What interested him most about making movies, said Carl Th. Dreyer a few years before his death, was to “reproduce the feelings of the characters in my films […], to seize […] the thoughts that are behind the words […], the secrets that lie in the depths of their soul”.
“Gertrud  is a film I made with my heart”, he added. With the heart. About the heart. “What interests me before all, it’s this, and not the technique of cinema.” (1)
Technique, nonetheless, is the tool the heart must use. Accordingly, Dreyer mobilizes all cinema for the hunt. “I need a big screen”, he said. “I need the communal feeling of a theater. Something made to move has to move a crowd.” (2) He wanted to do Gertrud in colour. Maybe 70mm, too, like Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). Isn’t Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) on a camel in a desert like Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) on a seat in a parlour? Dreyer wanted mass catharsis, the way Greek theatre did, or maybe the way college basketball does, with thousands of pulses synched to that ball’s movements. With the result that Gertrud is more like a basketball game than Lawrence, has more action, excitement, spills, chills and thrills, and has some of the “coolest” scenes in movies, piled on top of each other.
Curious it is, then, that some people complain Dreyer is slow and intellectual, talkie and dull, Gertrud particularly. They never spot the ball. As a result, it is unlikely in my lifetime that I shall share Gertrud on a big screen with two thousand pulses synched to her every movement. Like most people, I shall see Gertrud at home alone, on my television, and even with a large screen and Criterion’s excellent DVD, I shall have to press my player’s zoom button in order to see into her eyes. She and her men sit in full-length compositions like figures in gigantic tapestries. “I don’t like television”, Dreyer said. (3)
Dreyer’s people are surrounded with objects, foreground, background, all around them; with rooms with four walls, floors and ceilings; and with the light and air of this particular day, and which falls on them and their objects like the light in Jan Vermeer’s paintings, whose photographic qualities and ways with objects and placing people among them are so much like Dreyer’s, and insist so much on now, in the intangible definiteness of to be, a feeling we know well. Objects and rooms embody characters’ feelings, the way the flowers on Gertrud’s desk do (below) that seem to be a meeting point for two sets of eyes; and thus objects talk back to characters, too. Dreyer draws our attention to the characters’ utensils and linens, chairs and clothes, to their doors, windows and walls, to the countless pictures in countless rooms. Below, Gertrud and Axel (Axel Strøbye) talk about death beneath a painting of thin solitary trees on a measureless shore. In Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943), the needlework of Anne (Lisbeth Movin) embroiders her desires for love and a child. Walls “talk” in Dreyer. Objects and people interbreed.
Particularly Dreyer directs our attention to writing to papers people have left behind or are writing as we watch.
And what we see is that writing creates a “fact”. What used to be only someone’s thought, half-formed and amorphous, is now an object and solid, no longer subjective and personal. Objects also perform such transubstantiation; indeed, it is their task to objectify the inner worlds of the people who live with them, a bit the way dogs do (but Dreyer has no dogs). In time, objects come to embody inner beliefs – and also to impose beliefs. In Day of Wrath, a church and a crucifix reflect a detailed belief in Christ as God, in what life is about and suffering and death. And thus by virtue of their physical presence a church and a crucifix also tell people how to think about God, life, death. Their presence makes attitudes and positions solid and validates them. Rites are associated with them, as much to a pipe as a wedding. Objects become “sacramentals” whose purpose is to link people to grace. And because objects work so well as sacramentals, objects become idols, whose attraction is in themselves rather than in what they were supposed to point to. Instruments become institutions, which become guarantors of idols. People become imprisoned in their own chains of dreams. Thus it happens that when, in Day of Wrath, the Rev. Absalon Pedersdotter (Thorkild Roose) writes in his rectory chronicle how “on this beauteous day Herlofs Marte [Anna Svierkier] was successfully burned at the stake in majorem gloriam dei” (for the greater glory of god) – the good pastor’s elegant hand bestows more elegance on “glory” than “god.”
Idolatry does not make Absalon less sincere, nor do his other failings moderate his righteousness. On his face is certainty when he speaks of witches and their powers, when he tells Anne her mother was a witch, whose power Anne may have inherited – “the power of invocation. She could call up the Living and the Dead and they had to come. If she wished someone dead, he died.”
Absalon has no doubts, so neither does Anne. She is his wife, forty-three years younger (by the actors’ ages), and thus his pupil as well.
“A human being can have such power?!”, she exclaims, like Faust, and, eager to try, she summons Martin [Preben Lerdorff Rye], who comes, and she wishes Absalon dead, who dies, victim of his own certainty. A similar certainly is on the faces of Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdorff Rye) and Maren (Anne Elisabeth Rud) in Ordet, when they raise Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) from the dead; and on Gertrud’s face, when she speaks about Love.
