Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production: Palladium (Copenhagen); black and white, 35mm; running time: 124 minutes; length: 3440 meters. Released 10 January 1955, Denmark.
Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer, from the play by Kaj Munk; photography: Henning Bendtsen; editor: Edith Schlüssel; sound: Knud Kristensen; art director: Erik Aaes; music: Poul Schierbeck; costume designer: N. Sanat Jensen; dialogue expert: Svend Pousen. Filmed in and near Veders, Denmark, Venice Film Festival, Leone d'Oro, 1955.
Cast : Henrik Malberg (Morten Borgen); Emil Hass Christensen (Mikkel, his son); Preben Lerdorff Rye (Johannes, his son); Cay Kristiansen (Andre, his son); Birgitte Federspiel (Inger, Mikkel's wife); Ann Elisabeth (Maren); Susanne (Little Inger); Ove Rud (The priest); Ejnar Federspiel (Peter the tailor); Sylvia Eckhausen (Kirstine, the tailor's wife); Gerda Nielsen (Anne, the tailor's daughter); Henry Skjaer (The doctor); Hanne ågesen (Karen); Edith Thrane (Mette Maren); Kirsten Andreasen and the peasants and fisherman of the district of Veders.
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Dyssegaard, Soren, editor, Carl Th. Dreyer, Danish Film Director, Copenhagen, 1968.
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Schein, Harry, "Mankind on the Border," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley), Spring 1956.
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* * *
By any critical standard, Carl Dreyer's Ordet (The Word) is an enormously accomplished work of film art. It combines what might be in others' hands an unwieldy mix: formal and technical mastery, a clean (illusive), simple style and, a qualification seen in all of his best films, enormous depth of atmosphere for powerful results.
Adapted from a play by Kaj Munk, a Lutheran pastor murdered by the Nazis for speaking out against them, Dreyer changed the ending and more than halved the dialogue, thus streamlining, "purifying" the play to extend it beyond a filmed moral parable that many reviewers limited it to. Indeed, there is a cinematic authenticity that is subtle but integral. The power of the play is magnified many times.
A young theology student, through overwork (or, for Munk's reason, studying Kierkegaard!), loses his grip on sanity, becoming convinced he is Christ. Now home, he lives with his father, brother Anders, and other brother Mikkel, who is married to Inger. Anders loves the tailor's daughter, Anne, but in true Romeo and Juliet tradition, both families refuse any union, because of antagonistic religious divisions. It is not until Inger suffers a miscarriage and dies that the quarrelling neighbours are united, as are the two young lovers. "Nobody thought to ask Inger back from Death," says Johannes. "She will rot because the times are rotten." Only Inger's daughter Maren believes in Johannes' ability to perform miracles. Because of her, or for her, he pronounces the word which brings Inger back to the living.
As with many of his films, Dreyer has sculpted a film with a life versus death theme; however, as Jeanne d'Arc and Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) existed in a historical world, and Vampyr in a dream world, Ordet is very much in today's. Yet the underlying mood is spiritual, deliberate, thoughtful, conveying not only the gravity of his characters' existence, but the collective Nordic consciousness about the transience of life, of love, and, especially, of belief.
Because every image is measured—with the formal construction Dreyer is known for, each survives on its own as a beautiful still— Ordet withstands not only the more orthodox, critical interpretation but the viewer's own, on varying levels; the combination of Munk's text and Dreyer's visualisation creates a third "presence" the way the fusion of a playwright's character and an actor's portrayal does. His style—cool, stylised, austere, with sharp matte blacks and luminous whites, as opposed to the tonality of his other works—is one of elimination, simplicity for the stern Lutheran "spiritual content." (The dialogue is more to be heard for its argument and exploration, less for the evocative quality as in Vampyr.) Even in the sequence where Ingrid gives birth, pivotal for both character and plot as is Jeanne's trial, Leone's blood transfusion in Vampyr and Anne's "trial" in Vredens Dag, the doctor's movements accord exactly with the beating of a pulse. And with Dreyer's long takes, some lasting 8 minutes, we are insinuated into the hearts and souls of Ordet's personalities.
In the Borgen household, God is fulfillment, warmth, love, life. The setting is cozy, the field full of ripening corn, whereas to Peter the tailor's family, God is denial, arid, mournful, death. The house is bare, the land flat, dry. Inger is love and life incarnate—adored by all three generations, she acts as peacemaker. (Whereas Peter's daughter Anne is meekly submissive, kept down, apart.) In an effective contrast to the black and white graphic photography and slow, deliberate camera, Dreyer builds a scene with a kind of deliberate grace. Inger attempts a "softening up" approach, attempting to pleade Anders' and Anne's case with her stubborn father-in-law. She rustles about, cozying the room, preparing a treat of coffee and cakes, fetching his pipe, asking him to help her wind her wool, all before gingerly raising the subject. Not fooled but amused, the older man comments drily, "Is this why we have been having coffee?" The gentle humour, the sense of instinctive understanding between them, reveals a deep mutual respect and affection that doesn't have to be articulated. (Later, the room is stripped almost bare for a resting place for Inger; the feeling of love being drained away from the household is palpable.) Within the Borgen house, as writer Tom Milne describes it, the incident is an example, within the austerity, of an "expansive affection arising from the rich, warmly-observed detail of the relationship." We see generations entrenched, unfolding, full of potential, all deliberate. Referring to the great influence of the Swedish director extraordinaire Victor Sjöström on him, Dreyer noted, "Rhythm and milieu go together . . . during the filming of Ingmarssönerna (1918), when the farmers came into the room to eat, with the heavy tread they used in the fields. They didn't enter like modern people, storming in and sitting down; they came in soberly and calmly, took their caps off and took an eternity to cross the floor . . . it was set up so that one believed it completely."
It is not only the realms of life and death that are explored; through Dreyer's characterisation, those of the spiritual and the earthly are also evoked. Through his delusion, Johannes not only acts as a medium with the first (it is our irreconcilability with or acceptance of death as the beginning of a spiritual rebirth), but also with pure belief and dogma, a choice that the little Maren has made, even after Johannes' first unsuccessful attempt to bring Inger back. (The difference between his two approaches: the first was "I will"—an arrogance over faith in another Being?—the second "I will try".) She is the bridge between structured and unstructured belief, that without question or rule, beyond quarrel.
Is Johannes "god's fool?" There is always one estranged character in Dreyer's major works—Jeanne, the "witch" Anne, Leone are but three—and the question is left unanswered with respect to his state of mind at the end. Is he now sane, therefore able to resurrect, by having to accept the reality of Inger's death? Or is he able to perform his miracle precisely because he is beyond the rigid, fighting Christian world he inhabits? The culmination centres everything; a superb example of making literary text filmic. Two more worlds come together: not only spiritual love but carnal as well. As Mikkel admits, "I loved her body too." That mutuality is made clear as, upon awakening, Inger kisses him long and sensuously on his face and lips.
With his focus upon deliberate pacing, geometric setting, textural blacks and whites—visually, there are few more stunning films— Dreyer cinematically interprets the tensions between the diametrically opposed. For example, the room with the coffin, enclosing white-draped Inger, is shot in white tones with exposed light; still, serene, the "dead" side. In contrast, the "living" side, the room with the mourning family, is shot more roughly, with black tones, scattered black-robed people. The contrasting tonality of lighting, too, both reflects and creates the moods within the same space. The result is an almost hypnotic atmosphere of stillness . . . or is it one of paralysing neutrality? The possible resolution is given to Johannes who, in the final scene, makes the clearest statement of all. When Mikkel asks despairingly, "How can one tell madness from sense?," the reply is "You are coming closer."