Robin Wood on Carl Dreyer
Robin Wood on Carl Dreyer
What would we make of Bergman if, between 1953 and 1966, he had made only
THE NAKED NIGHT, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, THE SEVENTH SEAL, NOW ABOUT THESE WOMEN, and PERSONA? Yet Dreyer made only five films (including the totally inaccessible TWO PEOPLE) in a period three times that length. It is much harder to “see” Dreyer whole: the individual films tend to remain obstinately separate, the obvious thematic links (the favoring of women as protagonists, the recurrent emphasis on persecution, guilt, retribution giving his oeuvre little beyond a superficial unity. Those features of tone and style that spring most readily to mind (and hence must have their importance) prove on closer inspection not to be consistent. Hence, when one thinks of Dreyer’s “austerity,” one has to place against this THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and VAMPYR. They have their austere aspects, certainly, in the concentration on the characters’ inner life, in the economy and bareness of settings; yet JOAN OF ARC, with its welter of extraordinary camera angles, looks positively baroque beside ORDET. And the elaborate track¬ing-shot style of VAMPYR is very far removed from the rigorous stoicism of GER-TRUD, where the slightest camera movement startles by virtue of its rarity. I think, if we wish to discover a consistent identity within Dreyer’s work, and a means of relating the films meaningfully to one another, it may be profitable to approach him obliquely, defining him through a series of comparisons. From JOAN to GERTRUD Dreyer shows himself one of the screen’s great masters of expressive camera movement, however disparate may be the ways in which he employs it from film to film. How does the camera movement in his films compare with that in films by other directors noted for their mobile camera work?
RENOIR PROVIDES a convenient first point of reference. He once wrote an unreservedly admiring tribute to Dreyer (published in a pamphlet put out by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available from Danish embassies); yet his own work reveals, through its style, the most striking and fundamental differences of temperament and attitude. Perhaps what characterizes Renoir’s cinema above all is its sense of superfluous life—superfluous, that is, to the immediate requirements of plot and overt subject matter. There is always a sense of a world existing beyond the confines of the frame: characters exit from the frame or enter it during a shot, or the camera swings over to include new characters and exclude others, so that we are continually aware of other lives going on coexistently with what is on the screen, although we can’t see them. One gets the sense of life as constant flux-1n nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, every-thing is transformed,” a text by Lavoisier that Renoir is fond of quoting. Ultimately, of course, one comes to realize that this sense of life-as-flux is the real subject of Renoir’s work, whatever the immediate subject matter of individual films. It ac-counts for the fluidity of composition in his work, the sense that he composes in movement rather than in fixed space; and for the feeling of spontaneity his camera movements give.
“Spontaneity” is not a word one would ever use of Dreyer. The movements of his camera are characterized by an extreme deliberateness. And, far from conveying a sense of “superfluous” life, his films give the impression that he has stripped away with the utmost rigor everything he finds inessential to the matter in hand—a tendency that becomes steadily more pronounced in his later films. In ORDET and GERTRUD. especially, one is given no sense of a world-beyond-the-screen: Dreyer shows us precisely what it is necessary for us to see, no more, no less, and when a character exits he ceases to exist until his next appearance. The fact that these last two Dreyer films are both adapted from plays clearly intensifies this effect but doesn’t explain it away: rather, one feels that Dreyer was drawn to the stage drama because it facilitated his habitual tendency to strip things to essentials. The procedure is already strikingly apparent in joan OF arc, where the use of close-ups tends to detach the characters from any “dis tracting” surroundings, undermining our sense of the physical realities of space, rendering the drama spiritual and time less.
Renoir’s camera movements ar￼facilitated his habitual tendency to strip things to essentials. The procedure is already strikingly apparent in joan OF arc, where the use of close-ups tends to detach the characters from any “dis tracting” surroundings, undermining our sense of the physical realities of space, rendering the drama spiritual and time less.
Renoir’s camera movements are always strictly functional, that is to say, dependent on the movements of the actors. It is not quite true to say that the reverse is true of Dreyer—only the most pretentious of bad directors would work out camera movements irrespective of the action—yet it is clear in a film like ORDET that the camera work has a higher status: that it has become not just a way of recording an action effectively but has taken on an expressive or determinant role in its own right. Having said this, one naturally turns for further definition to comparison with Max Ophuls, the director with the most fully elaborated moving camera style in the history of film. The conventional “line” on Ophuls in the past (it has been thoroughly disqualified by recent critical writings on him, but one still comes across it) sees his style as mere formal elegance applied decora¬tively to the subject matter. Such a de¬scription, superficial as it is, suggests one aspect of his work that separates him from Dreyer. Ophuls’s camera style im¬plies its own complex, perhaps ambiguous, metaphysic, but it is characterized by an unmistakable delight in graceful movement. Such a statement could never be made about Dreyer. Ophuls’s cinema is one of constant movement, though very different from the flux of Renoir. Each camera movement in Ophuls is graceful, fluid, yet meticulously worked out. We are emotionally close to the characters, mov-ing with them, yet never quite at one with them: our involvement in their movement is qualified by Ophuls’s fondness for al-lowing ornamental decor —nets, foliage, pillars, bric-a-brac—to intrude between us and them, in the foreground of the image. The elegance of decor reflects the elegance of camera movement. The ambiguity arises from our sense that the characters are ultimately trapped in the decor, just as they are trapped in the predetermined movements of the cam¬era: the elegance becomes inseparable from a sense of fatality, of predestination.
Leaving aside JOAN OF ARC and VAM-PYR, one feels at a much greater distance from Dreyer’s characters than those of Ophuls. The tracking shots of ORDET, often as long and elaborate as those of MADAME DE, serve to detach US from the action rather than involve us in it. Ophuls’s camera habitually moves with the characters, communicating their rhythm to the audience; Dreyer’s camera remains a rigorously detached observing eye, its movements dissociated from those of the people it watches. This opposition is reflected in every aspect of his work. Instead of the decorative clutter of Ophuls’s sets, those of Dreyer tend to be as bare as the requirements of his minimal concessions to naturalism allow: when planning ORDET he is said to have had the farm¬house equipped with everything one might expect to find there, demanding the most meticulous and detailed naturalism, and then, before shooting started, systematically stripped away everything in-essential, leaving only those items of décor on which he wished to focus the spectator’s attention. Ophuls’s free sensuousness is entirely foreign to Dreyer. His films at moments express the joy of physical contact between people with extraordinary intensity—the embrace following the wife’s resurrection in ORDET is perhaps the supreme example—but the intensity arises from the rarity of such moments and from the way they stand out from the pervasive sense of the inhibition of all sensual expression.
The film that Dreyer’s objective cam-era style most strikingly evokes is the work of a director who might seem at first to inhabit a different world: Hitchcock’s ROPE, the film he made entirely in ten-minute takes. In obvious ways the directors are polar opposites: Dreyer, the ascetic, intransigently guarding his artistic integrity, preferring to preserve silence rather than engage in work involving compromise; Hitchcock the “commercial” entertainer, at once show¬man and clown, eye always on the box office. Yet they reveal startling affinities once one has penetrated the surface of appearances. The tracking shots of ORDET are very like those Of ROPE (and, to a lesser extent, its immediate successor UNDER CAPRICORN): the camera becomes the spectator’s eye, placing him in the room as an invisible and detached witness or investigator, guiding his regard to the significant gesture at the significant moment. The continuity of gaze enforced by the refusal to cut be¬comes with both directors a “suspense” technique in the truest and most literal sense of the word, intensifying our awareness of the realities of time and space. We are nowhere allowed the shortcut of elliptical editing, we are forced to wait while our gaze is carried steadily and relentlessly to what the director next wants us to see. With Dreyer, as with Hitchcock, we feel completely in the director’s power.
There is perhaps a deeper resemblance. God is supposed to have created man in His image; it is certainly less arguable that man habitually creates God in his. An artist’s metaphysic is, even when not explicitly stated, implicit in the style and method of his work, which constitute the most direct expression of his personality. Renoir’s pantheism is inseparable from the exploratory freedom of his style, his avoidance of fixed frames and “composed” static images, the constant flux and movement of his films. Ophuls’s graceful and fluent, but very conscious, camera style, which appears to offer the characters freedom of movement even as it traps them in a predetermined progress, expresses an equivocal sense of fatality which lends itself (in, for example, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and MADAME DE) to interpretation in Christian terms without demanding it, or excluding the possibility of irony. The relentless camera movements of DAY OF WRATH, ORDET, GERTRUD, as with the subjective progress of JOAN OF ARC and VAM-PYR, contain within themselves the idea of strict predestination, with the filmmaker as omnipotent God. Again and again in ORDET the camera moves to an empty doorway before the character appears: hence we know the character must enter there at a fixed moment. If in Renoir the camera is felt to be always at the service of the actors, in Dreyer the process is reversed: the camera, Dreyer’s eye, directs each movement of the actor, each deliberate gesture, sees and deter¬mines the course of every action, like the eye of God. Though I find the Catholic interpretation of Hitchcock ultimately very dubious, the connection will be obvious: one need refer only to Hitchcock’s repeated boast that for him the film is complete when the shooting script is finalized—the rest is mere execution of a fully preconceived master plan.
This comparison, and its implications in terms of an underlying metaphysic, also make sense of the at-first-sight curious opposition in Dreyer’s work hint-ed at above: that between his customary “objective” camera style, already evolved in his early silent films such as MASTER OF THE HOUSE, and those few films—JOAN OF ARC, VAMPYR, THEY REACHED THE FERRY—where the camera is used subjectively. The same opposition occurs in Hitchcock, though the proportions are neatly reversed, the rigorously objective, long-take films occupying as limited a place in his output as the subjective films in Dreyer’s. (It should be made clear that I am not using the word “subjective” here to refer in any sense to the expression of the director’s own feelings, but strictly to the presentation of the action; in the former sense, VAMPYR is no more “subjective” than ORDET, or PSYCHO than ROPE).
Consider the brilliant terrifying short, THEY REACHED THE FERRY (1948). A man and girl on a motorcycle speed across a promontory from one ferry to the next. Repeatedly, the camera places us in their position: we are given alternating shots of the couple and the bike and of what they see, the technique involving us as directly as possible in the action. They keep meeting, and trying to get away from, a decrepit-looking old car, which always out distances them; gradually we see that the car has a skeleton pattern painted on its roof. As the motorbike pulls alongside, the driver turns and we see, from the couple’s viewpoint, a sinisterly smiling, skull-like face. The motorbike crashes into a tree, the accident again shown subjectively, culminating in a blacking-out of the screen. Had Hitch¬cock been commissioned to do a road safety film, isn’t this (differences of national culture apart) very much what we can imagine him coming up with? Even the ending—very Scandinavian in its austere sense of doom—somewhat resembles a macabre Hitchcock joke.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and VAMPYR, though on opposite sides of the great sound barrier, are separated by less time than any films Dreyer made subsequently. The difference in subject matter is reflected in great differences of style. JOAN all clear outlines and strong, sculptural compositions, VAMPYR all shadows, haze, and movement. Yet they stand out from all the other feature films of Dreyer I have seen by virtue of the subjectivity with which the action is presented. This is more obvious in the case of VAMPYR, in which virtually everything is shown through the consciousness (and often through the eyes) of the protagonist David Gray, to the point where one is tempted to see the whole film as an interior drama enacting itself within the psyche of a single individual. It becomes impossible to distinguish be¬tween what we, as audience, are shown and what David Gray sees: as a defined character, he has scarcely more existence than Lila Crane (Vera Miles) in the second half of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.
Our identification with Joan of Arc is never as complete or unequivocal as that: the film offers a very detailed portrayal of her as woman and martyr. chronicling her changing reactions with great insight and logic. Falconetti’s extraordinary performance makes of Joan very much more than an audience projection: She becomes one of the great “presences” of the cinema, and certainly its greatest Joan. For once, one believes that this is a woman who might have led armies into battle, at once inspired and communicating that inspiration to others, capable of the most intense spiritual exaltation as of the extremest suffering. Yet the essence of the film, the explanation and justification of its style. is the way in which Joan’s experiences are communicated to the audience with the maximum intensity and directness (as Godard very well saw when he had Anna Karina in VIVRE SA VIE
watch the film and weep with Joan in total self-identification). Stylistically, JOAN is Dreyer’s most flamboyant film, and the one that most obviously justifies my description of his work as a cinema of artifice. The insistent and oppressive use of close-ups against plain white back-grounds increasingly isolates the characters from any specific time and place. Few films in the history of the cinema have been so camera-conscious. “Un-natural” angles—high, low, oblique—abound, culminating in the extraordinary shots of the populace rioting at Joan’s burning where the camera, high up, twice turns downward as crowds rush beneath it until the whole image is invert¬ed, conveying in the most literal, immediate. and powerful way the sense of a world-upside-down.
Many of the shots are quite unequivocally subjective: we see Joan’s interrogators as she sees them, dominating her, intimidating her, shot from her angle of vision. But many shots that are not subjective in this literal sense are experienced by the spectator in terms of emotional subjectivity, conveying Joan’s sense of presences bearing down and closing in on her. The inquisitors become, for the most part, monstrous and dehumanized as they might appear to their victim: we are not allowed to consider them outside Joan’s experience of them. Thus the film becomes, for long stretches, a subjective nightmare in which we share; the closest parallel in my cinematic experience being the first “movement” of Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN. Dreyer’s urge to trap the spectator totally in the experience of the film is nowhere more fully realized in terms of technique: if we submit, and respond as the movement of the images dictates, we become as helpless as Joan at the hands of her persecutors, incapable of detachment or of free analytical reflection.
Bresson’s THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC offers a fascinating comparison, its tone consistently cool, detached. uninvolving. If his Joan seems ludicrously inadequate beside Falconetifs. it is possible to argue that he wanted Joan’s case presented rather than her emotional experience en-acted. I find Bresson’s film somewhat sterile in its determined dryness of presentation, but one could reasonably ad-mire his refusal to dominate and over-whelm his audience, to bully them into accepting a single point of view, with the respect that implies for each spectator’s individual intelligence. Dreyer’s JOAN, though a somewhat overpowering experience, is scarcely a complex one.
VAMPYR is a peculiarly difficult film to write about. It is one of the most dreamlike movies ever made, and one of the few to capture successfully the elusiveness of dream—the sense one has of meanings hovering just beyond the reach of consciousness. Its plot (taken from a story by Sheridan LeFanu) offers a conventional enough opposition of good and evil: young girls threatened by an officially long-dead female vampire and her living agents, one of the girls almost succumbing but released from the oppression when the vampire is destroyed by the hero, employing the traditional method of stake-through-the-heart. The film doesn’t contradict the simple sense of its plot outline, but it is certainly not reducible to it. For one thing, Dreyer has here created a visual style unlike that of any other film, including any of his own. Much of VAMPYR looks as if it were shot through filters; the exterior scenes, especially, have a haunting and magical haziness. Yet we have Dreyer’s word for it that he used natural light, that none of the delicate mistiness was fabricated by artificial means. It is a curious paradox that, of all the films from JOAN OF ARC on, the one that is strangest in visual effect is the one that made least use of artificial lighting. One’s overall impression of VAM-PYR is of an alternation of this diffused, misty light and an interior shadow world. It’s not the strong, harsh dark-and-light contrasts of German Expressionism or the Gothic horror movies of James Whale, but an intricate network of subtly modulated grays—an alternation that throws into relief the dazzling whiteness that fills the screen when the vampire’s chief human agent is suffocated by cascades of flour in a mill, and the magical freshness of the scene intercut with this where hero and heroine cross a river (returning to the “real” world?) in the misty sunlight of early morning.
The film’s atmosphere is also created by the camera style, one of the most fluid in the history of the cinema. One has the impression of continual movement, intensifying one’s sense of a world of instability and shifting shadows where nothing is fixed or certain. There are a large number of subjective shots, showing us the action through David Gray’s eyes. and a large number of fluent, gliding tracking-shots in which the camera accompanies his movements, concerned less with Gray than with what he sees, with the flicker¬ing, deceptive world into which he is led. Such a description may again suggest Hitchcock, but VAMPYR has a visual delicacy of which Hitchcock never dreamed.