It is not relevant to ask if such certainty, about witches, God or Love, is “true.” No one in Day of Wrath doubts there are witches, least of all the witches themselves, who agree their power comes from “the Evil One”, who understand it is necessary and glorious that friends and family burn them to death. And in Gertrud, no one doubts Love, although no one has seen it, and everyone agrees it is glorious to burn and be extinguished for Love. In Day of Wrath, no one feels alienated from the ministers who do the burning. The children gather round and sing. In Gertrud they serenade “the great poet of Love”. When Herlofs Marte begs Anne to save her from burning, Anne’s reaction is fear, not compassion – and Dreyer shifts the moral burden onto us by having each woman stare at us.
If there is a reality in which witches do not exist, in which it is not good to burn them, it is a reality beyond human knowledge in this movie. And beyond Dreyer’s. He said, “A director must believe in the truth of his subject. He must believe in vampires and miracles.” (4)
Dreyer is not attacking superstition. We, assuming the contrary and feeling superior, may impulsively cry “Hysteria!” and “Coincidence!” But Dreyer, far from registering doubt, shows witches do exist. Anne considers wishing Absalon dead and just then, miles away, Absalon shudders, “I felt as if Death had just brushed by me.” Dreyer continuously parallels events, melds disparate storylines into one, constantly implying the existence of an overworld in which not only witches but all of us are capable of affecting others. Thus Herlofs Marte’s fleeing to Anne is intercut with Martin coming to meet Anne for the first time. The twin arrivals, bringing fear and desire, will push Anne herself into the flames. Herlofs’ being tortured is intercut with Anne escaping the horror by romping in the fields with Martin. Herlofs Marte flung into the fire is intercut with Anne flung into Martin’s arms. The heart understands why horror propels us to love and how fears takes control of us. But Dreyer is saying that our emotions inhabit a “fifth dimension” as well. When, at time of Ordet, some questioned the “realism” of Johannes raising Ingrid from the dead, Dreyer insisted science will establish the existence of this fifth dimension. (5)
Cinema had been proclaiming it since F. W. Murnau used light and modelling to depict us in the fishbowl of our own sensations and emotions. In Day of Wrath, life is melodrama full of blackness, splotches of light, fatal-sounding music and black satire. (“Don’t you want to kiss your mother?” “A fine confession!” “She was difficult.” The Dies irae.) Violence pervades at bestial levels, not controlled, merely channelled, by beliefs turned idolatrous. Everyone wants power.
Absalon’s mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), tries to convince him his wife is a witch:
“Have you ever looked into Anne’s eyes? Her [mother was a witch and her] eyes burned the same way. The day may come when you will have to choose between God and Anne.”
“You’re saying that because you hate Anne.”
“No. Out of love for you.”
No doubt Merete is sincere. But look how rudely Dreyer articulates Merete’s love.
Dreyer shows Absalon from the same camera angle as their two-shot. But to show Merete, his camera crosses the axis, going all the way behind Absalon, and, by repeating the couplet of 2/3 six times rhythmically (short/long, short/long), Merete’s love is jarring, like a violent hammer, like Absalon’s “love” for Herlofs Marte. Absalon’s head juts out of the frame, a monstrous ego, crushed by shadow.
Are the characters responsible for the emotions which destroy them? Are they even aware of them? No one is unsympathetic. No one is an innocent. Each is a victim. Motives have many levels in Dreyer. Absalon kills Herlofs Marte partly from duty to an idol (the church), partly to save her soul, partly to hide the truth – then immediately confesses the truth to Anne, who impulsively turns it against him. Each character chooses power to gain happiness, ends up committing murder, and in each case the only winner is Evil.
Tom Milne objects that “Absalon’s signing of [Herlofs] Marte’s death warrant can hardly spring from any sincere religious conviction, since he had previously spared Anne’s mother from a similar fate (denying her salvation) because he wanted to marry Anne.” (6)
But if sin, or an inconsistent character, means there is not “any sincere religious conviction,” then no human has ever had faith – a proposition Dreyer takes seriously in Ordet and Gertrud. Who is not against evil? Who does not do evil? Ironically, the “sin” that causes Absalon’s destruction is that he did not burn Anne’s mother, that he did choose Anne over God.
On the other hand, it is true that Absalon sinned because he was charmed/bewitched by Anne, just as it is true that his son Martin had sex with his father’s wife because be was charmed by Anne.
On the third hand, it is true that Absalon sinned against Anne by taking to wife this woman forty-three years younger than himself without, as she says, wondering if she loved him. “It’s strange. I never thought of that”, admits Absalon, which gives us the measure of this eminent man’s innocence and obliviousness, at the same time suggesting that perhaps it was Anne’s mother who pushed Anne on him to save herself from being burnt alive by him. Anne is nothing to him, just atmosphere.
On the fourth hand, it is true that Anne repeats Absalon’s sin. She uses her charms to seduce Martin; she invokes the Evil One to compel Martin willy nilly. (And she wishes Absalon dead believing she can do so.) With power, even in the way she sings to herself, she seems to become insane, vicious, nasty. Some critics claim Martin’s suddenly turning against Anne at the end is unmotivated; in fact, Martin recognizes that Anne used the Evil One to ensnare him, and he is correct. Poor Anne! Even on first seeing Martin, she cannot resist the temptation and calculation of forbidden lust:
And on the fifth hand, she is right to want love and a child, and it is all too natural that a heart so long suppressed should fly impulsively. If Anne charms Martin, Martin also charms Anne: the collisions of Martin’s charms on Anne’s psyche is made palpable in Dreyer’s colliding shots.
Dreyer’s style of cutting in his silent movies seems influenced by D.W. Griffith, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) most of all. Each shot is a separate event. A tableau. It is essentially parallel montage: one shot relates to another by being laid beside each other, usually a collision. One shot does not relate to another by eyeline matches or perspective. In Dreyer’s mid-20s pictures, it can often be difficult to tell where one person is in a room in relation to another. Try to figure out where people are in this sequence from Die Gezeichneten (Love one another, 1922):
This “associative” approach to cutting continues in Dreyer’s sound films (even in Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, 1932, where he goes out of his way to frustrate eyeline matches, and in Day of Wrath, although it is Dreyer’s sole film with frequent eyeline editing). Angles between shots are often rough, not quite rhyming, emphasizing separateness rather than continuity, in order to shock us into someone’s special world. The story in the above sequence from Day of Wrath is the impact of the shots of Martin on the shots of Anne. He enchants her instantly. She moves into the light. She is almost ravished by the way he sweeps off his cape. She begins to flirt. A vixen, “witch-like” quality comes into her eyes. The lattice background suggests intrigue. The light shadows on her face, her posture within an aura of light that contains her give Anne (and Dreyer people generally) a fleshy, ephemeral quality: here I am now, in this time and place; in a moment I shall be gone, yet time and place will remain.
Anne tries out her power of invocation and charms Martin into coming to her:
But no sooner does he arrive than she loses herself in the “spin” of him, as Dreyer’s repeated cuts across the axis make palpable:
In contrast: when Dreyer cuts across the axis to mark Absalon’s attempt at love – kissing Anne’s forehead –
the effect is to make Absalon’s one-shot gallantry seem absurd.
Yet, on the sixth hand, Anne is truthful when, with her head jutting out of the frame just as Absalon’s did, she tells his corpse, “I killed you with the Evil One’s help. With the Evil One’s help I lured your son into my power. Now you know. Now you know.”
And how could it not be, since desire forbidden is all the stronger, stirring Anne’s vixen qualities, linking desire, love, motherhood, sin, murder, guilt, innocence. She embroiders her web, manœuvres to get Martin alone, lets down her hair (which is more shocking than if she were nude), comes slinking across the room, dancing through space, locks Merete’s door, and moves like a spider around Martin, playing erotically with a chair. All of this intercut with strangely similar movements by Absalon, walking on a path far away, struggling against the cold wind.
Are the characters responsible for the emotions which destroy them? This is a secret that belongs to the heart and is the constant wonder of Day of Wrath.
Much the same themes continue in Ordet. Inger’s death is followed by: a certificate of her death; a note written by Johannes, who decides to go away; everyone searching the countryside for him and looking lost; a newspaper with death notices; a reading from the Bible by Peter the tailor (Ejner Federspiel), who decides to give his daughter to Inger’s family. The montage of texts conveys a sense that things happen as they are written, as though ordained, as in Day of Wrath, by supernatural powers. But everyone is lost, despite the texts – except Johannes and Peter.
Perhaps these people, like all Dreyer characters, seem detached from reality, because they insist on seeing everything as the work of God or witches. Yet on examination, reality conforms to their expectations in both films, however bizarre. Inger’s death conforms to the notion of death held by Mikkel (Emil Hass Kristensen) – an end of reality. Peter the tailor sees the death as a testing, and replaces Inger with his daughter Anne. Johannes and Inger’s small daughter, Meren, demonstrate a third notion: that there is more to reality.
Peter the tailor is forever awestruck that we live in “an age of miracles”, that everything that happens is a miracle. Johannes, “insanely” believing himself Christ but not much different than Peter, insists that if we have faith, we can raise the dead – which proves Johannes is insane but embarrasses everyone, because no one believes in miracles anymore, and thus, as Tom Milne said of poor old Absalon, no one has “sincere religious conviction”. Inger’s song in the kitchen carries over Anders Borgen (Cay Kristensen) as he goes courting and becomes a prayer to God, and a few minutes later comes torture and death. At the funeral, young Maren stares at her mother’s corpse, and Borgen cries, “She doesn’t understand any of this. She is too little. And the rest of us, we don’t understand any of it either.”
“This is true, Borgen”, agrees the pastor.
Johannes becomes Christ because the world needs Christ. Just like Jeanne d’Arc and Absalon, his life must be an act of faith in his heaven-ordained mission on earth. “The Church has failed me. […] People believe in the dead Christ but not in the living.”
“What is madness and what is reason?”, Borgen wonders.
As Mikkel points out, faith is not the big problem. It’s all very well if Borgen wants to believe the baby is “with God”, but for Mikkel, “He’s lying there, in the pail, cut into four pieces.” And it’s all very well to believe Inger is with God, “But it was her body that I loved as well.” And when Inger comes back to life, her first thought is for her baby, and it’s all very well that Mikkel now can say the baby is, “With God”, but Inger can only cry and repeat without comprehension, “With God? With God?”, and press her lips into Mikkel, as hungry as a vampire for “Life”.
Wrote Lotte Eisner,
I told Dreyer that for first time (except for the resounding organ fugue of the triptyche in [Abel] Gance’s Napoléon) I felt the extreme necessity, the intense efficacy of the big screen. Because Ordet was conceived primordially, æsthetically for the big screen; nothing is tricked, the vast composition, the epic, solemn rhythm of the action, the slow movement of the camera […] (7)
These long long takes (114 shots in 116 minutes), where people sit and talk, are essentially the same cinematic idea as the short short bumpy snippets in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928; more than 1500 shots in 82 minutes) where people make screen-sweeping body gestures in each shot. Dreyer has replaced cuts with dialogue, which, in the same manner as Dreyer’s silent-era cutting, is less a conversation that a découpage – a laying of dialogue lines side-by-side, usually in collision, each line’s resonance expressing the inner world of a character, in the same manner as a character’s resonance in a frame of his own used to do. In contrast, the constantly percussive collisions in Jeanne d’Arc can be tedious.
(A totally deceiving impression of Jeanne d’Arc was accomplished by the Paris Cinémathèque’s insistence, during the 1950s and ’60s, of projecting Jeanne d’Arc in very slow motion – at 16 frames per second, rather than 24. This experience is immortalized in Godard’s Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) when Nana (Anna Karina) cries watching Jeanne d’Arc in slow motion. But this experience has little to do with the one Dreyer intended, and all the more so in that, in Vivre sa vie as at the Cinémathèque, the movie transpires in deathly silence, whereas when Jeanne d’Arc was shown in Copenhagen and Paris in 1928 it was with a score commissioned from two French composers of musical comedies, Léo Pouget and Victor Alix, “a vast symphonic poem in thirteen sections for orchestra, chorus and soloists, which very closely follows the film’s sequences and is synchronized with their intertitles”. And printed on the conductor’s score is the notice: “Performance of this score is OBLIGATORY during presentation of the film.” (8) The obligation has been ignored for seventy years. Criterion’s video editions use a much-praised oratorio, Voices of Light, written by Richard Einhorn in 1994 for the film but not, in my view, relevant to the film, or to be endured while watching the film.)
Lighting in Ordet and Gertrud still, as in Day of Wrath, infuses the air around people with each person’s own spiritual reality, each one’s fishbowl of heart and secrets. In contrast to films that look like paintings or cartoons or sketches, Dreyer’s look like photographs. They have a photo-reality to them, with the sorts of sharp distinctions between light and shadow that register on film rather than through the human eye, and that become the inescapable condition of these photo-people’s lives. Photo: to release the spirit, to capture the light that accompanies a phrase spoken, that reveals the heart’s secret. Just as it is not the words Johannes says that cause Inger to return from the dead, but the heart within them, so too it is the intense pace of rich revelation of heart, line after line, that makes Dreyer’s movies so exciting.
There are so many advantages to Dreyer’s dialogue technique in Ordet compared to the montage technique of Jeanne, that one can see Ordet and Gertrud as the natural culmination of the experiments of the preceding decades. Gone is the most annoying aspect of Dreyer’s silent-era montage, at least to me, that he is often cutting away from someone we really haven’t been able to get a good look at, and thus shortchanging the interest and involvement the shot has built in us for the character at this moment. And, of course, we now can watch both people at once in a conversation; and we see them full faced, whereas in earlier pictures their faces are partly turned away. And whereas almost every other shot in Jeanne is a reaction shot of Jeanne (Maria Falconetti), to an assault in the shot before, and whereas Jeanne’s reactions often seem generic rather than specific, as though gathered from days spent doing nothing but close-ups of Jeanne writhing, now in Ordet and Gertrud every so often there come half-suppressed reactions of novelistic complexity, reactions expressing half a dozen diverse reactions, each of them contradicting the other, that suddenly flash into a character’s head and reveal themselves in small body movements and in the light and air around the character, and in the other character’s reactions to his reactions, and so on.
And as the characters in Ordet sit and talk, circle around each other, and walk in and out of doorways, an amazing quantity of amazing events occurs within a day, a night, and a day – death, births, marriages, fights, farming, housekeeping, religious services, funerals, family frictions of every sort, religious conversions, not to mention a resurrection from the dead. How can people say nothing happens?
And how can people say Gertrud is bare and minimalist, unless they mean that everything boring has been removed? Appearance and soul are as linked as ornament and idea. Love, for Gertrud and all of her men, has everything to do with style: clothing, hair, deportment, tidiness, formalities and manners. Elegance rules and its rigid controls make people all the more desperate and out-of-control. Similarly in Day of Wrath, dress and demeanour reflect an almost military decorum; belief in God and the Evil One means always being on duty. In both movies, and in Ordet, drawers are kept closed, nothing is dirty, everything is in place, clutter is inconceivable. The moment Gertrud enters Lidman’s apartment, she starts dusting and putting books away, never imagining that they could have been left open for a higher purpose than order. Decorum in the house, in society, in oneself most of all. There must be no distance between virtue and its model; virtue is an abstraction that can exist only in a virtuous human being. What a shock when Anne in Day of Wrath lets down her hair! In contrast, Anne of Ordet, in the way she stands and holds herself, is the epitome of modesty, of inner formation.
Dreyer, like John Ford, can thrust you deep into the heart’s secrets the first instant you see someone, just from the way they stand and walk and wear their clothes. They wear black not because they are “dead to the world”, as sybarite critics claim, but because they are alive to duty.
Gertrud, too, has rectitude and devotion to purity. She sees her husband as wasting his life in a boy’s game. And she is right. Gustave Kanning (Bendt Rothe) always poses. He is about to be named a minister and he wears his clothes like a model. Gertrud does, too. But Kanning’s clothes are like armour, he can hardly move inside them. The clothes move and he follows. In contrast, Gertrud chooses clothes to reflect her moods. A short cape for an adventure. Black for spidery executions. Whether one does actually make choices in life, whether one can make choices in life, is important to Gertrud. Did Absalon really choose between God and Anne? Gertrud tells Axel she is “glad you still believe in free will. […] You said will is a choice. But my father said there’s no such thing as choice. One doesn’t choose, he said.” Yet for Gertrud, Choice is a religion, whose work is Love, which is to say everything, and life is a test of “sincere religious conviction”. “I’ll choose my own husbands”, she insists to Axel, a few hours after choosing Erland Jansson (Baard Owe) disastrously, a few hours before she will excoriate her two previous choices as husbands. She leaves them all to go to Paris to study the philosophy of Love and Choice, and in parting tells her three husbands unsparingly the choices they have made, and she is right.
“I’m just atmosphere to you”, she tells Kanning. “Am I absolutely nothing to you? You never guess my wishes or my thoughts. Whether I am happy or sad is completely uninteresting to you. I don’t want to be an occasional plaything.” And she is right, albeit vindictive.
And Kanning replies, “Yeah, but sweet Gertrud, love alone is not enough in a man’s life.” And he is right, albeit pompous. Gertrud is standing in back of him, staring at him; he is staring into space.
Earlier it was Gertrud who sat staring into space as Kanning circled around her, glancing piercingly at her while she continually turning away from him, her distaste physical. Kanning registers each rejection almost without reaction, and thereby all the more painfully. It is action like this that makes Gertrud absorbing. Kanning hides his feelings, for sake of demeanour. And when he mentions he saw Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode), Gertrud perhaps moves an eyelid; she hides her feelings, but Kanning registers them, and, in guise of asking a question he is afraid to ask, tries to dismiss Lidman. “You were a free and independent woman. You were an artist and he was a famous poet. It’s another story.”
“Yes, of course. What are you laughing about?”
“I’m just smiling thinking about the poor human beings who will allow themselves to love, whether they’re artists or famous people or not.”
Kanning’s “Oh!” hides and fails to hide pain and, worse, loss of dignity, while still acting with dignity. It is the complexity of a character’s contradictory emotions that makes Gertrud exciting. Kanning, by standing up and backing off, he registers loss of face. Perhaps he thinks Gertrud does not notice all of this; more likely he convinces himself of it; certainly he would be wrong. Gertrud is, like Jeanne, essentially a series of thrusts and parries, of constant collisions expressing out-of-control emotions, as much as anything else.
In Kanning’s first line, in the film’s first shot, the way he calls, “Gertrud”, like the loutish husband in Du skal ære din hustru (Master of the House, 1925), explains to us how he has lost her by not keeping her in his heart, and that she is right, “You will see how insignificant the void becomes when I leave now.” He has not cared that much. Now he does. But has he found “sincere religious conviction”? Or is he searching for the appropriate pose? Or both? “No woman should be so honest,” he actually screams.
Gertrud, the first time we see her, pauses as she enters, framed leaning against the doorway.
She is an opera singer. This is her entrance. It means there is going to be a “scene”, a kind of passion play with Gertrud as executioner and martyr; her husband as victim. At the scene’s end, she will again pause, framed leaning against the doorway, a curtain call. These are superb moments, partly because, like the lighting on Anne in Day of Wrath, they evoke Gertrud’s ephemeral presence – in a moment she will be gone, and Gertrud managed to use even her presence as an affirmation that she is not there for her husband. She is wounded and vindictive, not cruel and yet also cruel. Grace rarely fails her, and by means of it she controls every room she is in, but her elegance is a mask for “madness,” as she calls it – a desperate plunge into the void, because she knows she is “nothing”, only an image, and wants to be everything. “All I know is that love has me in its clutches.” Without losing poise, she will make a fool of herself. What is she thinking, what is she feeling as she stands in these doorways?
In her two “scenes” with Lidman, it is Lidman who goes out the door, but without pausing for applause the way Gertrud does. Their second “scene” begins as Lidman lights candles bordering a mirror, a mirror which he gave Gertrud when they were lovers. As he completes this rite, Gertrud’s image appears in the mirror – his Gertrud, his memory. He cannot take his eyes off the image, the ideal. This is his religion. But it is only a graven image, an idol.
“I’ve long felt homeless here,” Gertrud tells him, speaking as much for Lidman’s mirror as for Kanning’s house.
Lidman has just been fêted by the university students for his “erotic fantasy,” in which, according to the young students, “people find infinity and eternity. […] This is love without borders. To this idea of love all humankind if created and called.” Lidman had replied, “Love and Thought […] are more important than anything else. […] In your search for this truth, be true to yourselves and don’t compromise. […] ‘A true soul need not hide his thoughts.’” And the students had marched off singing with torches, “Lights ablaze today we carry. […] You shall know, your words have weight [in] the fight for the nation’s new open generation.”
And then Kanning had told how Lidman’s “most outstanding trait is honesty, in all things, great and small”, and had praised his nobility, curiosity, creativity, tranquility. “He never becomes pathetic”, Kanning said.
But Lidman, “the aristocrat of poetry,”, then had transformed himself into a monument of patheticness, crying voluminously in front of Gertrud and running out of the room.
Gertrud was not only Lidman’s lover. She was his best student, she used to tidy up his rooms, and she lives truer to his precious principles than he does. “Your work divided us, and honour, and fame and money. You desired these. Love had become a burden for you.” Indeed, she is right. Although the students now praise Lidman for championing a “union of heart and mind”, he had long ago told Gertrud his true “creed”: “I believe in the pleasure of the flesh and the irreparable loneliness of the soul” and “A woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.”
Gertrud destroys Lidman with his own shame, the way Absalon’s student/wife Anne destroys Absalon in Day of Wrath. “I was ashamed and loathed being a woman. I saw how men who became great never knew or understood love. They look down on love. They despise love. You had become like them. And I don’t love you. You became great but for me you are as cold as stone. I want pure, warm blood.”
Gertrud is right, as Anne was right. Their prophets lack “sincere religious conviction.” Gertrud is “absolutely nothing,” only a memory-image. Like with Kanning. And like Kanning, Lidman admits this “terrible truth.” And like with Kanning, Gertrud turns away from him brutally, spitting out her last line, “I don’t care about greatness”, for once without grace. Principle to Gertrud, as to Absalon, becomes an idol to which life is sacrificed, albeit dedicated. All that neatness, demeanour and tidying up gets channelled into violence out of control. And so much of this melodrama flashes in eyes – while subtitles drag our own eyes in the opposite direction. Dreyer believed so ardently in dialogue, and wanted to move two thousand people to catharsis together, but he made his movies in a language almost no one can understand, and wanted to make his movie on Christ in Aramaic, which no one has spoken in thirteen centuries.
Lidman proposes they live by the sea. Behind his head hangs a painting of a couple standing on a shore, a Romantic allusion. Life is a “chain of dreams,” Gertrud has said; so she replies with more “terrible truths”, a chain of dreams: “There’s no happiness in love. Love is suffering. Love is unhappiness. Gustav, an emptiness is in your breast. I can’t help you. Look for nothing from me.”
He stumbles away to collapse onto a chair.
“My life’s epitaph:
In vain.” And as always, there is a hint of playacting in the way he flops his hands in front of him, as though he is too self-aware that this is his moment of high tragedy and can only pose pathetic, again. On the other hand, he is right, it is his moment. He lacks sincere religious conviction, which is pathetic, thus tragic.
Gertrud kisses him lightly on the head, then blows out the mirror candles – a rite of melodrama, a magic moment in Dreyer, but why does she do it?
What is she feeling? Is she satirizing Lidman’s playacting and saying the “scene” is over? Or does her extinguishing the flames concede gently to death? “Lights ablaze today we carry,” the students had serenaded Lidman, “The fire burns clearly as your words […], hope’s beautiful fiery glow.” Is this tragedy or disgust? Sadism or honesty? Vengeance, philosophy, religion or witchcraft? A link in the “chain of dreams”? Housekeeping? All of these together, probably, and more. Terrible truths! “A true soul need not hide his thoughts,” Lidman had said.
And her image walks out of Lidman’s mirror frame, just as it will shortly walk out of Kanning’s door frame. The idol goes away. What is Gertrud feeling now?
In fact, this is what Kanning asks, who walks in at this moment, sums up Lidman in a glance and thinks no one notices, and then reacts to Gertrud as though surprised to encounter a spider who has just feasted, “Oh, Gertrud! How do you feel?”
“Fine, thank you,” she replies, gliding past both men.
“Life is a long, long chain of dreams drifting into one another”, Gertrud said, which is true in most Dreyer movies and violently so in this one, when each scene is a dream. To Erland Jansson, Gertrud recounts her dream last night: “I was running through the street naked, dogs chasing me. When they caught me, I awoke. And I realized we two are completely alone in the world. Give me your mouth.”
