Carl Dreyer

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Why it’s daunting: The career of Danish director Carl Dreyer certainly isn’t daunting for its breadth: Though it spans more than four decades, from 1919 through 1964, he wasn’t a prolific filmmaker once the silent era ended. And while adventurous viewers might wish to seek out formative work like 1921’s Leaves From Satan’s Book or 1925’s Master Of The House, the essential Dreyer films number just five—they could be knocked out in a day, albeit a colorless, emotionally taxing one. In all other respects, Dreyer’s work presents an enormous challenge: for its severe austerity; its violation of aesthetic conventions past and present; and its running themes of sin, repression, marital and familial discord, and spiritual struggle. He makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen.

Possible gateway: The Passion Of Joan Of Arc

Why: A big part of Dreyer’s singularity as a filmmaker was the disconnect between his work and his contemporaries’: Depending on the project, he could be called either behind the times or way ahead of them, but he was perpetually out of step. Though it was a flop at the time, 1928’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc remains Dreyer’s most celebrated film, and one of the great achievements of the silent era, the ultimate example of a woman suffering for her faith. What makes the film difficult isn’t so much Joan’s persecution at the hands of her ecclesiastical tormentors at trial, or Maria Falconetti’s famously expressive performance in the title role. Its true intensity—and true genius—lies in Dreyer’s deliberate mangling of cinematic grammar and the persistent sense of disorientation it engenders. 

Audiences now—and certainly at the time—expect to be situated comfortably within a space, on a 180-degree plane, with a clear idea of where characters are located in relation to each other and to a particular setting. But Dreyer constructs Joan Of Arc entirely in close-up or extreme close-up, without the establishing shots that ordinarily keep viewers on terra firma. Dreyer compensates to a degree by lifting the intertitles directly from trial records, but the film is intended to leave the audience unmoored as Joan fights to sustain her faith in the face of unrelenting accusations and scorn. Raised a strict Lutheran by his adoptive family, Dreyer returned again and again to the spiritual tests that life foists upon his characters, but never this directly or powerfully. 

Next steps: A lot of Gateways To Geekery columns advise jumping around in various filmographies, discographies, and bibliographies, but the best route through Dreyer is in chronological order. That means the next movie is 1932’s Vampyr, a typically unconventional (and also typically derided) take on the horror genre. Though Dreyer’s difficulties with the technical headaches of sound recording make the performances awkward—the spare dialogue is entirely overdubbed, and many of the gaps are filled in by title cards—the film successfully repurposes many of Joan Of Arc’s disorienting effects. As Vampyr follows a student of the occult through a small French village, where he witnesses disturbances at an inn and a large manor, Dreyer erases the distinction between real and unreal, alive and undead. The place comes alive with a menace that’s true to the genre, but Dreyer also seizes on the opportunity to ponder the existence of evil and the one source from which it emanates. 

Partly out of commercial failure, partly out of fastidiousness, Dreyer spent the rest of his career barely working above a film-a-decade pace, but he made each one count. 1943’s Day Of Wrath also deals with a supernatural curse, but mainly as context for an intense, ultimately tragic love triangle, within a repressive society where people are widely convinced there are witches among them. Set in an early-17th-century Danish village—once again, Dreyer worked out of time—Day Of Wrath opens with an old woman being accused of witchcraft, then tortured into a confession and burned at the stake. She leaves behind a curse that haunts one of her persecutors, an aging pastor who’s taken a young wife who his battleaxe of a mother also believes to be a witch. Under this atmosphere of extreme suspicion and godly brutality, the wife’s affair with the pastor’s son can only end badly, and Dreyer beautifully captures the terrible collision of faith, superstition, and matters of the heart. 

Another 12 years later, with his 1955 masterpiece Ordet, Dreyer loses the supernatural trappings of Vampyr and Day Of Wrath, and deals directly with an agrarian family’s spiritual crises. Living within a deeply religious community in West Jutland, the family remains perilously fragmented in its relationship to God. Of the patriarch’s three adult sons, one has rejected faith, another has gone mad and declares himself to be Jesus Christ reborn, and the third is trying with little success to marry the daughter of a fundamentalist who rejects him for religious reasons. It’s a bleak, angst-ridden portrait of a family divided under an absent God, but then, in one astonishing, transcendent moment, everything changes.

Where not to start: It’s taken years for even Dreyer’s fans to come around to 1964’s Gertrud, an airless black-and-white chamber piece that could have been made 20 or 30 years earlier. In his essay for Criterion DVD, Phillip Lopate recalls its terrible reception at the New York Film Festival, where audiences keen on the French New Wave and Richard Lester movies were mystified by the film’s stolid lack of physical action. Over time, Gertrud’s reputation has improved dramatically, as concerns over its staginess and stilted performances have given way to an appreciation of its precise, beautiful lighting scheme and its insights into a courageous older woman who leaves her husband and tries to seek out new passion. It’s a proper coda to a career flush with strong, tragic women, but a coda is a coda. Watch it last.

Filed Under: Film

More Gateways To Geekery