A Glimpse into the later films of Carl Th. Dreyer

This is the paper I just finished about Carl Theodor Dreyer for my Film History class. I left out the somewhat weak conclusion that I tacked onto the actual paper… but here you go…


When researching into the cinema of Carl Theodor Dreyer one is immediately thrown into a world interesting theories cultivated over the decades regarding his religion, the relevance of his rather secretive and mysterious past in regard to his films, and more importantly involving his theories involving the “style” of the cinema. From the very beginning of his directorial career Dreyer was constantly striving to do what he could to contribute to the traditions of the cinema, being, as he was quoted his “only great passion.” Dreyer remains to this day an extremely enigmatic figure of cinematic history. While his cinematic output way relatively few, 14 films over the course of 46 years (1918 – 1964), each of his films (especially the latter 6) have been the subjects of much cinematic dialogue. Dreyer was extremely well known for his humanistic perspectives, interesting techniques, rather somber subject matter, and his unflinching ability to evoke amazing performances from some rather unlikely actors/actresses. His utilization of the aforementioned as well as his ability to convey a rather united philosophy and set of defined principles throughout a variety of different filmic genres have made Dreyer an infinitely intriguing figure of cinema.

Dreyer was once quoted when asked about the possibility of a documentary being made about him, “I’m not interesting, my films are interesting.” (Jensen) But as documentary director Torben Skjødt Jensen states, in regard to this statement, in his documentary Carl Th. Dreyer – My Métier, Dreyer was, in fact extremely interesting. Carl Theodor Dreyer was born Karl Nielsen on February third 1889 to an unwed mother, Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson. (Acquarello) Between his birth and his second birthday, Dreyer was in and out of various homes, until he was finally adopted by Danish typographer Carl Theodor Dreyer and his wife Inger Marie. (Acquarello) While Dreyer was rather secretive about his personal life, it has been widely known that he didn’t get along very well with his stepmother, an issue which has generally attributed to the fact that his mother, who committed accidental suicide (while trying to abort a second illegitimate child), had yet to settle a financial debt to the Dreyer family regarding their adoption of Carl. (Acquarello) Dreyer’s rather interesting early childhood and lineage (many have speculated that his father was quite possibly the owner of the estate where Josefine worked) has been a source of much speculation in regards to the deeper meanings of his films, especially in regards to his tendency to create heroic martyr like figures out of unlikely women.

After finishing school, Dreyer began his career as a journalist, writing for various different Danish newspapers, which eventually transitioned into his working for the Danish film company Nordisk. (Acquarello) While at Nordisk Dreyer studied many different aspects of film making from intertitle typing to editing, which eventually led to his actually being given a chance to direct his first film, The President (1918). Following the release of The President, Dreyer would go on to direct seven more films, Leave from Satan’s Book (1919), The Parson’s Widow (1921), Love One Another (1922), Once Upon a Time (1922), Mikaël (1924), Master of the House (1925), and The Bride of Glomdal (1925). (Acquarello) Subsequent to the success of Master of the House Dreyer sound himself solicited by the Société Générale de Films, and from this relationship sprung the film, which is often (yet not always) considered his master piece, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1927). (Milne 92-93) After the release of this film Dreyer’s output became much less frequent yet considerably more intricate and full of depth.

Throughout Dreyer’s career as a filmmaker he continually furthered his theories of film making, which was well executed through his last 6 films (4 of which will be discussed in greater depth through this paper). Dreyer was a firm believer in Style and that the artistic possibilities of the medium of cinema lied in the ability of a director to imprint his own “subjective” style within a film, which would save the film from being strict realism, a theory which he went into in great depth in his essay “A Little on Film Style” (1943). He specifically states that “Just as one can talk about a persons soul, one can also talk about the work of art’s soul, it’s personality. The soul is shown through style, which is the artist’s way of giving expression to his perception of the material…Through style, he gets others to see the material through his eyes.” (Dreyer) Dreyer saw the possibilities of cinema not as a medium which was capable of strictly showing the viewer reality, he was much more interested in utilizing the camera in a way which showcased the inner (psychological) realism, which was much more subjective. Further investigating this idea Raymond Carney discussed in his book Speaking the Language of Desire The Films of Carl Dreyer, that many of Dreyer’s techniques lent themselves, intentionally, to a more audience interactive interpretation. (Carney 119-122) While the films were presented through the “subjective” moving camera, presenting “objective” events “filtered though a consciousness” (Carney 121) they lent themselves to a “more imaginative” and “more meditative” interaction with the films, which also had a “humanizing” effect upon the films. (Carney 121-122).

