Thoughts on My Métier

There is a certain resemblance between a work of art and a person. Just as one can talk about a person’s soul, one can also talk about the work of art’s soul, its personality.

The soul is shown through the style, which is the artist’s way of giving expression to his perception of the material. The style is important in attaching inspiration to artistic form. Through the style, the artist molds the many details that make it whole. Through style, he gets others to see the material through his eyes.

Style is not something that can be separated from the finished work of art. It saturates and penetrates it, and yet is invisible and undemonstrable.

All art is a single person’s work. But a film is created by a collectivity, and a collectivity cannot create art unless an artistic personality stands behind it and acts as its driving force.

The first creating impulse for a film comes from the writer whose work is the actual foundation for the film. But from the moment the poetic foundation is laid, it is the director’s task to give the film its style. The many artistic details are born through his initiative. It ought to be his feelings and moods that color the film and that awaken corresponding feelings and moods in the spectator’s mind. Through the style he infuses the work with a soul–and that is what makes it art. It is for him to give the film a face–namely his own.

Because it is like this, we directors have a very large responsibility. We have it in our hands to lift the film from industry to art, and, therefore, we must go to our work with seriousness, we must want something, we must dare something, and we must not jump over where the fence is lowest. If film as an art is not to come to a standstill, we must work to create a mark of style, a mark of personality in the film. Only from this can we expect renewal.

And I shall now give an account of some of the factors that have been decisive for the style in Day of Wrath, and I shall begin to talk about pictures and rhythm.

Sound films have an inclination to push pictures to the side and give the spoken words priority. In many of the sound films there is talk; no-––chatter––all too much, while the eyes are seldom given permission to rest on a good picture effect. Meanwhile, film people have forgotten that the film first and foremost is a visual art, first and foremost directs itself to the eye, and that the picture far, far more easily than the spoken word penetrates deeply into the spectator’s consciousness. I have, in Day of Wrath, tried to give the picture the place that it again should have, but yet not more. I don’t bring a picture just for the sake of the picture, just because it’s beautiful; if the picture effect does not promote the action it is injurious to the film.

The picture has a very great effect upon the spectator’s state of mind. If it is kept in light tones, then it tunes the mind in a light way. If it is kept in dark, subdued tones, then it tunes the mind to seriousness. As was suitable to the time and the action in Day of Wrath, my photographer and I agreed to have the pictures veiled in soft grey and black tones.

The eye prefers order, and therefore it is of importance that the picture effects are harmonious and remain so even in movement. Ungraceful lines push the spectator’s eye.

The eye absorbs horizontal lines rapidly and easily but repels vertical lines. The eye is involuntarily attracted by objects in motion but remains passive over stationary things. This is the explanation why the eye, with pleasure, follows gliding camera movements, preferably when they are soft and rhythmic. As a principle rule, one can say that one shall try to keep a continuous, flowing, horizontally gliding motion in the film. If one then suddenly introduces vertical lines, one can reach an instantly dramatic effect––as, for instance, in the pictures of the vertical ladder just before it is thrown into the fire in Day of Wrath.


Now we come to rhythm. The sound film in the last few years has conscientiously worked toward a new, specific sound-film rhythm. I think especially of a number of important foreign, style-marked films––the American, for one, and then also the good French psychological films. There is an aim in these films for a quietness in the rhythm that makes it possible for the spectator to rest on the pictures and listen to the words. But rightly so for these films, for it was also characteristic of them that their pictures were worth seeing and their words worth hearing.

I have tried to work further in the same line. In some action––for example, the scene in Day of Wrath between the two young people by Absalon’s coffin––instead of using short, quick, shifting pictures, I introduced what I call long, gliding close-ups that follow the players in a rhythmic way, feeling their way from one to another just as the action is taking place with one and then the other. In spite of––or perhaps, more correctly, I should say because of––this almost wave-formed rhythm, the scene with the two young people by Absalon’s coffin is one of the parts that touches the public most strongly.

It has become a reproach to me that the rhythm in Day of Wrath is too heavy and too slow.

I have often seen a fast rhythm used with great effect in film––where such a rhythm was right for the situation. But I have also seen films where the pictures were whipped up by an artificial rhythm that was uncalled for by the action: it was a rhythm for the sake of the rhythm itself. But used this way, the rhythm is actually just an inheritance from the time of the silent films, an inheritance that the sound film still hasn’t shaken off. It is a remnant from the time when film was fitted out with printed remarks. Between the remarks, it was empty, and the remarks were also empty, and in order to cover up all this emptiness the persons flew through the pictures and the pictures flew past on the screen––there was certainly “rhythm” enough! But such was the rhythm of the silent film.

