Saturday, June 5, 2010

#28: Carl Theodor Dreyer

- "There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration."

There will be entries where I have seen very few films from the director, but those select few have had such an impact on me that I must include them in this countdown. Carl Th. Dreyer is a unique example of this issue, though, because he doesn’t have a great number of films easily available to watch. I have seen what I have been able to acquire and all five movies that I have seen have been devastating. As someone who initially had trouble getting into silent cinema, it was Dreyer that made me a believer. If it wasn’t for watching The Passion of Joan of Arc on a cold, dark fall evening, I don’t know that I ever would have done the slight “toe dip” into silent films that I have. It was one of those benchmark movie-watching experiences that I love to talk about.

The stories Dreyer tells are draining, to say the least, so they are not ones that I return to often when I sit down to enjoy a film. The artistry, though, is spectacular, which means once you have the inclination to begin a Dreyer film that you are not going to be able to tear yourself away until it is finished. While undoubtedly gloomy in tone, Dreyer’s stories are as compelling as cinema gets. They hit me like a punch to the gut every time. I have a similar uneasiness whenever I watch his cinema, expecting something bad or unfortunate to befall the characters at any moment. And eventually, something does happen. The genius of Dreyer, and why even if his films are draining for me I continue to return to them, is that he never fails to offer at least a sliver of hope to the viewer. Things might not turn out well for the characters, but there is something inspirational or moving to those watching the drama.

I realize that The Passion of Joan of Arc will likely be the pick for everyone as Dreyer's best film and I would certainly agree. However, I have to put in a strong word for Ordet. I would never dare rank it about Joan, but on a strictly favorites list it is a near dead heat for me. Ordet haunted me (in a good way) like few other films I have ever watched. The atmosphere is eerie, bordering on terrifying, and yet it ultimately becomes yet uplifting. The lighting and camerawork Dreyer uses in the cramped confines of the country home are miraculous. Such a great film.

All five of the films listed below are very good, if not flat-out great. My question to everyone else is what are the other essential Dreyer films that I need to seek out ASAP?

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
2. Ordet (1955)
3. Day of Wrath (1943)
4. Vampyr (1932)
5. Gertrud (1964)

Next up is French comedic master Jacques Tati.


  1. I have unfortunately only seen two films from this master, but both are, in my eyes (and many others of course), undisputed masterpieces. And Dave, I feel that if I were doing a similar project to what you're doing here, I would be compelled to include Dreyer on the basis of having seen those two films alone, such is their impact, so I think you having seen 5 films is more than adequate for inclusion.

    The Passion of Joan of Arc

    Boy did you use the right word: draining. I remember watching Passion for the first time and just feeling so overwhelmed and emotionally taxed by the experience that I had to take a nap. Renee Falconetti's performance is of course one of the greatest ever captured on film; has there ever been another performance that even comes close to hers in terms of raw, uninhibited soul-baring and expression? Her eyes have the ability to haunt forever.

    Vampyr I watch almost every Halloween, and is just a stunning masterwork of creepy, menacing atmosphere and gothic imagery. The rhythms of Dreyer's flowing camera still feel wholly unique, and there is just something so inimitable about the way the images tangle within their dream-logic; the film doesn't feel timeless as much as just out of time entirely. I've just never seen a movie like this before. It's a completely unique experience.

    Ordet is one I've been meaning to see for the longest time. I'll have to bump that one up the list of priorities.

  2. Aha, I've only seen 4 of Dreyer (and, gulp, none of Nick Ray):

    1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
    2. Ordet (1955)
    3. Vampyr (1932)
    4. Gertrud (1964)

  3. I am ashamed to say I am Dreyer-less! Have not seen any. I had Vampyr on my DVR at one point and mistakenly erased it!!!

