The Conquerors—An Interview with Torben Skjødt Jensen

Aug 20, 2001

I have known Torben Skjødt since 1983. His debut video Englefjæs—which I thought to be very accomplished—was presented during a film week in Silkeborg. A debut work, yes, but made with a self-assured maturity by a self-taught creator of images.

Since then I have followed his career as a videographer from the sidelines or somewhat more closely as a ministerial judge for the Statens Filmcentral (National Film Centre). His distinctive style, merging several layers of images with fluent transitions, has developed into a personal signature. You’re never in doubt of the authorship when witnessing a pictorial work by Torben Skjødt Jensen. That this avant-gardist should be interested in the dust of the past, in the reflections of the Danish film treasure – Carl Th. Dreyer no less – seemed odd to me. It sounded almost blasphemous, that a documentary film by Torben Skjødt Jensen about Carl Th. Dreyer, would premiere on the master’s cinema centenary. Now the film exists, an homage to Danish film’s steep, granite rock, Carl Th. Dreyer, and a confirmation that Skjødt Jensen has put to rest any objections and doubts.

Nevertheless, doubts were still on my mind when, in November 1995, I made an appointment with Skjødt Jensen to talk about his new film, and his view of film art today. Why does a video artist turn suddenly about and set his sights on history and good, old Dreyer?

I have done it before with the film on Méliès and my two Flâneur films. But I don’t trouble myself at all about all these labels. I know quite well that many think of me as a video artist, but this label is too simple and ultimately worthless. Today one can no longer distinguish between film and video this way. We mix the two completely; the material is of no importance. It is the expression that matters.

And Dreyer is not a new passion for me; on the contrary, he’s a life-long one. There have been primarily two ways to approach my film project as well as my style as a filmmaker: the first I call the artistic way. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by what Dreyer has achieved and what he has stood for. He is a great aesthetician and my own work has also always been aesthetic. Later I came to realize how well-formulated his ideas were, how many interesting things he had said about himself, his art and that of film in general. Others have given their own interpretation of him, but he himself expresses his views eloquently. My second way to understand Dreyer was at film’s centenary. Now we must truly celebrate, for we practically forgot his birthday in 1989.

There has been a tendency to interpret Dreyer in a completely Freudian way. He was unhappy and therefore an artist. But my film shows that he had a sense of humor. That surprises people who believe that he was only an anguished soul. I’ve gone back to Dreyer’s own words and, by using them and remarks made in the interviews, I’ve created a strictly chronological film. I like the chronological solution. It demonstrates certain developments in this man’s life-work; from the young, irascible man to the thoughtful, sheltered misanthrope. It is a journey through a man’s life. Naturally, I have restated, interpreted, and selected the cited texts, but even though they are Dreyer’s own words, it’s my story about Dreyer. I give an account of his language, but venture further myself to say what aesthetics is. I both rediscover Dreyer and find new ways towards him.

I have also a cinematic, political motivation for my Dreyer film. He was an aesthetician, and today there’s a raging contempt for the experimental film and the concept of the auteur. We, in Europe, apparently want to emulate Hollywood. We take tons of courses in American narrative technique and believe, mistakenly, that we can compete with the USA in this way and get our audience back into the movie theaters. But we can only make it and survive as a film nation by focusing on the great geniuses among us. We should be proud of these conquerors, as Dreyer referred to them, and I stand completely behind the “conqueror’s” statement, which has been included in the film:

“It doesn’t bother me very much to see that the ‘greatest cinematic talents,’ masters in their craft, have lately been taken advantage of by lesser directors. I think it’s great there are conquerors. Is it not the main problem for cinema now, that it has too few individualists—far too few personalities?”

This is also my political view on cinema. I use Dreyer to insist that personal histories are interesting, and to show precisely an uncompromising trajectory for a film artist. He worked with abstractions and wanted to reveal inner life. Here is the key to the renewal of the art of cinema. The camera as pen is a good concept, and a concept I try to make almost tangible by having Dreyer’s signature on the screen. Here, you’ll see letters and documents and the man’s own words and subjects. The genuine item.

I’ve always been interested in people who have been able to express themselves, but who have had problems functioning as human beings––Lerfeldt, Baudelaire, and Dreyer were all maladjusted people. I’m good at telling tragedies. And there appears more than just a little of my self. You can talk about two directions I pursue in my films: a documentary style and person-oriented content. You work with style and form with the former, and in the latter you attempt to search for a person’s inner motivation and soul. Dreyer – My Métier fuses these two directions for me.

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