Carl Theodor Dreyer/Denmark/1925-64; R4
Madman, $34.95 ea | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

DANISH director Carl Dreyer remains criminally neglected in popular film discourse. That’s despite the fact directors such as Lars von Trier want to be him, and directors such as Michael Haneke make use of his unique style of editing. As one of Europe’s premier filmmakers, his reputation has been largely downplayed due to his glacial output and his uncompromising style. Yet he deserves to be held much higher esteem – indeed, his collection of sound films, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, L’Ordet and Getrud, are some of the finest films ever made. And that’s not even considering another silent masterpiece of Dreyer’s, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc. It’s about time that his movies have received the DVD treatment, and Australasian label Madman (through their Directors Suite imprint) have ported many of his more obscure short films; films that fill in the gaps between his masterpieces. But despite the extras, his features stand alone as some of the most potent and emotionally charged images committed to celluloid.

Master of the House (1925) is one of his earliest surviving features. Made in 1925, the film immediately places Dreyer as a director concerned with social issues, and specifically, gender roles. The film looks at a married couple, where the wife cops the verbal abuse from a spoiled husband. However, a concerned servant attempts to turn the tables. This highly melodramatic set-up is worthy of consideration for Dreyerphiles, though is probably not the best starting point for novices. However, the germs of his style are here: his progressive thinking when it comes to feminist ideas, his clear-eyed view of human relations. He’s also starting to develop his own style of editing. While Master of the House doesn’t have the same ruthlessness to mise-en-scène that his later work has, Dreyer shows that he’s willing to eschew continuity editing for a more rhythmic approach. For Dreyer, his cuts serve a purpose – they tell the story rather than simply continuing the story as classical Hollywood editing rules dictate. Dreyer is therefore not afraid to break the “rules” – the 180 degree line is treated as if it never existed, match cuts are disdainfully unmatched, and jarring fissures start to open up. These moments often draw an audience into an uneasy security – Dreyer underneath his action is setting up power relations, discomfort and tension simply by the way he relates one shot to another.

In Master of the House he resorts to simplistic gender binaries, which while politically motivated, are obvious in their implications. That said, his style comes to the fore as his editing determines the action, rather than the story itself, or even his rather unsubtle imagery (e.g. bird-cages, his Ibsen fascination). Also, his remarkable consideration of space is immediately evident – 90% of the film’s action is in an apartment he constructed. While Master of the House may not necessarily be of much interest to Dreyer newcomers, it’s certainly of historical interest to anyone interested in the director. The DVD also features three of Dreyer’s key short films from the ‘40s, a period when he only released one feature, Day of Wrath: Good Mothers (1942), The Fight Against Cancer (1947) and They Caught the Ferry (1948) (there was also a feature film, Two People, which Dreyer disowned).

Master of the House doesn’t quite prepare a viewer for the intensity of La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc. But then nothing really will. A silent film, which doesn’t need sound, it’s largely told in close-ups, and confined to one setting. The proceedings reach an unbearable power rarely matched in cinema. The film tells Joan of Arc’s trial by an ecclesiastical court, in the days leading up to her execution as a heretic. The lead performance by Maria Falconetti is astounding – one of cinema’s greatest ever performances – and the legend goes that she suffered a nervous breakdown subsequent to the film and never acted again. It reaches a spiritual purity, something which often gets thrown at Dreyer without bothering to consider his intentions. The editing is remarkable too; according to David Bordwell (who wrote extensively on Dreyer), out of the film’s 1500 cuts, fewer than 30 “match”. Dreyer was re-writing the language of editing, and in the process making one of the masterpieces of world cinema. The film was believed lost until found in a Norwegian mental institution, something very apt in this epic tale of torment and madness.

Day of Wrath (1943) is my personal favourite of Dreyer’s films, though to be honest, it’s all much of a muchness when it comes to his last three films, plus Jeanne D’Arc. Day of Wrath is set during the Danish witch-hunts in the 17th Century (he made the film in Nazi occupied Denmark, and the parallels are rather clear). An elderly clergyman re-marries, but marries a much, much younger wife. His son returns from study, and the son finds himself falling in love with his new stepmother – but she starts placing her own actions within the “evil” being punished by the witch-hunts. Icy, detached, but again, so unbearably intense, Dreyer’s film is a brutal de-construction of power, morality, conscience, and fear. The mise-en-scène and spatial construction creates the story and the tension, while the torture scenes are memorable for being so nerve-racking, that Dreyer didn’t actually have to show much at all.

Ordet (1955) is the next feature Dreyer released, over a decade after Day of Wrath, as his later output became much more sporadic. The film which has been mostly ascribed to Dreyer’s strict Lutheran childhood (a point of view criticised by Jonathan Rosenbaum), but this is more a film about redemption, faith, trust and the trials of love within a cynical world. As a stone-cold atheist, this is perhaps the most spiritually uplifting film ever made (with the possible exceptions of Bresson). The film sets its characters slowly, setting up the patriarchal figure who refuses to accept his son’s marriage for religious reasons. As the plot develops, and the characters are carefully delineated, the film draws its spell up to its devastating conclusion. Slow, hypnotic, and full of mind-boggling mise-en-scène, it’s arguably as objectively great as Jeanne D’Arc. The fact the film was made from a play by Kaj Munk, a pastor killed by the Germans during World War II for choosing God over Nazism only adds to the film’s subtext. Somehow this film was Dreyer’s biggest commercial success too.

His final film Gertrud (1964) was critically demolished upon its release. Since the French were re-writing the language of cinema with the Nouvelle Vague, Dreyer’s film appeared positively pedestrian for those enjoying the freewheeling spirit of Godard, Truffaut etc. However those outraged ignored the fact that Dreyer was deconstructing the very language of cinema with this “barebones” plot. Based on a highly misogynistic turn of the century play, Dreyer updates the film with his typical gender concerns. He shows a woman struggling to find herself within a man’s world, and deciding to choose independence over selling herself short. The editing sets up the tension and the drama, and his imagery are stunning. It was a fitting farewell to a great career – he died a couple of years later. Dreyer remains one of cinema’s great directors. He was uncompromising, challenging, brutal, intense. He was a cinematic master that re-wrote how films can be put together, and importantly, his films haven’t dated one bit. The new DVD releases cannot be more highly recommended.