Friday, March 30, 2012

Carl Dreyer Season: The Early Films

The Passion of Carl Dreyer, a major retrospective of one of cinema's most influential directors, from 1st-29th April 2012 at the IFI.

Although the IFI has regular screenings of classic films, usually when they are re-released in new or restored versions, large retrospectives devoted to the work of one director are somewhat rarer. Such programmes are difficult and sometimes expensive to mount, not least because print sources and rights holders (often completely different entities) are not always easy to locate. One has to have good reason to undertake such a mission, especially if it involves importing prints from four different countries, setting up your own electronic subtitling system, running 35mm projectors at slower speeds than normal, translating inter-titles, and arranging musical accompaniment for silent titles. Getting the Carl Dreyer season on screen involved all these tasks, but I’m sure that seeing the work will prove it worthwhile, perhaps even revelatory.

Dreyer’s reputation as one of the all-time great directors largely rests on a few well-known titles, The Passion of Joan of Arc (his last silent picture), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (The Word, 1955). But his range was much greater than even these extraordinary films suggest, and his relatively short filmography (fourteen features) includes comedies and romantic dramas as well as tragedies. He started out working in a highly commercial Danish studio system whose rigid codes and working methods he often managed to subvert. He went on to make films in Sweden, Germany and France before returning to Denmark for the latter part of his career. From the beginning he sought to establish a quality cinema that could stand comparison with the other arts. His inspiration came from literature and the theatre, but his work was always highly cinematic and drew from such masters of the silent screen as Victor Sjöström, Mauritz Stiller, Sergei Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith.

Ordet, restored and re-released from April 13th-19th

The IFI retrospective is not complete and excludes Dreyer’s first two features, The President (1919) and Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919), which are more than mere apprentice works but where the influence of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is so overwhelming that it drowns out the director’s characteristic subtlety. Dreyer’s first major film is The Parson’s Widow (1920), a ribald yet tender tale set in 17th century rural Norway. Demolishing the myth that Dreyer lacked a sense of humour, The Parson’s Widow is a charming comedy about a young theology student who enters a competition to become a village pastor. He wins the post, but then discovers that a local custom dictates that he must marry his predecessor’s seventy-something widow. The film begins as a robust comedy, complete with physical gags and a stunning use of landscape, but it gradually morphs into a sensitive portrait of the things that unite and separate the generations.

Dreyer’s next film, Love One Another (1920), suffers from some of the melodramatic excesses and simplifications of his early work, but it’s still an impressively mounted epic about the anti-Semitic pogroms in 1905 Russia. Not the least of its achievements is Dreyer’s deft handling of the incredibly complicated plot of Aage Madelung’s source novel. As usual, Dreyer put an enormous amount of effort into getting every detail of period and setting right, but the characterisations are too schematic and crude (“everyone is either very, very good or very, very wicked, and is given an acting performance to match”, as critic Tom Milne observed) to make for the kind of development and revelation of character that is a hallmark of Dreyer’s best work.

Once Upon a Time 

Long considered a lost film, Once upon a Time (1922) has now been restored by the Danish Film Institute, with stills and titles being used to fill in the gaps created by missing scenes. A work of exceptional visual beauty, it’s a sort of variation on The Taming of the Shrew, part folk-lore and part fairy-tale, about a bored princess who rejects all her suitors until confronted by a prince who whisks her off to a humble cottage in the forest. Dreyer said that, in retrospect, he regretted concentrating on the whimsical-magical atmosphere at the expense of characterisation, but this is still a lovely and wholly enchanting film.

Dreyer’s growing reputation led him to make many films abroad, and one of the most exotic is Michael (1924), an expensive art movie produced by the mighty Ufa studios in Germany. Based on a 1902 novel by Herman Bang, this period romance is both elaborately theatrical and remarkably restrained. At its centre are an aging artist (brilliantly played by Swedish director Benjamin Christensen of Häxan fame), his handsome young protégé and a cash-strapped princess who’s really a femme fatale intent on robbing the old man. Despite the large budget, elaborate décor and overpowering atmosphere of German expressionism, Dreyer concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Betrayed by his love object, who falls for the princess, the artist becomes a hermit and loses the will to live. Significantly, though, he manages to create one final magnificent painting before he dies, uttering the words, “Now I can die in peace, for I have seen a great love.” A chamber piece about a handful of characters in which all significant things remain unspoken, Michael is pure Dreyer and pure cinema, with the camera concentrating on the characters’ glances, facial expressions and the objects that surround them.

The Bride of Glomdal

Before moving on to Master of the House (1925), which is arguably the finest of Dreyer’s silent films, it’s worth saying a little about The Bride of Glomdal (1926) since this little gem is not well known or highly rated by most critics. Like The Parson’s Widow, it is firmly rooted in the landscapes and traditions of Norway and tells a familiar story about thwarted young love. Tore, son of a poor farmer, loves Berit, daughter of a rich one, but she is promised by her father to another man whom she does not love and whom she refuses to marry. Injured in a fall from her horse while running away, and cast out by her father, Berit is cared for by Tore’s parents until reconciliation is effected through the local parson. The marriage goes ahead, but not before Tore, subjected to a revenge plot by his furious rival, has had to make a hazardous crossing of the river on horseback and by swimming the rapids.

The Bride of Glomdal may be a minor film—Dreyer himself described it as “a little folk tale”—but Master of the House is a deceptively simple masterpiece. In his book on Dreyer,(1) Tom Milne provides a wonderful account of the film, from which the following is an extract.

Master of the House

Master of the House (sometimes also known as Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife, a direct translation of the somewhat forbiddingly biblical title chosen by Dreyer; the original play was more appropriately titled The Fall of a Tyrant) is my own personal favourite among Dreyer’s films with the possible exceptions of Vampyr and Gertrud, and its golden simplicity almost defies description. Ida Frandsen (played by the enchanting Astrid Holm), married some fifteen years, is a perfect wife and mother, but her tetchy husband Victor (Johannes Meyer) finds fault with everything she does. She bears it all patiently until her mother and Victor’s old nanny, unable to stand it any longer, crossly persuade her to hit back by leaving him, temporarily at least. Reluctantly she does so, only to find her absence prolonged by a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, nanny takes charge, deliberately undermining Victor’s creature comforts until he at last realises, not only how hard Ida worked, but how much he loves her, and they are reconciled. From this rather unpromising material, drawn from a play by Svend Rindom who collaborated on the adaptation, Dreyer fashioned a richly detailed film that is charming, funny and intensely moving in roughly equal proportions. [. . .]

“Within its limits, Master of the House is perfection, with the raw materials of cinema so rigidly pared down and controlled that the faces, gestures and movements become the landscape of the film. As Dreyer himself put it: “What I look for in my films, what I want to do, is to penetrate, by way of their most subtle expressions, to the deepest thoughts of my actors. For it is these expressions which reveal the personality of a character, his unconscious feelings, the secrets hidden deep within his soul?” Clearly Dreyer had no further to go in the area of human reality, but before he began to probe the secrets of the soul, he paused for the joyful interlude of The Bride of Glomdal, rightly considered as a minor event in his career, but wrongly held by almost every critic who has written about Dreyer’s work to be an inferior film.”

Peter Walsh

The Passion of Carl Dreyer retrospective continues at the IFI from 1st-29th April 2012. for more information on films and bookings, please contact our Box Office on 01-679 3477 or visit the season's page [here]. 

 Dreyer’s later films will be covered in a forthcoming blog.

(1)The Cinema of Carl Dreyer by Tom Milne (Tantivy Press, 1971)

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