The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection Review
Carl Theodor Dreyer's output is sparse: just fourteen feature films over forty-five years, with decade-long gaps in parts of his later career. Yet that is enough to make him one of the cinema's great directors. There's a clear line to his fellow Scandinavian Protestant Ingmar Bergman, whose much more prolific career overlapped with his, and the much younger Lars Von Trier is an avowed devotee. Von Trier employed the DP of Dreyer's final two features, Henning Bendtsen, on his own second and third features, Epidemic and Europa and can be seen wearing Dreyer's own dinner jacket as he speaks to camera during the end credits sequences of The Kingdom. His themes of spirituality, his concern with the situation of women in society (both contemporary and historic) and his increasingly austere style, often using long takes, have made their mark. This box set contains four of his feature films, seven shorts made in the 1940s and 1950s, and plenty of other material.
Dreyer was born a few years before the cinema, in 1889. He was born out of wedlock of Swedish parents and was adopted by a Danish family at an early age. His biological mother, Dreyer later discovered, died a few years later as the result of an illegal abortion. Dreyer began work as a journalist and entered the film industry as an intertitle writer and then a scriptwriter in 1912. He was thirty when he directed his first film, The President (1919). The silent era was Dreyer's most prolific period: nine features, made in Norway, Sweden, France and Germany as well as Denmark. Leaves from Satan's Book was a three-part feature heavily influenced by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, a film Dreyer greatly admired. Reviews can be found on this site for The Parson's Widow, his second feature, a comedy from 1920, and the 1924 drama Michael. The following year, Dreyer directed the first feature film in this set, cowritten with Svend Rindom, author of the play on which it was based.
Master of the House (Du sjak ære din hustru, which translates as Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife, an alternative English-language title) is a contemporary-set drama. Victor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer) is undoubtedly master of his own house, one where he treats his wife Ida (Astrid Holm) as a virtual slave. She is trying to feed and clothe him and their children on limited means (Victor's business has failed) and her health is beginning to suffer. His mother Karen (Karin Nellemose) steps in and takes Ida away and brings in Victor's old nanny (Mathilde Nielsen) in an effort to make him mend his ways.
Ida's enclosure in the marriage and the house which emblematises it is palpable. Almost all the film is set inside that house and on the rare occasions in which his camera ventures outside it gives us a visual jolt. Dreyer's concern with women's status in society is very evident here and this is an outspokenly feminist work with resonances today. At the same time it is an affecting story, told with uninsistent realism, of Victor's redemption.
Dreyer's films of the silent era culminated two films and three years later with The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in France. (That link goes to my review of the Criterion DVD, but more recently the film has been released in a fine Blu-ray edition from Masters of Cinema.) Many would rank this film as Dreyer's absolute masterpiece, and I wouldn't disagree. Containing a staggering performance from Renée Falconetti as Joan, in her only film, it is one of the great films dealing with religious faith and the nature of suffering, particularly the suffering of women. Joan is one of several of Dreyer's protagonists whose convictions, religious or otherwise, isolates them from the society of which they form a part. It also showed Dreyer as a master of viewing the expressive possibilities of the human face, often seen in close up and unadorned – none of the cast wore make-up. What the film was not, however, was a commercial success, and being released in the twilight of the silent era (between the release of The Jazz Singer the year before and the first all-talkies being made the following year) could not have helped. By now Dreyer had a reputation as being a difficult director to work with, one insisting to make films on his own terms, and this had ramifications on his future career. His first sound film, Vampyr, shot in English, French and German versions, was financed privately, and is Dreyer's notable essay in the horror genre, though it is far from typical of the horror films being made around that time. (However, some of his other films aren't too far removed from horror, Day of Wrath especially.) Vampyr was another commercial failure. Dreyer, following several films which failed to come to fruition, returned to his career as a journalist.
By the early 1940s, World War Ii was at its height and Denmark was an occupied country. As foreign films were not being shown there, that gave a boost to the local film industry, which had suffered since the birth of the sound era due to Danish being such a minority world language in a small country. Following a meeting with film producer, Mogens Skot-Hansen, Dreyer suggested a film based on Hans Wiers-Jenssen's play Anne Pedersdotter. However, Skot-Hansen suggested making a short film first, to show that Dreyer could make a film within time and within budget. That short was Good Mothers, described below as part of this box set's extras. Dreyer then went on to make that feature film, Day of Wrath (Vredens dag), which premiered in Denmark in 1943, though not shown internationally until after the end of the War.