  4. He is unquestionably one of the greatest directors in film history, and one of the pre-eminent artists of the 20th Century. I have been fortunate in having seen every one of his available films, several many times over. He crafted two of the greatest films in the history of the cinema, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and DAY OF WRATH, and admittedly it's difficult to choose one over the other. JOAN OF ARC contains perhaps the greatest performance by an actor or actress in a leading role since movies began (by Renee Falconetti) and in DAY OF WRATH, the cinema has it's most profound examination of the witch hunt ever produced. The ominous opening scenes unfold with startling power when an old woman named Herlofs Marthe (Anne Svierkier) is first seen handing some herbs to another person in a darkened kitchen room, and then is observed fleeing after the tolling of bells, signifying that the Puritan hierarchy have now identified their latest “conquest” and are hot in pursuit. The nefarious nature of summary judgement in regards to the vivacious Herlofs Marthe is evident by establishing that nothing she has done (or not done) is in any way harmful or contrary to religious doctrine. Her “dabbling” in remedies, which is enough to incur condemnation and eventual execution on a burning pyre illustrate a cloistered society ruled by fear, suspicion and an inflexible and fanatical religious doctrine. Before the austere and mesmerizing drama plays out, it is clear that in this society the closest of relationships would be betrayed if there is even a slight hint of aberrant behavior. At the time of its release many believed Dreyer was being implicitly clear in his own condemnation of Nazi Germany, which overran his home country of Denmark, and forged a society that rounded up those who resisted, enacting swift justice based on unfounded evidence, and encouraged family members to spy on each other. Dreyer, in an interview conducted in 1964 after the debut of his final film Gertrud, and three years before his death at age 79, stated that any parallel between the narrative content of his film and the Nazis was strictly coincidental. Still, it’s somewhat of a miracle the film was even made at all in that oppressive time.
    While the recent silent poll at WitD finished with THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC on top, it's worth nothing that Sight & Sound's decade polling shave often showcased the film in the Top Ten. ORDET (depicting a conflict of faith) and the celebrated VAMPYR (a surrealist meditation on fear), are also masterpieces, and several others: MASTER OF THE HOUSE, FROM THE LEAVES OF SATAN'S BOOK and GERTRUDE by any baraometer of measurement rank as near-masterpieces. The landmark silent film MICHAEL is perhaps the most significant early film of gay cinema, and it's a masterful work, beautifully transferred in the Region 2 Masters of Cinema DVD that is a must own. MASTER OF THE HOUSE is yet another top-rank Dreyer work.

    1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
    2. Day of Wrath (1943)
    3. Ordet (1955)
    4. Vampyr (1932)
    5. Michael (1924)
    6. Master of the House (1925)
    7. Leaves From Satan's Book (1921)
    8. Gertrude (1964)
    9. The Parson's Widow (1920)

    There isn't a single sub-par film in this lineup from one of the cinema's most meticulous and quality-conscious artists.

  5. "If it wasn’t for watching The Passion of Joan of Arc on a cold, dark fall evening, I don’t know that I ever would have done the slight “toe dip” into silent films that I have. It was one of those benchmark movie-watching experiences that I love to talk about."

    Indeed Dave. Dreyer is one who haunts for days, weeks and months, and his work elevtaed the cinema to an art form singlehandedly. He's comparable to Bresson, in that his output was extremely limited, but he created work that makes one think of Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Rembrandt. He is a titan, and his work can and should be dissected till the end of time. That's my encore "gush" here to beg your indulgence.

    I'm looking forward to Maurizio and Donophon here.

  6. There is a purity and almost single minded drive in all of Dreyer's films. He never over complicates his mise en scene and his ruminations on religion, the soul, and human suffering are so much more advanced then anything coming out of Hollywood in that era. His films are draining but in an almost positive cleansing sort of way. I love Dreyer precisely because his outlook on life and the mood and ambiance from his films is so different and unique to American filmmakers. His starkness was obviously a huge influence on Bergman. Its like you need to be Scandinavian to make his type of films (similar to Ozu in Japan). The long months of total darkness may do the trick!!!! Like mentioned above his films seem more than just movies but real classic works of art like Da Vinci etc. I'm also gushing let me stop.

    1. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
    2. Day Of Wrath
    3. Vampyr
    4. Ordet
    5. Gertrude
    6. Michael
    The Parsons Widow (I'm not sure but I feel I once viewed part of this film while half asleep on TCM. Either way I didn't "actually" see it so I won't rank it). Dave why do I get the feeling Sam's lists will be the longest the most often throughout this countdown lol!!!

  7. .........M.Roca

  8. Oh Dave I think you have seen the 5 Dreyer's that are usually considered the best. Michael is definitely worth seeking out. I'm with you on being fascinated by viewing the other silents that I have not seen. As I mentioned above Sam's longer film lists will be used as a useful reference.....M.Roca

  9. Drew - We seem to be very much on the same page with Dreyer, which tells me that you are very likely to respond favorably to Ordet. It is such a great film, I definitely recommend getting to it ASAP. You know what to expect from Dreyer - it is going to be an emotionally draining film - but it's well worth it all.