When the Danish silent film was at its highest point––that was at least twenty-five years ago––some very remarkable films started to come from Sweden, the Selma Lagerlöf films. I remember clearly when Victor Sjöstrom’s film, The Sons of Ingemann, was shown for the first time in Copenhagen. The film people here at home shook their heads because Sjöstrom took the bold step of letting his farmers walk heavily and soberly as farmers do. Yes, they used up an eternity to come from one end of the room to the other.

As I mentioned, the Danish film people shook their heads: it would never go over well; the audience would never accept it. But we all know how it went. It became the Swedish film with its natural, living rhythm that succeeded not only in Sweden and Denmark but over all of Europe. All of Europe learned about the Swedish film––learned, among other things, that a film’s rhythm was born from the action and the environment in the film. In this way, a very important interaction is created, because the drama creates a rhythm that in its turn supports the mood of the action at the same time that it influences the viewer’s state of mind, so that he much more easily identifies with the drama itself. It is the action and milieu in Day of Wrath that has decided its wide, quiet rhythm, but this also serves other aims: partly to underline the slow pulse of the ear, and, partly, to emphasize and support the monumentality the writer has aimed at in his play and that I have tried to carry over into the film.

The Drama

In all art, human beings are the decisive thing. In the artistic film, it is the people that we want to see and it is their adventures of the spirit that we want to experience. We want to enter upon and into the lives we see on the screen. We hope that the film will set ajar for us a door into these other worlds. We want to be placed in a suspense that originates less from outside action than from the unfolding of the inner conflicts. There is no lack of mental or spiritual conflict in Day of Wrath. On the other hand, one would search long for material more tempting for presentation as exterior drama. I––and, I dare to say, also my actors along with me––have chosen not to fall for the temptation. We have been just as eager in searching out the false exaggerations and the establishing clichés. We forced ourselves to search for truthfulness.

And isn’t the truth that the great dramas are played quietly, that people try to cover their feelings and avoid showing on their faces the storms that are really raging within themselves? The tension lies beneath the surface and releases itself the day the catastrophe takes place. It is that latent tension, that smoldering discomfort behind the minister’s family’s everyday life that I have so urgently been trying to bring forward.

It is perhaps not enough for those who might have wished a more violent unfolding of the action. But let them look around their own circles and notice with how little of the dramatic the greatest tragedies take place. This is perhaps what is most tragic about these tragedies.

I am sure there are also some who would much rather have had the scenes more realistically elaborated. But realism in itself is not art; it is only psychological or spiritual realism that is so. What has value is the artistic truth, i.e., the truth distilled from actual life but released from all unnecessary details––the truth filtered through an artist’s mind. What happens on the screen is not reality, and it cannot be so, because, if it were, it wouldn’t be art.

With this point of view, I and my actors in good company have tried to un-theatricalize the film in itself from the very many tight and condensed scenes. Before I continue, I would like to define the difference between theatrical and filmic, and I would like to indicate that from my side I am not trying to put down in any way or sound derogative in using the word theatrical. I should like only to say that an actor can play differently on a theatre stage than in a film studio. On stage he must calculate that the words have to go completely over the orchestra seats and up into the galleries. This requires not only very good voice quality and diction but also that the facial expressions must be coarsened to go over this distance, whereas in a film studio all that is needed is the very ordinary daily language and the completely natural gesture. In the film Day of Wrath, we have not made any special effort to act more or less strong, more or less subdued. No, we have taken pains to play truthfully, to create live, believable persons. We have warned each other against falseness and pure exteriority.


A film actor’s most important means of expression are gesture and speech.

When the sound film first came forward, gestural expression was set in the background. Now one had the spoken word. And the words gushed forth from the empty faces. In the French and American psychological films of recent years, facial expression is again brought to honor and given value, and it is all to the good. This kind of mime is an important element for the spoken film. Gesture endows the face with soul, and facial expression is an extra-important plus to the spoken word. We can often read a person’s whole character in a single expression, a wrinkling of the forehead or a blink of the eye. Mime is the original means of expression of inner experience––older than the spoken word. Facial expression is not reserved for people only. If you have a dog, you know that a dog can have a very expressive face.

While we are talking about facial expression, I should like to say a couple of words about makeup. To keep from losing the slightest little bit of a facial expression, I have also, in the film Day of Wrath, completely done away with made-up faces. When you look at what is usually done, the reality is this: the actor makes himself up for the photographer and the photographer therefore places the lights in a special way so that one doesn’t see the makeup. People today, however, have learned to see beauty in the natural face with all of its furrows and wrinkles. If a face is covered with makeup, some of its character will be smoothened out. The wrinkles in a face, small as well as large, tell you endlessly much about the character. With a hearty, friendly, always-smiling man there will form over the years a number of fine wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The wrinkles smile to us from a distance when we meet. If the man, on the other hand, is sour, evil, or cross, he gets wrinkles on his forehead and vertical furrows. In both cases the wrinkles tell us a little about the man inside the face. If one takes the makeup and tries to cover up the wrinkles, he is also hiding part of the characteristics of the man that the face would otherwise show us. I don’t think I need to point out how important this is in close photography.

