The A-Z of Carl Theodor Dreyer

As some of his greatest films arrive in high definition as a Blu-ray box set, we get to grips with one of the world’s most essential filmmakers. It’s as easy as A, B, C…

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Carl Dreyer filming his 1955 masterpiece Ordet

Carl Dreyer filming his 1955 masterpiece Ordet

A is for Aviator

While hardly apparent from watching his films – or from the figure he cut in later life – the young Dreyer proved quite the daredevil. Obsessed with aviation, he was one of the first people to fly as a passenger across the sound between Denmark and Sweden. Sitting on the fuel tank of a friend’s plane in 1910 for his inaugural flight, without a seatbelt and hanging on to whatever he could, Dreyer was hooked. For the sound crossing the following year, he took up position in a sling between the plane’s wheels, having ignored the air authorities’ refusal to grant clearance.

B is for Bride of Glomdal

Day of Wrath (1943)

Day of Wrath (1943)

Shot without a script, directly from the source novel by Jacob Breda Bull, The Bride of Glomdal was Dreyer’s eighth feature, made in Oslo straight after his first major success with Master of the House (1925). A light, melodramatic pastoral romance, most notable for its exquisitely captured exteriors, it’s a minor work when seen in the context of those which precede and follow.

C is for Close-up

From the very beginning, Dreyer understood the power of the close-up. For all the variety of filmmaking technique on display in the rapidly cut montage of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), it’s the faces which remain seared into our minds – not just Joan herself, but the leering gallery of grotesques that stand as her accusers. Framed against white backgrounds, stripped of the all but the essential, the penetrating emotional effect – and intensity – is finally devastating.

D is for Day of Wrath

While Dreyer himself disavowed any such interpretations, it’s not hard to see why many at the time drew parallels between Day of Wrath’s story of 17th-century persecution and witch-hunts and the contemporary German occupation of Denmark in 1943. The director’s darkest psychological study, it flopped on release, only later achieving its reputation as a masterwork to rank among Dreyer’s very best.

E is for Eroticism

The erotic plays an integral part in Dreyer’s cinema. While perhaps at its most overt in Vampyr (1932) and Day of Wrath, it’s just as integral to the story of illicit love told in his first film, The President (1919). Which is why it comes as something of a surprise to read contemporary accounts of reactions to his final picture, Gertrud (1964) – a film fired by its erotic charge – as unexpected of the filmmaker. It’s there at the beginning, but at its most subtle and sublime at the end.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

F is for Falconetti

One of the greatest performances – and greatest faces – in all of cinema, Renée Falconetti wouldn’t make another film after her lead role in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Discovered by the filmmaker when he happened across her image on a Parisian theatre poster, her post-Joan career – struggling with debt and mental illness in South America – remains shrouded in mystery, despite her emotional tour de force, in arguably Dreyer’s greatest work, cementing her as a screen icon for the ages.

G is for Gertrud

“It is this strong and passionate woman’s tragedy that she demands the absolute,” said Dreyer of the protagonist of his final film, Gertrud in 1964. “The man she loves can be hers only, or she must leave him. The demand for the absolute is her hubris, for which the gods punish her.” The director had come full circle, shooting the film at the Nordisk Film studios where he’d begun his career. Once again, its initial reception was disastrous, the long takes which generally eschew the director’s famous close-ups failing to capture critics and audiences alike. Even now, it remains Dreyer’s most divisive work, despite being his quintessential study of female psychology.

H is for Henning Bendtsen

Gertrud (1964)

Gertrud (1964)

One of the great cinematographers, Henning Bendtsen is undoubtedly best remembered for his masterful work on the two features he shot for Dreyer. He was only 29 when the director hired him to shoot Ordet (1955), and by his own admission (in the documentary My Métier, included in the new BFI Blu-ray set) discovering what Dreyer was after initially proved a struggle. The challenges continued with their second collaboration a decade later, with the filmmaker’s unrealised wish to shoot the entirety of Gertrud in a single, unbroken take.