“He held fast to her mouth, still deeper they sank into each other”, Lidman had written in lines the students recite and Gertrud probably knows by heart: “He felt as if he were on a journey in space in the white moonlight, toward a red star, at first faint and about to end, then stronger and closer. It grew and enlarged into a flaming wall of fire. He burned without pain and the flames swallowed his tongue like sour wine.”
It’s not just Lidman’s fire Gertrud blows out with the mirror candles, but also her own. “You’re still young and pure, like a bride,” Lidman tells her, which is just how she had felt a few hours ago with Jansson. She had floated into his rooms like Lisa in Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), living for the first time a dream already played a thousand times in her secret heart. (Dreyer separates her reality into a world of its own, as in Day of Wrath, by in cutting across the axis.) Lidman has taught her, “In your search for this truth, be true to yoursel[f]and don’t compromise.” So now she gives all to Jansson, “I can never never care for anybody else. I just couldn’t imagine living not having been with you.” We watch her shadow on the wall, framed in the doorway, as she undresses for him.
Perhaps there is more madness than sincerity in Gertrud’s “religious conviction”; perhaps there is playacting, a determination to make love true. Yet Gertrud’s belief alone conveys the richness and subtlety of an aging woman’s desperate tryst. Dreyer’s people always create their reality, and Lidman said, “Have courage to think good thoughts!”
Easier said than done, as life unwinds. Lidman asks if a rumor is true, Kanning replies, “If you believe the newspapers,” and Lidman ruminates that, “You have to. You have to believe in something in this world.”
Gertrud’s shadow play is thus a magic moment in Dreyer, of belief. But Jansson pays it no attention. “Strange woman!” he says. “Luckily [for you] I was home.” Afterwards she stands blathering in his doorway, taking far too many curtain calls, while he stands waiting for her to leave so he can go to a party.
Jansson treats her the way she treats Kanning and Lidman, half-bored, sarcastic, self-pleasuring, moving from seat to seat so that the wooer has to follow. “Let me go my way,” he tells her, sounding like Gertrud herself. “I’m nothing more than a whim for you.”
“When will we speak the same language?”, she wonders, like Kanning and Lidman, midst changing chairs and stares into space. The answer is never. She begs “as if begging for my life”, like Lidman: “Oh my love, come away with me!” She turns away as Jansson leaves. End of “scene”.
“And no one can advise you? No one can help you?”, moans Lidman, aghast.
“No, I’ve known all along it was madness. But I had so little to lose, Gabriel! My life was so terribly lonely and empty.” (Whereas Lidman had promised her that “in erotic fantasy, people find infinity.”) (Or just masochism, which she rebounds onto Lidman and Kanning?)
Truly, fictional characters have hard lives! Within twenty-four hours, Gertrud removes herself from her husband, gives herself to Jansson, is assaulted by her husband’s chagrin, then by Lidman’s patheticness, then by his news that Jansson, in a brothel minutes after leaving her has bragged to everyone about having her. And then who should walk in but her husband with Jansson! Gertrud’s character is profoundly changed by this series of compacted, intense encounters, this chain of dreams. No wonder she retreats from life to philosophy, to an ivory tower. Soft bells ring funereally, over the yawning space of the empty door frame, an intertitle, and Axel visiting Gertrud forty years later.
There are five of these intertitles. The first four frame Gertrud’s two scenes with Jansson, with string quartet music. The texts are poems which speak for Gertrud’s heart, specifically. In the fifth intertitle, the Danish says:
“Springs and winters pass. Here you are, back again in the city where you were born, alone, old, and far away from your memories.
“It has to be understood: To be able to grow old in peace, only two things exist: love and death, nothing else.” (9)
These intertitles were cut from Gertrud’s negative by Dreyer himself, before its American release, and are thus not included on Criterion’s DVD. (10) At least, not yet. A print broadcast in England by the BBC does include them, but with translations which justify their deletion. (“Springs and winters pass. Once more you live in your home town, lonesome with the dust of years shunning memory-laden stones. All that’s needed is true depth for ripening in noble peace. Is knowing of two things of consequence: love and death.”)
Gertrud still believes in news, however, as much as she insists to Axel, “I need solitude, solitude and freedom.” And despite her pieces of modern art everywhere, her present time is bound by chains of memories.
Commented Dreyer: “She doesn’t pity herself; she isn’t sorry for anything. She has sentenced herself to loneliness as a punishment. […] I thought I should show that she understood the burden she had to bear, that she had to carry it on her own shoulders, the burden of loneliness. We see that she bears it with honor.” (11)
And Serge Daney has added: “The loveliest grey photo of cinema history lays out sheets of sullied light like clouds of time, and since everything is irremediable, nothing looms through them.” (12)
Like Lidman, Gertrud is given to composing her own epitaph: “Amor omnia. Love is everything. […] I suffered much and often made mistakes, but I have loved.” Thought, after all, is not so important. Lidman was wrong, Gertrud right, about that. But it is not clear whether she had Choice.
As always, her love includes denial. She has not answered Axel’s letter because she “can’t use a machine to write an old friend”.
