A Body of Work

By David Rudkin


Carl Dreyer died in the early Spring of 1968, from pneumonia he had contracted while recuperating from a broken hip. Death was peaceful. He lies in the Copenhagen Frederiksberg Cemetery. He had already begun to haunt the cinema that comes after him. Though our sightings of him are sparse, each is unique and intense. Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) is more an ‘anti’-sighting. Doors open, doors close, this Joan does not ‘act’. Bresson's temperamentally very different cinema, as Catholic as Dreyer’s is Protestant, is equally concerned to communicate the immanence in the humble object.  

When Mouchette's mother, terminally sick, stands from a chair and leaves frame, that unlovely empty chair remaining makes visible her coming absence. But his aesthetic is the reverse of Dreyer’s, anti-expressive, an anti-beauty. The director showing the greatest temerity must be Jean-Luc Godard: he has Nana his prostitute in Vivre Sa Vie (1962) call in at a cinema during a slack afternoon hour, where Joan is showing.

At the great scene where Artaud as her confessor prepares Joan for her martyrdom, Godard cross-cuts between the searing close-shots on Falconetti and shots on Nana in the darkened auditorium as she watches and weeps. This is more than hommage; there’s self-identification in Nana here, and something akin to Dreyer’s own use of a 'background' artwork to express the unspoken. A film visibly ‘influenced’ by Dreyer in a more superficial sense, and specifically by Day of Wrath, is an English film of 1968, Witchfinder General, directed by the tragically short-lived director Michael Reeves. It must be no disparagement to Reeves’ memory to acknowledge that his is morally the lesser film. But on its own less mature terms, it is an honourable tribute.

In 1987, a countryman of Dreyer’s, Gabriel Axel, contrived a beautiful coded hommage: as the old couple at Babette's Feast reminisce on their long-ago joys as young lovers, we hear the story of Anne and Martin in Day of Wrath, without the transgression; and they are played by the same actors, thirty-five years on. And Day of Wrath again: a film company once sent me, with view to developing a screenplay, a novel published in the US in 1945. Also set in 17th century rural Denmark, it tells of a country Pastor who adopts a destructive ‘lost’ boy. When the boy disappears he is presumed murdered; and the Pastor is tried and beheaded. The novelist seems to be drawing on the film as a research resource, though without acknowledgement. Despite all efforts I have been unable to trace its title or author.

In the supernatural ‘Western’, Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996), I see an awareness of the film that is the subject of my book. Most recently, Lars von Trier’s Medea is a realization of a screenplay that Dreyer had not been able to film. What Dreyer's Medea would have looked like, we can only imagine. Most truly Dreyeresque is the quiet, deep cruelty of the scene where Medea hangs her two little children. Their grubbiness and pitiful submission wrench at us as Joan does, helpfully picking up the rope that her executioner has let slip as he binds her to the stake. In these moments, Dreyer lives.

David Rudkin is a dramatist and screenwriter (www.davidrudkin.com). His monograph on Dreyer’s Vampyr is published shortly by BFI Publishing (£9.99; this is a short extract from its introduction)