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Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Art House
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Carl Th. Dreyer
Bottom Line: 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s status as one of the Twentieth Century’s masters of the cinematic form (a Rembrandt of the moving image) is still best exemplified by his iconic 1927 landmark masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, with its lingering reputation as the movie that succeeded in significantly advancing the language of the medium of film on the eve of the advent of sound. Its startling commitment to finding and expressing on celluloid the pain behind the human emotional truth that lay buried in the historic court transcripts used as a source for Dreyer’s account of Joan’s trial and execution in 1431, was ably realised with an aesthetic purity of visual form and composition encapsulated by Dreyer’s use of an experimental film grammar, enabling the director to present at the time the most convincing and heartrending depiction of inner life in extremis yet to be set before audiences. The film’s honest, unflinching documentation of the contours of the human face (‘a land that one never tires of exploring’), capturing all Joan’s anguish, ecstasy and suffering in close-up by way of the ground-breaking performance of tragic stage actress lead Renée Jeanne Falconetti, brought to a close the silent era, and signalled the beginning of the next phase in cinema’s transformation into a serious, poetic art form, just as capable of traversing the vast internal terrain of human experience as its was in fulfilling the fleeting pleasures of conventional narrative entertainment. The film was also the culmination of some ten years of artistic development for Dreyer, in a career that had thus far produced eight other movies in fairly rapid succession, each very different in style to the last, yet each steadily building towards “Joan’s …” earth-bound yet visionary sense of naturalism and psychological verisimilitude -- qualities which Dreyer was able to coax into being by the stripping away and removal of theatrical artifices such as cosmetics and showy set décors (although this can be set against the movie’s quite sizable budget for historically accurate set reconstructions), and with his willingness to breach the established customs of film syntax in the service of a wider artistic conception of truth.

In films as different from each other as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and Dreyer’s next work, the low-budget, privately financed “Vampyr”, the Dreyer aesthetic is one deeply informed by a yearning to capture some conception of an inner realism: an ideal that can transcend the demands of what strict objective reality usually looks like when reconstructed on film. The works are grounded in their appreciation of historical detail, yet bleached of all distractions that might detract from Dreyer’s attempt to illuminate the contingencies of the human condition; they often feel austere and starkly minimalistic, yet are imbued with an ‘inner light’ which brings with it an elegiac, lyrical quality of profound existential recognition in the viewer. These are films situated in specific times, places and historical milieus, but which seem to strive for a representation of the natural world and of the social environments in which their characters have been formed, that emphasises the essential timelessness of those inner conflicts and torments that afflict people under a wide range of cultural conditions. Often recognised as products of Dreyer’s own troubled background, and informed by his illegitimacy (born Karl Neilson in Copenhagen, Denmark, and raised from birth in a series of foster homes after the death of his birth mother, Dreyer ended up living with austere foster parents who gave him both his name, and an emotionally distant childhood along with it) -- they are works quite often linked with a severe religious sensibility, suffused with a sense of immanence and ineffability. Yet there is a compassionate humanistic core to Dreyer’s meditative ruminations on the plight of human existence that lends the films a specific universality, particularly  apparent in the director’s abiding interest in the question of female identity and its formation and transformation, often under the most exacting conditions of patriarchal pressure.

In this new, limited edition Blu-ray box set from the BFI, we are presented with a collection of Dreyer’s work that draws mostly from the second half of his career, containing three out of five of the artist’s very greatest and most important masterpieces, and all but one of his short films from the 1940s. If it’s in some ways a lopsided selection, then that’s only because Dreyer’s was an unusually lopsided career, marked by a flurry of activity in its first decade followed by a thirty year stretch in which only a handful of films were completed at all, though most in their own very different ways were to prove major achievements. After distancing himself from his foster parents in early adulthood an aptitude for the written word saw Dreyer flourish for a time in the world of journalism, developing a skill set that eventually led to him entering the Danish motion picture industry,where he worked initially as a script and title-card writer for Nordisk Film before branching out into editing, finally coming to the director’s chair in 1918 with his first feature film, a conventional melodrama entitled “Præsidenten” (“The Chief Justice”), a saga that also broaches the vexed, and understandably very personal subject for Dreyer, of illegitimacy.