The sequence near the beginning of the film where Gray first begins to explore the sinister world in which he finds him¬self can stand as illustration. though verbal description cannot but coarsen its effects. The camera follows Gray through the barroom of the inn as he leaves its (comparative) security. We see the al-ready familiar inn sign—an angel with a wreath and an olive branch—in the early morning light, the still pool with delicate tree reflections. Gray is in the foreground of the image, an unidentified figure mov¬ing in long-shot. Dreyer creates his dream world out of silhouettes and shadows: the silhouette of a grave digger shoveling earth, a shadow of a man with a wooden leg climbing up a ladder into a derelict barn. The shadow of a bat flickers on a wall, preluding the first appearance of the old woman, Marguerite Chopin, the “undead” vampire. We see a one-legged soldier sitting on a bench, shadowless; the shadow, independent of him. comes and takes up the appropriate position behind him on the wall and, when the soldier is summoned, moves off with him. Phantom festivities ensue: a shadow orchestra playing gay music, to which other shadows dance. The sequence is built with these elements, weaving in and out of the images without clear-cut or logical relationship, to convey a sense of constant movement: movement of the camera, movement within the frame, with continual suggestions (unusual for Dreyer) of movement just beyond the frame which we can’t quite see: a world of death, but terribly potent, terribly alive in its shadowy intangibility.
Vampire mythology draws its strength from two main sources which are closely interrelated: the religious and the sexual. The vampire, associated with the animal kingdom, able to appear only at night, sucking the lifeblood of his victims and possessing them so that they become vampires in their turn, is a powerful universal symbol of repressed sexuality; the weapon of which he is most afraid is the cross. The vampire film that most fully realizes the myth’s implications the sexual and the Christian, and the relationship between them—is probably Murnau’s NOSFERATU. Dreyer, in VAMPYR. very consciously plays up the myth’s potential for religious allegory but minimizes the sexual implications. They are not, however, altogether absent, and the form they take is interesting in relation to a general characteristic of Dreyer’s work: it is strong on female sexuality, weak on male. The chief vampire-figure of VAMPYR is strikingly androgynous in appearance: we take her at times for a man. She appears to batten exclusively on young girls. The film’s most disturbing and sinister scene is that in which Marguerite’s victim, Leone, apparently mortally ill, attempts to suck the blood of her own sister: it is played as a macabre Lesbian seduction scene. On the other hand, the corresponding scene in which David Gray loses his blood to Marguerite’s doctor-assistant is deprived of all sexual connotations: there is no direct physical contact, the doctor persuading Gray to give his blood so that Leone can have a transfusion.
The religious overtones are consistently emphasized. The image of the inn sign, with its angel, dominates the open-ing of the film; it is visually linked to flowing water. which is in turn contrasted, in the film’s elaborate poetic imagery, with the dry, derelict building peopled by shadows, and with Marguerite’s body that turns to dust and bone before our eyes when the stake is driven through her heart. The vampires become agents of the devil, tempting the soul to damnation. We learn of Marguerite Chopin that she died in mortal sin, unrepentant. One of the vampires chief tasks is to tempt their victims to suicide so that they place themselves beyond God’s mercy: the doctor doesn’t himself administer poison to the dying Leone, he places it within her reach and relies on the power of suggestion. The imagery of the last sequences of the film unites various motifs which are at base religious, or related to the religious substructure: the doctor buried under a cascade of white flour; David and Gisele, released from the oppression of the vampire, wandering freely amid nature; the flowing of water; the rising of the sun.
If VAMPYR, starting from a simple horror story, aspires to universal religious statement, the universality is achieved by the presentation of the action through a single consciousness and the virtual identification of that consciousness with the spectator’s. David Gray’s experience becomes our experience, what he sees becomes a reflection of the eternal conflict of good and evil rooted in human nature. In the climactic scenes he ceases to be a spectator and becomes a participant; and here our sense of the film as an interior drama is confirmed. Gray, having prevented Leone’s suicide, chases the doctor from the house. We see him running across the meadows in pursuit; then he sits down on a bench, and there follows the film’s most extraordinary sequence. He appears to lapse into slumber, or a trance. His “shadow”—or transparent second self—detaches itself from his body. He goes to the old derelict house, where he finds a coffin, with, on the lid, the inscription “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.” He opens the coffin, and finds himself, seemingly dead, inside it. (The presence of a grandfather’s clock without hands supports the suggestion that the sequence may be one of Bergman’s sources for the dream that opens WILD STRAWBERRIES.) The sequence. then, divides Gray into three: his corporeal self, sleeping on the bench: the spiritual shadow-self that explores and investigates; and the mysterious third self in the coffin—he has recently given his blood to the doctor for the transfusion—which has as much physical reality as anything else in the movie.