I is for Ida

Ida, the put-upon wife, subjected to the tyrannies of her boorish husband in 1925’s Master of the House, is the first of the major female characters to appear in Dreyer’s work. Much like Michael the previous year, it’s a sympathetic yet resolutely unsentimental portrayal, a tender portrait of a marriage in trouble, shot through with tenderness, warmth and more than a dash of humour.

J is for Jesus

Dreyer had a long-held ambition to make a film of the life of Jesus, beginning planning as early as 1929 and going so far as to teach himself Hebrew as he worked for decades on the screenplay. US funding fell through in 1949, and the project did not come together again until a year before his death, with the Danish state offering a mere tenth of the film’s estimated budget. It just wasn’t to be.

K is for Kampen mod kræften

Just one of the many short films that Dreyer wrote and directed, seven of which are included in the new box set. Taken on to keep the money coming in while he prepared for his features, those made for Dansk Kulturfilm in the late 1940s – such as this public information film about the symptoms of cancer – while not without interest, really served as a means to an end.

Master of the House (1925)

Master of the House (1925)

L is for LOLS

While Dreyer is best known for his serious, austere psychological studies, the director’s CV is not all doom and gloom. While there are moments of bitter comedy in the relationship between the eponymous Master of the House and his fed-up nanny, one of Dreyer’s personal favourites among his works was the 1920 film The Parson’s Widow. An effortlessly charming comedy, it centres on a young minister’s attempts to avoid marrying an elderly widow attached to the church he’s trying to inherit. Here, Dreyer displays a lightness of touch and skill with a sight gag like nowhere else.

M is for Michael

Working with celebrated cinematographer, Karl Freund, Dreyer’s 1924 film Michael was his biggest production to date. Charting the unconsummated passion of an artist for his young protégé and muse, it’s an exquisite tragedy rendered in heartbreaking close-up. Surprisingly candid in its depiction of a gay relationship, it was far from a hit at the time, coming under especial fire for its thematic content in the US on release.

N is for Nordisk Film

Dreyer’s first steps into the film industry were for the Danish studio Nordisk Film, where in 1913 he was initially hired to work on the intertitles for the studio’s production slate. Having already written a few screenplays on spec, he soon nabbed a job working for the script department, filing reports and evaluations of potential projects.

O is for Ordet

Ordet (1955)

Ordet (1955)

One of Dreyer’s few successes on release, and commonly acknowledged as one of his finest achievements, Ordet – along with The Passion of Joan of Arc – is the director’s most theocentric work. Adapted from the play by Kaj Munk, its story of a holy fool and of faith lost and found crescendos with one of the most profound and magical moments in all of cinema.

P is for President

Released in 1919, The President was Dreyer’s directorial debut. While he later expressed dissatisfaction at the film’s convoluted flashback structure, the expressive use of close-ups and attention to detail already prefigured what was to come, not least in its thematic focus on female victimisation.

Q is for Queen of Scots

For another cherished, unrealised project, Dreyer had written an epic, 240-page script on the life of Mary Stuart with his son over the course of six months, following interest from the UK after Day of Wrath. As the film ballooned in scale, interest in the project dwindled, the production company running scared from the growing requirements of investment.

R is for Reygadas

Silent Light (2007)

Silent Light (2007)

Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas established himself as a controversial and divisive figure in world cinema with his 2002 debut, Japón, and his third feature, Silent Light (2007), did little to dispel such notions. Closing his film with a miracle lifted straight from the end of Dreyer’s Ordet, it’s one of the most brazen ‘quotations’ in modern cinema this side of Brian De Palma.

S is for Screenplays

Before he was given the chance to make his directorial debut in 1919 with The President, Dreyer began churning out dozens of scripts for Nordisk film at an incredible rate. He was tasked with adapting literary classics, an attempt on the studio’s part to elevate the cultural caché of cinema in its infancy. Over the course of his five years at Nordisk, Dreyer completed more than 30 known screenplays, 20 of which were produced.