Alongside his firm belief in the importance of style in the creation of artistic cinema, he also held two other concepts in high regard; the utilization of the natural human face and the use of abstraction. In his essay “Imagination and Color” (which I quote from Carney 155-156) Dreyer stated: “There is nothing that can be compared to the human face… There is no greater experience that that of witnessing… the expression in a sensitive face becoming animated from within and, under the mysterious power of inspiration, growing into poerty” (Dryer, Carney 155-156) This was a perfect example of the fact that Dreyer often placed a much higher importance upon a person’s face and the way in which they emote, that to their credentials when casting for his films. Dreyer, as is evident especially in The Passion of Joan of Arc, with Renée Falconetti as Joan (as well as all of the judges and clergymen), and Day of Wrath, with Lisbeth Movin as Anne (as well as Anna Svierkier as Herlof’s Marte), wanted the most real psychologically invested portrayals from his actors and actresses, which he focused mainly upon their facial reactions, hoping to capture that “poetic” moment. These ideas play extremely well into Dreyer’s ideology in regards to a cinema of “realized mysticism,” which pervades Dreyer’s body of work.

In relation to abstraction, Dreyer believed that the utilization of abstraction within cinema, while keeping the reality of the situations in mind was the key to the furthering of cinema. But, he stated “I hurry to define the word ‘abstraction’ as an expression for the preservation of the art which demands that an artist shall abstract from reality in order to reinforce its spiritual content, whether this is of psychological or purely aesthetic nature. Or said more succinctly: Art shall represent the inner and not the outer life.” (Dreyer, Carney 129) Dreyer was constantly trying to bring the true human conditions and emotions to the screen, and he believed through abstraction one could more easily achieve that level of spirituality and raw emotion.

La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1927)


“…in Falconetti, who plays Joan I found what I might, with very bold espression, allow myself to call ‘the martyr’s reincarnation.” – Carl Theodor Dreyer (from essay in Criterion collection Booklet)

In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc he presents the viewer of Joan “the real Joan, not in armor, but simple and human.” (Joan of Arc) Through this film Dreyer effectively stripped the story of unnecessary facts, simplifying her persecution in order to more easily and freely show the humanistic side to a woman thought to be a fierce warrior and martyr. Dreyer’s Joan is merely a simple woman doing the “will of god,” scared and alone.

There are many intriguing technical aspects to the film, but the one that literally and figuratively stares the viewer down is the fact that the film is composed almost entirely of extreme close ups. This technique is in direct correlation with Dreyer’s theories regarding the human face and it’s importance within the framework of an effective film. Through the use of extreme close ups in addition to the rapid editing between Joan and her accusers, which heightens and lessens with in accordance with the emotional tumult of the given scene, as well as the angles at which these scenes are composed, the viewer is forced experience the emotions ever-present. Through the use of extreme close ups of Joan’s face in conjunction with Falconetti’s evocative performance, the viewer can truly see through her eyes and into the depths of her soul. In the scene where Joan is first brought before the council, melancholy hope as well as despair, confusion and fear are all easily read in Joan’s face. It becomes even more obvious when Dreyer inter-cuts ECU’s as well as pans of the accusers reactions to her timid yet brave remarks regarding her mission. Dreyer’s focus upon the wrinkled cold and shadowy faces of the accusers also plays a huge part, his fascination with the face and presenting it with little artifice is brilliantly enacted through this film. In writing about this film André Bazin stated (in accordance with Dreyer’s theories of the face) “…this exclusively spiritual tragedy, in which all action comes from within, is fully expressed by the face, a privileged area of communication.” (Bazin 20)

Yet another way in which The Passion of Joan of Arc is brilliant example of Dreyer’s filmic theories and working cinematic ideologies was the way in which he regularly “abstracted” the faces of the characters. Although Dreyer was quoted numerous times stating that The Passion of Joan of Arc was not an “abstract” film, there is no denying the fact that through the utilization of extreme close ups on characters with seemingly non-existent white back grounds, which spatially abstract the characters, as well as “Dutch angles” (which serve to further displace the characters) is a perfect example of abstraction of the subject in order to place the focus ‘inward’ rather that on the ‘outward’ action on the physical plane. The framing of Falconetti’s face is particularly perfect, showcasing every change in expression, every tear as well as every crease on her chapped lips and every speckled imperfection of her façade. Michael Koller expressed this well in his article (bearing the name of the film) for the Senses of Cinema when he said, “Dreyer finds exhilaratingly original ways to frame the actors, frequently showing only a small part of their faces, and often not even showing their eyes. Many shots have the actors cowering at the bottom or the side of the frame…” (Koller)

