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Shadow Foreplay to a Carl Th. Dreyer Montage

Above: The Master, Carl Th. Dreyer.


The Brooklyn Academy of Music will be running a Carl Th. Dreyer retrospective, appropriately and monolithically titled DREYER, from March 13 - March 31.


Let’s not have any false modesty when it comes to cinema, Bazin says; not Dreyer’s, anyway, the greatest cinema (with Hitchcock’s? Brakhage’s? Hawks’?), or, simpler, as Sarris also says, the cinema. (But so, said Renoir, is cooking.) Cinema is Dreyer, which is to say that his achievement can only be understood by watching his movies, that criticism, thankfully, will never do him justice, and that that’s why there’s few more valuable subjects, why few directors benefit from criticism quite as much: there’s everything to say about Dreyer, half of it contradictory to the rest. Following this article, I will post some clippings compiled of Dreyer criticism, and deliberately cut, mostly, from pieces unavailable commercially or online (one important missing piece: Noel Burch in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary). It’s as much as portrait of Dreyer as it is a portrait of Dreyer criticism: both, necessarily, very inadequately. My special thanks to Charles Silver, at MoMA, for his assistance, skepticism, and for keeping this stuff alive. Which is an essential Dreyer theme.

Cinema is Dreyer, says Sarris, and there are, as there always are in Dreyer, practical reasons for jawstruck claims: that cinema, in the magic lantern shows on the walls of Vampyr, Ordet, and Gertrud; in Mikael’s endless rhymes on voyeurism and seeing not just as believing, but living (as in Rear Window); in all the early folk tales in which emotion comes through motion, through flux, through letting time and lovers carry us on; in the resurrections of Vampyr and Ordet (bringing back the dead: movies, and a constant Dreyer theme); in the cutting of Joan and Vampyr and the circling-pans of Day of Wrath and Ordet that impossibly unmoor their characters from their oppressive scenes by spinning the scene around them and taking them out of the real world, as in Vertigo’s own circling, into some entirely subjective reverie (what movies do); in the openings of background doors in Gertrud that unmoor them similarly (what movies do); in the late lines of Gertrud, a film that’s followed the systematic destruction of traces, “One day, your visit will only be a memory, as all the other memories I cherish. Sometimes I bring forth the memories and lose myself in them. I feel as if I’m gazing at a fire about to be extinguished” (has there been a better description of movies?)—that Dreyer’s constant subject, with God, love, and the wind (they’re all magic) is cinema: ungraspable visions: memories, dreams, hopes, nothing more than emotion’s portals, their exact nature vague even to those who feel them.

Ungraspable visions: as in Joan and Vampyr, where the camera, through cuts and tracking respectively, assumes the sight of its characters only to see what they categorically can’t (once again, what movies let us do too). But Dreyer’s cinema, from The President to Gertrud, always follows the dissolution of categorical thinking, in the culminating fires of Joan and Gertrud, the waters of Glomdale and Day of Wrath and the latter’s storm, the light breezes of Once Upon a Time and Ordet, as characters quietly pass by. Like nature, to which Dreyer is humble panegyrist throughout, his camera offers a means of transcending clear-cut man-made doctrine, and he knows it: like all movies, but openly, his movies are made of shadows. Usually projected on a wall.

Above: Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud.

All of which is just to say that Dreyer sees what only movies have—the ability to watch times and spaces shift fluidly as shadows—and gives us movies, like life, in every way in constant flux: Anne’s face at the end of Day of Wrath is like a smokescreen, or a cat’s eyes, that expresses no emotion but betrays almost all of them frame-by-frame in a moment of total truth—as the character is the actress (Lisbeth Movin) who, once again untethered from the scene proper by Dreyer, and left reeling against a wall, seems to be reacting to nothing other than herself. A moment of total truth, it is, in a film in which any expressible “truth,” including the confession she offers during the shot, including what this emotion is, is as slippery as memory and time.