    JAFB - Get on those Nick Rays quick! (LOL) Our taste pretty much lines up on the Dreyer that we have both seen, but all of them really are great.

    John - I would definitely recommend starting with The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's his most acclaimed film, and as you can see from most of the lists, almost universally recognized as his best.

    Sam - You enter the Comment Hall of Fame once again. Your passion for all things Dreyer comes through very eloquently here. And your list is great for me, as I see a few there that I need to get to in order to flesh out my own Dreyer list. I agree with you on Falconetti's performance - simply spectacular. The movie in general is so good that you almost want to say "That's it, I don't need to watch anything else." Just shattering.

    Maurizio - Yes, Sam's lists will almost always be the most complete... his dedication to movies (and really the arts in general) is unbelievable. He's an invaluable resource to have in these parts. I am glad to see that you agree with me on including Dreyer - even though we haven't seen his whole output, the few films we have watched are spectacular. I will check out Michael when I can... I think it's on Watch Instantly on Netflix.

  10. Dave, I've seen four Dreyers complete and only pieces of Gertrud. He has an aesthetic that clearly evolved toward simplicity, The Passion being a compartively frantic film in its editing, if I recall right. Is it evolution if his films become more theatrical than cinematic? I'd say so because he'd clearly made a decision that human interraction in its plainest form, dialogue, was sufficient material for the highest drama, but it was still a directorial and thus cinematic decision to make us look and insist that we pay attention. I'd like to give Gertrud a full-length try sometime, but for now:

    1. The Passion of Joan of Arc
    2. Day of Wrath
    3. Vampyr
    4. Ordet

    Dreyer to Tati's an interesting segue in that both were accused of making films in which nothing happens. I eagerly await your rankings.

  11. Dave, I've seen the five you had and will definitely have to seek the ones Sam mentions out. I couldn't possibly think of ranking them, each one seems to be better than the last. The most moving one for me, though, was Ordet. When I first saw it I was still a practicing Catholic, and the emotional effect those final shots had on me were indescribably overwhelming (which, of course, isn't to say it cannot have a similar effect on an irreligious person, and I'm just as moved by the film today). As M. Roca pointed out, his mise en scene is awe-inspiring, and his use of space is arguably unmatched.

  12. Sometimes I think Dreyer might be the greatest filmmaker of all time.

    He's one of those "holies of holies" - those giants, usually more austere than bombastic, but 100% unmistakable in their aesthetic personality nonetheless - whom all scholars and critics seem to revere. Bresson, Bunuel, Ozu, and Renoir are perhaps the others. I find that out of this group the one that moves the most is, by far, Dreyer (among the others, only with Ozu do I have an "untroubled relationship" - not that troubled ones are necessarily a bad thing!).

    I see Gertrud ranks pretty low with everyone but I really like that film, and would probably put it higher than Ordet, speaking purely of personal preference. Part of what moves me might be extrafilmic context, knowing that the film was so resolutely jeered at its time of release, it almost seems to reflect its vulnerable yet stoic heroine in this regard.

    Even above Joan, however, I would posit Day of Wrath as Dreyer's masterpiece.

  13. "Even above Joan, however, I would posit Day of Wrath as Dreyer's masterpiece."

    You know what Movie Man, some days I feel the same way. They are reallyTIED in my view, but I had to offer some drama here, and didn't want to compromise the results of WitD's silent poll. Ha!

    And Donophon makes an excellent point what he says here about 'the best Dreyer film being the last one seen.

    Thanks very much Maurizio (and Dve of course) for the very kind words on this thread.

  14. Wow...what to say...what to say...not much...

    ...most know my passion for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC...I mean what else needs to be said?

    ...and VAMPYR, too, is a Halloween favorite. Clearly inspired Lynch's

    I also rank DAY OF WRATH very highly...

    ...and ORDET...I found curiously static in aesthetics (as others have hinted at Dreyer's evolution to simplicity) and yet that static "feeling" the images invoke are divinely intertwined with the static nature of the faith on display And its inspiration can be seen clearly in the recent masterpiece SILENT LIGHT.

    His others I have unfortunately not seen.

    On PASSION alone he ranks as an unqualified master...consider the 4 I know and could go on for days...months...years...and still not find the right words to describe his artistry.

    Why am I speaking all sing-songy like this? I dunno...I dunno.