There is no other movie like Gertrud. It exists in its own bright, one-entry category, idiosyncratic, serenely stubborn, and sublime.
When it opened in 1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s last film, one of his greatest, generated a scandal from which it has never completely divested itself. New York Film Festival audiences, attuned to the Sixties jump cuts of the New Wave and Richard Lester, yet prepared to honor the legendary filmmaker of Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath and Ordet, were baffled by its provokingly patient procession of scenes in which the main physical action seemed to be moving from one divan to another. Husband and wife sat on a couch for minutes at a time, talking about the past and the end of their love—audiences hissed, critics accused it of being uncinematic. But, as filmmaker André Techiné admiringly put it, “an attentive eye on two figures talking even in a prolonged and static shot will never cease to astonish us.” In fact, for all that it disdains to disguise its roots as a play, Gertrud is pure cinema: every frame is composed and lit exquisitely, balancing pools of lights and shadow; its small, gliding camera movements encircle the characters; it is anything but static, to those who enter its rhythm (and Dreyer was a master of the atmospheric uses of rhythm).
Set at the turn of the century, a period comfortably familiar to Dreyer, the film and its discontented heroine cannot avoid echoes of Nora in A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and Miss Julie. But there is a difference, as the filmmaker tells us: “I had chosen the work of Hjalmar Söderberg because his conception of tragedy is more modern, he was overshadowed far too long by the other giants, Ibsen and Strindberg. Why did I say he was ‘more modern’? Well, instead of suicide and other grand gestures in the tradition of pathetic tragedy, Söderberg preferred the bitter tragedy of having to go on living even though ideals and happiness have been destroyed…[and he made] conflicts materialize out of apparently trivial conversations.” It is precisely the eschewal of melodrama, and the counterpoint between suffering and triviality, that point the way toward a reading of Gertrud as, well, funny.
We do not think of Dreyer as a humorist, yet Gertrud is in many ways a sly, cunning film—a comedy, even, if an austere one. There is certainly satiric mockery in the ceremony and pompous speeches honoring the returning poet, and there is a deliciously playful balance between the claims of transcendent passion and daily life.
“Gertrud is the kind of masterpiece that deepens with time because it has already aged in the heart of a great artist,” wrote Andrew Sarris. Dreyer was seventy-five when he shot it (he would die four years later), and the film belongs to that confidently unflashy, autumnal canon of Old Man’s cinema, along with John Ford’s Seven Women, Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, Mizoguchi’s Empress Yank Kwei Fei, Wilder’s Fedora, Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, all detached analyses of passion, with one foot on the other shore. For years Dreyer had sought funds to make a film about Jesus; instead his last testament was Gertrud, an ironic study of another kind of martyrdom.
Dreyer thought film should register the soul, and in Nina Pens Rode he got a brilliant lead performance from an actress who knew how to take a close-up and project uncannily her character’s inner states, from migrained lassitude to ecstatic surrender. She is wonderfully supported by Bendt Rothe as Gertrud’s husband, Kanning, a politician about to be named to the cabinet, and Ebbe Rode as her ex-lover, Gabriel Lidman, now a famous poet returning from abroad. Both these middle-aged men seem weighed down by self-importance, expecting the love of a beautiful woman as their due, and, not getting it from Gertrud, retreating to self-pity as a fallback position. She accuses them both of lack of feeling, stoniness, caring more about their work than love. We can agree with her assessment of these men, while at the same time questioning her own capacity to love, bolting as she does the minute the man she’s with betrays his limitations. For Gertrud is a zealot: she wants to take men to the raw, emotional place where she is—to make them feel her need for love, not just as a fleshly diversion or hedge against loneliness, but as the highest calling.
In Day of Wrath, Dreyer showed the persecuting spirit of the sanctimonious community. By contrast, in Gertrud, the men are surprisingly forgiving of the woman’s carnal straying; it is she who acts the prosecutor. Feeding her resentment are the power relations between men and women, here scrupulously dissected: Gertrud, having been forced to give up her singing career to be Kanning’s wife, rejects these male eminences, while choosing a third man, an upstart composer who will reject her. She dotes on the younger man, Erland (memorably played by the fox-faced Baard Owe), and enjoys his sarcastic digs at her husband’s generation; but she takes instant offense when the composer, after having met her husband, reports with wonderment that he’s a pretty nice guy. At that point she knows the jig is up. Even then, she might have held onto the affair had she been willing to compromise, but she takes herself off to Paris, to study psychoanalysis, like a fictional Lou-Andreas Salome. Dreyer, who knew something about inability to compromise, must have seen a bit of himself in his heroine.
The coda, several years later, has all the ambiguous poignancy you could ever want. A white-haired Gertrud, now living in seclusion, welcomes the visit of her old friend, Axel, who had once invited her to study psychology with him in Paris. Axel seems, as ever, polite and gallant, bringing her a copy of his new book; but lest we jump to the sentimental conclusion that friends are better than lovers, she intuits that he wants his old letters back, and he destroys them in front of her by throwing them onto the fire. Then he leaves with a sweet wave of the hand, and we are left looking at the door of her cottage: the portal that could stand for the imminent entrance to eternity, a journey she will soon be taking, or, on the contrary, the rigid separation between one human heart and another. Has Gertrud, through all her thrashings, transcended ego and achieved enlightenment? We would like to think so, but there is the rather harsh way she tells her manservant to mop the kitchen floor. It appears she is still poised between the angels and the all-too-humans.
As with everything in this supremely uncoercive film, Dreyer doesn’t tell us what to think, or how to judge: he challenges the audience to draw its own assessment, and this way of treating us like adults may be, even more than its unhurried pace, what continues to make the film a frustrating experience for some viewers. No matter. Gertrud may not be for everyone, but those who take to it will never tire of its subtle beauty.
Phillip Lopate is an essayist and novelist. His last book was a collection of film criticism, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically.