If, like me, you are apt to approach arthouse cinema in a cynical or self-conscious cast of mind, the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer presents itself as the ultimate stress test for the question that you must contemplate afresh with every film: is this stuff profound, or is it pap? Dreyer is a sombre Dane. All of his works are in black-and-white. They do not contain many jokes, for they deal with Weighty Themes: faith and doubt, love and betrayal, suffering unto death. At times you will be rapt, drawn into the hollow of immutable space that Dreyer has miraculously succeeded in rendering by means of this oh-so-ephemeral medium; then later, in some achingly protracted shot that seems like it may never end, you may catch a glimpse of yourself from the outside and suddenly feel like the fool you are for finding anything deep in all this highfalutin dross. “No other artist awakens in us quite so searing a sense of the rapture and the sorrow of our human transience amid eternity,” wrote screenwriter David Rudkin for the BFI. In an article about his final work, Gertrud, French film magazine Cinéma65 was less flattering: “Dreyer has gone from serenity to senility… Not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos.” Opinions are polarised, then, about the great man and his work, but whether he intrigues or repels us, Dreyer’s oeuvre looms like a mighty peak over the history of cinema, ageless and unyielding and never quite out of view: the Matterhorn of movie masters. Many say the view from the top is staggering. The real question is: does it justify the climb?
The answer for at least one film, the monumental La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, is unequivocal: absolutely. All true cinema buffs hold to the unsurpassable triumph of René Falconetti’s lead performance as to an article of faith and, tediously, I can’t help but agree. In Jeanne D’Arc, close-up shots of faces dominate: Joan’s tortured visage, which fluctuates from naïve and frightened to nigh-on fanatical, provides an anchoring point amid the sea of craggy-featured clerics who stare at, sneer about and even spit on her. By contrast, the spaces in which the scenes unfold seem indeterminate given constant quick cutting and highly stylised camerawork: faces, not rooms, are the site of the film’s main action. Dreyer disliked having his silent works set to music, and though most versions you will see do have a score, the images retain an unimpeachable primacy, remarkably realising Joan’s interior struggle via a medium fated to depict only exteriors. This, ultimately, is Dreyer’s deepest achievement: to show how the things that we often assume take place out of sight, in the depths of the soul, can subtly register on the surface. Between them, Dreyer and Falconetti succeed in crafting a lasting testament to the empathic entreaties that emanate from the human face.
Dreyer’s other works may not hit the heights of Jean D’Arc, but that’s hardly a damning indictment. Vampyr is a hugely rewarding oddity, half vampire story, half special effects showcase, and with a main character who wouldn’t look out of place in a Kafka novel. The experimentation with camera tricks here foregrounds Dreyer’s formal innovation and playfulness, in a way that the other more sober demonstrations of technical command don’t quite manage. ‘Playful’ is certainly not the word for Ordet, a po-faced religious drama set on a rural farm in Denmark. Nonetheless there is a quiet power in this story, whose various strands show what a varied range of beliefs can emerge from what at first seems a stiflingly Christian milieu: good-willed piety, factional dogmatism, and most striking of all, the two poles of atheism and saintly conviction. Henning Bendtsen’s black-and-white cinematography is potent and rich, and seems to utilise the full spectrum of shades, from the dense shadows that linger in the corners of rooms to the bright whites of bleached walls: it put me in mind of an Ansel Adams photograph, recast on a domestic scale.
Gertrud, the story of an idealist’s attempt to stay true to her conception of love, is the worst of the bunch. Joan’s self-sacrifice was a terrible consequence of the savagery of the church and the steadfastness of her own faith, but Gertrud is that most abominable creature: a volitional martyr. Granted, you might argue that she must contend with a life cruelly circumscribed by the expectations of Sweden’s patriarchal bourgeoisie, but from the very start, her options seem much more open than most. From scene to treacly scene she drifts in a state of unencumbered ennui, confronting her husband, her lover, and her downtrodden old flame with the same far-off look as she douses them in high-flown proclamations about her hoped-for love. Dreyer’s takes, already long and slow in films like Ordet, have by this stage in his career calcified into effective tableaux. This would all be less of a problem if the film kept some distance from Gertrud herself, but the sense that I was somehow being willed to admire her ponderous pontificating asphyxiated all goodwill I might have harboured towards it. If you defy my judgement and decide to embark upon Gertrud, I would suggest following it with Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert as a purgative: it’s a much more knowing portrait of idealistic love and ends with a perfectly judged paean to serendipity.
Dreyer, then, is a director worth grappling with if you want a glimpse of what happens to cinema when it aspires towards high art, for better or for worse. In his work he strove to produce not painstaking accounts of the real world, but hypostatised art-things; decades of dewy-eyed adulation might have made him a mountain in his own right, but really, he always perched upon a chilly peak. At its best, this lofty viewpoint gave rise to Jeanne D’Arc, a self-contained exercise in sublimity which, its silence notwithstanding, makes an eloquent case for the moving image as a purveyor not of representations but manifest psychological realities. At other times, though, all that staring down from on high starts to feel a bit impersonal: who are those tiny figures far below, and what do their inscrutable gestures mean? Like almost all great artists, Dreyer worked within certain parameters: there are things his films can do, and things they cannot. I can’t say whether they’ll do anything for you, but with a potential payoff as significant as this one, you’d be a fool not to try and find out.
This is part of the series ‘Films in Translation’, in which writers explore films from a range of different languages and cultures. Please message Gracie Bolt if you are interested in contributing to the series!