The Pure and Clear Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

The filmmaker's demanding, rewarding films visit the PFA.

The Pacific Film Archive‘s Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective is the event of the season for art-film enthusiasts. But you’re going to have to devote some serious thought to it. In common with a few of the world’s great filmmakers, Dreyer and his relatively tidy filmography embody a fistful of apparent contradictions. The Danish writer-director (1889-1968) is responsible for some of the boldest, most emotionally powerful visuals in history as well as for moments of vulnerable, unforced tranquility. His is the cinema of painful redemption simultaneously co-existing with hopeful transcendence — and of the irresistible image versus the almighty word.

In a Dreyer film it’s always Judgment Day. On the surface, his typical scenarios seem to be populated with characters suffering in torture chambers, lying in coffins, or praying earnestly, forever reaching up toward the hard, unforgiving light. Yet there’s more to Carl Theodor Dreyer than that.

For the PFA’s Dreyer retrospective, senior film curator Susan Oxtoby has gathered together all fourteen of the filmmaker’s surviving features, beginning with The President (1918) and ending with 1964’s Gertrud — plus the 1948 short, They Caught the Ferry. Centerpiece of the series is, naturally, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s most notorious creation and one of the most magnificent, and most emotionally wrenching, experiences in screen history.

This is the Joan of Arc beside whom all other Joans are to be judged. Volumes have been written about it and the iconic, silent performance of French actor Maria Falconetti as Joan — browbeaten, scorned, scourged, and burned at the stake by her tormentors while Rudolph Maté‘s camera, guided by Dreyer’s unerring eye, drinks in the pain and humiliation and regurgitates it into something like divine grace. The director’s spiritual impulses notwithstanding, this passion play represents the revolution of a single soul, a cinematic miracle, a wondrously composed cathedral of light and shadow that departs from one text — the beatific religious one — to establish another, parallel cosmos based on the architecture of the human face.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is presented in a special screening Thursday, December 2 (7:30 p.m.), at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, with the musical accompaniment of composer Richard Einhorn‘s “Voices of Light,” an oratorio based on Joan’s trial and execution, performed by a full orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists, conducted by Mark Sumner. As if to emphasize the lasting impact of the 1928 film, the PFA is showing Jean-Luc Godard‘s Vivre sa vie, (1964), in which a Parisian prostitute experiences an epiphany while watching Falconetti in the Dreyer original. It screens this Friday, November 5, at 9 p.m.

The witchcraft melodrama Day of Wrath also delineates women’s tribulations at the hands of patriarchs wielding religion like a weapon, but if Joan suffers a bit opaquely, 17th-century Danish housewife Anne (played by Lisbeth Movin) gives her innermost desires free reign, up to a point. She’s the much-younger second wife of a well-meaning but strict widowed pastor, and as such is caught between the jealous hatred of her mother-in-law and her own illicit romantic feelings for her stepson, a man more her age. Against the background of witch-hunt hysteria, Anne dares to offer help to Herlof’s Marte (Anna Svierkier), a senior citizen accused of sorcery, and one thing leads to another.

Anne is a romantic trapped in a vengeful world. Her crimes would scarcely amount to a subplot in a 21st-century drama, but once again, as with Joan of Arc, a Dreyer heroine falls prey partly to her own willfulness, and also to the rigid structure of organized religion, which ruthlessly destroys unruly personal expressions of faith. Anne laughs too much and recriminates against her older husband for stealing her youth. Thus, she’s doomed. Day of Wrath opens the Dreyer retrospective at 7 p.m. this Friday, November 5.

Witchcraft and vampirism likewise inform two of Dreyer’s more gothic titles, the rarely shown silent D.W. Griffith tribute Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921) and the 1931 horror landmark Vampyr, a massively influential German production adapted from Sheridan le Fanu‘s tale of a traveler who meets the undead. In an essay commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, lecturer Carren O. Kaston comments on Dreyer’s visuals and their relations to various painters: Arnold Böcklin in Vampyr, Pieter Brueghel the Elder in The Passion of Joan of Arc, etc. At the same time, Dreyer’s impulse to pay homage to visual styles was at war with his inclination to “purify” his work by removing unnecessary decor and props from a scene.

Dreyer’s last film, Gertrud, certainly does its best to not tell its story strictly in visual images (inspired by painter Vilhelm Hammershøi), but through dialogue. In a situation Douglas Sirk could relate to, opera singer Gertrud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode) is suffocating to death in her marriage to the dignified bourgeois Gustav (Bendt Rothe), despite having taken a composer and a poet as lovers. She lives by the credo: “I believe in the pleasure of flesh and the irreparable loneliness of the soul.” Gertrud‘s atmosphere is hushed and melancholy, pregnant with repressed longing, and the acting is pointedly artificial, partly in tribute to Hjalmar Söderberg‘s play but also in keeping with Dreyer’s striving for the uncluttered essence of human emotion. It screens December 12.

Critics tend to outdo each other in praising Dreyer. For Pauline Kael, Day of Wrath was “one of the most completely moving films ever made.” Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks Gertrud is “one of the ten greatest films in the history of cinema.” Godard and Paul Schrader are among those who adore The Passion of Joan of Arc. The 1955 Ordet (adapted from Kaj Munk‘s play) may be the greatest of them all.

The setting is a lowland Danish farm, where patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), is a tad more benign but still judgmental. The action revolves around the difficult pregnancy of Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), wife of atheistic eldest son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen). Youngest son Anders (Cay Kristiansen), who wants to marry a fundamentalist’s daughter, and middle son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) are also worrisome, the latter because he imagines himself to be Jesus Christ — the result, we’re told, of reading too much Søren Kierkegaard. Tragedy strikes, and petty denominational squabbles disintegrate in Dreyer’s sublime synthesis of humanistic and textual faith, a vision of cinematic — and spiritual — purity and clarity. Ordet shows November 28.


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