Friday 4 August 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (16), Creator of Forms (iii) Carl Theodor Dreyer - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues

For Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) Gertrud (1964) was the final feature of his ‘major phase’ as a filmmaker in which he averaged only one feature as writer-director each decade (2 in France, 3 in Denmark) beginning with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (France, 1928). 

In his initial phase 1918-26 Dreyer made 8 features (4 shot in Denmark, 2 in Germany, and 1 each in Sweden and Norway) described by Noel Burch as being “in step with the dominant [dramaturgical] ideology of silent cinema.” The tragic lack of balance in his output over five decades is attributable in large measure to “the radical cast” of Dreyer’s successive departures from the prevailing ascendancy of ‘invisible’ narrative following the critical acclaim (but not commercial success) of Jeanne d’Arc as an ‘artistic masterpiece’. 

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

To reprise an earlier reference
 (in part 4), the films of Dreyer, Bresson and Tati are unquestionably the works of an auteur, i.e. someone who creates his or her system in telling stories rather than putting into play an existing system (not their own). In his book ‘Film Modernism’ Sam Rohdie suggests that “an auteur in this sense is a modern artist whereas those that put into play what already is established, might be thought of as traditional skilled craftspeople.”  

Auteurship as it emerged initially in the pages of ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ in the 50s “was a reward for excellence.” In contrast to the paradigmatic ‘modern artist’ the majority were (and still are) making narrative films basically consistent with the classical system - as was the case with most of the Cahiers critics themselves when they started making narrative features.  All the means (use of the camera, characterisation, dialogue, movement, setting, editing) are subordinate to narrative and story in a way that is primarily imitative (of nature, of existing forms). “The great classical artist is someone great for his or her ability to imitate not innovate, who obeys the rules with grace and style” (Rohdie q.v. 25-7). In these terms Dreyer, Bresson and Tati are modern artists.


While claiming Gertrud as “one of the most classical works of Dreyer,” 
András Bálint Kovács notes that it can be  associated with modernism by its extremely minimalist, static, and frontal compositions, as well as by the acting style of the main character (played by Nina Pens Rhode) who speaks slowly in a monotone without affect, seldom looking at the person to whom she is speaking. Dreyer’s use of off-screen space and camera movement independent of the characters’ movement seems adapted to the trend of the late modern art cinema’s representation of alienation (315). Ib Monty similarly notes that “Gertrud is amazingly in harmony with the stylistic trends” in 60s art cinema, given that Dreyer was never consciously concerned with keeping up with trends, always maintaining the integrity of his system. He spoke of his pride in the fact, he said, that he was always able “to find a style that has value for only a single film” (Schrader 135). In this there is a similarity to the element of ‘consistent inconsistency’ of style in Orson Welles’s system as noted in 6 (1).


In what was to be the last decade of his life, Dreyer had been planning a film of the tragedy, Medea. This is also reflected in Dreyer’s treatment of Gertrud based on a 1919 play by Hjalmar Soderberg (the last four films of Dreyer’s ‘major phase’ were all based on plays), a Kammerspeile (chamber play) described by Ib Monty as “a problem-drama in the manner of Ibsen.” He adds “that while the play was naturalistic, the film is not.” It became the last of Dreyer’s many portraits of women. Gertrud in the film is not “a suffering woman submissive to men” she is free and strong in her total commitment to “love is all” which the men in her life, presented in a disquieting double light, are variously unable to offer.

For Dreyer it was an experiment; “he wanted to coordinate the word and the image, to create harmony between what is seen and what is heard.” This required a special form of stylisation in performance with the image to open up an intended perspective on the characters through the way they speak and move. There are only 89 shots each averaging 78 seconds in 9 scenes, many filmed with travelling camera and no close-ups in a small number of uncluttered purposefully designed sets (there is only a single exterior setting). 


Tony Rayns notes in ‘Time Out’ that “the spiritual serenity of the surfaces in Gertrud “is built upon an aching sense of emotional pain - and the fact that it’s only half-articulated makes it all the more shattering.”  This presents a contrast, more apparent than real, with the emotionally charged close-ups of Falconetti in Jeanne d’Arc in which montage, angled camera and background sparsity combine to destroy all spatial sense. 

David Bordwell notes that “in its day the gap between narrative and style made Jeanne d’Arc unfashionably unfilmic, embarrassingly impure cinema” (196). Something similar was said more directly by critics of Gertrud more than three decades later. In his intensive formal analysis of Gertrud in the context of its predecessors, Bordwell writes that, Dreyer is requiring that “our viewing of the film must change.” That we can follow it “only by sensitising ourselves to cinema as a specific medium.” The inadequacy of its filmic representation in relation to narrative function Bordwell sees as placing the very concept of art cinema under direct assault in his last two films, “as they strive to make themselves unconsumable on any terms (196-7).”  He sees Dreyer’s works remaining “torn by inner conflicts.” In conclusion, “like Ozu, Mizoguchi, Tati and Bresson, Bordwell sees Dreyer’s historical importance as lying in his “contradictory in-betweenness.” Following from his analysis, Bordwell considers that “Dreyer’s fascination for us today is that of a director [who] opens up a problematic distance between dominant cinematic practice and another cinema which demands fresh perceptual activities, a cinema which refuses to be cinema as normally conceived and consumed ” (201).

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

In response to his critics, Dreyer called Gertrud “a portrait of time from the beginning of the century” with the anti-naturalism designed to transform the whole of the past reality into “a camera-reality.” The stylised syntax and subtle oppositional aesthetic engagements on screen resulted in derisive accusations of “ filmed theatre” and unremittingly slow “couch conversations” from unengaged viewers and mainstream critics which ended the much anticipated opening of Gertrud in Paris after only a few days. Monty acknowledges that Dreyer’s last film has continued to divide audiences. 

My own experience is more in line with Kovács and Monty’s conclusions referred to above. Bordwell’s concession to the expressive power of what Dreyer termed his ‘film from the heart’, Gertrud exists “on the margin of unity, meaning, pleasure.” Although initially viewed several times in less than optimal conditions on projected 16mm and a small screen, for me it meets the seven criteria, including the fifth (“repeatability”), of Paul Schrader’s canonical criteria* - see the notes attached to the summary table and director lists



David Bordwell in The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (1981) provides in-depth formalist analyses of the ‘final five’ in the context of the author’s film by film analysis of Dreyer's overall oeuvre.  

Raymond Carney’s Speaking the Language of Desire (1989) is a rejection of formalist and thematic analysis in favour of his committed exploration of expressive states of thought and feeling in Dreyer’s films. 

 Noel Burch in “Dreyer: The Major Phase” provides a rigorously compressed adulatory formalist case for Dreyer’s work in Cinema Dictionary vol 1 ed. R.Roud (1980)                                                  

Ib Monty entries on Dreyer and Gertrud in The International Dictionary vol 1 Films, and vol. 2 Directors ed. Christopher Lyon (1984).                                                                                                           

Paul Schrader Transcendental Style in FilmOzu, Bresson, Dreyer  (2004)                                           

Mark Nash Dreyer BFI monograph (1977)



Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

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