Filmmaker Retrospective: The Spiritual Cinema of Carl Theodor Dreyer

Carl Theodor Dreyer

“It is not things in reality that the director should be interested in but the spirit in or behind things. Realism in itself is not art.” – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the most important figures in film history. He created a language unlike anyone before him and made truly transcendent pictures that, once seen, aren’t easy to forget. He was born on February 3, 1889 in Copenhagen to a Swedish woman who gave him up for adoption.

Carl Theodor Dreyer, a typographer, adopted him into his family and gave him his name. Carl had a good relationship with his new father but disliked his stepmother very much. Perhaps one of the relationships that influenced him the most was with his step-grandmother; she had a many books hidden in the attic. He had to go in secret to read them, because they were books on subjects like spiritualism and parapsychology which were forbidden to him. As he he once stated in an interview, he read them all.

He left home at a young age and after a couple of jobs took up a career in journalism. One of the things he reported on was aviation, which was new at the time. He attended flight school but was expelled because he made a flight without permission. He started writing screenplays and penned four for a small studio/ A film executive from the Nordisk studios named Frede Skaarup noticed these and hired him to read and evaluate scripts that had been submitted to the studio. For the next few years he wrote many screenplays.Most of them were made into feature films. Finally, in 1919, he got his directorial debut.

He was always worried about the elements that composed the frame and how to reproduce the “reality” of the social environment in which his films took place; but this was not his authentic concern, he was more interested in the spiritual or metaphysical content: the supernatural, the things we don’t see in our mundane life. He was a meticulous director and he did all the research for the films himself in a very passionate way.

Dreyer never had any formal artistic training, though being extremely interested in painting and photography helped him to make his films into works of art. He always worked closely with his cinematographer to make sure that both looked at every scene through the camera. He was always directly involved in the lighting and the composition of each shot; that is why his aesthetic images are so profound andso dazzling that they transcend the human soul.

He left two films unfinished: Medea and a Jesus Christ biopic. In an interview he stated that he had already seen a woman he could accept to cast as Medea: Maria Callas, the opera singer. Two years later Pier Paolo Pasolini made Medea with her in the leading role. In 1988 Dreyer’s compatriot Lars Von Trier made a TV movie based on Dreyer’s script.

Dreyer had had the film on his mind for more than fifteen years. He wanted it to serve as an introduction to The Christ Film, which was one of his most ambitious projects; sadly he never got to make it. He was suffering financial problems and could not write the Jesus Christ script that he wanted, but when he met a millionaire named Blevins Davis he was offered an annuity so he could focus on writing the script he wanted.

After he was finished, he went to Hollywood to seek an opportunity to produce the film there. He searched for the best technical equipment and met with several big studios that agreed to put the technology and technicians at Dreyer’s disposal. But he got the idea of shooting the film in Israel and wanted to buy a ship to sail all the equipment there. He wanted to build a film laboratory on the ship because he did not want to rely on the laboratories they had in Israel.

Additionally,the film would be spoken solely in Old-Hebrew. Davis had enough of Dreyer’s eccentricities and cut him off. At some point, the prolific Italian producer Carlo Ponti, contacted Dreyer and told him he was willing to finance the film on his terms. Dreyer went to Rome but only stayed one week. He didn’t want his film to be produced by the Romans because they were the ones that had crucified Christ. Just as Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Dreyer’s Christ film stands as one of the greatest films never made.

He had many troubles with artistic incomprehension and oppression of his liberty as an artist, which is why he took so much time inbetween films. He also had financial troubles but never ceased to believe in his work. He made 14 feature films and 8 short films. He died of pneumonia in 1968.


1. The President (1919)

The President (1919)

Dreyer’s directorial debut is about a judge who is forced into choosing between enforcing the law or helping his daughter whom he abandoned and is now sentenced to death. It’s a compelling story about love and soul-searching. It may be far away from his later masterpieces, but there are some interesting narrative structures: Dreyer uses the technique of the flashback, showing how ambitious he was even at this early stage, though when he screened the film he thought it was pretentious. He designed the sets himself and was inspired by painters like Hammershøi and Whistler.

The depiction of his characters is of a complex psychological nature, which may not seem like much today, but it was very rare in a film in those days . He received divided criticism but Nordisk felt comfortable enough with this effort and that opened the way for his next film to be a bigger production.


2. Leaves of Satan’s Book (1921)

Leaves of Satan’s Book (1921)

Dreyer praised D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which directly influenced him when making this film; both films depict how evil corrupts Man’s soul. It’s about Satan, the fallen angel who is condemned by God to tempt men with the seed of evil. It’s divided into four stories: the first episode is set thirty years after the birth of Christ; the second episode is set in the Spanish inquisition; the third is set during the French revolution and the last episode is during the Finnish civil war.

Although it has similarities with Griffith’s masterpiece, Edgar Høyer’s original screenplay for this film dates back to 1913 and it is believed that both films were actually inspired by Satanas (1912), an Italian film directed by Luigi Maggi. Dreyer got to make this grand scale production and made it work despite the scarce financial resources Nordisk provided. This is Dreyer’s only film that was made from an original script, the rest of his films are adaptations of other sources.


3. Love One Another (1922)

Love One Another (1922)

Hanne-Liebe is a young woman who decides to leave her home to go live with her brother in St. Petersburg; she does this to escape the constant racial harassment that rules her community. She meets with an old school friend named Sascha, a revolutionary student whom she falls in love with. Eventually she is deported to her hometown and Sascha is arrested.

The film deals with anti-Semitism, something Dreyer despised and could not tolerate. It was based on the novel written by Aage Madelung. The film is set at the turn of the 20th century in Russia. Dreyer based his style on pictures that Russian refugees had brought with them; he was lucky enough to have been able to copy them and study them,which brought authenticity to the film.


4. Michael (1924)

Michael (1924)

Claude Zoret (played by Benjamin Christensen, director of Häxen) is a famed painter; he has a strange relationship with his pupil and model Michael, who he adores. They start to drift apart when Michael meets the exotic Zamikoff and shows hatred towards his teacher. Claude then falls into a fatal depression because of Michael’s contempt. Michael abuses over and over again the trust of his mentor, but Claude’s love is so grand that he forgives him every time.

This film is based on the novel by Herman Bang and was photographed by the legendary Karl Freund, who three years later would be the cinematographer for Fritz Lang’s enormous Metropolis. It raised some controversy for its depiction about homosexuality and for the year it was produced, it was way ahead of its time.