Carl Theodor Dreyer Reference

Carl Theodor Dreyer

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Dreyer is Denmark’s most famous film director, an auteur who had total control over his films. Despite the relatively few films he directed (about one a decade once he was established), he became an international director, whose reputation rests, for the most part, on three films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, and Ordet.

Early Life

Carl Theodor Dreyer was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on February 3, 1889. His biological mother, who was Swedish, died as the result of an attempted abortion while he was still an infant (he did not learn of her fate until he was eighteen years old). He was subsequently adopted by a Danish couple, who provided him with piano lessons in preparation for a career as a café pianist. That career was short: It lasted one day. Hoping to escape unhappiness at home, he worked in various offices, but he found the routine boring. From these formative years came two recurrent themes in his films: woman as victim and bourgeois society as pretentious and contemptible.

After rejecting office work, Dreyer turned to journalism, which offered a freer rein to his talents and temperament. He wrote drama reviews, first for small provincial newspapers, but after a short while for major Copenhagen papers. Although he also wrote aviation articles—he had an avid interest in flying—he abandoned aviation for the theater, which was only one step away from film. He made the transition slowly; in 1912 he began part-time work writing titles for the silent films produced by the Nordisk Films Kompagni. Soon he was writing scripts and editing films, essential skills for a director who was to be in total control of his films. From the start, he was interested in adapting literature, some of which he helped select, to film; and in 1918 he was granted permission to direct his first feature film, Praesidenten (The President), which he had adapted from a melodramatic novel by K. E. Franzo. The success of his first film in 1919 led to his second film, Blade af Satans bog (1921; Leaves from Satan’s Book), an ambitious undertaking modeled after D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). When the studio attempted to intervene, to cut his budget and to make script changes, Dreyer characteristically balked and held his ground. In fact, Dreyer’s lifelong insistence on having artistic control of his films, a policy that inevitably brought him into conflict with studios, accounts for the relatively small number of films that he was able to have made and also for the many different countries in which he made those films. He literally traveled the world to fund his films.

Life’s Work

Although The President and Leaves from Satan’s Book are in the melodramatic Griffith tradition and rely on editing, which Dreyer soon abandoned for the long take, both films are vintage Dreyer in their emphasis on the supernatural and on the solitude of suffering. With Prästänkan (1920; The Parson’s Widow), which was made in Sweden for Svensk Filmindustri, Dreyer came into his own. The film concerns loneliness, a recurrent Dreyer theme, but it is a break from the past in its insistence on female superiority and in its robust sense of humor. The peripatetic Dreyer then left the liberating atmosphere of Sweden and traveled to Germany, where he made Die Gezeichneten (1921; Love One Another), a film about Russian anti-Semitism that evokes comparisons, in its focus on intolerance, with his earlier Leaves from Satan’s Book. Dreyer’s next film, Der van engang (Once upon a Time), made in Denmark in 1922, survives only as a fragment; but Mikael (1924; Michael, also known as Chained) is an early masterpiece. The film, made in Germany, bears a striking resemblance to Auguste Rodin’s life and was both a critical and a financial success. Like The Parson’s Widow, Michael concerns the persistence of love and the effects of loneliness, but the film is particularly significant in terms of its decor, which became increasingly important to Dreyer as a means of reinforcing his themes.

Du skal aere din hustru (1925; Master of the House) and Glomdalsbruden (1925; The Bride of Glomdal) resemble earlier films in their emphasis on women and in their comedic plots, but the films hardly prepared audiences for Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928; The Passion of Joan of Arc), his French masterpiece. More than a year and a half in the making, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a remarkable film: It is the only Dreyer film not adapted from literature, though it is adapted from trial transcripts. It is the Dreyer film most notable for its close-ups and its use of light and dark. The film telescopes an eighteen-month trial into the action on a single day. In many respects, the film represents the culmination of many thematic and cinematic trends in Dreyer’s earlier films. An artistic success, The Passion of Joan of Arc was, however, a financial disaster; though it established him as a major artistic director, it also made funding more problematic.

In fact, Vampyr, which appeared in 1932, was partially produced by Dreyer’s own production company in connection with Tobis-Klangfilm of Berlin. Although Dreyer succeeds in making Vampyr seem like a nightmare in which nothing is real, the horror film is both a departure from Dreyer’s earlier work and a continuation of those films. The minimalist tendencies of The Passion of Joan of Arc are extended so that decor and mood transcend dialogue, which is virtually eliminated, and plot. The film, moreover, focuses in Dreyer fashion on the sickness of the isolated soul. Despite its current status as both a cult film and an important film in the Dreyer canon, Vampyr did not bring its director new film assignments. His next feature film, Vredens dag (Day of Wrath), was not released...

(The entire section is 2491 words.)