In Nathaniel Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema, Dorsky signals Dreyer as one of the great humble artists who can see the value of things in themselves: the singular beauty of a single gesture, like Anne’s face at the end of Day of Wrath, like Inger’s hand at the end of Ordet, which express nothing but themselves, that can’t be explained (sometimes in more ways than one), set into words. This is a common theme for the critics below; but so’s the one that Dreyer’s camera plays God, sets up systems in which every gesture and movement is not just determined, but often predetermined, as if Dreyer has molded his actors, stage, and camera to his own expression and never their own.

Both, of course, generally expressed by the same people, are about right, though saying Dreyer’s camera controls the world is like saying the phantom carriage driver, desolately anticipating men’s deaths so he can cart them to Heaven or Hell, has any control over their lives (or what remains of them). I have dreams like this, in which, like Dreyer’s camera, I think someone might act some way, say some phrase, and the next moment they do. But I’m still, experientially, only an explorer in my dream—even if I’ve stitched my dream-world out of fragments of real life, as Dreyer has his on-set. I don’t play fate; I simply see it (though any explorer, to varying degrees, decides what he’s going to see).

And likewise, Dreyer’s camera plays seer, invoking entrances and outcomes in scenes, but is as interested in the end result as the path getting there, an actor’s own hobble (what it’s like generally and what it’s like in this particular moment), as in the slow walks across Ordet’s rooms. Fate, but expressed in natural gestures, the expressions of a face or hand or body, if more slowly than is natural, all the better to see them. (Dreyer was John Cassavetes’ second-favorite director—after Frank Capra). Reality and unreality always overlap in Dreyer, as Anne finds herself in a confession’s lie (perhaps), as the shadow of the grim reaper in Ordet are the lights from a doctor’s car. Ordet’s whole point, said again and again, is that the soul expresses itself in the most material of everyday acts. Like walking. What would it look like for Orestes to enter Hades? Perhaps what it looks like for Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) to walk around the kitchen, into the coffin room. The body is the signature of the soul.

The value not of Platonic forms, but of things in themselves: whereas Eisenstein’s is a cinema of fixed ideas (Platonic forms), Dreyer’s, with its shifts in perspectives and mood, is one of relativity. The key words below, I think, are Jean-Louis Comolli’s, saved for about the end. “Dreyer’s heroes (heroines),” writes Comolli, “don’t suffer or die for a faith, an ideal, a cause (God or Love) that lives within them like the grace of a superior essence that expresses itself at the price of their ‘martyrdom’: their situation is, quite the opposite, that they don’t really know what they are, nor what they want, that rather they tend towards blindness (even Joan, stranded and astray among her judges), groping, restless with uncertainty, the famous internal flame that’s ascribed to them well wavering in actuality.”


Still, never mentioned, there is something almost all Dreyer heroes are searching for: innocence, lost. The chance for renewal (found in nature and the seasons in the pre-Joan films) or rebirth (found in death and resurrection in the post-Joan films, as Gertrud claims to resurrect her memories by extinguishing them, and Joan similarly achieves her apotheosis in the flames) is the chance which Dreyer characters cling to, to try life over with new eyes. The President, Leaves from Satan’s Book, and The Parson’s Widow all follow new generations reliving their ancestor’s sins, beautifully in The Parson’s Widow, Dreyer’s great rustic comedy in which an old lady steps through doorways as if into and out of an old family painting, and in which the premise and conclusion is simply that love and youth only come once—a usual folk happy ending, but Dreyer sees its sadness. Long before Ordet, death already allows the possibility of regeneration—it’s the white, wintry season, like Dreyer’s famous walls, against which Dreyer remakes the world, pared-down (blank, glowing canvases, the walls also promise regeneration, innocence and death, and the one in the other). In their way, Once Upon a Time and Master of the House concern couples trying to restart their failed marriages that depend on practical, everyday chores (but one’s a fairy tale worthy of Lubitsch, and the other a neorealist film about 20 years before neorealism, worthy of Rossellini), as does Ordet, in which a miracle comes through a child: Dreyer’s single late character innocent enough to believe constantly, not just during the single moments of epiphany granted Joan, Anne, Gertrud, etc. Mikael shows an old painter trying to rediscover his innocence in a younger one, quickly corrupted, and Glomdale and Joan likewise find characters trying to rediscover their innocence outside of society’s frauds. So does Day of Wrath: but here, that primal instinct can only murder those who uphold society’s bonds. Vampyr is openly about the dead trying to live again, and in its slow, swan-singing way, so is Gertrud, as a woman sits and ages in boxed rooms, looks out over the audience, and tries to regain the belief in love she had when she was 16, despite every indication that men want everything from her but love.

