Filmmaker Retrospective: The Spiritual Cinema of Carl Theodor Dreyer

5. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

A French production company named Société Générale hired Dreyer and gave him complete artistic and financial liberty to do as he pleased, the result was a nude mise-en-scène that reaches abstraction and was hardly photographed. It was a big, expensive production for the time. This studio had a reputation for big productions such as Abel Gance’s astonishing marvel, Napoleon, and eventually went bankrupt.

The film is about the 1431 trial of Joan of Arc, a martyr who was accused of being a heretic and is forced into saying that her visions were not sent from God, but from the devil. Joan is submitted to an incessant questioning to try and get a confession, but even after being threatened with torture, the heroic woman does not give in. It is only after she is physically and mentally destroyed when she, unwillingly, retracts and signs a confession stating the falseness of her visions; but soon enough she recants and is burned at the stake. People revolt, they rebel, they are convinced that she was a saint. There is hope.

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.” And poetry it became. The way Dreyer chose to film in close-ups the soul-breaking performance of Maria Falconetti and her martyrized face is outstanding. Dreyer exalts the soul of Joan of Arc. It is a cathartic experience unlike any film in the history of cinema.

The film faced numerous restrictions: it suffered censorship before its release; the original negative was destroyed by fire and a second negative, reedited by Dreyer from alternative takes, was also burned in a fire. For more than 50 years this silent masterpiece was only known through a very poor and mutilated copy. By some miracle, in 1981, a Danish copy in very good condition was found in a closet at a Norwegian mental institution. It was voted the ninth greatest film in the Sight & Sound critic’s poll.


6. Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr (1932)

“Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room, suddenly, we’re told there`s a corpse behind the door; immediately the room we’re sitting in changes character. Every single everyday item in it looks different: the light and the atmosphere change without actually having changed physically, because we have changed and things are the way we perceive them. This is the effect I want to produce in my films.” – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Vampyr was produced by and starred the Baron Nicolas of Gunzburg, also known as Julian West. Dreyer met him at a party and the Baron agreed to finance the production if he could star in it.

Dreyer created an atmospheric and phantom-like universe. The film is about a young traveller named Allan Grey who checks in a small inn in the countryside; soon he gets a visit from a very strange and disfigured man begging for help. He asks him to prevent his daughter Leone’s death and gives him a sealed package. The next day Allan witnesses the murder of the owner of the castle, the same man that gave him the package. An old woman vampire bites Léone, one of two daughters of the recently deceased. Grey wanders into a dreamland were he sees his own funeral. When he awakens he drives a stake through the vampire.

Vampyr is a film that escapes rationality. It is filled with symbolism: the man holding a scythe, the angel at the inn, the picture Allan Grey sees with the candle, et cetera… After Allan goes to sleep, Dreyer acts with complete freedom in his dreamlike narrative making chilling and expressionistic sequences in which the most memorable may be when Allan attends his own funeral. This had a direct influence on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) when Professor Isak Borg dreams a similar encounter.

It’s a complex film that goes beyond the mythical bloodsucking creature. It’s a struggle of the conscience and the subconscious, it meddles with reality and fiction, it mixes the natural with the supernatural; it’s much more than a horror film. Dreyer demonstrates that the terrors that haunt us are not around us but within us. Is Vampyr just a dream?


7. Day of Wrath (1943)

Day of Wrath (1943)

The film is set in 1623 in Denmark at the peak of witch-hunts. It is based on the play, Anne Pedersdotter, by Hans Wiers-Jenssen. Absalom is an aging minister who lives with his young wife, Anne, and his mother, who disapproves of the marriage. Every time she gets the chance she reminds Anne of it. When Martin, son of Absalom, comes home, everything becomes disrupted: he and Anne fall madly in love.

More than a decade had gone by since Dreyer had directed his last film, and in that time he had learned to simplify his language. In this film he made long, very elaborate takes, he slowed down the rhythm of his editing, and his refined mise-en-scène is beautifully contrasted by the dark costumes and shadows. Its ominous and sober atmosphere resembles Rembrandt.

