Carl Theodor Dreyer may be the titan of Danish of cinema but for a whole host of international cineastes, knowledge of his films doesn’t stretch far beyond the likes of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932) and Ordet (1955). Indeed, in an essay that accompanies the British Film Institute’s fantastic new Blu-ray box set, the Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection, Casper Tybjerg suggests that many people are more familiar with the great director’s name than much of his work. That can be remedied, of course. The BFI’s new high definition-only release includes four features, half a dozen shorts and a wealth of additional material to fill in any gaps.
Most well-known of those features is the aforementioned Ordet – Dreyer’s sole film that managed to achieve success with critics and audiences alike. Based on a play by Kaj Munk, it’s a beautifully rendered discourse on faith, taking in the challenges to a variety of opposing spiritual viewpoints during a time of personal crisis at a family farm. Ordet and Gertrud (1964) are both exquisite examples of Dreyer’s refined style by the later years of his career. Painstakingly slow in rhythm and captured with a gliding camera that tracks and pans rather than zooming and cutting, both Ordet and Gertrud are often considered to be his crowning achievements. Several decades earlier, however, Dreyer was already preoccupied with telling supreme stories of virtuous, self-sacrificing women.
Where Ordet’s Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) may have been the purest incarnation of this directorial archetype, Master of the House (1925) features a prior example. It’s a gently humorous silent tale about a spoilt man (Johannes Meyer) being taught to appreciate his put-upon wife (Astrid Holm). Like many characters in the director’s oeuvre, she bears her cross without complaint but is eventually forced to convalesce by two older women who take it upon themselves to educate her husband. Besides providing an early glimpse into the gender dynamics that Dreyer would continue to explore, it’s also an interesting early introduction to his compositional and spatial eye. Shooting in a cramped family apartment, Dreyer manages to convey the geography with ease, and does so without eschewing his exceptional poise. Day of Wrath (1943) is all the more of a visual treat, and one that utilises light to visually express the moral concerns of the action.
Preoccupations with such dilemmas arguably set the perceived ‘sombre’ tone for the later years of Dreyer’s career. After the commercial woes of Joan and Vampyr, Dreyer had to complete an information film to convince studios that he was ready for Days of Wrath. Such short endeavours would be an ongoing element of his career and although the seven included in this collection are almost entirely unremarkable, there are interesting moments that foreshadow later feature work, like the use of a newspaper obituary notification which appears in Ordet having opened The Fight Against Cancer (1947) some eight years earlier. Beyond over ten hours of Dreyer’s own work, the collection also contains a wealth of documentaries, interviews, video essays and booklet with writing about each of the films included. For those more familiar with Dreyer’s name than his films, this is a fabulous place to start.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson