Carl Theodor Dreyer lived with ghosts and gods. Only someone with an impassioned, intuitive belief in impossible occurrences could have directed films so radical in their sincere postulation of the miraculous, and Dreyer — an orphan of Swiss extraction who became Denmark’s most famous filmmaker — consistently produced revelations of the sublime, whether Christian, pagan or romantic. Though he directed little over a dozen features from 1919 to 1964, in that time Dreyer redefined the artform with the purpose of enacting an inimitable “realized mysticism.”
“You can’t just separate mysticism from reality... as if mysticism were something supernatural beyond what is logical and psychological,” Dreyer once stated. Such refusal to compartmentalize realms can be seen early on in mischievous silent comedy The Parson’s Widow (1920), where a witch spellbinds a practical-joking minister, and moody melodrama Michael (1924), a death-haunted gay affair where the ineffable mystery of art is manipulated as currency in the exchange of love. In both films, triangular relationships bridge the metaphysical and physical, but Dreyer’s output before 1928 hardly predicts his The Passion of Joan of Arc and its earth-shattering expression of what Dreyer deemed “the triumph of the soul over life.”
Working in the nation for which Joan fought and died, Dreyer punctuated the end of the silent era with a landmark in pure visual genius, combining the explosive rhythms and collisions of Soviet montage and the distorted décor and wild camerawork of German Expressionism to arrive at something singularly otherworldly. With nearly every shot a close-up (actors sans make-up) at an extreme-low, -high, or -canted angle, The Passion discovers the miraculous in transformations of the face, especially that of Renée Falconetti in an epochal performance as the teenage martyr. The Passion remains one of the cinema’s strangest and most spiritual experiences, vaulted into the firmament by Dreyer’s committed vision to making plain and powerful the simple faith of a saint.
Just as The Passion exalts the stubborn persistence of innocence and devotion through feverish filmic intensity, so does horror experiment Vampyr (1932) offer convincing evidence of hell through grotesque shadow plays, diffuse stock-tampered lighting, and constantly shifting perspectives (including the POV of an entombed, transported cadaver) — it still looks far ahead of its time, lost footage from the unseen dwellings of doomed specters. It also marks the end of one phase of Dreyer’s career, his films now becoming increasingly sparse and patient in delicate pursuit of subtle, hushed, but still astonishing phenomena. Returning to Denmark, Day of Wrath (1943) complicates an allegory of a witch-hunt paranoid 1600s with real black magic and sympathetic Oedipal adultery, creeping panning shots and stark compositions suffusing repressive interiors with evil and eroticism. Ordet (1955) expands on this aesthetic with long take-heavy tableaux of a farm family’s son who might be the literal Son; eye contact among performers is refracted into somnambulant, non-intersecting vectors, delaying their confrontation with a Lazarus-evoking miracle. If Ordet pushes Dreyer’s severity and its audience’s faith to the breaking point, Gertrud (1964) breaks it. Like its uncompromising heroine, the ultimate Dreyer woman holding out for true love among weak and corrupt men, Gertrud challenges by way of a monumental asceticism, reducing camera and actors’ movements to a bare minimum as quiet dialogue wars of romantic attrition play out in shots both endless and hypnotic. With this capper Dreyer left the world with some harsh demands, certainly. But after giving us an oeuvre that inspires unparalleled awe, we should be more than willing to accept it.