By David Rudkin

ordet-carl-th-dreyer.jpgOrdet, 1955

Dreyer is one of a handful of 20th century giants, among all artists of any art. But he is no gentle giant. In transforming the boulevard actress Falconetti into the martyred Joan of Arc, he treated her with a directorial severity that has become legendary – though some of the legend may well be myth. His Joan, and Falconetti, are iconic now. There is much cruelty in Dreyer’s art, a cruelty to the audience too: to the critic C. A. Lejeune, writing in 1943 on its first release, Day of Wrath was a film that she would ‘not willingly see again for a great deal of money’. Here is cruelty in the Artaudian sense – subjecting us to an ‘operation without benefit of anaesthetic’. Early in that film, the off-screen cries of old Marthe as the witchfinders break her into submission at her arrest are the ugliest such effect I know. They have the power they have, because we are doing the moral work.

Dreyer’s images brand themselves upon our deeper, dreamer’s memory, and sear us there for ever. Yet these are not rhetorical images that partake for instance of expressionism or the surreal. (Only in Vampyr are they that; Vampyr’s world is a world of shadow and substance severed, light and darkness reversed.) His camera gives us visionary eyes: we see revealed to us the living world, in all its textural integrity of wood or stone or foliage, as though illumined by (to quote an anonymous Times critic writing of Ordet 50 years ago) the ‘spiritual light of ordinary things’. And we see through faces to a deeper narrative. An old pastor’s young second wife looks down through a window, peering this way and that at preparations for the burning of a witch. Wisps of smoke stray quietly across her face. Somehow we know the fire shall be her fate too. And we feel it could be ours. A simple, almost obvious image, and it has been imitated – yet only in Day of Wrath does it compel us to such appalled self-identification. Here (visually at least) is a film such as Rembrandt might have made; but totally Dreyeresque is its dialectic of shadow. As that parson’s wife Anne escapes with his son for their short love-sequence in the fields, the shadows of waving grasses endorse and seem to bless them in their transgressive embrace – yet at the same time lattice their features and all but cancel them, portending the darkness soon to come. Yet a similar device can yield a very different meaning: as old Marthe lies bound to the ladder on which she is to be pitched onto the flames, shadows of leaves dance upon her face and helpless body, expressing her final separateness from nature now, her severance from all things living. Sometimes this pastoral-elegiac note is more absolutely sounded, as in Ordet’s key image of death-in-life – a barley-field sun-bleached almost white, winding its way amid it a black horse-drawn hearse.

day-of-wrath-carl-th-dreyer.jpgDay of Wrath, 1946

Through Ordet (1955) to Gertrud (1965) we shall find this revelatory quality further and further distilled. The entirety of Gertrud is a quiet passage across a social landscape of human forms conducting themselves with a corseted, pompous formality – theatrical manners viewed often from an objective theatrical distance, yet so transmuted by Dreyer’s alchemy of light and composition and subtle fluidity of camera-movement, that we find ourselves astonished witness to a sarabande of hidden seething discontents. In this stiff post-Ibsen world (Dreyer openly subtitles his film ‘a stage play from the early [20th] century’) the men are unprepossessing figures, emotionally inadequate, to use a judgmental word – yet, as are Ibsen’s own Tesman or Rosmer, these bear their sorrows too. Amongst them glides Gertrud, a feminine presence unfulfilled and unfulfillable, Dreyer’s existential solitary, incarnate for one last valedictory time, and touched with incandescence. In one manifestation or other, she has informed his work throughout, the feminine spirit caged and martyred by the institutions of men, yet men who are unknowing tyrants to their own selves as much. Such is Anne in Day of Wrath; such was that iconic Joan of Arc herself – and such, in the earliest of these four titles here, is the luminous Ida of Astrid Holm, in her humble unlegendary world, tyrannized by her self-centred and unseeing petit bourgeois husband, downtrodden yet not debased. To those who know Dreyer only for the searing intensities of Joan or Day of Wrath or the dislocated physics of Vampyr, this Master of the House (1924) will come as a quiet unassuming surprise. Dreyer has had an inner-city apartment meticulously reconstructed in the studio, with all its spatial relationships exact. This is no mere ‘set’ where scenes are played and shot; it is a milieu by which these characters are defined: amidst these domestic fixtures and moveables, they are characterized by the modest tasks they do. At an unrhetorical arm’s-length we watch and observe this scrupulously recreated ‘domestic naturalism’. Yet, as afterwards we (almost literally) reflect upon the film, its representational surface shines like a vision in our memory. Even though based on a play, as was much of Dreyer’s work, this is in no way filmed theatre. There is a flow of emotional energy from shot to shot, the camera’s stillness touched only now and then by the merest minimal ‘lift’ of expressive movement, and a subtle orchestration throughout of camera distances that relate us with expressive accuracy to each living moment, and quietly mediate its meaning.

