Carl Theodor Dreyer Essay - Critical Essays

Dreyer, Carl Theodor


Carl Theodor Dreyer 1889–1968

Danish director and screenwriter.

Dreyer stands as one of the seminal figures in the evolution of film. His output spans the most formative decades of cinema, from silent movies to sound and subsequent innovations. Before he became a filmmaker Dreyer worked as a journalist for several Copenhagen newspapers. Later he fell back on this profession during the sometimes lengthy intervals between his cinematic projects. He was next employed by Nor-disk Films Kompagni, where he adapted novels for film and acquired experience in the mechanics of the art form. In 1920 Dreyer made his first film, The President, a competent melodrama which early illustrates the director's characteristic use of the close-up. The innovator of the close-up device, D. W. Griffith, influenced Dreyer's second film, Leaves from Satan's Book, which contains structural echoes of Intolerance. More closely related to Dreyer's later style of intimate character portraits was The Parson's Widow. Influenced by the work of Swedish directors Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, The Parson's Widow is generally acknowledged as the first artistic success among his early silent pictures.

Dreyer's last silent film, recognized as a late masterpiece of the era, was The Passion of Joan of Arc. Distinctive for its preponderant use of the close-up, this work is an unusual one for Dreyer because, rather than being adapted from literature, the story has as its basis actual transcripts from the famous trial. The Passion of Joan of Arc also introduces the thematic core of spiritual concerns central to Dreyer's mature artistic vision. Vampyr further points to a supernatural realm and more particularly examines the ordeal of those who exist on its brink. Day of Wrath revived the subject of religious persecution seen previously in the ordeal of Joan of Arc, now dramatized through the tragedy of seventeenth-century witch trials.

Dreyer is noted for his generous and compassionate portrayals of the spiritually alienated, a recurring role exemplified by the seemingly mad Johannes in The Word. His emphasis on unorthodox forms of mysticism has sometimes caused Dreyer to be stereotyped as a visionary Dane; but his emphasis, as many critics and Dreyer himself have indicated, is more directly on the inner spiritual world of individuals than on any external cosmic design. Dreyer has said that "the artist must describe inner, not outer life," and he used the transcendental primarily as a vehicle to achieve symbolic heights in his themes and characterizations.

Dreyer's last film, Gertrud, made after a creative hiatus of ten years, is more conventional in its background than the ones preceding it. However, the film continues the director's basic thematic interest in his characters's interior lives. Widely criticized as a monotonously paced affront to its audiences when initially released, Gertrud has since been reevaluated as a masterpiece of nuance, a status that only a few early critics claimed for it. Other Dreyer films have also received belated acceptance. Because Dreyer sought to realize highly individual themes and effects, his work is not easily compared to that of other filmmakers: it is difficult to categorize within cinematic trends and movements. It is this very individualism, however, which places Dreyer among the masters of cinema.

Harry Alan Potamkin

[The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc is a] profound and truly passionate motion picture. (p. 7)

There is no extraneous detail in the film. Not once does a detail fail to directly relate and contribute to the subject-matter. At one point, Jeanne sees the grave-digger pull up a skull. Unnecessary? Obvious? There is a swift succession, almost staccato in its brevity, of a field of flowers. The previous detail becomes inevitable, poignant. In fact, the entire film has that virtue, that at any moment the detail on the screen validates what preceded it. This is rhythm, this is art. The beautiful flight of birds, as Jeanne is perishing, the mother suckling her child—the former might be a sentimentalism, the latter a surrealistic simplicism; but by the severe control of the director, they become terrible convictions of the world that would let one who loved free flight perish bound, and one who herself would suckle life burn at the stake. Creation against desolation! (p. 8)

[In the film there is no] specious prettiness, but hardiness, man in his physical variousness, man in his spiritual diversity serving the same master—Interest. The Interest of State, the Interest of Church, the Interest of God….

The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc is an historical film, but not a costume film; an historical film that is contemporaneous in its universal references. The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc is a religious film, but not a sanctimonious film. Life, it urges, is transcendent. It is a transcendent film. (p. 9)

Harry Alan Potamkin, "'The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1929), Vol. IV, No. 1, January, 1929, pp. 7-9.

John Hutchens

The Maid of Orleans has come singularly and movingly to life in Carl Th. Dreyer's film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. (p. 373)

The legends and fancies built about Joan in the last five centuries are so many and diversely colored, so blighted by fanaticism or fervor or chilling "analysis", that most of them have led either too tricky or too mystic a path back to that gray day of the murder at Rouen. To its vast credit, the scenario wrought by Mr. Dreyer and Joseph Delteil does nothing of the sort. Instead, with the absorbing directness of a piece of excellent trial reporting, it has hurdled the boundaries and by-the-way distractions of some centuries of legend, has gone back to understand what happened to Joan, and why. And such are its qualities, as suddenly refreshing and clarifying as those of good painting, that from it she now emerges a still simple child, heartbreaking alike in her helplessness and her courage.