 Highly Influenced by the innovations of W.D. Griffith in this and other early films of his from the silent era such as “Leaves from Satan's Book” (1921), which combines narratives from four distinct historical periods much as Griffith’s “Intolerance” had earlier done in 1916 (although Dreyer’s film did so without the interleafing of episodes that had marked the American director’s experimental approach to narrative construction), this fertile and relatively productive period in Dreyer’s filmography looks in retrospect quite variable and inauspicious when set beside the daring stylistic brilliance of later works. The first real sign of genius came with his third film, “The Parson’s Widow” (1920), a semi-comic tale about a young pastor in Seventeenth Century rural Denmark who, fresh from the seminary, finds he has inherited his predecessor’s widow as well as the parsonage assigned him by the church authorities of the district … a development which compels him to pretend that his intended fiancée is really his sister in order to secure the position. In this film the luminescent pastoral setting -- the film was shot in Norway, just outside Lillehammer -- provides an authentic sense of presence and an emotional expressive depth and beauty that helps to set the scene for Dreyer’s later but much more sombre triumphs, such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” itself. Neither of these films are part of this set, but the latter is also available on Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema.

Of the nine apprentice silent films that Dreyer made during the ten year period between 1918 and 1928 in Denmark, Norway, France and Germany, only one of them is included in this box set collection, effectively functioning as the representative of that steady progress Dreyer was making towards the crowning iconic glory that was to be “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Placed back in its original context of the time, that film, 1925’s “Master of the House” (the original Danish title, “Du skal ære din hustru”, translates as “Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife”) was a big departure from the interior fin de siècleexpressionistic flourishes of Dreyer’s Ufa produced gay love drama “Mikaël” which had come just before it (1924); but it makes an elegant, perfectly understated introduction to the thematic Dreyer subject matter of female repression and the director’s implicit exploration of the societal and cultural pressures surrounding it, which in this film are conveyed by the simple, purely stated realism of a truthfully rendered urban domestic setting to provide a powerful context for the illumination if the inner spirit of the film’s central characters.

Based on a play by Sven Rindhom, the story of “Master of the House” is so simple it can be summed up in a few sentences, but as always with Dreyer, it is in the execution of the detail that the true meaning and beauty of the film resides. Ida (Astrid Holm) is a dutiful, tender, hard-working Danish housewife, devoted to her stiff-necked husband Viktor (Johannes Meyer) and their three children -- eldest daughter Karen (Karin Nellemose), schoolboy son Dreng (Aage Hoffman) and the couple’s infant, Barnet (Byril Harvig). However, losing his business has turned Viktor into a tyrannical husband & father who makes the family’s life a total misery, particularly for his wife. Although she is up at the crack of dawn each morning in order to have the house prepared and breakfast ready by the time Viktor gets up to go to work, nothing Ida does is ever good enough, and withering contempt and constant complaints are her only reward for her diligence and patient forbearance. Viktor’s doughty former nursemaid, known affectionately to the Frandsen family as ‘Mads’ (Mathilde Nielsen), continues to visit the impoverished household (a cramped two-room flat in a city apartment building) to help out with chores, and is disgusted by what she sees of the treatment Ida has had to put up with from her ungrateful, self-centred spouse. Joining forces with Ida’s mother Alvilda (Clara Schønfeld), the two elderly women set out to teach Viktor a lesson, and make him aware of just what he has neglected. After persuading Ida to call her husband’s bluff when he threatens to end the marriage if Mads and Alvilda aren’t gone when he gets back from the local cafe, Ida moves out of the flat without informing Viktor of her whereabouts, and Mads takes over the running of the household -- forcing the pampered patriarch to look after himself rather than rely on an overburdened woman to do everything for him. Although Viktor at first sets out to defeat the plan, and tries to wrangle his wife’s location from the couple’s compliant daughter, gradually Mads’ regime of domestic attrition begins to wear down his stubborn masculine pride as he starts to realise the error of his ways.

Despite the seemingly trivial nature of this domestic comedy of contemporary manners, this is a film that already finds Dreyer reaching out for the kernel of emotional truth inside the material, expunging artifice and emphasising naturalness and realism wherever possible. Unable to shoot the film in an actual urban city flat as he’d originally planned, the director instead had one constructed in the studio – not as the usual open-walled sets made up separately side-by-side, as would be expected from a normal studio floor plan of an apartment, but as an actual functioning copy of a real flat with full gas and water supply plumbed in! The film begins by following and observing Ida and Karen as they carry out their morning routine consisting of the same mundane chores enacted each day around the house. The authenticity in the quotidian details of the scene -- of the gestures and movements comprising these familiar acts of domestic drudgery – anticipate the stylistic traits of the neo-realist school, but Dreyer seems to be aiming for more than the simple documentary recreation of the rituals of an ordinary impoverished household … Instead, each routine chore and every facial expression of the small cast of characters concentrated in this tiny location, contributes to the poetic idealisation of the relationships that make up the family unit in crisis, and which are given the little context they need by brief, almost subliminal cutaways to external action taking place outside the flat.

For a director whose work has garnered him a reputation as an austere and sombre stylist, “Master of the House” is unexpectedly funny in places: the curmudgeonly, grandmotherly Mads, hunched over her darning, has a face like a wrinkled walnut – her withering glare signifying the truth that the rigidly stern-faced Viktor, belligerently puffing pipe smoke at his wife’s pet birds as they flutter about their cage, will eventually prove no match for the matriarch’s sisterly cunning, despite his raging tantrums and blustering threats. Ida, meanwhile, is the most forthright and uncomplicated representation of Dreyer’s virtuous but unjustly persecuted oppressed woman: almost apologetically understanding of her overbearing ogre of a husband’s mistreatment of her, but suffering internal grief as a result of it nonetheless, as is revealed when she reads aloud the definition of the word ‘tyrant’ while helping her son with his homework, and cannot stop herself bursting into tears as the full import of the words sink in: a simple, unassuming narrative method of illustrating the internal emotional strain and poverty of her position of domestic servitude.

 If the first half of the film is all about women coming together to help each other over the hurdles created by the social expectations foisted upon them by patriarchy, the second concentrates on the painstaking job of redeeming Viktor, documenting the softening and the gradual emotional maturation brought about in him after his exposure to the feminised remnants of nature that still play a part in this urban city environment. His wife’s caged birds become companions he can take pleasure in because they remind him of her, and looking after them thus contributes to his enlightenment -- along with Mads’ efforts to drum home just how much he has previously depended upon Ida. In contrast to the later films in which Dreyer also tackled the subject of women who are at odds with the norms of society because of their inner natures, this one is as light and optimistic as it is simple in its execution, the spare physical comedy that is wrought from everyday gestures and situations becoming endowed with the visionary qualities that pertain to George Schnéevoigt’s crisp cinematography, which brings a crystal clarity to the depiction of their execution.

“Master of the House” makes a fitting opener for this box set, in that the film’s success in France is what led the Société Général de Films to approach Dreyer to make his next project an historical drama rooted in French history, resulting in “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. But though now considered a masterpiece and a landmark in the technical and artistic development of silent cinema, the latter film’s commercial failure led to a five year gap between it and Dreyer’s next feature, his experimental and technically innovative supernatural  sound production, “Vampyr” -- by which time the world of film was moving away from the ‘patronage’ model, which had enabled Dreyer to retain complete artistic control of his work thus far in his career, and more towards the industrialised business model which was an anathema to someone of Dreyer’s individualistic artistic temperament. When the privately financed “Vampyr” also proved a commercial flop, Dreyer found him-self unable to get another project off the ground for a full ten years, which means that we have to leap from 1925 to 1943 between disc one and disc two of this collection in order to find a film that seems to have made little impact at the time of its release, but which has since come to be considered the quintessential summation of everything that is ‘Dreyer-esque’ -- the haunting, beguiling, mesmerizingly beautiful yet horrifying “Day of Wrath” (“Vredens Dag”, 1943).

Once again, the film tackles the ambiguities, inequalities and iniquities affecting women living in strict patriarchal societies, but this time lensed through the prism of a form of realism much heightened in tone in order to portray simultaneously both the austere puritanical asceticism of 17th century Denmark, and the aching longing of the inner passions which direct and ultimately undo the film’s main characters -- the young Anne Pedersdotter (Lisbeth Movin) and her much older husband, church notary Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose).  Karl Andersson’s strikingly stylised black-and-white cinematography lends their world of sunlit rectories and plain white church cloisters a hypnotic poetic veracity that becomes almost abstract as the actors move with their slow, precise, balletic rhythms across sets artfully constructed with the utmost care to be as realistic a representation of the period as possible, the camera panning, tracking and dollying with exquisitely measured grace to capture in patterns of filtered light the shifting eddies of emotional trauma welling up beneath the surface of a strictly ordered Lutheran lifestyle.

Once again the human face becomes the window into the inner-being of people who live in a world haunted by the unquestioned legitimacy of witchcraft and the reality of the influence of ‘the evil one’, where a desired love object can be summoned like magic at a call in the dead of night, and where a storm signals the unruly sexual passions of a woman whose awakening desires lead her to wish her husband dead with such vehemence that the desire becomes the reality. In the film’s graphic depiction of the ordeal of those condemned as witches by the church authorities of a small rural community; in its contrast between the impassive rationality of the condemning male-centred church establishment (captured in slow, leftward moving tracking shots of Rembrandtian interiors, where rows of clergy observe and document the horrors of the torture chamber with a calm insouciance) and in the vibrant openness of the natural world, which becomes the landscape of the outsider ‘wise women’ who, like snowy-haired, apple-cheeked natural healer Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) at the beginning of the film, are the subjects of a society’s doctrinaire suspicions and resentments -- we also see the liniments of the folk horror genre being sketched in outline, as well as the interior psychological dramas of the Bergman-esque art film.

Dreyer liked to work from material already written and designed for the stage, and “Day of Wrath” is no exception. It’s based on a 1909 stage play by Norwegian novelist and playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen, constructed from the basics of a real-life case in which the young wife of a 17th century witch-burning pastor was later herself accused, tried and condemned as a witch after her husband’s death from natural causes. Although Dreyer’s films were often dismissed for their languid pacing, and considered stagy and dull by some critics of his time, in fact, as his later champions rightfully pointed out, his art lay in his ability to make psychologically interior dramas live on the screen, sculpting with the mechanics of cinema, in camera movement and with the expert handling of light and dark, to give expression to the inner dramas and conflicts that result from the story’s minimalistic forms of exterior action. Here a young, inexperienced woman finds herself made the second wife to a kindly but bookishly devout pastor. However, Absalon’s fiercely puritanical mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) is keenly attuned to the pitfalls inherent in an elderly yet unworldly older man such as he (of a decidedly academic if humanistic bent), making a wife of someone as young and skittish as Anne -- and when Absalon’s dutiful grown up son from his first marriage, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), returns from travel abroad, her suspicions prove themselves correct as the two (who are of the same age) embark on a secret tryst that is both incestuous and unfaithful.                 

But this is a world in which everyone, even those who are the accused victims of institutionalised persecution, believe in the reality of evil as a destructive force in people’s lives. “Day of Wrath” goes beyond mere condemnation of state sanctioned bigotry or society’s  intolerance of the other: it brings centre stage the reality of the lived experience behind the unforgivingly strict beliefs that rule this society for those who live in and who are consequently conditioned by their internalisation, and which hold sway over virtually all minds; Dreyer is able to call up the logic behind their certainties with a vivid life that has such force in it that one can actually understand and almost forgive the horror that is inherent to scenes such as that in which a row of angelic choir boys sing a lilting hymn of heavenly joy as a terrified old woman, bound to a ladder, is plunged screaming onto a blazing pyre before them (the kindling for which we’d earlier seen being collected in the rapturously idyllic countryside that forms the backdrop to Martin and Anne falling in love) – a scene enacted in front of a crowd of onlookers who come away feeling not appalled or disturbed but cleansed and purified by the spectacle! When Anne, earlier in the film, instinctively harbours the piteous wise woman, the fleeing Herlofs Marte, in the rectory loft – the plot thickens as the old witch (she does not seek to deny the accusation) apparently also has secret knowledge of Anne’s mother’s involvement in witchcraft which was ignored by Absalon so that he could make the young daughter his new wife -- Anne’s eventual fate is already effectively sealed, partially by her overhearing such claims during Marte’s tearful confession. The only way Anne can make sense of the very mixed feelings of resentment and desire which give her life meaning while in the company of Martin, but which make her unnecessarily cruel towards her elderly, well-meaning husband, is to cast her unbridled emotions in the same terms as those who will later condemn her for having them: using the language of witchcraft, sin, and temptation brought about by her collaboration with the schemes of the Devil to characterise her burgeoning awareness of her own womanhood.  

