Dreyer: Torments of the Soul

CarlDreyer1bWere someone to make a list of the most influential filmmakers of the last (film’s first whole) century, then they’d better have Danish auteur Carl Th. Dreyer (1889-1968) on that list. A very private man, Dreyer’s work spoke about the drama of life, and he tackled heavy subjects with delicacy and a seemingly intimate understanding of the torments of the soul, that has kept a freshness and currency to his films. A new homepage celebrates the director and opens his films up for a new audience.

Dreyer was an adopted child who grew up in a pious and pietistic family, but early on he abandoned his adoptive parents’ beliefs and opted for a career in the sinful, new movie industry. He is well known for his insistence on artistic integrity (and control!), a trademark that labelled him “difficult”, thus prohibiting him from actually making films in most of his active years. Instead, he was a champion of film as a critic and as a director of the legendary, still functioning “Dagmar” cinema in Copenhagen.

While dedicating his life to film, he directed “only” 14 feature films and 8 shorts; and in the span of 1932-1964 only four feature films came from his hand, but enough to land him international attention. He won Venice’s Golden Lion for “Ordet” (1955) and landed the FIPRESCI award at the same festival for his last feature film, “Gertrud” (1964).

With “Gertrud”, Dreyer became quite a mascot of the Nouvelle Vague directors, who revived his reputation as a master of cinema. Without the support from directors like Francois Truffaut, it is uncertain whether a lost masterpiece such as Dreyer’s essential “The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc” (1928) would have been rescued from a Norwegian institution for the mentally ill and restored. In many regards what at the time was an expensive failure, “Jeanne d’Arc” encapsules the strengths of Dreyer’s filmmaking and storytelling.

Gertrud4bDreyer’s pioneering explorations of the means of cinematography in terms of camera movements and lighting are well known, and have inspired vastly different directors such as Bergman, von Trier and Tarkovsky – these directors also shared a thematic interest with Dreyer, whose films so often revolved around faith as the invisible, but powerful component to interpersonal relations. Whether present (as in “Ordet” or “Day of Wrath”) or absent (as in “Vampyr” and “Gertrud”), Dreyer discussed the impact of faith in society, and while never reaching farfetched conclusions, he seemed to have kept a mind open to how religion could move people closer – or away from each other. This was probably never realised as beautifully as in the adaptation of Kaj Munk’s “Ordet” (1955). On one hand, Dreyer – with great ridicule – portrays the theological differences of two church factions in the small Jutland, as well as the religious madness of the failed theologian Johannes – but meanwhile, the pure-hearted faith of a child gets a pivotal role and treatment by Dreyer, who seemed both attracted to and disgusted by people of faith.

A new website opened in May 2010 celebrates Dreyer’s life and work and features clips and bits from his oeuvre. Sadly, not all of his feature films are available for streaming, but for the connoisseur, the site provides a great opportunity to encounter some of Dreyer’s short films, e.g. “They Caught the Ferry”, a sardonic fable based on a short story by Nobel laureate Johannes V. Jensen.

Should one pass by Copenhagen, the Cinemateket permanent exhibition on Dreyer is well worth a visit. Until then, the work that the Danish Film Institute put into this Dreyer Website is absolutely commendable.