Day of Wrath begins after the title card (there are no other credits) with a thunderous crash of music, an arrangement of the hymn Dies Irae, whose Latin words we see on screen. We are in a Danish community in the seventeenth century. An old woman, Marthe (Anne Svierkier), is arrested and accused of witchcraft. She goes to a fiery death cursing her persecutors, one of whom is Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose). Absalon is married to the much younger Anne (Lisbeth Movin), who unbeknownst to him has a passion for Absalon's son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who is much closer to her own age. The first third of this film is the most intense, with Marthe's interrogation leading up to a horrifying sequence where she is strapped to a ladder and plunged screaming into the flames as a boy choir sings nearby. However, the love between Anne and Martin is quite palpable, played out in their faces. As they refer to themselves as mother and son, Dreyer is taking us close to a breaking of a taboo, and indeed relations between a step-parent and stepchild have constituted incest in some societies. (It's remarkable that this film was passed by the BBFC uncut when it was submitted to them in 1946, but that is what happened, for the then A certificate.) Dreyer's approach for the sound film differed from that he used for a silent, making much use of off-screen sound and extending the length of his shots by means of a tracking or dollying camera. He also does not discount the existence of witchcraft as a real force in this society. Dreyer himself did not deny the possibility of a God or of higher powers, even if the science of the day may not have an explanation of them. Some people saw Day of Wrath as an allegory of Denmark's occupation by the Nazis, though Dreyer denied this.
Dreyer made one further feature film in the 1940s, Two People (Två människor, made in Sweden in 1945. It was a failure and Dreyer disowned it, and the only known copy is held by the Swedish Film Institute. Dreyer continued to make short films, but it was a decade before he made another feature, Ordet (The Word).
Ordet is based on a play by Kaj Munk (whose name is the only one on screen – again there are no other credits than a title card). Munk, a priest as well as a playwright, resisted the Nazis and was shot dead in 1944. Dreyer saw Munk's play in 1932 and formed a desire to film it there and then, achieving this goal two decades later. The film is set in a small community in West Jutland. Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) has two sons. Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is married to Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) and a child, their third, is on the way. Meanwhile, Mikkel's brother Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), has had a mental breakdown and existential crisis due to too much reading of Kierkegaard, and wanders through the village and the surrounding countryside proclaiming the word of Jesus., which he believes himself to be a reincarnation of. Then Inger dies in childhood. It is only when Johannes realises his own delusion that he is granted access to spiritual power, and with the simple faith of a young child, a miracle takes place. In Dreyer's eyes, conventional religion – both a Puritanical sect and a more life-affirming one – are found wanting.
Like all the films in this set, Ordet is based on a stage play. In the twelve years since Day of Wrath, he has refined his style, enhancing the theatricality of the material by means of longer takes with a mobile camera: there are just 114 shots in this film, a third as many as the earlier film, which is half an hour shorter. There is also an urge to simplify, almost abstract, the locations and interiors we see on screen. Much of the film is in medium shot and close-ups are used more sparingly than before, Dreyer saving most of them for the film's sublime climax.
By this time, Dreyer had embarked on a second career as a cinema manager. After Ordet, he worked on longtime projects such as a film of Medea and what he regarded as the culmination of his career, a film about the life of Jesus Christ. Neither were ever made, though Lars Von Trier did film the former for Danish television in 1988. Dreyer's reputation was high amongst the critics/filmmakers of the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to him in Vivre sa vie by having Anna Karina watch The Passion of Joan of Arc in a cinema. So expectations were high for Dreyer's next film Gertrud, when it premiered in 1964.
Gertrud is again based on a play, by Hjalmar Söderberg. Gerrtud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode) is a retired opera singer married to Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a government minister. Feeling that their marriage is empty, she announces that she is leaving him. She enters into an affair with a young composer, Erland (Baard Owe), but soon encounters her former lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode). Gertrud is thwarted by both men, Erland only seeing their affair as a dalliance rather than a true love, and she declines to restart a relationship with Gabriel, preferring to live alone than with any man.
Dreyer's detractors had complained about his films' slow pace since at least as far as Day of Wrath and Gertrud had a stormy reception at its premiere, with those detractors finding this film's pace positively glacial. Dreyer had pushed the austeritu of his style even further, with one shot lasting just under ten minutes. (In this insistent theatricality while still remaining cinematic, you can see an influence on one of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais, in his own film versions of stage plays.) However, Gertrud won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and had its champions from the outset. It was Dreyer's final film. He died in 1968, at the age of seventy-nine.