While Dreyer’s studies of facial expressions as well as his keen eye for interesting shot compositions throughout the film are integral in transforming this story into a humanist tale, Dreyer’s attention to detail as well as his interesting observance of symbolism also add other dimensions to the film. Specifically the use of the cross throughout the film continually brought certain theological aspects of the film into focus. The ways in which Dreyer placed the symbols throughout the film are also intriguing, for example having the shadow of her cell window forma cross, having her making a “crown of thorns” in her cell, and the constant use of crosses in the back ground (as well as above the grave, most likely dug for her) all further signify the theological aspects of the film.

Vampyr (1931)


“Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.” –Carl Theodor Dreyer (Milne 109)

Dreyer’s above statement brilliantly describes the feeling elicited by Dryer’s follow up to The Passion of Joan of Arc. Although The Passion of Joan of Arc wasn’t a commercial success there was still interest in seeing what Dreyer would do next, and although he split with the Société Générale de Films he was none the less able to find backing for Vampyr which would represent a departure from the style of his previous film (in many yet not all aspects). Acquarello in his short biography for the Senses of Cinema states that Dryer “sought to make Vampyr an antithesis of The Passion of Joan of Arc: distanced, voluminous, dispassionate and unemotive. This is evident in a certain lack of emotion on the faces of some of the characters. While Dreyer still has a fixation on the facial expressions (as well as faces, of which there are some odd facial structures present), and there is still some serious emotional tumult in the faces of some of the characters, which shines through again through the use of close up, there is much more concentration on shadow (sharp contrast between lights and darks, when everything has a grayish tint) as well as movement of the camera and points of view.

The most intriguing aspect to this film is one that hits the viewer over the head, the use of shadow. Shadow, or the interesting use of cookies throughout the film is extremely effective in creating an ominous atmosphere as well as showcasing the odd, supernatural occurrences within the film. The first way in which this film interestingly utilizes shadow is through the use of light sources from below, which create upward cookies on the ceiling as well as a certain oddity in the way in which the face is lit. This curious use of lighting from below creates a fascinating effect upon the viewer, such as the feeling of watching a friend tell a ghost story around a campfire with a flashlight pointed up at his/her face, immediately creating a creepy ominous atmosphere to the film.

Then comes the even more intriguing use of shadow within the film, the use of shadow where no one is there to create said shadow. This technique as well as the use of double exposure when Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg as Julian West) has his dream of an out of body experience really heighten the supernatural feeling of the film, though the way in which the film is shot, and what Dreyer chooses to show also plays with his theory of the “realized mysticism.” When Thinking about the use of shadow where there is an absence of creator of shadow, one long stream of scenes comes to mind, starting with Gray’s following of the shadow of the one-legged man. While following this shadow he also runs into another absent shadow which seems to be shoveling in reverse, this then moves swiftly to Allan as he (as well as the viewer) voyeuristically watch the shadow climb the stairs and return to it’s physical embodiment to once again synchronize. This chilling scene (which sends the imagination of the viewer into overdrive) is then followed by an odd and perplexing shadow dance sequence, which further haunts the viewer’s interpretations of the story. Other examples of the innovative use of shadow are with the scenes of “bone” shadows roaming the land as well as the general use of ominous cookies throughout the film, constantly lingering tainting the atmosphere.

The other intriguing aspect of this film is the use of mesmerizing and innovative points of view. While the shifts in points of view as well as the use of extreme close ups of the characters, as well as inanimate objects such as the poison bottle which Léone will later use to try and poison herself (an action which has been speculated corresponds autobiographically to Dreyer’s birth mother (Le Fanu 6)) are all extremely important in the expression of the narrative, the most interesting aspects of the camera work come from the use of pans and tracking shots as well as voyeuristic point of view shots, especially where the viewer takes Allan’s place in the coffin. Through the use of panning and tracking shots in this film the viewer starts to get a sense of an aspect of Dryer’s film making which began in The Passion of Joan of Arc and he will further his latter films, which lends a certain “rhythmic” (as Dreyer calls it in his essay “A Little on Film Style”) style to the film. However the most captivating and terrifying scene in the film is in Allan’s falsely prophetic dream where the point of view shot through the glass window of the coffin as it is sealed and carried away brilliantly instills a sense of paranoia as well as claustrophobia (a feeling which will again pop up with the slow methodical death of ‘the doctor (Jan Hieronimko). In this film again we have Dreyer working with ‘photographer’ Rudolph Maté (who he worked with on The Passion of Joan of Arc as well), and once again they together brilliantly pushed the visual envelope in new directions, with double exposures, intriguing points of view and interesting expressions of lights and darks through shadows and light play.

