Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinematic swan song, Gertrud could be viewed as the perfect expression of the director’s oeuvre. It’s a film which at once ties into his previous efforts and strives to move their themes and techniques forwards. Here we find the strong female protagonist à la The Passion of Joan of Arc or Day of Wrath, the essentially domestic setting à la Master of the House or Ordet, and a cinematic approach which continues where the earlier sound films left off, namely one of utter purity - both in terms of style and content - and one which presents a complete disavowal of anything even remotely extraneous.
Such an approach makes perfect sense given that the plotting is really quite remote. Gertrud, a retired singer in her forties, meets three men whom she has loved in her life over the period of a few days and must effectively choose between them: the husband for whom she no longer has feelings; the young artist with whom she is conducting an affair; and her first, and perhaps true, love whom she hasn’t encountered for a number of years. Indeed, this is all the film offers in the most concrete of narrative terms, yet Dreyer’s command of our attention is such that he holds us utterly rapt. The smaller focus allows him to concentrate all the more fully and as such attain the grander results. In fact, you could compare him to Gertrud herself: both are striving for utmost perfection, although only one of them achieves it.
Of course, the intensity with which Dreyer approaches the film is mirrored by that which the onscreen drama creates. The director here employs his usual long take method (a mainstay, at least, in the sound pictures) and pushes it to the near maximum. The effect is akin to that of Dreyer - and therefore the audience - staring at his characters and never once letting them escape. Certainly, there’s also a degree of detachment in this approach - the stance would appear to be unashamedly non-judgemental, that of a clear observer as opposed to a participant - yet this too perhaps heightens the drama inasmuch the film never once holds back or flinches away from the details. Furthermore, Gertrud is a work which is almost defiantly quiet. Music is rarely employed and, when this is the case, emerges via onscreen events as opposed to the soundtrack. The effect is that we’re drawn in to the smaller moments all the more and as such they become utterly enthralling; every look and avoided glance takes on a weight which would almost certainly disappear in another director’s hands.
It’s this catalogue of looks and glances which mark out Gertrud as a key Dreyer work. More so even than Ordet, it’s the lack of eye contact which is the more important. On the surface the effect can appear stilted and a little too dislocated, yet it also makes perfect emotional sense: these are people who are stuck in their own thoughts and their own ideals, and as such are never really going to connect despite their previous/current relationships. Indeed, it’s within the non-communication where the tensions - and therefore the true dramas - lie. Certainly, Dreyer dresses up his film with the artful tableaux and spot-on period design which we should expect from the director (the latter having such precision that it becomes almost invisible), yet it’s this emotional core which proves integral no matter how beautiful Gertrud is to look at. Furthermore, as with Dreyer’s finest achievements, there’s an almost crushing inevitability to events which makes this centre all the stronger. Rarely has a film which appears so immediately cold on the surface been so dramatically heavyweight.
Released in the UK by the BFI, Gertrud’s Region 2 DVD handling is highly impressive. The film arrives in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and from a print which, although not in perfect condition, is admirable nonetheless. The clarity and contrast levels are superb as is the detail. Admittedly, we are also getting the film non-anamorphically, but then the BFI’s disc does offer more of the image than Criterion’s previously available anamorphic offering. That disc came at a ratio nearer to 1.75:1 and as a result Dreyer completists may also wish to pick up this version. Furthermore, the soundtrack (in its original mono) is superb and picks up every last detail. And as should be expected, the English subtitles are optional.
As for the extras, the major addition here is the ‘Carl Th. Dreyer und Gertrud’ documentary . A German effort from 1994 this piece takes us through the film’s production in a succinct 29 minutes and includes plenty of interview and on-set footage. Indeed, the majority of Dreyer’s collaborators contribute whilst the director himself can be seen in the archive material. Elsewhere the disc follows the pattern set by the BFI’s previous Dreyer efforts and includes one of his education shorts from the forties (The Village Church) plus a 20-page booklet which boasts liner notes old and new as well as numerous production stills.
As with the main feature, optional English subtitles are available where applicable.