The “active” Gray also finds Gisele, a prisoner, tied. The doctor and the one-legged soldier reappear, and Gray escapes down a trapdoor. The doctor lights his cigar with a candle: the prosaic detail gives the scene, and the character, an unnerving feeling of reality, denying our efforts to feel it as “dream.” The soldier puts on the coffin cover, which has a pane of glass inset. Dreyer suddenly gives us a subjective shot from inside the coffin, looking up, as the lid is fitted into place: it gives us the uncanny sensation of enforced identification with the “dead” Gray. and the even more un¬canny sense that the “dead” Gray is alive—indeed, we subsequently see his face through the glass, and his eyes are open. The insistence on subjective shooting continues and intensifies. From Gray’s viewpoint we see the candle placed on the glass above our heads; Marguerite Chopin’s face peers down at us. The coffin is carried out, borne in procession through the woods; Dreyer films the movement mostly as a subjective tracking shot, the trees and figures mov¬ing eerily above us, seen through the glass. The procession passes Gray asleep on the bench. He wakes up, yet—most unnerving moment of all!—the pro¬cession continues. The sequence defies rational interpretation. It conveys the sense that a man is many men simultaneously, that each of us possesses different spiritual selves which may move in contrary directions simultaneously: the Gray in the coffin, presumably vampirized, hence one of the damned; the Gray who wakes, and saves himself and the women by proceeding to destroy Marguerite Chopin. The subjective shoot¬ing equates the different potentials in Gray with different potentials in all of us.
The two films which seem to me most to invite comparison with VAMPYR are Murnau’s NOSFERATU and Jacques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, a minor poetic masterpiece about which I wrote in the Summer 1972 FILM COMMENT. In some respects VAMPYR is the most remark-able of the three. Certainly, it is the one least like any other movie; the Murnau and Tourneur, though both have qualities one would normally describe as dream-like, appear very solid beside it. The whole of VAMPYR is like a dream—the visual style is consistent throughout, and, notably in the climactic sequences with the coffin, Dreyer deliberately blurs any distinction between reality and hallucination. But we know almost nothing about the dreamer: the dream is completely generalized, not linked to any specific psychological situation. One can define the differences between NOSFERATU and VAMPYR by relating them to the two great germinal theories of dream interpretation, the Freudian and Jungian respectively. What the hero Of NOSFERATU discovers in the “land of phantoms” is the essential reality of himself; the significance of the film, though its implications are universal, is firmly grounded in a defined reality, and its movement is psychoanalytical. One cannot interpret VAMPYR psycho-analytically because there is no defined character to be psychoanalyzed. Rather, one must relate it to Jung’s theory of the “collective unconscious,” and see its dream imagery as rooted in universal archetypes and race memory. Hence its oppositions, though expressed in such
shifting, elaborate images, are basically elementary: its obscurity is not to be confused with ambiguity.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE also offers apparent oppositions of good and evil, black and white (both literally and metaphorically), yet as the film progresses all certainties are dissolved, and one is led into a world of ambiguities where nothing is morally pure. Ultimately, I find both NOSFERATU and ZOMBIE more satisfying than VAMPYR. Dreyer’s film, for all its insistence on subjective presentation. re-mains very remote and difficult to relate to, partly because one is given no firm ground from which to take one’s bearings. The apparently solider works actually carry a greater charge of suggestively; and both, I think, reveal a more complex moral sensibility.