Day of Wrath (1943)


“The action profits, then, from a perfect psychological justification as well as a hypothetical, supernatural intervention, and even from an ambiguity maintained on these two dramatic planes. This satisfies our Mediterranean taste for sharpness and simplicity of plot without diminishing the chiaroscuro of the Nordic imagination” – André Bazin (in reference to the end of Day of Wrath 23)

Although both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr are widely accepted now as important cinematic works, both did rather poorly at the time (especially Vampyr for which crowds booed), and it is said that Dreyer suffered a nervous breakdown followed by a hiatus from film, where he returned to journalism, and worked on several filmic ideas which he never saw to fruition, until his triumphant return in 1943 with Day of Wrath. With Day of Wrath Dreyer returned to the theme of witchcraft and, in a less obvious way, martyrdom. With this film we see a bit of a synthesis of the effective techniques utilized in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. The film is once again shrouded in shadow, and the lights and darks are in sharp contrast (which is present in both of prior films), especially in the dress of the characters (which is symbolic of the time), the viewer is also presented with a focus on the face and eyes which harkens back to The Passion of Joan of Arc in it’s emotional depth, but there is also a continuance of Dreyer’s growing inclination to long panning and tracking shots (reminiscent of such shots in Vampyr) which creates and almost stream of consciousness camera movement, which follows the characters.

A lot of this film is about a certain investigation of difference between Absalon (Thrkild Roose) and Marin’s (Preben Lerdorff Rye) love for the same woman Anne (Lisbeth Movin) and her feelings as they change with the introduction of Martin as well as the discovery about her mother. Once again Dreyer has created a film which in many respects can be viewed as a very religious film, which could be said about most all of his films, yet, what is more important than the religious aspects are the humanistic aspects of the film. The feelings of agony (as Absalon struggle in finding the righteous thing, and Martin struggle with the breach created between his love for his father and his love for Anne), as well as the feelings of despair, cruelty, depth and mystery (as in Anne’s eyes as she changes after Herof’s Marte is executed) are once again in Dryer’s signature style “written all over the faces of the characters.”

Through this film there is also a sort of divide between the depressing life of Anne within the confines of Absalon (as a concept of a life) and the loving arms of Martin (as a concept of a real life). This is most present when comparing the atmosphere involved in the scenes surrounding both Absalon and Martin, Absalon’s scenes seeming much more stoic and righteously dark, and Martin’s seeming much more playful and light. This is also shown brilliantly through the dialogue particularly when both characters describe Anne’s eyes. Absalon proclaims her eyes as free and clear, while Martin states that they’re deep and mysterious. This is however only one of many examples of Anne’s comparisons of the two.

The other intriguing aspect to the film is the fact that Dreyer returns to the idea of religious persecution, yet this time the persecutor, Absalon, seems a bit perturbed at the job, which he must do. With the character of Absalon the viewer is presented with a much more dynamically motivated accuser, who is torn between righteously good (according to theology) and following his heart. This is also a theme which can be shown through Martin as well, for his heart and the playful lust within him drive him in a direction in disparity to the righteous direction set out by his beloved father. In the end of the film the viewer is presented with a fairly clear distinction represented by the sides of the coffin upon which Anne and Meret (Absalon’s mother played by Sigrid Neiiendam) stand, one of them representing the dark (in garb as well as demeanor) repressive righteous side, Meret, and the other representing the light young lustful side, Anne. While in the end Martin chooses the side of his family, in a brilliant visually metaphorical separation, Dreyer ceases to place any serious blame, and leaves the moral questions up to the viewer.

