They Caught the Ferry (De Næde Færgen, 1948 Denmark 12 mins)

Source: NLA/ACMI Prod Co: Dansk Kulturfilm for Ministeriernes Filmudvalg Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer Scr: Dreyer based on Johanees V. Jensen’s story Phot, Ed: Jørgen Roos

Cast: Børge Hallenberg

They Caught the Ferry must be the most extraordinary Road Safety film ever made! It is one of seven documentaries and educational films that Dreyer directed between 1946 and 1954, all from his own scripts. In the same period, three more of his scripts were realised by other directors. Behind all these productions was either Dansk Kulturfilm, a company formed in 1932 to make educational films, features with an educational slant, and features for children, or Ministerienes Filmudvalg, the Film Committee of the Departments of State, created during the occupation for government film production. In this case, both were involved, the former producing on behalf of the latter. Statens Filmcentral, created in 1938, distributed films of this kind. Its task was eased by legislation insisting on the inclusion of a certain length of such material in all the programmes of the commercial cinemas. Though this makes Denmark seem like a Griersonian utopia, there was a downside. There was no legislation about the length of a commercial programme; certainly, outside the first-run cinemas, films were cut so they could fit into the standard two-hour program, which also contained around ten minutes of documentary or educational material. I remember seeing Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) in such a programme in a Copenhagen cinema. It was a travesty, with none of the beauty, power or poetry of the complete film.

Dreyer’s involvement in documentary production would have been an important source of income in the period between his 1945 feature in Sweden, Två Manniskor (Two People), which he effectively disowned, and Ordet (The Word), his 1955 masterpiece, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice that year. Once his income had been secured by the award, in 1952, of a licence to run the Dagmar cinema in Copenhagen, his involvement in documentary started to fade away. Such licences for the managership of major cinemas were awarded to distinguished artists as a kind of state pension.

Though several of these documentaries have passages of lyrical beauty, it is They Caught the Ferry that echoes most clearly and effectively the thematic concerns and atmosphere of Dreyer’s features, which regularly push beyond the accepted boundaries of physical and psychological reality. There is a sense of threat and doom from the moment that the protagonists, a man and woman travelling in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, disembark from a ferry that has just docked. We have heard the exchange in which they learn the time of the connecting ferry on the other side of the island, and realise they will be pushed for time to catch it. Moreover we have seen the hearse-like old car that is to prove their nemesis move ahead of them.

Probably the most complex, powerful and poetic moment of the film comes when, having overtaken the “hearse”, the couple take a wrong turn. As they do the camera, which has been following them, slows to a halt before the fork where the two roads diverge; it holds and watches as the combination stops a little way along the road, then turns to come back. Whilst it is manoeuvring, the sinister “hearse” passes the camera, taking the correct road, and thus moving ahead of the protagonists once again. Various possible responses to this moment come to mind. For some, it is a sign of directorial failure. Suddenly the viewer is made aware of the existence of the camera-car, and thus of the mechanisms constructing the excitement and suspense of the narrative action. As a result, these are dissipated. Fatal mistake! For others, however, the camera’s “knowledge”, its refusal to follow the protagonists down the wrong road, demands a thematic reading. It makes explicit the sense of fate which has already been suggested by the film’s general atmosphere. Any sense of relief the viewer may have experienced when the couple was able, ultimately, to manoeuvre safely past the “hearse” is replaced by a sense of impending doom as the camera comes to a halt. This intensifies as the “hearse” regains the lead. Wider knowledge of Dreyer’s films, however, suggests these two responses are not mutually exclusive. His work does have mystical or supernatural overtones; it also repeatedly demonstrates a concern with foregrounding the strategies and systems of cinematic representation in a way that makes one think of his disciple Godard, or even of Brecht (a student of mine, now a professor of film studies, once described Gertrud [1964] as “Brecht for the bourgeoisie”!). Fate may determine our lives; on the other hand, it may only be a cinematic construction. Whichever is the case, the protagonists do catch their destined ferry!

When I spent several weeks in Copenhagen during the winter of 1963-4 I hoped to interview Dreyer, but he was too busy with the preparations for Gertrud to give me any time. I was lucky enough, however, to have a long interview with Jørgen Roos, the cameraman on They Caught the Ferry, and credited by some sources as Dreyer’s co-director. He told me that, initially, Dreyer had wanted to film the crash which is the climax of the film with an objective camera, showing the motorbike and sidecar spinning off the road into a tree. To further this ambition, he insisted that the producers write to the Ministry of Justice before he was prepared to start shooting. At that time, there were several people under sentence of death for collaboration with the Germans during the occupation. He wanted two to be offered a deal: they should ride the combination into the tree. If they were killed, that was the fate the judiciary had determined for them anyway; if they survived, they should be given their freedom. The Ministry of Justice turned this proposition down.

Much of the filming, once it had started, involved the use of a second motorcycle and sidecar combination for the camera as it followed the action, sometimes at speed. In the prelude to the climax, the protagonists’ combination is trying to overtake the “hearse” for a second time, on a long, straight, narrow road. Roos achieved some remarkable travelling shots, through the windows of the “hearse”, showing the protagonists’ combination as it draws level then falls back, then tries again. The road was too narrow, however, and the speed of the vehicles too great. There was a crash, and Roos was thrown into a field. Dreyer had been waiting for the actors and camera-crew at an inn along the road. As he regained consciousness, Roos could hear the pounding of Dreyer’s feet as he raced along the road to the scene of the accident. He leapt a ditch into the field, then ran straight not to any of the injured members of his team, but to the camera-magazine, to make sure the film had not been damaged.

Roos recalled finally that, towards the end of the production, Dreyer started to concentrate on preparations to go to America, presumably for the opening there of Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943) in April 1948, and did not supervise the completion of the editing and post-production. Nevertheless, not only is They Caught the Ferry the most extraordinary of Road Safety films; it is also one of the most memorable short films ever made.

About The Author

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.