Slow, intense, tragic: these are some of the epithets that could be employed to describe the body of work of Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, a largely ignored film director who worked between the 20s and 60s and who has recently enjoyed critical revisionism, even hailed by some as one of cinema’s greatest directors. Evidence of his new–found popularity was given by The National Film Theatre in London, which put together a comprehensive season throughout June (called The Passion of Joan Carl Dreyer, a reference to his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc). Considering how full the screenings were, it looks like there is still a need for the slow-burning, intense cinematic vision of Dreyer.
Dreyer’s popularity has been stymied by several factors. Despite his career spanning over 40 years, he only made 14 films, with long gaps in between. He was never ‘fashionable’, linked to any movement or labelled an enfant terrible, preferring instead to stick to a classical, minimalist style that rejected naturalism and excess and flirted with experimentalism. His last film, Gertrud (1964) was met with a certain degree of hostility since critics thought at the time it was too old-fashioned for the sixties, missing out on the richness and subversion that underlies this Brechtian drama.
Like most great film directors, you can find a common thread that connects different works. In Dreyer’s case it may well be the vision of love as a sentiment that is misunderstood and even punished by the world, a love that is more esoteric than romantic, and the inevitable impossibility of communicating such feeling. His archetypal hero is the person escaping the strictures of social obedience and moral codes in search of the desire for freedom raging inside – the kind of hero perfectly symbolised by Joan of Arc.
The fact that Dreyer was an adopted child may have informed his sympathy for the emotional pariah, in his films usually women. His works were prematurely feminist, or more accurately, feminine in their depiction and respectful treatment of female characters. His take on women was never fetishistic – and they figured largely in his work – as he seemed to be more interested in delving into their spirit and intuition than casting a male, eroticised look at them (as in Gertrud).
In an interview he gave during the London Film Festival in 1965, he said no one ever did tragedy better than him. Speaking timidly from behind his glassy Scandinavian eyes, he was probably right. Tragedy for Dreyer translates cinematically not in excessive gestures, but instead in the defying absence of them. The effect his films have on the viewer, at best, are nothing short of wondrous.
Two of Dreyer’s films illustrate the overriding concerns which came to dominate his career: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), his best-known movie, an another piece set in an age of religious cruelty, Day of Wrath (1943). In both the heroines meet their end at the stake as a punishment for their surrender to love.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film so strong and yet so simple, made almost exclusively of close-ups, an experience that only cinema can create – and there are few films that ‘belong’ exclusively to the medium in which they are made. It has been referred to elsewhere as transcendental cinema. As soon as the film starts, with the camera tracking along the jury trying the French heroine, the audience is mesmerised, almost trapped in a trance – as the atmosphere instantly created by the imagery is overwhelming. The stroke of genius in Dreyer’s first and definitive rendition of the myth is to stick to the trial and execution– this is not the armoured Joan of Jean Luc Besson, but a nineteen-year-old woman (played with moving intensity by Renee Maria Falconetti) going through the tribulations of a trial while her soul alternates between ecstasy and agony. Her face is one of the most memorable sights in the history of cinema.
In essence, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a documentary, as the dialogues were based on archive documentation. When she is brought outside the courtroom after fainting at the sight of the torture devices she is shown to, she finally signs the confession, but as soon as she is taken back to her cell, she declares she wishes to recant. She is immediately taken out again to be burnt alive. The sequence of her death is shown almost in real time, interspersed with footage of a mob revolt. That could well be the moment when the aforementioned transcendence reaches its zenith.
Transcendence also occurs in Day of Wrath (1943), not with the viewer, but with the heroine instead, who spends the film looking for love only to be fatally betrayed by the object of her love. The film was made 11 years after Dreyer made his most experimental work, Vampyr (1932), a surrealist piece with wild camera work and stylised Gothic mise-en-scene. With Day of Wrath, Dreyer achieved a finely balanced combination of subject and form, and the austerity and density of the atmosphere of this historical, ecstatically realist (to borrow the expression from Herzog) piece can certainly be ranked as one of his masterpieces.
Set in 1623, a hundred years after the Protestant reformation in Denmark, we enter this archaic universe, through the eyes of Anne (Lisbeth Movin), the young wife of Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose). The couple live under the disapproving gaze of his mother Meret (Sigrid Neiiendam) who sees in Anne a sinner, or, in modern parlance, a free spirit, a sexual being.
This aspect of Anne’s psychology is unveiled by the hunt and condemnation of a witch right at the beginning of the film. The peasant Marthe (Anna Skierkier) seeks refuge at Anne’s house after being denounced as a witch. Even though Anne is sympathetic, she cannot prevent her arrest and eventual sacrifice, but the event arouses her curiosity about her own power. When Marthe is tortured and forced to confess to Absalon, she tries to negotiate with him her freedom by reminding him that Anne’s mother was a witch as well. From this moment onwards, this and other visual cues anticipate to the viewer what lies ahead for Anne.
Made during the Nazi occupation, Day of Wrath is commonly thought of as a metaphor for the political context of the time. The minimal use of light and the panning shots create a sense of paranoia, perfectly translating into images the essence of intolerance and repression. In that sense, it is a timeless essay on the desire for freedom and happiness.
With thanks to the NFT press office.