When one thinks of Scandinavian art cinema, it’s hard to ignore the works of Carl Th. Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, and Lars von Trier. These three directors have proven themselves unique pioneers in cinema, and their work continues to inspire new Scandinavian film-makers. Dreyer proved to be well ahead of his time with his stylised silent films, Bergman stood head and shoulders above other European art film-makers, and Trier has proven to create art through controversy. Trier is easily the most controversial of these directors, though Bergman’s ‘sexualised’ cinema broke many censorship rules in the 1960s. Considering the unique body of work each director has created, it’s hard to believe there is one strong link that connects them. However, one cannot help but notice that each director tends to depict the sacrificial woman, whether it be literally through the imagery of witches, or more metaphorically, as in Trier’s more recent films.
Trier is the most open about his depiction of the sacrificial woman. While promoting his gory witchcraft film Antichrist, Trier famously said: “I’ve always wondered what would happen if I just came out and said I hate women.” Just recently, his new film The House That Jack Built resulted in around 100 people leaving the cinema while the film played, with critics taking to Twitter to express their outrage at Trier’s realistic depiction of women and children being brutally murdered. This is not new to a Trier film, however, as one can look back to the 1990’s when his critically acclaimed Breaking the Waves sees Bess sacrifice herself to heal her husband Jan, or in Dancer in the Dark, where Selma sacrifices herself in order to give her son a better chance in life. Even in Trier’s more restrained Melancholia, Justine is a victim of depression, and in Nymphomaniac, Joe constantly mentions sacrifices she has had to make. The sacrificial woman, or the suffering of the woman, is a longstanding theme in Trier’s works. Trier has defended this, of course, often stating that he sees himself as the woman in his films.
Trier is not unique to this topic; it can be found throughout Scandinavian art history. Firstly, Dreyer and Bergman used these themes repeatedly, as I will discuss below, but it can also be found much further back. Silent films such as Sir Arne’s Treasure by Mauritz Stiller, or characters in Scandinavian literature such as Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, who abandons her husband and children, or August Strindberg’s Laura, who drives her husband insane in order to take control of their child. Ibsen and Strindberg create sacrificial women, for whom death seems to be the only response to the structure of their lives (see Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, and Hedvig in The Wild Duck). Linking some of the biggest names in Scandinavian art history begs the question: just how well did they acknowledge the work of their predecessors?
It seems that the Scandinavian art directors have a love/hate relationship with one another, most evident through Trier’s public statements. Still, even looking back to Bergman, one cannot help but notice very strong opinions about the artists who came before him. First, Dreyer and Bergman have a long history of dismissing the work of one another. Dreyer is the earlier director of the two, and by the time Bergman’s career was taking off, Dreyer’s had slowed down.
Despite the fact that Bergman dismisses Dreyer, it’s hard not to see parallels between Dreyer’s depiction of Joan of Arc in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Bergman’s depiction of a witch in The Seventh Seal. Despite the fact that Dreyer’s most well-known film, Day of Wrath, depicts witchcraft in a more literal sense, it’s the discussion of religion found in Joan of Arc that links it to The Seventh Seal. The Passion of Joan of Arc was claimed by Dreyer biographers to be a secular film, but one cannot help but notice how the voice of God is represented. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc has been analysed exhaustively by David Bordwell, who did a frame-by-frame reading of the film. He claims that the film is, in fact, a depiction of Christ’s suffering and death. Dreyer’s film is not a purely secular rendering of a woman’s suffering, but rather Dreyer stages Joan’s trial as an attempt by a crowd of male authority figures to force Joan to retract her claim that she has contact with God. Joan claims to hear the voice of God, and it is that claim that eventually ends in her burning at the stake, but Dreyer makes an effort to ensure that nothing is shown that will disprove her claims. Instead, the viewer is led to identify the deceptive power of the devil with her interrogators rather than her inner convictions. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman inserts the story of witch-burning as a subplot. Still, the brief moments when the young witch appears are of great significance as they represent a response to Dreyer’s film. Here too we find an interrogation, with the knight questioning the witch while on his quest for tangible proof of God’s existence. He asks the witch if she has in fact seen the devil, but due to her exhaustion, she is unable to respond. The knight’s questions echo the questions posed by Joan’s interrogators, and in both cases man attempt to access a woman’s privileged knowledge. Bergman’s film shines a light on the lack of God’s presence that is so palpable in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Bergman’s depiction of his witch, the young girl Tyan rejects the idea that she has a privileged connection to God. One of the most common themes in Bergman’s films is the silence of God, and nowhere is it more evident than in The Seventh Seal. By using the witch imagery and making this point, it seems as though Bergman is attempting to disprove Dreyer’s earlier film.
Even though the voice of God is a strong similarity between these two films, it is the depiction of the female sacrifice that separates them. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Joan’s burning at the stake is a public event and one that inspires the locals to break out in an uprising, protesting the perversion of justice her death represents and acknowledging her relationship with God. However, Bergman’s film dismisses any legitimacy in the claims that Tyan has a relationship with God by keeping her execution private. The knight and his squire only happen to come across Tyan by chance, in the middle of the night in a forest. Bergman makes this clear by having his squire ask “Why burn her at night when people need a diversion?” Later, when the knight asks Tyan about her relationship to God, Tyan tells him to look into her eyes. The knight sees nothing, furthering Bergman’s claim of the silence of God.