Under Mr. Dreyer's direction, her story is told entirely as a series of individual studies,—of Joan herself and those who judged her, and the telling of it is a sharp and unsparing performance, the first of its kind the screen has seen. In each study is the completeness of a single portrait, such that the composition of The Passion of Joan of Arc is that of a gallery stirred to life and given flow and beauty by movement. Save for a few moments at the end of the film, the spectator stands no...

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William Troy

[What makes Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" still an exciting cinema experience] is the directorial enterprise which dared recreate one of the great European stories in terms of the new art. The picture belongs to the last days of the silent era; it was the culmination of the close-up school of direction, the last and most serious attempt to reduce the complex cinema art to the narrowly stylized art of pantomime. Against a blank white background Dreyer casts his heads of priests, soldiers, inquisitors, and by an abstraction of everything but the facial expressions registered by each of them in the course of the situation, seeks to communicate something purer and more essential than could be communicated by words or action…. [The] picture must be considered one of the minor masterpieces of the screen. (p. 364)

William Troy, "Time and Space," in The Nation (copyright 1933 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 137, No. 3560, September 27, 1933, pp. 363-64.

Bosley Crowther

["Day of Wrath" is] a curious study of the power of evil…. And again it manifests the stark integrity and the solid character of Dreyer's style—his absolute perfection of the image, his interest in faces and his heavy restraint.

Indeed, the visual richness of this picture and its brilliant instrumentation of the human face cause one to wish very strongly that the drama were more insistent than it is. But, unfortunately, in telling a story of love and hate in a Danish parish house back in the middle ages, Dreyer has kept his idea so obscure and the action so slow and monotonous that the general audience will find it a bore….

[In] spite of the fine, tasteful production and the photogenic excellence of all the cast, the drama lacks any compulsion. "Day of Wrath" is handsome but dull….

Bosley Crowther, "'Day of Wrath'," in The New York Times (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 26, 1948, p. 27.

James Agee

[Of] the movies made during the past twenty years I think [Day of Wrath] is unquestionably one of the dozen or so best worth seeing. (p. 303)

Movies seldom contain any material, except by inadvertence or head-on outrage, which can interest the morally curious; this one contains a good deal, and none of it is inadvertent or outrageous. I particularly respect the film's interest in the deeply entangled interproductiveness of good and evil among several people and within single people; its steep, Lutheran kind of probity—that is, its absolute recognition of the responsibility of the individual, regardless of extenuating or compulsive circumstances; its compassion; and its detachment….


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Richard Rowland

[Dreyer's aim in The Passion of Joan of Arc is close] to that of the early Flemish painters whose painstaking realism is as full of compassion as it is unrelenting in its mirroring of nature. One thinks of Breughel's stubble-chinned "Old Shepherd," or the brutally unmistakable humanity of Bosch's "Crowning with Thorns" …; like theirs, Dreyer's art stems from a conviction, both disillusioned and confident, that whatever coarseness or cruelty may characterize them, men are what matter in this world; now you, the spectator, are the dead center of that world, involved in mankind with a painful, inescapable, and somehow ennobling intensity.

One scene in Joan of Arc underlines this with...

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Harry Schein

[All Dreyer's films] deal with man on the outer borders of his being. I believe that the land beyond this border is really of no interest to Dreyer. It makes no difference to him whether there is a heaven or a hell, occult light or biological darkness, a triumph of reason, faith, or tyranny. It is the border situation itself that is of interest.

Nowhere has Dreyer's humanistic pathos found more cogent expression than in The Day of Wrath, that jewel of his works, that jewel of the film art. The Day of Wrath is not based on an "impossible" idea, and perhaps for that very reason is less aesthetic and more direct in its appeal than are Dreyer's other films…. Appearing during the war, it...

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John Cutts

Very few [horror] films can stand serious analysis, but one which does is Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr.

Vampyr (also known as The Strange Adventures of David Gray) is the story of a haunted world. A story of the dark and of the evil that dwells there. A morality play in which good and bad do vigorous battle for the soul of an innocent. Vampyr is also the work of one of the few genuine stylists the cinema has yet produced. (p. 17)

[If] there is one thing which really comes over in Vampyr it is atmosphere: the malignant, decaying atmosphere of a community dominated by evil….

Vampyr is an odd, difficult film to respond to...

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Ken Kelman

The President was Dreyer's first film, not the least pleasing visually, but the least personal. Still, there are many anticipations of what is to follow. The setting of romantic episodes in a rowboat on a lake—beautifully photographed—is a device later used more elaborately in Day of Wrath. The intercutting of the hero being honored with his daughter preparing to escape prison is quite in the straightforward style of all such passages in later Dreyer. And the concept of honor and duty versus nature and love; along with that of the hypocrisy which results from attempting to both save face and have heart; can already be detected in this rather conventional melodrama of a respectable father who betrays...

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Kirk Bond

[It is difficult if not impossible to assess Dreyer's] later films without knowing the earlier films. One might go further. All or nearly all of the later films are in one way or another symbolic, and we can even say that the key to them lies in the early work….