All these examples just prove Comolli’s point that if Dreyer’s characters search for innocence and youthful, righteous belief in their totally distraught lives, they don’t have it: their conviction wavers, as Comolli says, because it’s precisely conviction that they’re looking for. But then it’s when they don’t know who they are, or what they want, that they’re free, in a state of pure potentiality.

Potentiality is the flux, again—this mystery of what’s being thought, perceived, and by whom—the spaces and times giving way—of a camera that circles and stays both out of curiosity (to shift perspectives, to see new angles, since nothing can be pin-downed in completion) and to conjure up the rest of the scene. What we see, what the camera sees, is never enough; there’s always more (even when the camera anticipates, it’s to say there’s more to come); just as the characters, never sated, always hunger, for all of life at once (in a moment—but that’s death), though life’s doled out, like a movie, gradually. (But compare the river and the fire in the back-to-back Glomdale and Joan, Dreyer’s only late moments of fulfillment, and release, in these ultimate scenes of flux). Master of the House and its remake, Ordet, end with clocks ticking on; Gertrud ends like L’Eclisse and An Autumn Afternoon as the director steps outside and leaves his characters to their fate. Gertrud, at least, is finally on her own. Which is a death itself: almost all of Dreyer’s films, melodramas, follow, at base, characters struggling to hold onto each other, physically, against metaphysical fate. Ordet’s got to possess the most erotic scene in movies.

If Dreyer’s characters are ultimately victims, their victory comes when they’re victims to nobody but themselves, when, in true melodramatic form, they lose guard of their emotions, even, as Comolli says, of their desires (Ordet’s kiss, visible thread of spit tenuously bridging the lovers, is a desperate consolation). Hence Anne’s worlds-away ending in Day of Wrath. Like Dreyer’s camera, both bearing witness and casting spells, like Dreyer’s movies, which show us the ways elsewhere characters who don’t seem to inhabit the scene really do (and vice-versa, and as in Straub), Dreyer’s characters insist on living life—and that includes making coffee and finding love—even as an art (a dark art, perhaps) by simply sitting and watching in a constant state of trance. They’re like Henry James’ great girls, the Isabel Archers and the Milly Theales, who refuse the world to sit and brood by fires. As James renders impressions of objects not by describing the determinate objects, but by describing the indeterminate impression, so does Dreyer, in showing characters’ reactions to unseen things; as in James, characters connect not through determinate words, but deeper, often misleading, indeterminate intuition. By Once Upon a Time, Dreyer’s characters, like Griffith’s, like Dreyer’s late camera, are already anticipating each other’s entrances and cross-cut as if in converse with each other—even though they’re miles apart from one another—by pure instinct alone.

Where are they? When are they? What do they see? the films ask (“Who are you?” is demanded by characters throughout the late films); however fatalistic, Dreyer’s camera, even in its indeterminacy, is always complicit with his characters (it never commands them like marionettes, but summons them as ghosts) who resist determinate systems telling them what to be. Dreyer’s complicit with his actor-characters, paradoxically, even in letting them exist for themselves alone. He wonders the questions too. If criticism can’t explain the mysteries, it can at least point to what and where they are.

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