The BFI's limited-edition box set The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection comprises three Blu-rays and one DVD. Masters of the House is on the first Blu-ray, Day of Wrath and Ordet on the second and Gertrud on the third, with extras appropriate to those films on each. Dreyer's seven short films are on the Gertrud disc. The DVD contains the feature-length documentary about Dreyer, My Metier, and other material. The BFI previously released these films on DVD in 2006 and they were reviewed for this site by Anthony Nield: Master of the House, Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud. While these films are hardly likely to appeal to young children, I note that the 12 certificate this set carries is due to the childbirth scene in Ordet, with Day of Wrath and Gertrud both bearing PG certificates and Master of the House a U.
The four dramatic features are transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1, except for Gertrud which is 1.66:1. Those are without doubt correct, though as DP Henning Bendtsen mentions in the My Metier interview outtakes (see below), Ordet, made just at the start of the widescreen era, was intended for Academy Ratio but protected for widescreen (most likely 1.66:1, though he doesn't specify which widescreen ratio) and was sometimes shown wide, including at the premiere. The three later features were restored at 2K restoration in 2008 from 35mm negative elements and look very fine indeed, with the increased detail in the black and white cinematography particularly beneficial in the latter two, both dominated by medium shots.
Master of the House was restored from various materials in 2010 in 2K and is presented in two versions, with Danish intertitles and English ones. This leads to a slight difference in running times (111:20 and 111:52 respectively). Optional English subtitles are available to translate the Danish intertitles. The film was shot at eighteen frames per second, and has been rendered into 1080p24 by repeating every third frame, though this is something you would not notice unless you were specifically looking for it.
Being a silent film, Master of the House has a piano score composed and played by Lars Fjeldmose, which is mixed in LPCM Surround (2.0). The three sound films have LPCM 1.0 tracks. There's nothing untoward here, with dialogue clear and well-balanced with music and sound effects. English subtitles for these Danish-language films are optional.
The extras begin on the first disc with a short (3:35) restoration demonstration for Master of the House, with before and after scenes shown as small images side by side.
On to Disc Two, and via seamless branching you can play the English version of Day of Wrath, the one that originally played in UK cinemas. This comprises an English title card and English translations of the words of the hymn at the start and finish. Day of Wrath features a commentary by Casper Tybjerg, carried over from the previous DVD release. It's a very informative listen, filling in with the film's history and its place in Dreyer's filmography as well as analysis of the film as it unfolds. Along similar lines is "The Cross" (20:02), a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, which has a particular emphasis on Dreyer's mise-en-scène, especially his use of rhyming cuts and clashing camera angles in the same scene. On the same disc is Ordet og lyset (34:54), a profile of Henning Bendtsen, DP for Ordet and Gertrud, though this primarily focuses on the former. It is presented in 4:3, with the film extracts full-frame and the interview material letterboxed, and also in black and white. Bendtsen describes his and Dreyer's working methods and aesthetic principles.
On to Disc Three, and the main feature, Gertrud is supported by a number of extras specific to it. First is an interview with Dreyer by Julian Jebb (7:49), first broadcast on BBC2 in November 1965 in the arts magazine New Release, following the London Film Festival showing of the film. The interview took place in Copenhagen and is in English, though Dreyer does twice stumble over the pronunciation of "microphone" (second time round he laughs and says "Keep that in") and says "paysage" rather than "countryside" but this makes for a short though still insightful piece. It begins with opening captions and a glimpse of a clapperboard and some of the soundtrack is missing, as Jebb's voiceover starts in mid-sentence. Dreyer talks about his plans for his film about Jesus, which he says will be the "summit of his production in this life". "Carl Th. Dreyer und Gertrud" (28:50) is a 1994 German-made piece on the making of the film, featuring contemporary footage of the premiere, featuring Dreyer, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and some of the cast and crew, and contemporary interviews. English subtitles are available, though those in the film extracts are on a black background, probably covering up German ones.