Not that Dreyer’s work as a whole is free from ambiguities: far from it. To place VAMPYR beside JOAN OF ARC is immediately to suggest that his treatment of the theme of persecution is. to say the least, complex. Each film offers, within itself, clear-cut oppositions, yet in certain respects the two are inverse mirror-reflections. Joan embodies an instinctual, mystical faith; she is persecuted by rationalists who deny the promptings of instinct. But in VAMPYR it is the shadow people who represent suppressed instinctual life, and here they are the persecutors. And when one looks ahead from VAMPYR to DAY OF WRATH, one finds striking anticipations of that film in the figure of Marguerite Chopin. In her costume and her masculine appearance she resembles the repressive church dignitaries; in her femaleness and ultimate vulnerability she resembles the helpless old woman they burn as a witch. Marguerite’s role is unambiguous in the context of VAMPYR, but it takes on ambiguities in relation to Dreyer’s whole oeuvre, uniting in one person the recurrent figures of victim and victimizer.
IF DAY OF WRATH (VREDENS DAG, 1943) is Dreyer’s richest work it is because it expresses most fully the ambiguities inherent in his vision of the world, the conflicting attitudes to nature (in the widest sense of the word): is “nature” the instinctual faith of JOAN or the menacing and destructive under¬world Of VAMPYR? In DAY OF WRATH the two attitudes fuse into a view of life that sees good and evil as not merely coexisting but inseparable and at times indistinguishable. In this way it can be seen as the synthesis resolving the dialectical progression of its forerunners.
The function of the subjective presentation in JOAN and VAMPYR was to encourage in the spectator a sense of participating in the working out of an inevitable process. In his last three features Dreyer places us outside the consciousness of actors of all spontaneous. individual life. The impression of Dreyer behind every gesture, every camera movement is in-escapable. On the one hand one cannot but admire the total command and the elimination of everything but essentials, a process that certainly imbues those essentials with expressive intensity. At the same time, I find it difficult not to react against the style as repressive and deadening. The assertion that the film totally lacks humor may itself appear somewhat humorless in its obviousness, yet it also lacks a quality often closely associated with a sense of humor: that of humility.
ORDET and GERTRUD are both based on plays, and make no effort to disguise the fact. To complain that they—or ROPE, for that matter—are mere “filmed theater.” however, would be a very superficial response, revealing a crude and limited conception of what constitutes “cinema.” A simple dialogue exchange between two or three people sitting at a table can be intensely cinema¬tic. (Witness the meeting of Richard Bur¬ton and Ruth Roman under the eye of her husband Curt Jurgens in Nicholas Ray’s BITTER VICTORY, where the pattern of exchanged looks, intensified by the framing and editing, is the very essence of cinema.) One could demonstrate the validity of film as a means of artistic expression by using as illustration scenes employing all the technical resources of the camera to the full; one could demonstrate it at least equally cogently from moment after moment in GERTRUD where the camera, photographing, with immobile objectivity, two people sitting beside each other on a sofa, moves a foot or two to one side to reframe them or under¬line a gesture, an expression, an intonation. ORDET and GERTRUD are the works of an artist whose mastery of his medium is beyond dispute.
The subject matter of GERTRUD draws attention to an aspect of Dreyer’s work I have hitherto only touched on: his feminism. Throughout his career one finds women at the center of his films, and this tendency has an interesting corollary: the frequent—sometimes implicit. in GERTRUD explicit—denigration of the male. One way of suggesting the inner unity of Dreyer’s work is to place GERTRUD beside his 1925 comedy MASTER OF THE HOUSE, a film about the humiliation of the male at the hands of women: wife, daughter, nurse.
The first part Of MASTER OF THE HOUSE is a portrayal of bourgeois domestic happiness undermined by the father’s over-bearing egoism. The scenes are rich in domestic detail, with a density of local life the later Dreyer would have rejected as superfluous. Particularly, the interaction of mother and children suggests very appealingly the potential richness of such an existence. What gives this part of the film a complexity of attitude it later renounces is the implication that the father’s bitterness and meanness within his family are attributable to his sense of failure in the world outside. He seems at once introverted and tyrannical, compensating by demanding to be treated like a king: he’s clearly a very unhappy man. The later sequences of the film simplify the situation by obliterating this point, so that the father’s treatment of his family appears mere willful perversity. The issue becomes simple: the tyrant must be hum¬bled. He believes his wife has left him: in fact, she returns, and the nurse hides her in a closet, from which she looks out and down at her husband through a small high aperture. Before his wife is restored to him he is reduced to standing in a corner, hands behind his back, in the position of humiliation traditionally en¬forced on naughty children. He is eventually made to kneel to her, and Dreyer makes a point of the nurse’s satisfaction at seeing the dust on his knees. The final attitude of the film is simple, extreme. and somewhat embarrassing: it is as if Dreyer felt an urge to abase himself before the female, to prostrate himself and beg forgiveness.
