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Carl Dreyer: Absolving through suffering

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Dreyer’s film production, regardless of their intent moral, ethical and religious roots, look for an implementation of a set of values that connect with Christianity in a more pure state. Consequently, Dreyer criticizes the standardized religion and rituals.

Dreyer started to work in film world in 1912, when he began to write captions for films of Nordisk. In 1920 he began directing films. The first one was Praesidenten, revealing some of the qualities that will make him one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. So, in a few years he became a director of prestigious films. He made films in Sweden:Prästänken (1920); Germany: Mikael (1924) and France: La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

One of his first films about theological reflection was Blade af Satans Bog(1920), an episodic film follows the proposal by Luiggi Maggi’s Satan(1912) and later systematized by Thomas Ince’s Civilization (1915) andGriffith’s Intolerance (1916 ). In Intolerance, the film is divided in four episodes, presented chronologically: “In Palestine” develops the last days of Jesus’ life and where Satan, or the manifestation of evil, embodied in the figure of a Pharisee who urges Judas to betray Jesus; “The Inquisition” where the evil power is represented by the Spanish Inquisition; “The French Revolution” in which the revolutionary power is presented as an agent of evil; and finally “The Red Rose of Finland” in which a Bolshevik commissar chases Finns fighting for their independence.

It is, as in Griffith’s film, an attempt to portray intolerance in its manifestation throughout history, although Dreyer granted a supernatural touch to point to Satan as the source of intolerance or in other words: the power of evil upon mankind.

Stylistically in this film, Dreyer revealed his style of designing and making movies. He attaches great importance to the lighting that gives the sets a sublime embodiment and a dramatic role as important as the actors. Next to it stands the thoroughness of the filmmaker to make credible to the smallest detail the history showing on the screen: for the Spaniard episode, he looked for Spanish-Latinamerican figurants; for the last episode did the same to find Finns.

Still fra La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc/Jeanne d'Arcs Lidelse og Død af Carl Th. Dreyer. Société Générale de Films, Frankrig, 1928. På billedet ses Maria Falconetti i rollen som Jeanne d'Arc.
Still fra La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/Jeanne d’Arcs Lidelse og Død af Carl Th. Dreyer. Société Générale de Films, Frankrig, 1928. På billedet ses Maria Falconetti i rollen som Jeanne d’Arc.

A new approach to the world of intolerance, oppression and injustice was made with La passion de Jeanne d’Arc filmed in France with a script that adapted the court records of the original process, getting a film of extraordinary beauty and deep emotional charge. In this masterpiece, Dreyer led to unimaginable extremes the concept of reality: removed makeup, filmed the dramatic story like a chained of close-up shots in which actors, despite being a silent movie, had to recite their roles, even was filmed in chronological order, breaking with the types of historical film made so far. Finally it can be said that the interpretation made by Marie Falconetti is resolved as a kind of reincarnation of Jeanne.

Injustice as storyline goes showing by the confrontation of the first realistic shots in which Jeanne appears to us as a victim of a popular, social and historical injustice. His accusers, whose faces fill the screen, transmit us states of a struggle between holiness and evil. Due the fact that the connotations of the process would affect the eternal battle between Good and Evil, with a series of pictorial features taken from Bosch or Brueghel to increase its drama. Drama that is brilliantly achieved by the use of a clever editing that sometimes can remember us Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (1925).

In the Soviet film the main role was the mass, the sailors of the ship. Dreyer’s version is embodied in the figure of the individual: Jeanne. Eisenstein told about political injustice. Dreyer points the danger of religious doctrinal organization. Dreyer matches the importance of close-ups, as we have seen, to convey moods, it is useful to strip the man of his body and show us what it is the spiritual state: the internal struggle of the soul to achieve a state of liberation.

The claim of an ideal carried Jeanne to suffer the trial and, at the end, causes her death. But this does not mean the victory of evil. For Dreyer, inherent to life is suffering. The victory becomes a spiritual nature: inner liberation (1). Arguably Dreyer transmitted through this film his mystical ideas of compassion for a humanity that unfolds in a world full of neutral scenarios in which the individual, the human figure appears in a fresco by Giotto.