However, the bulk of the extras on this disc are Dreyer's seven short films, made between 1942 and 1954. These are: Good Mothers (Mødrehjælpen, 1947, 11:46), The Fight Against Cancer (Kampen mod kræften, 1947, 11:06), The Village Church (Landsbykirken, 1947, 13:53), They Caught the Ferry (De naaede færgen, 1948, 11:48), Thorvaldsen (1949, 10:02), Storstrøm Bridge (Storstrøms broen, 1950, 7:06), and A Castle Within a Castle: Krogen to Kronborg (Et sloot i et slot: Krogen og Kronberg, 1954, 8:53). As mentioned above, Good Mothers was made so that Dreyer could then go on to make Day of Wrath but its subject matter – a home for unmarried mothers and awareness of the services available both before and after birth – may well have been close to home, given his own history. Parts of it are dramatised, with a cast of non-actors, and that's also the case of The Fight Against Cancer, intended to raise awareness of early symptoms so that doctors have a better chance of curing the disease. Squeamish viewers should note that this short contains some graphic photographs of oral cancer tumours. Dreyer is uncredited on this short, and his participation as writer and director was not discovered until 1968. The Village Church (also partly dramatised) and A Castle Within a Castle are more traditional documentary subjects, the former on the many village churches in Denmark and the latter an account of the building of Kronberg Castle, around the much older Krogen Castle in the same location. Storstrøm Bridge is a visual poem about the eponymous road and rail bridge linking the Danish islands of Falster and Masnedø, at 3.2km then the longest bridge in Europe, now as I write this under reconstruction. Thorvaldsen is a portrait of the works of sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Finally, They Caught the Ferry is a surprising short, intended as a public information film about motorcycle safety, with far more shots in its short span than is usual for Dreyer. While these short films were undoubtedly made to pay the rent and Dreyer certainly felt that his true calling was for feature films, there is plenty of interest in his work in the short form.
The centrepiece of the fourth disc (a DVD) is the 1995 documentary Carl Th. Dreyer: My Métier (93:05) directed by Torben Skydt Jensen. This is a thorough profile of Dreyer from birth to death, taking in his whole filmography, supplemented by interviews (also in black and white) with cast and crew members who had worked with him, plus an archive interview with Clara Pontoppidan, one of the stars of Leaves from Satan's Book. The documentary is a little sparing with film extracts as that is the only silent that gets extracted. This is presented in 1.66:1, which has the unfortunate effect that the film clips shown are cropped from their original ratio, except for those from Gertrud. The film has a Dolby Surround soundtrack, though the surrounds are used only for the music score. This documentary is presented in two versions, Daniish and English, as alternative soundtracks on the same disc title. The only difference is in the voiceovers and narration, as in both versions the interviews remain in their original Danish, or in the case of Hèlène Falconetti, the daughter of the star of The Passion of Joan of Arc who refers to her mother by her surname throughout, French. English subtitles are available for everything or for just the interviews, but there is no option to do without subtitles at all. Also on the disc are eighty minutes of deleted interview footage from this documentary. So we hear more from Henning Bendtsen (6:38), Birgitte Federspiel (4:55), Preben Lerdorff Rye (10:35), Jorgen Roos (5:48), Hèlène Falconetti (11:57), Lisbeth Movin (14:06), Baard Owe (16:31) and Axel Strøbye (7:50). There is a Play All option. Subtitles on the outtakes are optional, with those for Falconetti appearing at the top of the screen instead of at the bottom.
Next up are short pieces from the archive of the Danish state broadcaster DR, from between 1965 and 1968, comprising short interviews with Henning Bendtsen (3:50), Preben Lerdorff Rye (3:41) and Lisbeth Movin (2:54), "Dreyer in Person" (0:48, mute with music) and Dreyer talking at the Danish Film School (1:09), again with a Play All Option.
There follow four short items from Jorgen Roos's archive, all mute with music and also with a Play All option: "Dreyer Visits America" (1:05), "Shooting Gertrud" (1:52), "Gertrud Paris Premiere" (1:52) and "Interview Outtakes" (1:43).
Finally, there are two items which are audio-only, presented over a stills gallery, an undated interview with Ole Busendorff of the Danish Film Museum, in which he gives an overview of Dreyer's films (15:41) and an introduction by Henning Camre recorded in 2003 at the National Film Theatre in London (10:03). Both are in English.
Casper Tydbjerg kicks off the forty-page booklet with an essay, "Film Art as Passion". This is an overview of Dreyer's work, style and preoccupations, first discussing Ordet and then going back to the start of his career to its end. This is followed by essays on the individual features in this set, on Master of the House by Tom Milne (an extract reprinted from a 1965 Sight & Sound article), on Day of Wrath by Philip Kemp, on Ordet by Philip Horne and on Gertrud by Ilona Halberstadt, plus Nick Wrigley on Dreyet's short films and a biographical piece on Dreyer by Mark Nash. The booklet also features credits for the four features, notes and the seven short films, notes and credits for most of the extras, transfer notes and stills. As ever, it's a solid and informative booklet, rounding off what has to be one of the releases of the year.