Dreyer’s feminism is not restricted to JOAN OF ARC: both DAY OF WRATH and ORDET have women at their centers, the male characters—especially in the former —coming off rather badly. GERTRUD, very much a work of old age, is the logical outcome of this trend. Attempts to see it as a film against Gertrud—in my view, the only way to save it—are doomed to failure. There are those who see Gertrud as a noble and beautiful figure, accepting at face value her refusal to compromise, her demand for all-or-nothing: to me she is a monster, and Dreyer’s celebration of her an act of perversity. Gertrud’s attitude to human relationships and consequently Dreyer’s, as the film uncompromisingly endorses her is essentially antilife and suffocating: she demands not merely that she be of central importance in a man’s life but that everything, including his work and creativity, be subordinated to her. Denied such homage, she prefers an old age of sterile solitude.
I cannot help seeing a connection between this abasement of the male principle and the film’s stylistic stultification: given that its director was, after all, a man! In stylistic terms it is the most re-pressed of all Dreyer’s films. Give and take the modifications demanded by subject matter, there seems to be a correlation in his work between psychological freedom and camera movement: to survey his feature films from VAMPYR to GER-TRUD is to witness a systematic denial of the spontaneous and intuitive, a triumph of the perverse will over healthy instinct. In a sense, the male in Dreyer gets its own back by turning Gertrud herself, inadvertently, into a cross between vampire and zombie: watching Nina Pens Rhode’s performance, one has the sense of a beautiful woman and talented actress suppressed to the point of suffocation, all her inherent aliveness denied. But that scarcely helps the movie.
This sense of the progressive repression of life in Dreyer’s films suggests another way of accounting for the parallels between his work and Hitchcock’s. Both directors view the world with suspicion and distrust. and a part of their creative impulse is the desire to dominate it. Both directors show great fear of sup-pressed instinctual forces. Hitchcock confronts those forces more openly, acknowledging their fascination: perhaps he can allow himself to do this because on a conscious level he doesn’t take himself entirely seriously, seeing himself as entertainer and showman, which gives him a pretext for letting his demons cut into the daylight. Dreyer, always an intensely conscious artist who takes himself very seriously indeed, can never allow himself such freedom—hence the in-creasing sense of repression in his films. The expression of spontaneous, vital impulse in a Dreyer movie is usually punished: the only people who dance with gaiety are the shadows of the damned in VAMPYR; the heroine Of DAY OF WRATH, rebelling against her monstrously unnatural existence, ends by acknowledging the justice of her execution at the stake; the dynamic motorbike ride of THEY REACHED THE FERRY ends with two coffins poled to the land of the dead.
A further explanation becomes possible of why. in comparison with Bergman, there is relatively little development in Dreyer’s work. For the development one discerns is of a very worrying kind, and “development” hardly seems the right word: a progressive stylistic tightening and rigidifying, a movement away from freedom and fluency. As one moves from VAMPYR, his freest film, perhaps the one film in which spontaneous or subconscious impulse is allowed real freedom. through DAY OF WRATH to ORDET and GER-TRUD, one moves into an increasingly arid world where it becomes harder and harder to breathe. Bergman’s whole development has been determined by his progressive refusal of repressions—by his determination to release and express everything that is in him; in the context of his whole work, an occasional RITUAL will seem a small price to pay. In Dreyer free expression is progressively stifled and development, in the true sense, be-comes impossible. One sees more clearly, perhaps, why the sustaining of religious faith was as essential for Dreyer as its casting off has been for Bergman. Dreyer’s God is a god of “Thou shalt not,” and his cinema, for all its extraordinary distinction, is essentially death-oriented.
Popularity: unranked [?]