After Vampyr (1932), a sound film in which excelled sinister silences and at same time mysterious origin sounds, that gave the film a great aesthetic value, Dreyer was 11 years without filming. His next film was done in 1943, during the German occupation, with the title of Vedrens Dag (Day of Wrath). The film was based on the play of Anne Wiers Petersdotter Janssen. It is a dark story, set in the Seventeenth century, developed in an atmosphere of religious injustice, in which individual freedom is subjugated by the weight of religious superstition (2), all with a staging that constantly reminds Vermeer and other Dutch Baroque painters.

Vredens Dag’s plot revolves around the search for love by Anne, who is much younger than her husband, a Priest. In this quest appears Martin, priest’s son with a first wife. Dense moral obstacles in the world in which they live cannot carry out the union of these two people: based in rigid religious manners. To complicate matters further, the story is parallel to a witch trial, which will arouse some suspicions about Anne.

The conclusion of the film gives us back the victory of evil over the individual and his will, an evil embodied in a range of human values and prejudices that have nothing to do with the true meaning of religion, for religion in their sense pure, and this was the only who claimed Dreyer in his films, is not associated with rituals, dogmas or servility, but with individual freedom.

Vredens Dag can be identified as a baroque drama on its form and its content. Regarding the former we can see: aesthetically value images, high pictorialism, all are organized by way of recreations of paintings from the Seventeenth through an austere visual style built for close-ups, long shots and own the genre of still life compositions, all under gloomy light of great symbolism through its bright contrast sharpens the inner drama of the characters

Regarding to content, the baroque in Vredens Dag would refer to a spiritual agony suffered by characters that struggle to get their freedom knowing that they are bound by the bonds of convention. Dreyer intends to deprive the individual of his corporeality to offer the drama of their souls. So every gesture, every attitude, every presence and even every silence (4) is merely a milestone in the resolution of this dilemma of eternal proportions. Anne’s passionate struggle against a dominant and intolerant system, will therefore be accused of witchcraft and accused to use evil powers to get rid of her husband and to be free to take his relationship with Martin; when the only certainty is that the only fault is a strong free will desire, to break free from social and cultural, and also religious, oppression represented by Absalom, her husband.

The final liberation, that is not shown but it is announced, is preceded by suffering (5).

After the experience of shooting in Sweden the film Tvä Människor(1944), Dreyer did not return to a feature film until 1950: Ordet, relying on a theatrical drama by Danish writer Kaj Munk, a project he had wanted to bring to the screen from 30s. Ordet describes the customs of rural life with great naturalness and realism, as well as the social clash of two religious communities.

The preciousness of the images invited the spectator to join in the action-laden planes built for long dialogues and nuanced situations which develops slowly with a splendid reflection of the essence of rural environment in which the story is set; ultimately conveys a contemplative atmosphere for enjoyment of the viewer.

The speech of the film, far from ideologically identified with one or another religious practice revolves around the issue of faith (6), an issue that was finally resolved after the confrontation of opposite ends.

Thus, in this spiritual battle of justification by faith, Johanes represents the ultimate haven of faith in a world linked to rituals that have lost the meaning of religion, whose only practical way is to link the human with God. This fact is revealed in all its magnitude with the figure of sceptical priest due to the lack of miracles. Consequently, from the viewpoint of the priest, the way of salvation has been truncated because the lack of the miraculous in human spiritual experience would render the pre-conversion act of faith and ultimately salvation.

We found this kind of clash equally within the Borgen family between father and the son Mikael. The first with an optimistic faith to understand his existence; and the second with a well reasoned agnostic sceptical feeling used to confront with the harshness of everyday existence. Above these differences appears again Johanes, who claimed with his words the sense of faith and the meaning of religious experience.

