With “Gertrud”, the now 76 year old Carl th. Dreyer has recaptured a central position in film art. Once again has he had to experience a heated controversy over one of his films. Who is this atrist that can justifiably be regarded as the unique in Danish films?
Carl Th. Dreyer possesses an artistic personality so extensive that the portrait we are able to draw here is very inadequate. Dreyer is the only contemporary Danish artist og genuine international renown. His contribution to twentieth-century art is widely recognized by the intellectual world in general.
Of the fourteen features by Dreyer, only seven were produced in Denmark. He has shot three of the films in Germany, two in Sweden, one in Norway and one in France.
There can be many reasons why Dreyer’s position in Denmark has never been an easy one. An important factor is that he has always been regarded as an isolated personality in the local art world. One always runs the risk of becoming unpopular by transplanting one’s artistic activities to more inspiring foreign soil. In this, Dreyer shares the face of two other great personalities from the early days of the Danish cinema, Asta Nielsen and Benjamin Christensen. In Danish films, Dreyer has always been looked upon as an original, which of course he is by virtue of his talent alone. But he has been regarded not merely as a significant artist, but as one who is much too different, almost un-Danish. Attention is centred upon his uncompromising severity, his studies in suffering, his preoccupation with the bizarre and the exceptional. And he is seldom forgiven for his alleged lack of humour.
It is hardly strange that Dreyer has always been considered in Denmark as being very typically Danish. It is true with many great artist that they always have difficulty in gaining acceptance and being understood in their own homelands. Yet it should not demand very keen perception to see, in his grappling with problems and his outlook on life, how much Dreyer approaches Kierkegaard, for instance. Nor is it difficult for foreigners who view things from another perspective, to observe this kinship. The young French film writer Jean Semolue, who wrote a very knowledgeable book on Dreyer in 1962, detected also a distinct affinity linking Dreyer, Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen. Among the things he found in these three was a liking for the supernatural, and he drew attention to a number of other features that established Dreyer’s identity as a true Scandinavian. The fact that Dreyer is specially appreciated in France and Italy is doubtless due not least to their finding in his films a Nordic sober-mindedness, a clear impartiality and sensitivity, quite uninhibited by a gushy sentimentality in connection with religious problems, which is familiar to them.
If we wish to attempt a portrait of Dreyer’s atristic personality, to try to understand the special nature of his art, we can delve into his earlier life, start at his childhood, to find the roots of his never failing contempt for pretentions and his hatred of bourgeois respectability, of his preoccupation with suffering and martyrdom. But of what value is the biographical approach? The work of an artist need not be the illumination of his private life. This may afford some explanation when we are inquiring into the fundamental point of departure for an artist, but Dreyer’s personality is expressed very clearly and graphically in his works, as it is with all great masters. Therefore, we can well admire the consistency which has always characterized his outlook on life. It is the same personality that we find, uncompromising, recklessly honest, and constantly seeking, whether expressed in his impertinent portraits of artistic natures as a journalist in 1913, in his reviews and polemics during the thirties, or in his films. A portrait of Dreyer, and that is to say of Dreyer’s world, his ends and his means as an artist, is to be found mostly clearly depicted in his film.
Like many great master, Dreyer is characterized by the relatively few themes that he plays upon everlastingly. One of the keynotes in Dreyer’s work is suffering – and his world is filled with martyrs. Yet suffering and martyrdom are surely not the fundamentals. They are merely manifestations, the results of something else. Suffering and martyrdom are the consequences of wickedness, and it is malice and its influence upon people that his films are about. Already in his second film, “Pages from Satans’ Book” from 1920, Dreyer tackled this theme which he was never to let go, the power of evil over the human mind. It is illustrated in this film as man’s temptation by the Devil throughout the ages, directly personified in the figure of Satan. This film depicts on the outward plane the passive suffering versus active wickednes, yet on the inner plan, that of the soul, man triumphs and conquers in death. Here the motif is quite clearly presented, to undergo variation and elaboration later, and appearing in its most captivating artistry in Dreyer’s three great classics, “Jeanne d’Arc”, “Strange Adventure of David Gray(Vampire)”, and “Day of Wrash”.
This absorption in suffering, this procession of female martyrs, which we find in Dreyer’s films, and in particular his constant obsession with the physical manifestation of pain, has at times led some people to suggest that there is a sadistic streak in him. Such an assessment is based on a misconception of what is sadistic. For suffering is never the goal in Dreyer’s films. Behind the film lies a constant searching which can often take Dreyer out into what has been called the border regions of the soul, to discoover the reason for this suffering in our world. Why is it there? This question brings him near to the religious. Most isolated therefore is his “Strange Adventure of David Gray”, a film perhaps he himself would not set great store by today, but which others consider to be his most fascinating. In this film Dreyer almost approaches the metaphysically singular, one might say there is a certain aesthetic fascination by the diseased mind, by mental disorders.