I divide the films, perhaps arbitrarily, into two main groups. In the first group I put his five earliest films: The President, Leaves From Satan's Book, The Parson's Widow, Love One Another, and Once Upon a Time. In the second group are most of the rest: Michael, The Master of the House, The Bride of Glomdale, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, and Ordet….

The compelling point in this division is that in...

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Elsa Gress Wright

Dreyer himself has subtitled Gertrud "a period piece," and a period piece it is, rendered nostalgically and with tender irony. It is also, in his intention, a tentative effort in the direction of the tragic film poetry which he believes will come about, when the truly cinematic tragic style has been formulated. The question is, however, whether he himself is not the tragic film poet he is waiting for. The style he has developed, and, with modifications dictated by his choice of milieu and theme has used in Gertrud, is certainly so close to film tragedy that probably only he himself could see any distance to the goal. It is an Apollonian kind of tragedy, in the vein of Euripides, the first "modern" tragic...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[In "Gertrud"] Mr. Dreyer's theme—the suffering of a woman who finds that men do not devote themselves entirely to love, that they also concern themselves with their careers—can just as easily be seen as feminine egotism instead of male egotism. But this whole subject of Love as Life can hardly be taken seriously today. The script seems a pallid post-Ibsen revolt against the idea of woman as chattel or toy…. The spiritual hierarchy of the sexes in "Gertrud" seems as dated as the costumes.

But Mr. Dreyer takes this [Hjalmar] Soderberg play seriously—one index that he is out of touch. Worse, his technique is the least fluently cinematic of any work of his that I know.


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Don Skoller

[Gertrud tends] toward abstraction, and its method, as Dreyer wrote in 1955, is simplification. It is this simplification that, not "dug"—not grasped from head to toe—becomes the boredom or the anachronism of which [Stanley] Kauffmann [see excerpt above] and his sympathizers complain. But the boredom, one feels, is the tension that the unremitting purity of Dreyer's film creates. It is not an objective boredom; it is not the depiction of boredom by being boring; it is a simplification and selectivity that leaves the viewer with nothing to become distracted by, that provides him with the opportunity to make contact with only the truths of a situation, of himself, so that suddenly the gnawing of his own...

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Paul Schrader

Dreyer was not an unwavering formalist; he did not define a single style throughout his career….

Each of Dreyer's individual film "styles" is, to be more accurate, a synthesis between three basic and opposing styles at work in his films. In his study of Dreyer, Claude Perrin notes two of these opposing forces. "In order to define Dreyer's aesthetic," he writes, "one must confront two opposing artistic schools: the Kammerspiel and expressionism." Perrin goes on to demonstrate how the tension between these "schools" underlies all of Dreyer's work. This tension, to be sure, is integral to Dreyer's films, but, it seems to me, it is unable to account for that peculiar, "spiritual" quality Perrin...

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Robin Wood

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...

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Dai Vaughan

What kind of experiences shock the soul? What manner of abstraction is required for these spiritual experiences to be presented on film? Taking the Christian terms 'soul' and 'spirit' at their given values, I think these are questions which may usefully be kept in mind in any attempt to understand Dreyer. (p. 156)

Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc is concerned exclusively with the trial and martyrdom; and the crucial moment occurs in the scene leading up to Joan's retraction of her confession of heresy. As she watches a prison guard casually sweeping up the straw crown which has become, for her as for us, the symbol of her torments, she makes the decision which will lead her inevitably to the...

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Vlada Petric

Regrettably, most critics try to explain Dreyer's cinematic style by analysing and interpreting solely the literary component of his films, that is, his manuscripts. For example, the recent article by Dai Vaughan [see excerpt above], typifies such attempts at the philosophic interpretation of Dreyer's films as if his work existed in the form of literature and not in the form of cinema. This approach stems from the writer's presumption that Dreyer's 'technique [read: cinematic style] is the outward expression of a more fundamental abstraction in which the circumstantial elements of the story [sic!] are eliminated until we are left, not with a spurious symbolism, but with the human essence of the drama.'


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Jonathan Rosenbaum

[De Naede Faergen (They Caught the Ferry) is an] adept Hitchcockian exercise. Devoted almost exclusively to the tension and exhilaration of speeding down a country road, it is one more demonstration that Dreyer's art, principally praised for its spiritual qualities, in fact rests on its concrete realisation of material experience. Despite its effective cautionary ending, the general thrust of this short is to convey the excitement of speed along with its dangers—a significant object-lesson for spectators who equate the director with slowness.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Short Films: 'De naede faergen' ('They Caught the Ferry')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright ©...

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André TéChiné


[There] is no film-maker more rudimentary than Dreyer. Unqualified to lay down the law or to pressurise in any way, Dreyer makes talking pictures considered and reconsidered strictly subject to the means he employs or, if you prefer, the elements on which they are founded.

Each new film is not approached as an isolated venture having only distant resemblances to past experiences, but as a voyage of discovery constantly penetrating deeper, an investigation that constantly becomes more exacting. Dreyer exhausts the resources of his own vocabulary, working his material until all resistance is overcome and he contrives to mould the scant and stubborn forces with...

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