Poul Schierbeck’s music score mixes pious, sombre & deathly gallows hymns with the sorrowful airy beauty of traditional sounding folk melodies, as light pours in on semi-darkened, sparely furnished interiors and the summer countryside blazes and hums with life in supernatural sympathy with the natural urges of the two lovers engaging in their sinful behaviour … Yet, just as both invest their surroundings with a greater significance while interpreting them very differently (the reflection of a birch try in a river is imagined by the remorseful Martin to be bending over in sorrow but leaning forward with longing by the passionate Anne) so we the viewers are caught in a tide of conflicting emotions and ambiguities as we survey this world in which cruelty and torture are justified theologically by ‘reasonable’ men of great learning and refinement, but in which human emotion also really does seem to carry with it the psychic charge of a supernatural  bewitchment. The only unyielding truth is the overweening dominance of death in this world -- as signified by the film’s powerful closing silhouetted image of a looming crucifix that gradually dissolves into the shadow of a grave marker. 

This crushing fatalistic sense of spiritual doom operating in the midst of the lush carnality of nature would come to pre-eminence in the work of Ingmar Bergman; and a concern with matters of faith, belief and the workings of God in the corporeal plane have also come to be seen as being just as essential ingredients to proceedings through much of Dreyer’s work -- understandably when “Day of Wrath” is viewed in the context of  a film such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, but less so when it is considered that Dreyer seems to have possessed few religious sensibilities of his own. Perhaps the perception of there being a connection between the religious sentiments of these two Scandinavian directors is best borne out in Dreyer’s next feature, 1955’s “Ordet” (“The Word”): again, it’s based on a stage play, this time by a Danish Lutheran priest called Kaj Munk, who was murdered in 1944 by the Gestapo for opposing the Nazi occupation of Denmark. It had already been adapted for film once before, in 1943, by Swedish director Gustaf Molander, but it is Dreyer’s version that is best remembered today, primarily for its highly stylised minimalistic technique which is invested in the director’s delicate approach to lighting, composition and the rhythms of camera movement, privileging their formal importance above that of plot or narrative development in order to convey the film’s meaning through lengthy takes, some lasting up to eight minutes, which compel an intense study of the ensemble cast of characters – their gestures, movements, speech patterns – and recalls the approach taken in “Master of the House” while refining it with the stripped down style Dreyer had been evolving towards for much of his career.

Shot in four months, two spent in the studio and the rest in the rural West Jutland setting where Munk had once served as a village priest, Dreyer, in close collaboration with his cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, spent every morning working out the complex camera movements and lighting arrangements for each set-up in exacting detail as the actors rehearsed and blocked their movements -- then shot the scenes at the end of the day in one continuous take. This is a film firmly rooted in the perfunctory material reality of everyday life and in the objects that fill it, set in a remote region of Denmark animated by its characters’ tumultuous inner-lives: their doubts, their concerns, their conflicts and beliefs. Religion goes to the heart of the way these characters think about and respond to events taking place in their simple rustic surroundings, and to each other: we find ourselves to begin with in a large, sparsely furnished farmhouse (the clean white rooms recall the rectory of “Day of Wrath” or the church courtrooms of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” more than they do the domestic living spaces of “Master of the House”). It is owned by the Borgan clan: a pious family of conventionally Lutheran church goers who are enduring something of a crisis of belief as the film starts. Elderly widowed patriarch  Morten  (Henrik Malberg) regrets pushing his most academically inclined son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) into preparing for the priesthood, since his theological readings have led him to study Kierkegaard, with the result that he has been driven completely insane and now believes himself to be Jesus Christ! Meanwhile, Morten’s eldest son has lost his faith in God but continues to live happily with his devout wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), who is imminently expecting his third child; while the youngest son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of the local shoemaker, Petersen (Ejner Federspiel), but faces resistance to the relationship from the heads of both families since the Petersens belong to a fundamentalist sect that does not recognise any other denomination of Christianity but its own, and demands conversion to its particular form of worship while preaching damnation of the soul for all who refuse, including the Borgans.

The film seems at first, then, principally about the clash between differing forms of faith, or those who lack it. On the periphery of the central struggle between Morten and Petersen over the suitability of their offspring for marriage to the other, we also have a modern-minded priest (Ove Rud), who comes to the village as its new pastor harbouring no belief that miracles still operate in the modern world, confining their influence to the pages of the Bible only; and there's a rationalistic Doctor who attends Inger during complications over her pregnancy, and politely points out to Morten that it’s probably more appropriate for him to give thanks to his (the doctor’s) knowledge and skill for Inger’s recovery rather than God! But far from being a dour exercise in theological navel-gazing, the tone is actually pretty light, and there’s a subtle, deadpan strain of both physical and satirical comedy, rarely if ever associated with Dreyer, running throughout the first three acts. None of these characters is presented as unlikable or unprincipled, even as the film pokes fun at the absurdity of the firmness of their convictions about matters that are essentially unknowable. Even though Morten and Petersen offend each other, and at one point physically clash over Petersen’s claim that Inger’s pregnancy complications are God’s punishment for his erroneous beliefs, Petersen is soon shown to be remorseful and sympathetic when tragedy actually does strike the Morten family for real, despite the families’ previous irreconcilable differences. Even the non-religious Doctor is made to seem a perfectly decent sort of fellow rather than the hateful intellectual snob that's more usually the lot of atheist characters in films about faith. Meanwhile, the whole subplot involving the disturbed Johannes’ conviction that he is Jesus reborn has a gently absurdist lilt in the humour that’s built into it, with Preben Lerdorff Rye (previously Martin in “Day of Wrath”) drifting in and out of scenes in the farmhouse and its surrounding environs as though utterly divorced from the earthly events taking place all around him, while having interactions with people who often don’t have pre-knowledge of his condition, thus leading to several comic scenes rooted in the resulting social awkwardness. This light-hearted, optimistic vein of humour is not a style that’s particularly associated with Dreyer, the so-called sombre specialist in protestant handwringing!

The point at which “Ordet” departs from most other ordinary films that might’ve dealt with such subject matter elsewhere, lies with the sheer sense of strangeness and otherworldliness Dreyer’s precision of technique instils into its every frame, despite the film’s solid depiction of ordinary working lives. The system of formal rules about long takes and the use of camera pans and dolly shots that Dreyer imposes on the material, combines with the tightly choreographed performances and the camera and lighting’s constant precision tracking of the physical movements of the actors, to create a peculiar, detached, almost hypnotic effect in which each character seems trapped in the subjective viewpoint imposed by their discrete perceptions (‘unalterably alone, in existential solitude that only love can mitigate’); indeed, it sometimes feels as though the performers  themselves must have been hypnotised before a take, as they were by Werner Herzog when he made “Heart of Glass”. The astonishing effect of this is to create the illusion of a closed, interior world of ordinary objects and situations becoming suffused in a mysterious light of immanence that we alone as viewers have access to. When the tone turns darker through tragedy in the final act, those hypnotic internal rhythms continue to build to a climax that’s embodied in a sense of a revelatory moment of the miraculous unfurling itself to us on the screen, just as it manifests to the rest of the film’s characters also, even though nothing that involves special effects (of even the most basic in-camera variety innovated for “Vampyr”) has taken place … only the twitch of a hand in a whitewashed room drenched in a halo of light. The film’s naive Christian wish-fulfilment in which a ‘mad man’ prophet is able to bring about the impossible with the help of the faith of a trusting child (but only after he has finally woken from his delusions), may not play particularly convincingly to a modern secular audience, but the magic embodied in Dreyer’s absolute mastery of the cinematic form certainly still does.

This totally uncompromising attitude to the refinement and paring down of form and technique to their bare essentials makes the last film in this set the most divisive in Carl Th. Dreyer’s entire filmography. “Gertrud” was adapted by Dreyer from a 1906 play by the Swedish novelist and playwright Hjalmar Söderberg. It came a full nine years after “Ordet”, in 1964, and was Dreyer’s final film. Before and after it he attempted to complete a great many other projects, each of which failed to come to fruition, including a version of Euripides' Medea (Dreyer’s screenplay was later filmed by Lars von Trier for Danish TV) and a long mooted picture based on the life of Jesus. “Gertrud” is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is centred on the efforts of a middle-aged but still beautiful former opera singer, played by Danish actress Nina Pens Rode, to pursue female independence along with exacting ideas about how love between the sexes ought to be conducted with equal regard for the feelings of both parties. However the stifling, upper-bourgeois environment of Stockholm’s high society makes her quest for perfect idealised romantic love a hopeless one, and the film ends with a flash forward to an elderly Gertrud, now living alone in France, stoically reflecting on how her past refusal to compromise on the belief that love is all that means anything in life, has led her to her current circumstances of Spartanly lived solitude, while remaining defiant in her conviction that to follow this path was always the only option for her.

This is then, yet another film, like “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Day of Wrath”, about a woman who finds herself sharply at odds with the patriarchal society entrapping her, yet it’s also understandable why so many find this iteration of the theme so much harder to appreciate. Unlike in Dreyer’s other films dealing sympathetically with the depiction of the experience of the marginalised female, no-one is exactly threatening to burn Gertrud at the stake here: she comes from an exceptionally privileged, rarefied world of bourgeois entitlement, and the relentless probing of her dissatisfied inner feelings and romantic yearnings and expectations, conducted in such pseudo-poetic nineteenth century-style dialogue as is showcased throughout this two hour film (which consists of what amounts to only a handful of single lengthy shots set in posh drawing rooms, summer parks and lavish function halls, etc.) seems to offer little in the way of the emotional heft that was achieved by Falconetti or Lisbeth Movin in Dreyer’s depiction of their life and death struggles with faith and love. Yet “Gertrud” remains a film that was best described by the British film critic Penelope Housten as: ‘an enigmatically modern film with the deceptive air of a staidly old fashioned one’. Its mannered staginess becomes Dreyer’s primary means of abstractly suggesting the stultifying confinement of the upper-class world in which Gertrud finds herself attempting to attain her impossible dreams of a shared passion between perfectly attuned individuals. In each lengthy sequence Gertrude is shown having an extended dialogue with one of four male interlocutors: her lawyer husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), who’s about to be made a minister in the current Swedish Government; Erland (Baard Owe), the young pianist lover she is about to leave Gustav for after confessing the affair; Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode) a famous poet who used to be Gertrud’s beau before she married, and is now about to be honoured for his contribution to Swedish culture at an official function  being attended by both Gertrud and her husband; and Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye), a psychiatrist friend whose studies in free will interest Gertrud as an antidote to her father’s adherence to the Lutheran doctrine of pre-destination. The film, then, on a strictly surface level, is nothing more than a series of lengthy conversations shown being conducted in each case between two people in exquisite period surroundings, often filmed in static medium shot for minutes at a time. Dreyer seems deliberately to emphasis the story’s theatrical origins, arranging the actors stiffly in refined statuesque poses that suggest the qualities of nineteenth century portraiture on a series of soberly dressed but tastefully elegant sets -- a flat minimalist style that led one contemporary critic to deride “Gertrud” for being ‘not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos’! But this is a film that is the ultimate example of the simplicity the director had been pursuing for most of his career, and although simplicity is the effect, to achieve it required all the lighting skills and complex technical knowledge at the disposal of cinematographer Henning Bendtsen: his camera continuously tracks the characters relentlessly around the contours of the large studio sets or exterior park locations, always maintaining the figures in perfectly lit compositions even when they are mobile, until they pause once more in fixed poses to resume their pontificating on love and desire. The effect is to make it feels like Gertrud and her failed paramours are constantly attempting to escape the strictures of societal expectation being constructed around them, but each time finding themselves falling into yet another, minutely arranged and exquisitely posed portrait shot, like mannequins frozen in an existential pall of fusty melancholia.