To produce a film in which the actors have absolutely no makeup––Day of Wrath, for instance––is only natural and obviously correct. And there lies in the whole spirit of film the truthful presentation that can only be reached with un-made-up actors who speak a very daily language.

Makeup and Diction

Makeup and diction both belong to the values of the theatre.

Carl Alstrup was once asked if he wouldn’t like to go to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He said that he didn’t really want to, that for him, he also explained, “one cannot stand and scream and also be human.” Alstrup gives just a glimpse of the problems theatre actors have to struggle with. At the same time, his observation quite strikingly tells us the deepest meaning of the word “filmic.” This is the great advantage of the film over the theatre––that the actor can let his voice rest in natural position; yes, he can whisper if the role demands it. The microphone will certainly record it. Each word and each little pause can come into its own. But just because of this one shouldn’t use unnecessary words. The spoken word should not play a self-standing role. It must be in accord with the nature of the drama, a constituent part of the picture, and this is how it should be. It must especially not be rambling. The dialogue must be condensed and concentrated as much as possible.

In choosing the actors, the spoken film’s director must pay much attention to the voices. It is very important that they are tuned after each other and that they harmonize together. In this connection, I should like to say a little about something that the director must also think about. And it might be something new for you, namely, that there is a certain accordance between a human being’s walk and speech. Just look at Lisbeth Movin: there is the finest coordination between the rhythm of her walk and the rhythm of her voice.

This has been a parenthetical comment, and I come now to the director’s real and most decisive task, namely: the interaction with the players. If one wishes to find an image that portrays the director’s action, one must compare him to a midwife. This is exactly the picture Stanislavski used in his book on actors and it absolutely couldn’t be better. The actor is truly in labor and the director takes care of him, does everything he can to make the birth easier. The child is in the deepest sense the actor’s own child, hatched from his own feelings and from his own inner life after his encounter with the writer’s words. It is always his own emotion that the actor gives the role.

Therefore, the director is careful never to force his own interpretation on an actor, because an actor cannot create truth and pure emotions on command. One cannot push feelings out. They have to arise from themselves, and it is the director’s and the actor’s work in unison to bring them to that point. If this is successful the right expressions will come by themselves.

For the serious actor, it is a very great commandment that he must never start with the expression from the outside, but with the emotion from the inside. But just because emotion and expression are inseparably united, just because they make a unit, one can sometimes with luck go the opposite way, i.e., start with the expression and thus call forth the feeling. I can better illustrate what I mean with an example. Imagine a little boy who is very angry with his mother. Then she kindly says to him, “Come on, smile a little.” He smiles first an awkward, stiff smile, which, however, soon is followed by a big, open smile. A little bit later, he runs happily around. The anger is gone. One sees that the first smile has acted on the feeling which again has acted on the expression. It is this play of interaction one sometimes can build on. If it is easy for an actor to cry––there are those people for whom it is––it is justifiable to give the tears a free outburst without waiting for the right feeling; for the physical sensation that follows the cry will help the actor in the work of bringing forward the right feeling that in its turn then gives rise to the right expression––the only right expression, because in each simple act there is only one expression that is the right one, only one single one. To reach this––there is no more delightful feeling for the director and actor than when this works out.


I cannot talk about film without saying a couple of words about music. It is Heinrich Heine who has said that where the words fall short there the music begins. This is just the task of the music. Correctly used, it is both capable of supporting the psychological development and of deepening a frame of mind that has been previously produced either through the pictures or through the dialogue. When the music really has meaning or an artistic intention, it will always be a plus for the film. But we must, nonetheless, hope for––and work to bring forth––more and more spoken films that have not the need of music, film in which the words do not fall short.

I have, as concretely as it has been possible for me to do, described the technical and spiritual processes that are decisive for the style of a film and have been so for Day of Wrath. I confess that I have talked much about technique but I’m not ashamed that I take the trouble to learn my job and know it from its foundations. Each artist knows that the first condition for him ever to become something as an artist is that he knows his trade. But no one who has seen my film can doubt that technique for me is a means and not the goal and that the goal has been to give the spectator a richer experience.

Excerpted from Dreyer in Double Reflection, Carl Dreyer’s Writings on Film. Edited with commentary by Donald Skoller. Used by permission from the publisher.

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