It’s a film where intolerance takes over human rationality, where human desire is obstructed by fear and can only be attributed to the work of The Evil One. Above all lies the weight of words, the power of conviction that triumphs over any force, including one as powerful as love. There is human uncertainty. In Day of Wrath nothing is an absolute truth.


8. Ordet (1955)

Ordet (1955)

Morten is the head of the Borgen family, he is a firm believer in Christianity. Mikkel, the eldest child, is somewhat of an atheist; his wife, Inger, is a pregnant woman who has unconditional love for her daughter, Maren, and her husband. Johannes is the middle child, a past student of theology who has gone insane and believes he is Jesus Christ, The youngest is Anders. He does not care much for religion and just wants to marry Anne, but the head of each of their families have very strict religious views and they are very different. It is only when Inger dies while giving birth that the young lovers are given permission to wed. Little Maren begs Johannes to bring her mother back from the dead and a wonderful thing happens.

Dreyer saw life as a pure miracle. This can be seen in the scene where the resurrection of a woman happens and sings an ode to life, not religion, but life itself, the one true religion every man should practice without prejudice. It is based on the play by Kaj Munk, which Dreyer saw in 1932 but took more than 20 years to adapt.

He asked a set designer to recreate a 19th century Jutland kitchen. When it was finished, he started taking things off the wall, moving furniture and other things, saying he did this in order to simplify, but left enough of the mise-en-scène intact to create an impression of genuineness in the frame without detracting from the story. This shows the refined aesthetic he strived for and it reflects it in a very ascetic way.

The film has an extremely religious storyline. It deals with resurrection, the reincarnation of Christ, and incomprehension towards other beliefs. This film influenced Carlos Reygadas when he made Silent Light (2007). Although it’s not a remake, it has many similarities. It is often regarded as one of Dreyer’s greatest films, if not the best. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it was voted the 19th greatest film in the Sight & Sound director’s poll.


9. Gertrud (1964)

Gertrud (1964)

This film is an ode to love, to life. Gertrud is a gorgeous, aging woman who is unhappily married to a lawyer. She falls in love with a young musician and is compelled to ask for a divorce. She encounters Gabriel Lidman, a well-known poet and former lover of hers that comes to town for the celebration of his 50th birthday. He declares he has not forgotten her.

Gertrud is about unconditional love and the human incapacity to reach it. She can’t go back to Lidman, because they can’t revive something that’s dead and buried. She can’t go to her new found love because it is not mutual, and she can’t stay with her husband who only cares about work. It is only when she realizes this that she accepts her destiny and understands the poetic words of Gabriel Lidman: “I believe in the pleasure of the flesh, and the irreparable loneliness of the soul.”

It’s a very atmospheric film. Dreyer uses the flashback once more as a narrative resource, but with Henning Bendtsen’s overexposed photography, he truly reaches a stage of reverie and the film becomes something more: a real daydream. The film was shot with very elaborate camera movements resulting in long takes and almost no close-ups, a rare thing in the work of Dreyer. But it’s the refined purity and the nude visual aesthetic that Dreyer used constantly that make this film so powerful. He always strived for simplicity, where true meaning lies. Gertrud was his last masterpiece. It won the FIPRESCI prize at the Venice film festival.

“It is a pleasure making films, and a great experience. I have been asked to do many other things such as direct opera at La Scala and The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, but I’ve declined. ‘Cobbler, stick to your last.’ I am a filmmaker and I will die one.”

Works quoted in this article: Films on Carl Theodor Dreyer, Cinèastes de notre temps: Carl Th. Dreyer (1965) by Eric Rohmer, Carl Th. Dreyer (1966) by Jørgen Roos, Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (1995) by Torben Skjødt Jensen.

Author Bio: Jorge Díez is a 24-year-old cinephile from Mexico. He doesn’t have any formal studies on film and just watches as many movies as he can and read as much as possible to learn about the great works in the history of cinema. The directors he most admire are Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Dreyer and Bergman.