Also included in HD along with “Gertrud” on disc three of the set there are the seven short films that Dreyer made in the 1940s while on hiatus from feature directing. Despite many of them being merely public information films -- such as 1942’s “Good Mothers” (which promotes the activities of the Mother’s Aid Institution, offering advice to unmarried women who fall pregnant) and “The Fight Against Cancer” (1947) (made for the Danish Cancer Society to encourage the public to seek medical help if they suspect they might be suffering cancer-related symptoms) – several of them have a claim to consideration alongside Dreyer’s features as important examples of the director’s finest art. “The Village Church” (1947) is a study of the history of the architectural development of Denmark’s church buildings, starting with simple 800 year-old wood-built structures and leading up to the advent of Romanesque and Gothic styles which adorn the stone buildings that dominated the work of later successive Catholic and Protestant regimes in the early modern era. Dreyer and his photographer Preben Frank mix detailed studies of relevant architectural features with dramatic period reconstructions intended to suggest something of the changing face of worship down the ages, creating a rich tapestry of documentary fact and imaginative speculation that can be best interpreted as a concise illustration of Dreyer’s way of imbuing the brute facts of existence with an inner transcendent quality. “They Caught The Ferry” (1948) is perhaps Dreyer’s most famous short – a road safety film warning about the dangers of excessive speed that aspires to poetic terror, based on a short story by Danish author Johannes V Jenson. It’s a simple tale about a couple racing through the Danish countryside in order to catch a ferry. They attempt to overtake the cackling, hollow-eyed driver of a mysterious black car painted with a livery of white bones, only to find themselves embarking on a very different ferry journey … across the river Styx! Once again, Dreyer approaches this fantastical tale in a very realistic manner right up until the mythic payoff in the final seconds. He insisted that the motorcycle driven by the two protagonist (played by a stuntman and his wife) actually travelled  for real at the same rate it was meant to be going at in the film, rather than employing the usual method of under-cranking the camera to suggest the high speed. This is probably the fastest-paced film Dreyer ever made, as well -- with one critic wryly pointing out that it contains more shots in its brief 12 minutes than are contained in all two hours of “Gertrud”.

Other shorts included here: an appreciation of Denmark’s famous 19th century sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1949); a visual poem dedicated to the construction of Storstrøm Bridge (1950); and a 9 minute documentary about Kronborg Castle, “A Castle Within A Castle” (1954).

All films and shorts have been restored in Denmark for HD presentation. “Master of the House” is available in versions featuring a choice of Danish or English inter-titles, and there is also a short 4 minute restoration comparison film highlighting the improvement made after the 2010 digital restoration. “Day of Wrath” on disc two comes with an excellent commentary by Danish film historian Casper Tyberg and an insightful video essay by Tag Gallagher called “The Cross”, which explores its stylistic traits and themes. Dreyer’s cinematographer on “Odet” and “Gertrud”, Henning Bendsten, explains the development of the director’s late style in a 35 minute Danish documentary film, “Ordet Og Lyset” shot in 2001; while disc three includes an 8 minute BBC archive interview, conducted with Dreyer in 1965 to promote the release of “Gertrud”, and a 29 minute German documentary on the making of this, Dreyer’s last film, which was shot in 1994.

In addition to the three Blu-ray discs in this set, there is a fourth DVD featuring the comprehensive 93 minute Dreyer biography “My Metier” produced by Danish filmmaker  Torben Skjødt Jensen in 1995, and available here with a choice of Danish language voice over (with English language subtitles) or English language voice over.  It features interviews with surviving cast and crew from Dreyer’s last three features, and also the granddaughter of Falconetti on her iconic relative’s performance and life; and there is a further 80 minutes’ worth of outtakes with more interview footage also included alongside it. An archive of materials from Danish television (13 minutes); footage from the personal archive of Dreyer collaborator Jørgen Roos (8 minutes); Henning Camre’s audio introduction to the films of Carl Th. Dreyer, originally presented as part of a BFI retrospective of Dreyer films recorded before a screening of “Day of Wrath” at the National Film Theatre in 2003; and an audio recording of a talk by Ove Brusendorff of the Danish Film Museum on the directorial vision of Dreyer, recorded sometime after the release of “Ordet”, rounds off a comprehensive extras package that provides a complete overview of Dreyer’s craft for novices and cineastes alike -- all topped off, of course, with an excellent booklet featuring numerous essays and biographical writings from Casper Tyberg, Philip Kemp, Ilona Halbertstadt, Philip Horne, Tom Milne and Nick Wrigley, together ensuring that, In this attractive limited edition set, the BFI has produced an essential purchase for anyone with an appreciation of film history and the development of cinema as an art form. 


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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