all here: the corruption of the body and the self, and the transcendence of the body and the self; the spirit falling into the abyss, and the spirit reaching for the heavens. Not least of all, these movies look hard and steadily at radical individualism, a quality we Americans so reflexively approve that we have developed an American argot for it--"I need my own space," "I need some down time for myself." But if you want to be grateful for the true glories of individualism and deeply troubled by its dark side, put yourself in the hands of Carl Dreyer.

Did Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) become such an acute psychologist of individualism because he had trouble becoming an "I"? "Dreyer" was the name of the Copenhagen family who took in the illegitimate son of a Swedish woman and a Danish farmer when the birth mother died. Dreyer seems to have hated his foster parents because they never stopped reminding him that his mother had neglected her social responsibilities, first by bearing a son out of wedlock and then by dying. Since they expected the boy to recompense them for their charity as soon as possible, Carl took a clerical position with a shipping firm and dreamed of his employers sending him to the Far East. One day, an aging fellow clerk showed the apprentice a thick ledger packed with hundreds of columns of figures. "This is my entire life," the old man said. Carl soon left the firm.

He became a journalist, a celebrity profiler of Scandinavian theater stars, then entered the (silent) film world of Nordisk Films to write intertitles, later rewriting scenarios and editing footage. Late in life, Dreyer said, "I'm not ashamed that I take the trouble to learn my job and know it from its foundations." Each of the movies in this collection bears out this statement in every single frame.

First, a few paradoxes concerning Dreyer: His career, 1913-68, virtually spans the first half-century of cinema, yet he directed relatively few films, fourteen, as compared with the scores of works made by Hitchcock, Ford, Bunuel, and other midcentury masters. Dreyer demanded total control but had no taste for squabbling with studio executives. He was content to dream, revise his scripts, and do a lot of traveling (even to Hollywood) in search of any patron who would guarantee him financial freedom. Between Vampyr and Day of Wrath there was an eleven-year gap; between Ordet and Gertrud, ten years.

Dreyer was self-effacing and gentle. One of his actresses described him as having the appearance of a bank clerk. But when he looked his performers in the eye, they felt enclosed by his vision and obeyed him. (My fantasy: Carl Dreyer directs Barbra Streisand.) When technicians gave him guff, he simply repeated his orders until they gave in. The actor Baard Owe called him "a stubbornness wrapped up in mildness."

Every Dreyer film bears his personal stamp, yet they are all adaptations of playwrights and novelists who had their own styles. Through photography, set design, tempo, camera angles, and a unique way of evoking ultimate intensity from his actors, the director made Dreyer movies out of disparate sources.

Three of the five films glanced at below are soaked in religious feeling (Ordet is based on a play by a clergyman), yet the heroine of his last, Gertrud, is an atheist who exalts sensual love as an earthly religion. Dreyer neither mocks nor criticizes her, though he does show the limits of such love. …

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