Carl Theodor Dreyer Critical Essays

Introduction

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.