 The struggle for the difference in the conception of faith is manifested among the patriarchs of Borgen and Petersen families, which in its dialectical prevent any feelings between Anna and Anders. If the first claim that the relationship with the divine is to produce a supreme joy of living, the characters are followers of a cult that have a pessimistic view of life, opting for a faith that is revealed as a penitent state of perpetual bitterness.

Only at one point this doctrinal conflict acquires epics connotations to reveal their truly discussion. The criticisms that these two patriarchs are made are belonging to social groups: the peasant and the bourgeois. Again the inflection point represents Johanes with his proximity to God. His point is that nothing is impossible with God is asked in faith. And the film concluded that the alienation of Johanes is only the illusion of primitive state of faith without any kind of dogmatic charges. That means: the individual sense of life.

The little girl Maren, who hopes with ingenuity the power of his uncle (although this comes a time that after recovering the reason seems to be hesitating), represents the genuine and true faith claimed by Dreyer in this film. So Maren encourages and expects no more faith that the resurrection of his mother, a fact that reveals sublime, because although Dreyer had collected in previous films spiritual conflicts, never the presence of God had become so palpable as in this case. Maren, as opposed to other characters, has not been so influenced by the death of his mother as remains clinging to the promise of Johanes, the promise of the Word (7).

Finally, this film highlights a fact that is a constant in the production of Dreyer: the importance of women in further relationship with the religious theme. But not looking for a pietistic role in society instead a manner to explain the inner process for conscience.

Traditionally stigmatized by religious praxis, the woman was taken into the background within both Catholicism and Protestantism. However Dreyer aim for the idea that the Christian message offers a vindication of women’s role in the social and spiritual world, issue that is a reality in biblical texts but have been grounded by the official cults. So Jeanne, Inger or Anne represents the rehabilitation of equality between humankind and divinity who’s opposite, man and woman, is merely a human invention.

  1. Monty, Ib: “Dreyer” The international dictionary of Film and Filmmakers. (Chicago, 1984; pág 150) «The meaning behind life lies in just this recognition of the necessity to suffer in order to arrive at deliverance. The characters nearly always suffered defeat in the outward world because Dreyer considered defeat or victory in the human world to be of no significance. For him the triumph of the soul over life was what was most important».
  2. Motivated by his own inclinations, Dreyer once again denounces religious intolerance, feeling reported by José Aparicio “Dies Irae” [Nosferatu (Donostia) # 5 (January 1991) p 64] “Dreyer had already expressed in previous films conflict existing between a religion that, for him, would be enriching and liberating and ecclesiastical complex device that materializes with its intolerance, its harsh and oppressive dogmas rigor, all tending to negate any possibility for man to be happy on earth “
  1. Sémolué, J.: Carl Th. Dreyer. Anthologie du cinema. Paris, 1970. (p. 138) speaks of a constant atmosphere of mourning that anticipates the end.
  2. MARTIN,R.:Barroco, Xarait Editions, Bilbao, 1986. Regarding the transmission of feelings and moods in the visual arts of the time (p. 74) Martin says: «eloquent gestures and looks are not the only means by that can communicate feelings, and often radical and expressionless immobility of the figure which leaves bare activity of the soul».
  3. IbMonty(. cit) makes the following statement aboutthe uniquevision thatDreyerhad abouthuman existence: «Dreyer never tried to make us believe that life is a bed of roses. There is much suffering, wickedness, death and torment in his films, but they often conclude in an optimistic conviction in the victory of spirit over matter. With death comes deliverance. It is beyond the reach of malice».
  4. Ranieri, Tino:”Dreyer: Developedandrevelazione” Storia del cinema.MarsilioEditori, Venice, 1978,p
  5. Sémoluécit.p.142: «This worldof lifeasleeporfrozenbecomestruly aliveafterthe intervention of thedeath.The death ofIngerdesired byPeterin a fit offanaticism, predicted byJohannes,Mikkelrevealsthat life istearing.Peteritischarity; Johannessheisdisappointedwhen hetries in vain, for the first time, to revive; Borgenthe oldis,until the end,suffering».