Before Lars von Trier, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson there was Carl Th. Dreyer. The first great film artist to pursue the ineffable in cinema, Dreyer gave depth to what early silent filmmakers innately understood yet took for granted: that cinema’s ability to record reality also provided a view that transcended everyday reality. The tradition of filmmakers concerned with the cosmic and spiritual dimensions of life can be traced back to Dreyer: Kieslowski’s various explorations of time and morality; Tarkovsky’s use of the film medium to create visions of great immanence; Bergman’s intrigue with the female psyche and the question of God; Bresson’s diverse speculations on the modern soul (including Bresson’s own Joan of Arc film). These directors followed Dreyer’s singular path towards the transcendent by staying closely rooted to the earth, to the essential representative qualities of film and by keeping these interests (Dreyer’s interests) current.
The Danish film master produced five major works—The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud—that established the stylistic extremes and metaphysical essence of the movie medium for the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, today’s biggest Dreyer proponent is another Dane, Lars Von Trier, whose Dogma 95 movement attempted to redefine the medium at the century’s end. Von Trier’s lo-fi, video-influenced aesthetic in the films Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, would seem the antithesis of Dreyer’s purely filmic innovations (from the silent era into the heady 1960s) that emphasized what make the photographic properties of cinema uniquely expressive. But Dreyer was not just a great movie formalist (on par with the Soviet silent filmmakers). Starting with his first feature The President (1919) and including at least one classic for the next four decades, Dreyer made intimately probing character studies that were quintessential examples of film as spiritual expression—clearly an inspiration for Von Trier’s decades later preoccupation with depicting spiritual struggle, repeating Dreyer’s emphasis on saintly female figures (in 1994, Von Trier actually made a video feature of Dreyer’s unfilmed script Medea). As our new century approached, Dreyer was seldom the topic of film buff discussion, yet he remains highly relevant as a giant of innovation and a prophet of mankind’s internal investigation. (“Film has a soul,” he is quoted as saying in the documentary My Metier.) All filmmakers and film watchers who have a deep fascination with the way form expresses content must first experience Dreyer’s breakthroughs.
Of the fourteen features Dreyer directed, even the least of them—Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919), or Love One Another (1921)—have qualities of the profound. His dramas of troubled existence, of the way witches, clergy, common folk, and saints get caught between choice and expedience, have an air of the eternal about them.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932) are Western cinema’s eeriest achievements. In them, Dreyer made the uncanny palpable: one senses the temperature of the quiet, empty rooms in Vampyr and responds viscerally to the actor’s skin textures against the abstract, stylized sets of Joan of Arc. This counterpose of the real and the imaginary defines Dreyer’s aesthetic. It is an essentialist’s cinema located in the values of black & white photography and the fundaments of film. But there’s more than realistic representation going on here. Dreyer’s stories play out a stark morality but are filled with tonal gradations of the ineffable. A humid sense of fate heats up the director’s spare settings, which usually include a painting or household item—lone traces of the lives passing through.
Always a storyteller, Dreyer explored non-linear film narrative by controlling his images and creating significance through simplicity. Master of the House (1925) and The Bride of Glomsdale (1926) are grounded in the physical, the quotidian. Dreyer respects their real-world essence (a quality Andre Bazin would later specify when discovering Italian Neorealism and the phenomenological work of Roberto Rossellini, another Dreyer disciple). Dreyer usually refrained from manipulating reality—except for the almost baroque surface of his 1924 film Mikael (made in Germany as part of its expressionist school), which is as stuffed with objets d’art as Kane’s warehouse. Dreyer’s art sense commands both extremes of mise-en-scene.
His silent films, especially, preserve the moment film craft improved on the fecund symbolism of the theater. These philosophy-heavy Danish chamber dramas vibrate with senuality or expand into metaphysics as easily as a thought flickering across Lisabeth Movin’s face in Day of Wrath (1943) or the moonlight on waving fields of grass in Ordet (1955). Often Dreyer demonstrates his mastery with Griffith’s cross-cutting or his own pronounced camera movements.
An immediate thrill comes from the prescience inherent in watching Dreyer dynamize action: the excitement of cantered angles, moving perspectives, microscopic close-ups, and juxtaposed spaces. These tricks promise that the normal world is being penetrated or at least omnisciently perceived. Consider Dreyer’s government short, They Caught the Ferry (1948), in which he magistrates speed and cutting to portray a motorcycling couple’s rendezvous with road-hog Death. In an inspired moment, the camera pauses at a fork in the road, observing the couple’s fatal left-or-right decision. It powerfully translates They Caught the Ferry into "They Bought the Farm."
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In the current explosion of technology and the past decade of independent navel-gazing, the idea of film art as great visual art seems to have evaporated. Dreyer’s films—the rarely seen Mikael, Master of the House, The Bride of Glomsdale (his richest period) or two essential Danish government shorts made during a hiatus, The Struggle Against Cancer (1947) and They Caught the Ferry—revive the idea. This idea was last on display during a complete Dreyer retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jytta Jensen that toured the U.S. in 1989.
Lucky cineastes who caught that tour got a bonus in recognizing a trope borrowed by Martin Scorsese’s in his segment of the omnibus New York Stories: in Mikael, the painter-hero is captured at a moment of painful isolation, then swallowed up in a darkness that brings his painting into luminous focus. Scorsese’s cinematographer, the late Nestor Almendros, finally tracked down Mikael during the 1989 tour. “I’ve been waiting all my life to see this film,” Almendros said with stunned satisfaction.