gertrud-carl-th-dreyer.jpgGertrud, 1964

‘Quiet’ – that word again. Critics write of Dreyer’s ‘restraint’ – as though this were an issue of good manners. Rather, it’s a slow build-up of compression that Dreyer will release at critical moments to colossal emotional effect. His characteristic long slow sideward-tracking movements strain our endurance; often, as early in Day of Wrath, they draw us leftward, against the ‘grain’ of Western optical reading, so oppress us the more. Then suddenly, as the screaming Marthe is launched headlong onto the flames, the camera sweeps with her in a sickening leftward lurch; and our shock is physical. In Ordet this morally expressive camera will be even more tightly reined. In the immaculate Danish farmhouse interior it undemonstratively echoes the slow domestic movements to and fro; from a character’s exit at one door (here again had been a theatre piece) it turns unhurriedly to pick up another’s entrance at an opposite door - a deliberate pace determined for Dreyer by the deliberate movements of Jutland farmers themselves in their heavy boots across their farmhouse floors. But this earthbound movement is like the Biblical ‘body of this flesh’: it can in a moment be wonderfully transformed. In a breathtaking change at the centre of the film, as the ‘mad’ Johannes, who believes he is Jesus returned to earth, takes a grieving child in his embrace and promises her that her mother can indeed be raised from the dead, the camera’s gaze on them begins slowly to pass around them in a perfect circle, an utterly undomestic, sacramentalizing gesture that has every appearance of being physically achieved – i.e. not by revolve and back projection, but with earthbound dolly and tracks – and yet (as we ponder the physicalities of it) seems practically impossible. Thus, by the camera, this earthly interior, and we, are made ready for the coming miracle of resurrection. For some reason, Ordet (‘The Word’) has persisted into English-language culture with its Danish title – the more oddly, given how difficult it is to pronounce (something like Oor’t) in the native way. Its New-Testament-in-Jutland ethos will not be to everyone’s taste; its piety is genuine, but might seem sanctimonious to people of non-Protestant persuasion or of none at all. Their loss: in its invisible technique, its fervent translucency, it is truly apocalyptic cinema.

This four-DVD Dreyerfest comes complete with priceless extras: several documentary shorts, compassionately commissioned from him by the Danish government in his lean postwar years (in one, promoting a charitable organisation for unmarried mothers, how inimitably Dreyeresque the angelic whiteness of nappies flapping on a line); the invaluable compilation of archive footage and interviews, with words from Dreyer himself, My métier; and the craftily unnerving road-safety item They Caught the Ferry. (Yes they did: but across which water...?) Really welcome now, would be for the BFI to reissue on DVD the two Norwegian pastorals, the early comic-elegiac Parson’s Widow in which (1920) Dreyer truly found himself, and the rustic lyric The Bride of Glomdal that immediately (1925) preceded Joan... At the same time, one must urge BFI not to reissue Vampyr in any of the lamentable inauthentic versions currently available, but await Martin Koerber’s reconstruction currently in progress.

David Rudkin is a dramatist and screenwriter (www.davidrudkin.com). His monograph on Dreyer’s Vampyr is published by BFI Publishing.