August 21, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word)

The Word. 1954. Denmark. Directed by Carl Th. Dreyer

These notes accompany screenings of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word) on August 15, 16, and 17 in Theater 3.

A writer once referred to the “ravishing austerity” of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet (the Word). I can’t think of another director for whom one might use such a seemingly paradoxical phrase, which sort of sums up the debacle encountered by an almost-otherworldly artist working in an apparently crassly commercial medium like the movies. Or, as the film industry’s vulgar “Bible,” Variety, put it, “Here is that arty house paradox, a brilliant, almost monumental film, yet with a stigma of anti-[box office] on it because of its uncompromising, heavygoing style and a touchy religioso theme of faith and miracle involving a conflict between Catholic and Protestant views towards life and religion.” As critic George Morris suggested, Dreyer’s solution for all this was to transform The Word into “a formal and aesthetic miracle itself.”

Dreyer had not made a feature for nearly a decade. Kaj Munk’s play Ordet had been previously filmed by Dreyer’s Swedish contemporary Gustaf Molander (1888–1973), who had taught Greta Garbo at the Swedish National Theater, written screenplays for Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and made a star of Ingrid Bergman with Intermezzo (1936). Molander’s version of the Munk play (starring Sjöström) was made the same year (1943) as Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (which was shown in this series last July). Molander’s film was much closer to Munk than Dreyer’s in terms of sticking to the original text, but Dreyer was critical of the earlier film as straying from Munk’s spirit. Munk, a clergyman, was murdered by the Nazis in 1944 under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to resistance to the occupation of Denmark.

Dreyer was certainly shrewd enough to understand that his “touchy religioso theme of faith and miracle” was bucking a contemporary trend. He declared, “This is a theme that suits me—Faith’s triumph in the skeptical twentieth century over Science and Rationalism.” He even accepted the idea that “the best believers are the child and the deranged person, since their minds are not rational.” Dreyer seemed to subscribe to John Wayne’s dictum in John Ford’s The Searchers that apology was “a form of weakness.” Like the heroine in his next and last film, Gertrud (1964), Dreyer was not one for easy compromise with other people’s standards. Hennig Bendtsen, the cinematographer on both The Word and Gertrud who died last year, achieved for Dreyer a “realized mysticism,” through a hypnotic lighting quality within the frame and progressively longer tracking shots. Although perhaps less ethereal, Bendsten’s later work included films for Gabriel Axel and Lars Von Trier. The latter inherited not only Dreyer’s unrealized Medea script, which he filmed quite nicely in 1988, but also (via Bendsten) the tuxedo Dreyer wore when he received the Golden Lion in Venice for The Word.

As usual with Dreyer, I find myself scrupulously avoiding passing judgment on the substance of The Word. As with Renaissance religious paintings, I believe one can value them as works of artistic genius without being one of the faithful. Dreyer himself was worldly enough to appreciate the work of other filmmakers; he admired (surprisingly) Ernst Lubitsch and (unsurprisingly) Charles Chaplin and Elia Kazan. The director felt that the human face is “a land which one can never tire of exploring.” Chaplin’s whole genius was built on the exploration of his own face, and by time Dreyer praised Kazan in 1959, the latter had extracted luminous performances from the likes of Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. Dreyer was an ardent advocate of auteurism: “The director must be the man who must and shall leave his hallmark on the artistic film.”

The University of Kentucky Press has just published a little book by Jan Wahl, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker. As a young man, Wahl was invited by Dreyer to observe the filming on location. The Dreyer who emerges from Wahl’s account is more humanized, not the foreboding presence his films would suggest. (He used to send Christmas cards to my former colleague, Eileen Bowser, who organized the Museum’s first Dreyer retrospective—although I don’t recall them having chipmunks or red-nosed reindeers depicted on them.) In Wahl’s book, Dreyer explains The Word this way: “The end is to enrich one’s fellow human beings by engrossing them in an emotional experience they would not otherwise encounter.”