Where to begin with Carl Dreyer

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the emotional masterpieces of Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Alex Barrett

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Why this might not seem so easy

Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer once stated that “consciously, I don’t do anything to ‘please’ the public”. With an attitude like that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Dreyer has acquired a reputation for being a serious artist who made sombre works with spiritually foreboding titles like Day of Wrath (1943) and Leaves from Satan’s Book (1920). Seen today, his films appear to emanate from a different era, perhaps even another world – more timeless than timely, Dreyer’s films are quite unlike anything else in cinema. They remain undeniably singular in vision, even if Dreyer’s style was always evolving, shifting to suit a film’s given subject. No two Dreyer films are alike, and yet they are all unmistakably his.

Carl Dreyer

Carl Dreyer

For Dreyer, realism was not something to aspire to – it wasn’t art, he claimed. Instead, Dreyer strove for what he termed psychological realism, attempting to capture the ephemeral essence that lies beneath surface reality. To this end, Dreyer stripped away everything he saw as superfluous to his goal, resulting in an abstract, minimalist aesthetic which often breaks with the rules of conventional filmmaking. It’s no wonder his work can feel alienating to the uninitiated.

And yet, for all his much-touted spiritual austerity, Dreyer’s films are grounded in an intense humanism. Often exploring themes of intolerance and the enduring struggle of women living within a patriarchal society, Dreyer emphasises character over narrative, revealing an intense concern for human suffering, and imbuing his films with a rare, graceful empathy.

The best place to start – The Passion of Joan of Arc

Although it might be tempting to save the best till last, Dreyer’s most respected film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), offers the most accessible introduction to his work. The apotheosis of Dreyer’s silent film craft, the film is rightly considered to be one of the true masterpieces of the pre-sound era.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) poster

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) poster

Made in France, the film was produced under the auspices of the Société Gėnėrale des Films, who were then completing work on Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). As they had done for Gance, the Société Gėnėrale gave Dreyer a seemingly unlimited budget and, more importantly, total creative control. But whereas Gance created a decade-spanning spectacle of epic proportions, Dreyer favoured a more grounded approach, opting to focus solely upon Joan’s trial and execution, thereby eschewing the story of how Joan led an army into battle in an attempt to drive the English out of 15th-century France. Basing his film upon the transcripts of Joan’s real trial, Dreyer condensed the events into a single day, rendering the film with a unity of time, place and action which speaks volumes about Dreyer’s interest in interior dramas – not only of locations, but also of the soul.

Throughout the film, Dreyer sticks closely to Joan and her assailants, filming much of the action in dramatic close-ups. These close-ups foreground the actors’ faces, allowing us a more immediate access to their inner thoughts, but they also render the wider space around them unimportant. Combined with the film’s sparse décor, Dreyer’s camera choices reinforce Joan’s sense of disorientation, and move the action away from the exterior physical world towards Joan’s spiritual interior. Dreyer once stated that the artist should describe inner, not outer, life, and nowhere does he achieve this more perfectly than in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

What to watch next

Ordet (1955)

Ordet (1955)

If The Passion of Joan of Arc shows Dreyer to be a master of silent film, his later work shows him to be equally adept at working with sound. His first foray into the new medium was Vampyr (1932), for which he created a dream-like atmosphere of gothic dread. Made using experimental sound equipment, Vampyr retained many techniques and stylistic flourishes from the silent period, a fact which only added to its other-worldly qualities. But by Day of Wrath, his tale of superstition and witchcraft in 17th-century Denmark, Dreyer had firmly set upon the path to his mature style, which came to be defined by an increasing slowness of pace.

In Ordet (1955), the long takes were combined with an innovative arc-and-pan camera movement which allowed Dreyer to remain at a distance from the actors. A multi-stranded story about family and faith, Ordet is an examination of religious intolerance which builds to a shattering, miraculous conclusion. But, once more, Dreyer’s real interest is in humanity: never has such a spiritually momentous film been so grounded in earthly, physical love.

However, while the forward chronological momentum of these films make them natural next steps after The Passion of Joan of Arc, there is another, earlier film which also makes for a good secondary primer to Dreyer’s work: The Parson’s Widow (1920). A comedic tale of a young pastor having to marry the elderly widow of his predecessor, it has the distinction of being Dreyer’s funniest film, and it serves as a strong rejoinder to those who fail to acknowledge Dreyer’s lighter side. Human comedy can always be found in Dreyer, even in his most serious work.

Where not to start

Made in Sweden for AB Svensk Filmindustri and shot by Gunnar Fischer, prior to his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, Dreyer’s Two People (1945) was subject to a high level of outside interference.  Although this interference came, in part, from renowned Swedish director Victor Sjöström (then artistic leader of AB Svensk Filmindustri), Dreyer was so unhappy with the final film that he later disowned it. Dreyer always placed great importance upon casting, but here he was blocked from hiring the actors he wanted – a fatal blow, given that the film was intended to be a pure chamber piece, featuring just two actors. A flashback scene cut by Dreyer was reinserted by the producers, destroying Dreyer’s attempt to retain a complete unity of time, space and action. A highly melodramatic score was also added without Dreyer’s approval. In truth, the film is better than its reputation suggests, but it’s undoubtedly Dreyer’s least successful effort, and the hardest of his films to see through official channels.

Gertrud (1964)

Gertrud (1964)

Another inadvisable entry point is Gertrud (1964). An achingly romantic tale of one woman’s search for the perfect love, Gertrud is an acquired taste, best approached once already in tune with Dreyer’s mature style (here, the slowness of Ordet has crystalised into a statuesque stillness). The film was Dreyer’s swansong, and perhaps that’s how it’s best viewed: last, as the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career.

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