If the popular verdict is that Dreyer’s films are heavy and gloomy, naturally the idea is suggested by the subjects which he handles. Dreyer does not try to make us believe that life is a bed of roses. True enough there is much suffering, much wickedness, death and torment in his films, but they often conclude in an optimistic conviction in the victory of the spirit over matter. With death comes deliverance. It is beyond the reach of malice.
In his delineation of suffering man, devoid of any hope before the arrival of death, Dreyer is never philosophically abstract. Though his films are often enacted on a supersensible plane and are concerned with religious problems, his method as an artist is one of psychological realism, and his object is always the individual. Dreyer’s masterly depiction of milieu has always been greatly admird, his keen perception of the characteristic detail is simply dazzling. But this authenticity in settings has never been for Dreyer a means towards a meticulous naturalism. He has always sought to transcend naturalism so as to reach a kind og purified or, shall we say, classically simplified realism. He himself has said:”The artist must abstract from reality in order to strengthen its spiritual content, whether this be of a psychological or purely aesthetic nature.” Or even more tersely:” Art must depict the inner and not the outer life.” Therefore the question for Dreyer has always been whether the surroundings were so realistically true, or rather psychologically appropriate, that they would create just the spiritual atmosphere in which the characters could unfold themselves. Though Dreyer has occupied himself with the processes of the soul, he always preserves an impartiality when portraying them which is so characteristic of him. One might say that he maintains a high degree of objectivity in his description of the subjective. It can be sensed in his films as a kind of presentation rather than forceful advocacy. Dreyer himself once, when describing his method in “Jeanne d’Arc”, employed the expression “realistic mysticism”. It indicates quite precisely his endeavours to render understandable the things that are difficult to comprehend, to make the irrational appear intelligible. The meaning behind life lies in just this recognition of the necessity to suffer in order to arrive at deliverance. The characters therefore nearly always suffer defeat in the outward world, because Dreyer considers defeat or victory in the human world to be of no significance, for him the triumph of the soul over life is what is most important.
There are those who wish to demonstrate a line of development in Dreyer’s films, but there is no development in the customary sense. Quite early already, Dreyer’s world seems established, and his films have merely changed unceasingly in their way of viewing things.
The greatest change in Dreyer occurred with “The Word”, where for the first time he fully accepted the faith of a Christian as a basis for life, yet an artistic schism is also detectable in this film.
There is complete congruity between his ideas and his style in Dreyer’s works, and it was typical of him to have said:” The soul is revealed in the style, which is the artist’s expression of the way he regards his material.” For Dreyer, the picture has always been the important thing, so important that there is some justification when some people describe his as being first and foremost the great artist of the silent films. Dreyer’s pictorial style has always been charccterized by his extensive and careful employment of the close-up, and by the tranquil rhythm. In this way Dreyer has been able to let his characters unfold themselves, because he is chiefly interested in the expression that is the result of spiritual conflicts. He creates characterization in his pictures and in this, among other things, he differs considerably from Bresson, with whom he can have so much in common.
Emphasis has often been given to the slow lingering rhythm in Dreyer’s films. It is obvious that this dilatoriness springs from the wish to endow the action with a stamp of monumentality. It may lead dangerously close to empty solemnity, the formalistic, as one inevitably feels that it does in “The Word”. On the other hand, we can now perceive how amazing was his intuition to be so early aware of the direction to take when developing the language of the film. Dreyer quickly realized the inadequacy of the montage technique which had been regarded as the foundation of film art for so many years. He has been quite in conformity with the newer trends in the cinema with his calm, elaborating style of picture.
With “Gertrud” he has been even essayed an experiment, an attempt to co-ordinate picture and dialogue to higher degree than in any of his previous films. In “Gertrud”, Dreyer has added a new portrait to his picture-gallery of women, and “Gertrud” is much more than an interesting experiment. It is a film which, like other major works by Dreyer, captivates by the way the content is moulded. It firmly grips one with the power by which a great emotion is projected into visual stylization, and it is a film that is fully abreast to an amazing degree with the latest trends in film art. Dreyer has not sough to be modern in his film, and yet it is astonishingly modern. How wonderful it is that the most up-to-date Danish film in decades has been created by a seventy-five year-old.