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Carl Th Dreyer: Thoughts On Five Early Films

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Carl Th. Dreyer is one of the finest directors in cinematic history, and his accomplishments include directing, among others, the films The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet. But Dreyer was making films in the early-1920s, long before he would be as highly regarded as he is today. In fact, the majority of his films are silent films (9 out of 13). They may not be the towering masterpieces he would go on to produce, nor do they relentlessly showcase Dreyer’s signature style and feel, they are still (mostly) fantastic films that show a director finding his footing en route to changing the world of film.

Here are a few words on his 5 films available on home video from the Danish Film Institute.

The President (1919)-Far from merely “interesting” or a “warm-up”, The President is a fantastic feature debut. The story features a man coming into contact with his own illegitimate daughter. Clearly he has always felt guilty about having to abandon her, especially since he was instructed to do so by his father (who had seemingly made a similar “mistake”, and married outside of his class). Even worse, it happens that she is brought to the town he is a judge in, and is on trial for aborting her child (for which she claims to want and deserve death). Rather than face the moral dilemma, he recuses himself from the trial, and she is convicted.

However, his morals get the best of him. He rescues his daughter from jail, confesses his sins, and abandons the life he has led to take care of her.

The film showcases many themes which are common in his films. It is a fine film visually (and only fails as a masterpiece compared to other films), featuring idyllic landscape shots and fascinating lighting as well as close-ups that magnify the intensity of performances. Here, a jury acts as a mob who cannot wait to cast judgement. There is a clear moral rightness and wrongness in the film that different characters pursue. An absolutely worthy debut of a film from the master.

Leaves Out Of The Book Of Satan (1921)-I must admit to being a bit disappointed by Dreyer’s second film, though some fans surely rank it as among his best and it is undoubtedly his most ambitious. Told over two and a half hours (by far his longest film), the film concerns Satan himself convincing others to commit evil, and he journeys to the time of Jesus and his betrayal by Judas; the time of the Spanish Inquisition; the French Revolution; and finally the then present-day in the Finnish Civil War. The film owes more than a bit of debt to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in the way the narrative is broken apart in pieces but linked by a theme.

I consider two of these early films to not be on par with Dreyer at his best, and they are both bogged down by the heaviness and intricacy of a plot. With such stunning and rich visuals, and a way of moving a story along that is both experienced and told, Dreyer’s films are perhaps textbook “less is more.” A distractingly large amount of title cards (necessary to continuously re-introduce new characters and time periods) is distracting. The French Revolution portion clearly works best, as it is given the most amount of time to move and tell a story. An undoubtedly interesting work, but one that others rank higher than I do.

Love One Another (1922)-A tale about the Russian pogroms in the early 20th century, Love One Another features another example of Dreyer taking a strong moral stance against gang mentality. It’s also his first only truly pro-semitic film, an opinion also outlined by Dreyer in his essays.  It’s a tale about sticking to one’s traditional roots and staying true to family.

The early part of the film only exists scattered it seems. Littered with too many title cards, the film almost struggles to get going early on. But the moral weight that rests on the characters in The President works well in this film, too. A brother/son who abandoned his family long ago struggles with a wife outside of his true background and the rejection of his father. The father who resents his son while on his death bed. The sister who falls for a revolutionary. Broken/hurting/conflicted families are often featured in Dreyer’s films, and the conflicts within this story happen against the backdrop of the 1905 revolution. The way Dreyer shows the government able to turn people against their fellow citizens in an effort to squash a rebellion is well-paced and remains intriguing, while the family drama present throughout the film showcases Dreyer’s talent for getting to the emotional core of people. Until Michael, from 1924, I would say this is the best Dreyer film. It carefully balances a traditional narrative and Dreyer’s own cinematic voice.

Once Upon A Time (1922)-As I mentioned, Dreyer’s films are at his best with simplicity. Therefore, somewhat traditional stories often serve him well, as he is able to put his own stamp on it (additionally, I believe this thesis is supported by Dreyer’s preference for adapting other people’s work for films, rather than writing original scenarios, as he discusses in the book of his essays Dreyer in Double Reflection.

A simple story of a hard-headed princess and the process of getting her married, Der Var Engang (Once Upon a Time) is the next Dreyer film. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the story doesn’t translate to Dreyer’s usual greatness. In Tom Milne’s essay “The World Inside”, he calls the film a “setback”. Surely this isn’t help with only a portion of the film (probably about half) remains not lost. But the narrative is also handled a bit haphazardly. In the story, a princess denies all of the suitors her royal father sends her way. After she sends away a Danish prince, he hatches a plot to bring the girl down (by making her less spoiled and more appreciative), and test her love. Perhaps the missing visuals would’ve painted a tender story of a woman whose entire worldview changes, but much of the second half of the story is missing. Unfortunately, the story in its current incarnation relies heavily on the “twist” at the end, when it turns out the peasant she has been living with is actually the Danish prince from the beginning.

Surely there are some beautiful scenes (the garden sequence early on with the mistresses of the princess is nicely choreographed), but the film lacks the greatness of some his other early silents.

 

The Bride of Glomdal (1926)-The penultimate Dreyer silent, his final film before 1927’s remarkable The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Another simple tale, of a father who forbids his daughter to be with the man she desires (a neighboring boy from the same general area…it almost seems to predict one of the conflicts of Ordet), is a great warm-up to that classic. The daughter is strong-headed, and abandons her father to be with the boy she loves. Eventually, a member of the clergy is able to make peace between the families by having the young couple seek the father’s approval, and convincing the father that he should give the young couple his blessing.

What I seem to find over and over again in Dreyer films is shots of people outdoors, in fields wandering, with beams of lights throughout the forest. Many of his early films feature brief scenes like this, and it lends so much to the atmosphere that is essential to Dreyer. The film harkens to the Swedish films of the teens that Dreyer so loved.

Thanks for reading.

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