The following essay appeared in New Makers of Modern Culture, ed. Justin Wintle, Routledge, 2007.
The Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) is one of the cinema’s great figures, a man set apart by his single-minded devotion to artistry and to humanity. The magnitude of Dreyer’s accomplishments and of his reputation—at his death director Jean Renoir characterized him as an artist-saint—has at times made it difficult to clearly consider the actual man and his actual work.
There are intractabilities enough in both. From the beginning of his extraordinarily long career, Dreyer demonstrated a single-minded, even intransigent devotion to his medium, to his craft, and to the promptings of artistic conscience. He abominated the compromises filmmakers made for the sake of security, a demanding producer, or a passive audience.
“All art is a single person’s work. But a film is created by a collectivity and a collectivity cannot create art unless an artistic personality stands behind it and acts as its driving force.” “No considerations other than the purely artistic and aesthetic ones should come into play.” “I only think of working my way to a solution that satisfies my own artistic conscience.” (Skoller, 1973, 128, 181, 146) Here is the contradiction, almost the impossibility of Dreyer’s career, which was full of travail, and of long periods in the figurative wilderness. His was a personal vision, an artisanal, hand-made methodology and an artist’s sensibility, all in a thoroughly and incontrovertibly industrial/commercial setting.
Dreyer was single-minded in his devotion to these ideas, and his devotion took him into increasingly rarefied places. From his most celebrated film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), his work would mark an increasingly rigourous and solitary path. The severity that for many characterizes Dreyer’s cinema is found precisely in this rigour and solitude. Paradoxically, here also is the root of the other most celebrated quality in the films, which is a great loving regard for characters and, complicatedly, for audiences as well. That which envelops these seemingly contradictory terms is also what many have found at the very root of this oeuvre, which is holiness.
Dreyer called the technique that most strikingly reconciles these apparent poles “realized mysticism.” The idea, which evolved and increased from its first articulation in 1929, was that things spiritual were actually made up of things factual, and physical. Most obviously, but not exclusively in his patently religious subjects (cf.“Passion” and Ordet )—Dreyer treated the miraculous matter-of-factly, and he rendered the everyday with reverence. All this is evident in the famous resurrection, or really in the remarkable series of linked miracles that concludes Ordet, in the documentation of the emblems and stages of Joan’s martyrdom, and elsewhere besides (as in a mother’s response to a baby’s rising in Master of the House , a superb Passover sequence in an unproduced screenplay about Jesus Christ).
Here was a deeply materialistic, almost clinical treatment of the ineffable, what David Bordwell refers to as the “foregrounding of the minute.” (1981, 165) The most striking and controversial manifestation of Dreyer’s aims is contained in the increasingly slow pace of his later films. In contrast to the rush of conventional protagonists in conventional narratives, Dreyer wished to use time in a way that would makes the viewer feel the weight of its portentous passing, to go beyond the frivolous objectives of films, film characters, film industries. Here is the root of Dreyer’s daring, and of his profundity. His detail, his “wide, quiet rhythm” (Skolker, 134), appropriate to the monumentality of the subject, increases in the audience what Bordwell referred to as “the threshold of significance.” (Bordwell, Ibid.) Dreyer’s rigour has a refining effect; our eyes see, and our ears hear.
Not all of Dreyer’s cinema is religious; The Parson’s Widow (1920) contains much sharp if affectionate satire of pastoral types, and in Day of Wrath (1943) he powerfully uses religion as a symbol of totalitarian rule. Current biographical evidence actually suggests that Dreyer had not in his own life any especially powerful conviction or sense of calling. (Drouzy, 1982) Far from diminishing the possibility or the accessibility of holiness, these facts may make it all more immanent.
In his adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play Ordet, Dreyer makes a brief and seemingly facetious reference to what might actually be a key source, a key clue to his methodology and his mindset. A passing joke in the film suggests that the key character of Johannes went mad from studying too much Soren Kierkegaard in divinity school. Of all the things that this might mean, it is particularly telling to note that existentialism, in the Christian or Kierkegaardian sense, is not at all to reject the notion of immanence or the transcendent. Rather, it is to require that transcendental possibility be considered in light of the here and the now, of the ethical requirements of personal and community relations. (With regard to Dreyer’s aesthetic, note Kierkegaard’s references to magnitude and duration in Fear and Trembling [trans. Alistair Hannay, Penguin, 1985, pp. 64 and 80].)
There is an opaqueness in Dreyer’s cinema, but it is not at all vague, or ill-defined. In this there is a suggestion of the rigours and satisfactions a great and difficult man’s great and difficult art, not to mention of religion itself. Taken together (and including the largely unavailable, unjustly underseen and surprisingly diverse silent films), Dreyer’s output contains and suggests multitudes: there is directness, intensity, eccentricity, difficulty, multiplicity. All of these things—combined, contemplated, integrated—suggest a rare and surprising thing. Carl Theodor Dreyer becomes, cinematically and culturally speaking, most all things: an index of and model for cinematic possibility, perceptual opportunity, and even ethical and moral application.