Taken from Kai Munk’s play of the same name, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet approaches its source with an essential fidelity yet also strips it down to the barest of essentials. On the surface this is a very simple film, one which makes use of few actors, even fewer locations and perhaps comes, or so it seems, with a certain theatricality. It doesn’t quite appear to be taking place in the real world, what with its very particular style of photography and very precise performance methods. Furthermore, this is a film which very clearly shows off its pared-down nature; from a narrative perspective everything is laid down quite succinctly within the first ten minutes.
Indeed, precision is the key to Ordet with every last detail – not just the photography and performances – coming across as having been governed entirely. Compositionally each frame is exact and likewise the camera movements, whilst the dialogue contains lines which will truly startle such is their dramatic weight. For whilst Ordet may very well be calculated right down to the most insignificant seeming of moments, it most certainly isn’t cold. Despite the surface simplicity there’s a great complexity underneath and with it comes an undeniable passion and warmth. After all, this is a film famous for its immensely emotional pay-off (though newcomers be warned that the BFI’s sleeve carries excessive spoilers).
Part of the reason for this success is the sheer density in narrative terms. Ordet lacks a singular focus, instead opting to spreads its concerns through a number of equally important threads. In essence the film could be read as domestic drama, concentrating as it does on a rural family – father, three sons, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren – living in a small Danish village. One of the sons, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), is insane and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. Another, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), wishes to marry Anne (Gerda Nielsen) though her differing religion stands in their way. And the third, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), seemingly the most mature and level-headed, is soon to have a third child with wife Inger (Brigitte Federspiel). Meanwhile their father Morten (Henrik Malberg) would appear to have difficult relations with them all, though each for a differing reason.
Moreover, Ordet has a series of dramatic ‘hooks’ with which to draw us into the action and thus investigate beyond the surface. The big themes therefore of madness, marriage and pregnancy aren’t there simply as a means of providing the narrative, but instead serve as a way of leading us into the bigger thematic debates underneath, those of religion versus religion, of religion versus science and, most importantly, of religion versus faith. Indeed, it is these inner workings which infuse the picture as a whole and as a result allow it to build to that immense climax; every moment seems to be heading in the same direction, to this exact same conclusion.
Yet the reason why Ordet remains one of the most astonishing pieces of cinema you’re ever likely to see is not simply down to its content, but rather the way in which this content marries with the form. As said, it too would appear to demonstrate a surface simplicity; the photography and compositions are immediate in their beauty. Yet behind this (again Ordet works in layers) there are acts of pure cinema which completely disavow the aforementioned theatricality. Though he rarely cuts in the conventional sense of the word, Dreyer proves himself a master editor. His film is constructed almost solely through numerous dolly shots which, in themselves, control the action. At key points a movement will begin and thus shift our focal point. Dreyer’s actions are simply tracks or pans which go in one direction and then the next, but much more complex. He’s able to open up a scene and then close it down, always playing on the tension between what is concealed and what is revealed. At once he’s able to demonstrate an extraordinary sense of control (and therefore trust), but also great mystery; just when we believe we have our bearings, Dreyer will throw in a further movement which opens up whole new possibilities. Indeed, as with the narrative itself, it becomes a means of both hooking us in and a prompt to make us delve that little bit further. As said, it’s the perfect marriage of form and content, and as such Ordet may very well be its director’s masterwork.
Gaining a release in the UK from the BFI, Ordet comes to Region 2 DVD in particularly fine form. The original Academy ratio is preserved as is the original mono Danish soundtrack and both stand up especially well. There is damage to print in places, and at times it can be quite noticeable, but then this should perhaps be expected, especially as the same flaws befell the earlier Criterion edition. Otherwise, the clarity of the image is excellent as are the contrast levels – exactly as we should expect from such a classic film. Even more impressive, however, is the soundtrack: damage is minimal and the crispness is such that even the faint ticking of clocks and the like in the background is perceptible. Indeed, Dreyer – ever the master craftsman - no doubt intended as much.
In terms of the extras, the major addition is the 2001 documentary ‘Ordet og Lyset’ (translated as ‘Ordet and the Light’) which finds cinematographer Henning Bendtsen recalling his work of many years earlier. Sadly, this piece only comes with burnt-in English subtitles, though this may very well have been because such a print was the only one available to the BFI. Nonetheless, at the 33 minutes this makes for a fascinating and in-depth prospect, one which is more than worth your time. Elsewhere the disc also finds room for two short films which Dreyer made between 1949 and 1950, Thorvaldsen and Storstrom Bridge, both of which will no doubt prove fascinating to completists. Admittedly, the former never really demonstrates its director’s talents to any formidable degree, although the latter – especially for an industrial film – is wonderfully expression and deserving of repeat viewings. Furthermore, both of these pieces arrive in fine condition and also come with optional English subtitles. Rounding off the package we also have a 20-page booklet including various liner notes both new and old, full credits for all of the disc’s entries, a brief Dreyer biography and numerous loving produced stills. All round, it’s a very pleasing package and continues the BFI’s fine run of releases so far this year.