New Movies -
Old Movies -
Carl Theodor Dreyer Special Edition Boxed Set (Criterion) 2001
I purchased this box set having only previously seen Dreyer's Day of Wrath (and Passion of Joan of Arc, which although not included is available separately on a great disc from Criterion as well) and I had little preconception of Ordet and Gertrud except that they were supposed masterpieces.
Upon watching the 3 films and documentary included, I realize Dreyer's reputation as an intense stylist & perfectionist is well deserved. His films have a reputation for being unbearable to watch, apparently, but I didn't find them to be horrible at all. They do not have much in the way of entertainment value (Ordet contains the sole explicit joke in the 3 films), but aspire to loftier goals.
The films are filled with slow, long tracking shots and feature progressively fewer close-ups. All of the films are exceptionally talky by today's standards, and all feature stunning manipulation of light to suggest emotional states of the characters.
Of the three films, I felt Ordet was the best. The film caught me off guard with its ability to shock me with its beauty and raw emotion. This is probably the best filmic exploration of religion that I have ever seen. The characters are archetypes, to be sure, but the actors embody them with enough emotion that they transcend them. The film has perhaps the most powerful, subtle use of special effects that I have ever seen. I feel this is one of the absolute masterpieces of cinema and am eager to revisit it.
Gertrud is a lesser film than Ordet, though not by much. Like Ordet, the films characters are archetypes, but somehow transcend them. I think these three films are amazingly adept at establishing an "at the speed of life" pacing that lulls us into thinking we're watching real people with real concerns as the themes leap into universal territory. Gertrud's character is one of the most interesting pre-feminist women I've seen in cinema and I think Dreyer's refusal to judge her in any way saves the film from being the bore that many find it.
Day of Wrath is probably the simplest of the three films, but it is still a great work. Ironically, it's the film with the most outward action in it, and it has the most outwardly accessible subject matter, so I'm surprised it appealed to me the least. Nonetheless, it's gorgeous, impeccably acted, and has plenty of dramatic heft.
As a viewer of modern film, I notice that these three films bear deep thematic resemblances to the films of cinema's other Great Dane, Lars von Trier. I would be so bold as to call the majority of von Trier's work a homage to Dreyer's oeuvre. Of course, one of his first projects was the realization of Dreyer's unfilmed script for Medea. A few years later, his Europa echoed the theme of Day of Wrath (suspicion of guilt becomes self-fulfilling prophecy). Obviously, Breaking the Waves and Ordet share last-minute religious redemption, but consider the leads of his The Idiots and Dreyer's Gertrud. Both are victims/martyrs of their adherence to an ideal, and that no one in their community can match it... and what is Dancer in the Dark if not a musical celebration of cinema that at the same time evokes Passion of Joan of Arc? I don't feel this reduces either director's films... rather I feel this set of old classics has enabled me to better examine some new ones.
Also, the fourth disc is a somewhat middling documentary that, while cute, seems to focus more on recalling the mannerisms of the director than the intent of his work or the critical reactions to it. The liner notes are excellent. The set as a whole is indispensable.