The strangeness of Ordet is something that no number of viewings, God willing, will rub off. I want to stress this strangeness. That Ordet is a great film, one of the greatest ever made, only a rash or foolish person will deny. But even less than with other great films can we afford to let the category of greatness limit our response, because Ordet demands more from us, and has more to give, than almost any other film.
So we will want to hold on to those qualities of the film that, for many viewers, and perhaps to some degree for all viewers, make Ordet so striking, so odd, and—perhaps there is no need to avoid this last word, despite the risk of estranging the film too much—so difficult.
Based on a play by Kaj Munk (a Danish pastor martyred by the Nazis in 1944), the film is concerned with a farming family and takes place mostly in the house where they all live together: old Morten Borgen, a widower; his three sons; Inger, the wife of the eldest son, Mikkel; and their two little daughters. Inger is pregnant. The second son, Johannes, has gone mad from reading Kierkegaard (the line of dialogue that tells us this usually gets a laugh at showings of the film—a reaction Dreyer probably anticipated) and thinks he’s Jesus.
It quickly becomes clear that Ordet has little plot in the familiar sense, and no single main hero. The possibility looms that the main action of the film will coalesce around the desire of Anders, the third son, to marry Anne, the daughter of a tailor. (Anne and her father, Peter, belong to a religious sect that stresses being born again as the requirement for escaping hell and that has long been at enmity with the Borgens and their “bright, joyful kind of Christianity.”) But Anders isn’t a hero (he’s just a pleasant young man who knows his place and whom we don’t get to know well—he’s very much the third son), and the pale, shy, and silent Anne is even less than that. And the young couple’s blocked happiness soon gives way as a subject for distress to the more urgent case of Inger’s difficult childbirth. Thus Ordet is not a “plot” film. It’s an intense and turbulent poem with several motifs constantly in action, ultimately to be harmonized by Inger’s resurrection.
Earlier I said that the film poses difficulties. The two main difficulties of the film—they are always remarked on—can be summed up like this: slowness, and Johannes.
The slowness cuts two ways. On the one hand, Ordet is a film of domestic rhythms, concerns, and relationships, and by pacing the script slowly, Dreyer gets us to feel the fullness of this kind of life. The pauses in the dialogue are filled with movement, with reaction, with characters hearing each other in a way that they almost never do in films. The distinctive resonance of their voices in the chamber space reinforces this impression (emphasizing not the expository function of the dialogue, but the physical presence of these voices). So do the nonverbal sounds like the clock ticking in the parlor, the rolling of Inger’s rolling-pin, or Morten Borgen’s cough, offscreen, as the camera crosses the empty space of the parlor to reach Johannes.
On the other hand, the film’s narrative might seem too mild to warrant the abrupt turn to tragedy, were it not for Dreyer’s way of staging and shooting scenes. The characters who inhabit the gleaming ordinariness of Ordet are haunted by a significance that they themselves don’t acknowledge, a significance that can’t necessarily be reduced to “God” (although religious belief is one of the main themes of the film). This significance, and the characters’ flickering access to it, is written in the slowness of their movements and those of the camera.
The camera movements of Ordet are deeply embedded in the patterns of the film, and deeply affect our response to the film, in ways that even the most minute verbal analysis must fail to explain. The camera follows the characters, but also goes beyond them—suggesting both the real-time sympathy of an observer and a supernaturally exact foresight of when and where the characters will appear and move. The smoothness and deliberateness of the camera movements give us a unique sense about the reality of the film’s world, the sense that everything is both happening for the first time and happening in eternity. We get this sense not only from the sweeping, circular shot that establishes the parlor and its adjoining bedrooms, but also from the short, sudden (but hardly casual) pan that briefly encompasses Mikkel as he tries to stop Peter the tailor from speaking at the funeral.
As for Johannes, he is, in Preben Lerdorff Rye’s performance, a character so vocally and physically extreme that he shocks and alienates viewers. There can be no doubt that Dreyer sought this response. It’s because Dreyer sees the world in a double light that Johannes can appear at once a holy fool and something of an irritant.
Johannes’s counterpart is Inger, who, in her corporeal saintliness, represents all that is good in Dreyer’s world. Inger has her faults (notably the superiority she reveals in trying to get her father-in-law to consent to Anders’ marriage choice), but Dreyer places her closer to the viewer than any other character. Her serenity is the force that unifies the film, the human face of the mysterious assurance of Dreyer’s camera.
If we naturalize Ordet, if we forget what is so strange about the film, we’ll lose the ability to be awed by the film and its qualities of otherwordliness and ritual. Yet neither does Dreyer want us to regard the Borgens as remote, enigmatic, stylized beings or to see their lives as opaque and inaccessible. The triumph of Ordet is to bring us a moving, detailed image of a life that is rich, ordinary, practical, and physical—an image that makes us ache for such close comprehensiveness—and at the same time to purify this image so that it comes to us as new and absolute, so that we feel the necessity, justice, and marvelousness of the moment (stretched to eternity) when the dead Inger comes back to life.
Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins Press) and a regular contributor to Hermenaut and the Boston Phoenix. Currently, he is working with A.S. Hamrah on a study of world cinema in the '70's.