Ordet (The Word) (1954)


“…Ordet is not a ‘plot’ film. It’s an intense and turbulent poem with several motifs constantly in action, ultimately to be harmonized by Inger’s resurrection” – Chris Fujiwara (in his essay in the criterion booklet of Ordet)

With Ordet Dreyer once again furthered many of his thematic stylistic choices of the past while bringing Kaj Munk’s play a different light. Out of the films discussed through this paper this is the one which when deliberated on it has the potential to make one’s head spin. Fujiwara summed this film up rather well in the fact that there is an enormous amount action, perspective and most importantly inner turmoil which is all happening at the same time and which all coalesces with the resurrection of Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) at the end of the film. Throughout the film many different religious points of view are set forth, including the fanatical view of Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) that he is Jesus, and in the end everything is summed up with a “miracle,” which is the very subject of much disagreement between the religious views throughout the film.

In this film the viewer also received a lot more information through dialogue between the characters and between the characters and god. Interestingly enough, while Dreyer is still very focused on the faces of his characters the inclination toward the extreme close up which was ever present in The Passion of Joan of Arc has dissipated, which makes it so that every extreme close up is extremely effective because it stands out. With the diminishing frequency of the extreme close up the use of panning and tracking shots is further realized through this film, which sets up the intriguing “rhythm” of the film.

In his essay which Criterion includes in the DVD release of this film Chris Fujiwara says the following in regards to the pace or “rhythm” of the film, “Ordet is a film of domestic rhythms, concerns, and relationships, and by pacing the film script slowly, Dreyer gets us to feel the fullness of this kind of life. The pauses in the dialogue are filled with movement, with reaction, with characters hearing each other in a way that they almost never do in films.” (Fujiwara) This is tremendously valid in relation to this film, while the action and inner tumult of the characters as well as some of the outward actions are intense; this film retains for the most part a very slow pace, which sets an intriguing environment, which befits the narrative. This also brings to light a couple of things which this film, as well as the prior Dreyer films discussed seem to utilize in order to further Dreyer’s search for a certain psychological realism; the use of facial direction in comparison to other characters present in the frame, as well as his search for simplicity.

Throughout this and many of Dreyer’s other films the way in which he poses the characters and what he has them looking at seems extremely important. Whether it be Joan’s seemingly blank upward stares, or the way in which Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) and Peter Skraedder (Ejnar Federspiel) seem to stare aimlessly away from one another as they speak, which creates a barrier between the two, which represents the metaphorical barrier of their beliefs, the ways in which Dreyer directs the eyes of his characters seems increasingly more significant. Also with this film as in the other films Dreyer continued his trend toward simplicity, which he discussed in a radio interview, each of the films discussed increasingly tends toward simplicity and abstraction in order to convey, as Dreyer says, the inner rather than the outer. This is portrayed through the very simple set designs utilized throughout the Borgen ‘ranch,’ and is utilized to place more focus upon the inner.

Lastly this film as well as many of Dreyer’s preceding films shows a certain relationship between the body and the soul. Upon the death bed of Inger, when Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is ‘comforted’ by the statement that Inger is in heaven, to which he replies “but I loved her body as well.” This statement is emblematic of one of the central themes carried through Dreyer’s body of work that both the soul and the body are important and have longing.

References
Acquarello, “Carl Theodor Dreyer.” Senses of Cinema (July 2002) 20 Oct 2008 <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/dreyer.html&gt;.

Bazin , Andre. The Cinema of Cruelty . New York: Seaver Books, 1982.

Carl Th. Dreyer. Dir. Jørgen Roos. 1966. DVD. Citerion/Janus Films, 2008

Carl Th. Dreyer – My Métier. Dir. Torben Skjødt Jensen. 1995. DVD. Criterion/Janus Films, 2001.

Carney, Raymond. Speaking the Language of Desire The Films of Carl Dreyer. New York: Cambridge University Press , 1989.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Realized Mysticism.” (1929) (Reprinted by Criterion/Janus Films by permission of the Danish Film Institute, Sopenhagen, Denmark

Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Thoughts on My Metier (“A little on Film Style”).” (1943) (Reprinted by Criterion/Janus Films Excerpted from Dreyer in Double Reflection, Carl Dreyer’s Writings on Film. Edited with commentary by Donald Skolle. Used (by Criterion) by permission from the publisher.)

Dreyer, Carl Theodor – Radio Interview (Presented by Criterion/Janus Films as a special feature on Carl Th. Dreyer – My Métier)

Fujiwara, Chris. “Untitled.” (2001) (Fujiwara’s untitled essay included with the Criterion release of Ordet)

Koller, Michael. “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.” Senses of Cinema (2000) 23 Oct 2008 <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/5/passion.html&gt;.

Milne, Tom. The Cinema of Carl Dreyer. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971.