Gertrud has Axel sit beside her on the bench. Legs cross identically, touching.
Then they walk shoulder-to-shoulder, as one.
She says, “One day your visit will be only a memory. […] Sometimes I bring forth [my] memories and lose myself in them. I feel as if I am gazing at a fire about to be extinguished.” Even letters have been burnt. She makes a big turn to look into his eyes, looking, turning, looking. Her door closes and Gertrud is gone. Gertrud has been nothing but chains of dreams and goodbyes, doors and empty spaces. Now we are gone, too. Soft bells toll over the dark screen.
* * *
Criterion Box set of four NTSC DVDs:
Day of Wrath. 1943. 97 minutes. Danish with optional English subtitles. New digital transfer. Extras: Interviews with Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye; stills gallery.
Ordet. 1955. 125 minutes. Danish with optional English subtitles. New digital transfer. Extras: Interview with Birgitte Federspiel; still gallery.
Gertrud. 1964. 116m minutes. 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Danish with optional English subtitles. New digital transfer. Extras: Interviews with Baard Owe, Axel Strøbye; archival footage from production and Paris premiere; still gallery.
Carl Th. Dreyer – My Métier: documentary by Torben Skjødt Jensen. 1995. 94 minutes. Narrated in English; interviews in Danish and French with optional English subtitles. Extras: Essay by Edvin Kau (on disc); reprint of Dreyer’s “Thoughts on My Métier” (booklet).
NB: A much better extra than any of those in the Criterion box may be found on the BFI’s DVD of Gertrud, Carl Th. Dreyer and Gertrud, by Chirstiane Habich and Reinhard Wulf.
- Michel Delahaye, “Entre ciel et terre”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 170, September 1965; reprinted in Carl Th. Dreyer, Réflections sur mon métier (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1983), p. 114.
- Ibid., p. 127.
- Carl Th. Dreyer, interview, 18 May 1967, in Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000), p. 150.
- “Signor Dreyer,” I tried, “I know that in Ordet we see a miracle happen. Do you believe in miracles?”
“I believe”, he told me, “that there are human beings endowed with faculties whose explanation escapes us. There are individuals capable, asleep, of seeing in the tiniest detail events destined to happen punctually in reality a few hours later or at a distance of years. […] Einstein discovered the fourth dimension of the universe. On the basis of such a discovery, science has been able to bring to light natural laws which previously seemed to be irrational or supernatural forces. The divinatory faculties that some people have, the unexplainable ability of some human beings to perform miracles, that is, to break natural laws, – or better: what we hold today to be laws of nature – proves to us the existence of a fifth dimension. […] Miracles like Johannes’s in Ordet are possible. In any case, I maintain this possibility, which I have verified often. Miracles happen every day, big and small, but only a few people notice them.”
“In Ordet, how is the miracle seen?”
“In the most objective way.”
“… that the important thing is not to believe in supernatural forces but in one’s self. Johannes’s strength is the strength of faith. Since Johannes believes he is able to perform a miracle, the miracle happens.”
– Corrado Terzi, “La parola a Dreyer”, Intervista ragionata, Cinema Nuovo, no. 67, September 1955. Reprint in Terzi, Lorenzo Pellizzari (Ed.), La quadratura del cinema. Scriti 1940-1995, (Cesena: Centro Cinema Città di Cesena, Società Editrice “Il Ponte Vecchio”, 1997).
- The Cinema of Carl Dreyer (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1971), p. 123.
- Lotte H. Eisner, “Rencontre avec Carl Th. Dreyer”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 48, June 1955. Reprint pp. 109-10.
- Maurice Drouzy, Carl Th. Dreyer né Nilsson (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1982), p. 245. The best book on Dreyer and one of the best film books ever.
- My translation from the French texts in Fabrice Revault d’Allonnes, Gertrud (Belgium: Editions Yellow Now, 1988), pp. 99-100.
- I have not been able to find any confirmation of the claim by Palladium, Gertrud’s producer, that it was Dreyer’s own decision to delete the intertitles. Nor is it clear why they were cut. Casper Tybjerg, in an email to me, alerts me to an interview Dreyer gave to Børge Trolle shortly after the Copenhagen premiere. The interview, originally published in Danish in Kosmorama, no. 69, February 1965, p. 99, appeared in English translation in Film Culture, no. 41, Summer 1966, p. 58:
Q. But what about the photographed verses that mark certain transitions in the plot?
DREYER: They didn’t quite fulfill the purpose I had for them.
Q. But if the film had been made in color?
DREYER: Then it would have been possible, with the help of color, to point up and mark it as the verses now attempt to do.
Casper Tybjerg notes that “The latter reply is perhaps better translated as: ‘Then it would have been possible, with the help of the colors, to express and point up that which the verses now attempt to do.’ (The sentence is ungainly in Danish as well).”
- Aarhus Stiftstidende, February 2, 1965; quoted in Drum, p. 250.
- Review of Gertrud, 12 October 1983. Text on internet in English translation without citation.