It is interesting, then, to look and see how Trier responds to Bergman. Religion is a theme often discussed in Trier’s films, but in Breaking the Waves we hear the voice of God. Well, sort of. Bess, like Joan, has a connection to God. At key moments we see Bess in prayer, and while she is praying, we hear her voice and then the voice of God answering her. But what we hear is Bess speaking Gods voice. This may seem like a symptom of a mental condition, after all, her God seems to be the voice of her super-ego, speaking with her Scottish burr. Yet in the context of the narrative, it appears the relationship she has with God is real, for example when she asks God to bring her husband Jan home and he is then brought home, though barely alive.
Trier is more outspoken when it comes to acknowledging his predecessors. Bergman has denied taking inspiration from Dreyer. In an interview, when Bergman was asked to list the film-makers who have inspired him, he cites Victor Sjöström as an important mentor but then adds that “Carl Dreyer; the Danish director, has never been an influence. I Find myself very remote from him and, in fact, his films have never touched me”. Trier, on the other hand, is obsessed with Dreyer to the point that he filmed himself praying at Dreyer’s grave and claims to have had telepathic contact with Dreyer while creating a film version of Dreyer’s script for Medea. This public performance is very similar to Bergman’s claim that he received a phone call from the deceased August Strindberg. Bergman also claimed that he had met Strindberg on Karlavagen in Stockholm, the street where Bergman had lived in an apartment where Strindberg’s used to stand. “I am relating all this as if it were a funny story, but naturally, deep within my childish mind I don’t consider it a funny story at all”. Both Bergman and Trier, then, play a game of representing themselves as supernaturally linked to their aesthetic forebears, a game that the spectator is invited to receive ironically or seriously.
When it comes to Trier and Bergman, however, Trier is very outspoken in his opinion of the Swedish director. Lars von Trier’s feeling for Bergman, if one puts credence in a 2012 Swedish television interview, oscillates between love and fury, but is never cold like Bergman. Trier says:
“But he has meant so much to me, the pig. I don’t know how many fan letters I wrote to him, without a single answer […] Now he’s dead, and I can finally say, “Fuck Bergman. I’m 55, I’m finally going to live my own life”. He didn’t want any contact: fine. We’ll forget Bergman. It was like with my father, who wasn’t my real father and died before I could really talk to him. I had a little bit of the same relationship with Bergman, which is why it irritates me. Why couldn’t the old bastard just say, “Come on up to Fårö, and we can chat for a while.” That’s what makes me mad, that he never did. [pause] But I love him too, of course. [Trier seems moved, almost in tears. Pauses. The interviewer asks: “Is that it?” Trier laughs] “Yeah, but fuck Bergman.”
Trier’s remarks are over-determined. What more can one say when an artist compares his dead predecessor to his dead father? In a recent documentary about Bergman, Trier focuses on the fact that Bergman must’ve masturbated a lot. Whether or not Trier is making these statements just to get some attention is up to the individual, but there’s no doubt he has this love/hate relationship when it comes to Bergman. These conflicted relationships with predecessors are a common trend of Nordic authorship, such as August Strindberg’s public performance around his relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Despite their opinions of one other, one can’t look past the fact that they are connected through the image of the sacrificial woman. Joan is a pawn in a larger came, like how the knight and the squire use Tyan to further their arguments of the existence of God, and how Bess arranges for Jan’s recovery through her sacrifice. The women are instruments in a larger scheme of discussion between directors. Yet this conversation is one-sided; the younger artist addresses himself to the artist who came before him, with no expectation of a response. Dreyer leaves Bergman cold, but Bergman engages Dreyer – he just pretends to ignore him. Trier openly expresses his debt to Dreyer and his resentment of Bergman, and his films go beyond the hint of redemption in The Passion of Joan of Arc and the suffering in The Seventh Seal. As these directors praise and debate one another, it is the suffering of women that are caught up in the mix.
Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1995)
Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 1998)
Day of Wrath (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1944)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928)
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Bordwell, David. 1981. The Films of Carl Theodor-Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press
“Carl Th. Dreyer, The Man and His Work”. 2010. “From Dreyer to Trier” Accessed 20 May 2018, https://www.carlthdreyer.dk/carlthdreyer/om-dreyer/temaer/fra-dreyer-til-trier
Drum, Dale D, and Jean Drum. 2000. My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press
Haverty Rugg, Linda. 2016. “A Tradition of Torturing Women” in A Companion to Nordic Cinema, ed. Mette Hjort & Ursula Lindqvist, Wiley Blackwell, pp. 351-369
New York Times, 2014. “Hard Life for a von Trier woman, again” Accessed 20 May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/movies/hard-life-for-a-von-trier-woman-again.html
Sandberg, Mark. 1991. “Rewriting God’s Plot: Ingmar Bergman and the Feminine Narrative.” Scandinavian Studies, 63 (1): 1-29
Sveriges TV1. 2012. “Han svarade aldrig på mina hyllningsbrev” https://www.svt.se/bergmans-video/han-svarade-aldrig-pa-mina-hyllningsbrev/