Thorvaldsen (1949)

Thorvaldsen (1949)

T is for Transcendental

One of the key pieces of writing on the films of Dreyer, came from the director and film critic, Paul Schrader. His 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, remains one of the great, personal works of film criticism, an attempt to define the impact of the eponymous filmmakers’ works as the result of what they omit. “[Their] films were from the cinema of denial, of sparse means,” wrote Schrader. “The hypothesis is that if you reduce your sensual awareness rigorously and for long enough, the inner need will explode and it will be pure because it will not have been siphoned off by easy or exploitative identifications… Strip away conventional emotional associations and then you’re left with this tiny little pinpoint that hits you at the end and freezes you into stasis.”

U is for Unwanted

Dreyer’s was a tough childhood. Given up for adoption as soon as he was born, he was taken in by a typographer and his wife in 1889, his birth mother dying two years later after poisoning herself with sulphur in an attempt to abort another unwanted child. “[They] constantly let me know I should be grateful for the food I was given,” wrote Dreyer of his adoptive parents, “that I strictly had no claim on anything, since my mother got out of paying by lying down to die.”

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr (1932)

V is for Vampyr

One of the great early horror films, Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr represented a concerted effort on the filmmaker’s part to avoid typecasting after The Passion of Joan of Arc. Filmed in a dilapidated stately home overrun with rats and rot, with the actors mouthing their lines in French, English and German (to be post-synced later), it’s a magnificent, hallucinatory oddity, rife with symbolism. Considered too strange for contemporary audiences, it proved a box-office disaster, leading to a decade-long absence from feature filmmaking.

W is for Women

Perhaps it was the tragedy of his birth mother – or the fractious relationship with his adoptive – that led to the long line of female protagonists that recur through Dreyer’s work. From the oppressed women of The President to the overt suffering of Joan of Arc; from those accused of witchcraft in Day of Wrath, all the way to the romantic disillusionment of Gertrud, Dreyer remains one of the greatest writer-directors of female characters in cinema.

X is for X-Rated

While the X certificate itself wouldn’t be introduced until 1951, the arrival of the American horror films in the early 30s led the BBFC in Britain to add a similar, third category to its roster. Dreyer’s Vampyr was the first to be branded with the new H certificate, saved for films “which are likely to frighten or horrify children under the age of 16 years”. While some local councils refused to allow their cinemas to screen the new H-rated films, Vampyr was passed uncut in the UK, faring better than it did in Germany, where the Berlin censors demanded cuts of 53 metres.

Y is for Young Journalist

After a few years serving as a clerk for a utility company, in 1910 Dreyer was able to combine his love for aviation with a newfound passion for writing. Taking a job with the Berlingske Tidende newspaper, Dreyer’s skills weren’t confined to the flying pages. While few existing articles actually bear his byline, he’s known to have taken a stab at theatrical and film reviews with varying degrees of success, including this takedown of Danish movie star, Asta Nielsen, which hardly chimes with the feminist stance of his films: “Is Asta Nielsen-Gad a heroine? Yes, by Gad, she is! Now she has started appearing in men’s clothing without considering that she thereby reveals how dreadfully she was created. Is that not a heroic sacrifice for art?”

Z is for Zentropa

The artistic ties between Dreyer and Lars von Trier have long been acknowledged by the latter enfant terrible of Danish cinema, not least by the portrayals of physically and emotionally victimised women in their respective films. While von Trier wouldn’t form his production company, Zentropa until 1992, three years earlier he’d taken up Dreyer’s mantle most literally with his TV-production of the filmmaker’s script for Medea. Dreyer had initially planned to make the film himself after Gertrud, with Maria Callas – who would go on to play the role for Pasolini – as his lead, but repeated bouts of sickness ahead of his death in 1968 meant the film never left the drawing board.

  • Buy The Carl Dreyer Collection on Blu-ray
    This Blu-ray box set collects a number of his most revered, award-winning films, some of his lesser-known works, and an extensive selection of extra features. Alongside award-winning classics Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964), the silent Master of the House (1925) is presented here for the first time in both its Danish and English inter-titles versions. In addition, seven of Dreyer’s short films – made between 1942 and 1955 – are presented in full High Definition for the first time.

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