Scorsese’s homage is only one expression of a filmmaker’s esteem for Dreyer. What Bresson and Bergman didn’t need admit during the ‘50s was later paid tribute to at the 1964 Paris premiere of Gertrud where Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Henri-Georges Clouzot expressed their respect for the master. They understood—as Scorsese and now Von Trier does—the purpose and imagination that informs Dreyer’s every shot.
That’s what’s most mysterious today: Dreyer’s dedication to ideas—not merely to advancing the plot. And that he maintained this rigorous, impassioned way of working, this awareness of making art, for over 50 years (In 1989 even Pauline Kael remarked, “Everything that son-of-a-bitch did was great.”). Our era of the indie auteur can learn much from Dreyer’s work as a non-commercial filmmaker who, from the silent era on, kept mindful of film theory—he was New Wave and Indie before those terms became fashionable. Even into the sound era, Dreyer maintained the film pioneer’s fascination with form. That should explain the remarkable concentration on composition, theme and process that distinguished his filmmaking debut with The President to his final work.
Allegory becomes in Dreyer an intensified truth, symbols become facts and the otherwordly seems present. For this reason Mikael, the film about the art world and created environments is important and should become a regular part of the Dreyer repertory. Set in the hot-house atmosphere of German Expresionism, Mikael crosses the uses of art with the vagaries of living. Its hero, celebrated as Maler de Schemerzen, “the painter of suffering,” resembles Dreyer not autobiographically but temperamentally. At the same time that Dreyer goes deeper into motive and higher into spiritual quest, he sustains a portraitist’s eroticism. Mikael’s boldly suggested love story between men confirms Dreyer’s sophistication while expanding the panoply of erotic gestures—a wife’s fingers on her husband’s neck in Master of the House, the carnal, reawakened embraces of both The Bride of Glomsdale and Ordet—that prove Dreyer cinema’s most sensual director.
After the interior-set, internalized romance of Mikael, Master of the House marks Dreyer’s greatest shift. Here he used a pure, ritualistic survey of a household that—long before Jeanne Dielman or The Silence—concentrates patriarchal social tensions into a virtually one-set drama. Far more extreme than neorealism, Dreyer’s exactitude feel so like real time that the painstaking details of domestic living—cleaning, cooking, leisure—become numinous. This slate-grey parable (aka Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife) could be an existential version of The Honeymooners. The tyrannical husband-father is humble and, in fact, redeemed by the company of women. The feminized home is a testing ground, a threshold for transcendence, a locale that reveals the human essence.
Reality is severely distorted while Dreyer tightens his emotional grip. Vampyr is so thoroughly disorienting that one’s inability to fully comprehend its spellbinding images and spectral atmosphere becomes a frighteningly trancelike experience. His dramas gain power past the point of melodramatic climax. The Parson’s Widow (1920) becomes extraordinary once the young-lovers-in-hiding plot is exhausted and the theme of aged wisdom vs. impetuosness takes over. The Bride of Glomsdale’s exuberant nature celebration steadily sheds its bucolic heartiness until Dreyer’s couple become figures of primeval destiny. The final astonishing sequence remakes Griffith’s Way Down East as an elemental myth in which the groom, crossing a river on the way to his wedding, is swept away by the rapids but “struggles against the current so as not to be a passive victim”—the key Dreyer condition.
With the valedictory Gertrud, Dreyer’s long interest in the struggle for love and salvation is personified by the social predicament of women, a view popularized by Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman’s films with Liv Ullmann and Von Trier’s recent work with Emily Watson and Bjork. In Gertrud, Dreyer reduced his already self-conscious style to basic locations and a gestural, hieratic manner of performance that avoids false pathos. There remains a clarity of vision in Gertrud’s extreme artifice. In a scene where Gertrud discovers her previously described dream in the subject of a large tapestry, we have a paradigm for Dreyer’s filmmaking: transubtantiation.
That word is meant to describe what makes Dreyer films unlike anyone else’s. Ingmar Bergman may owe his entire reputation to the wide unfamiliarity with Dreyer, who got to the same psycho-socio-religious themes first and took them farther. Those issues are less popular in today’s cinema, still they come alive to anyone seeing the way Dreyer gave direct access to the ineffable; he knew the worth of a film image and never assumed that reality is fixed concept. Dreyer’s “purified” style does not result in less emotion, rather, by aestheticizing characters torments (similar to Kieslowski’s use of color-fields; Tarkovsky’s nature etudes), Dreyer raises our understanding above the mundane. His next-to-last film, Ordet, does not jerk tears over death, but its story of resurrection questions what life is and disturbs viewers utterly.
Dreyer’s greatest legacy may be his devotion to the face for its traces of experience and mortality. Renee Falconetti’s Joan is the most celebrated example, but Hildur Carlburg in The Parson’s Widow, or the exchange of farewell glances between mother and daughter in Master of the House are stirring, too. Most surprising is a nurse’s expression in the short docu-drama The Struggle Against Cancer, in which her grieving frown instantaneously lights up with optimism. There is psychic struggle in that transformation and, by sneaking paradox into a public service announcement, there is also an artist’s perfect, timeless triumph.
After Von Trier, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson there is Carl Th. Dreyer.