Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Carl Theodor Dreyer

This is the latest in my Getting Acquainted series, in which I familiarize myself with a legendary cinematic talent whose work was previously unfamiliar to me. I watch three films by/featuring that person during the month, then write about it at the end.

My interest in getting acquainted with Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer was driven almost purely by The Passion of Joan of Arc. This film has surfaced in various film tomes (including 1001 Movies to See Before You Die) and other lists of generally great films, but I guess what set it apart in my mind was the immediacy of the poster (which you'll see below). This poster seems to suggest the unlimited depths of the suffering of Joan of Arc leading up to her execution, and I guess I was surprised that such an early film (it was made in 1928) would address such a controversial figure in a likely controversial way.

As it turns out, it's correct that it was controversial -- the film was banned all over the place, and was once thought to be entirely lost, the master copy destroyed in a fire. Thirteen years after Dreyer died, a nearly complete copy was discovered in the janitor's closet of an Oslo mental hospital in 1981. It's considered one of the greatest discoveries of a lost masterpiece in film history.

As it also turns out, there were plenty of other controversial films about controversial topics made around that time -- it was only my ignorance that deemed this one to be a special case. Or perhaps it just struck a chord with me, as I seem to be endlessly fascinated by the depiction of religious fervor on film. I imagine this dates back to my fascination with depictions of Christianity in 15th century Flemish art, which I discovered in an art history class in college. I want to be clear that I am not a religious person myself -- far from it. But the depiction of religion in art has interested me for at least those 17 years since I took that class as a senior in college.

Little did I know the extent to which religion and religious persecution would appear in most if not all of Dreyer's films, many of which are considered masterpieces, only three of which I've seen, with more certain to come.

I'll get into the films in particular in a moment, but I wanted to also mention at the start (since I'm not sure how this will factor into my individual discussions of the films) that I was amazed the extent to which Dreyer seems to have influenced two other filmmakers, one indisputably great, one disputably great. I was first struck by how the black and white compositions and religious themes seemed to directly influence the work of Ingmar Bergman. Needless to say, most great filmmakers were influenced by other great filmmakers before them, but until now I was not familiar with what seems to be Bergman's greatest influence. Then Dreyer also seems to have influenced enfant terrible Lars von Trier, his fellow countryman. Both being Danish filmmakers would seem to be enough, but more specifically, each film I saw of Dreyer's includes the kind of masochistic persecution of a woman for which von Trier has become famous. At least Dreyer's treatments didn't go to the extremes of von Trier's, but it was clearly a preoccupation of his.

Okay ...

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Thursday, April 5th
One sentence plot synopsis: A depiction of the events, including trial and torture, leading up to the execution of Joan of Arc at the hands of the English.
My thoughts on the film: Wow. Can I just leave it at "wow"? I ranked this film five out of five stars, without hesitation, at Letterbox'd, where I keep track of my film rankings. I've only given that rating to ten other films I've seen since about 2004 (which is where I stand now in terms of adding my back movies in reverse chronological order). Simply put, I was astonished at the level of artistry on display in a movie made in 1928, when most other filmmakers were making the cinematic equivalent of cave drawings. (Another exaggeration, but I'm making that exaggeration to indicate just how astonished I was.) What struck me most was Dreyer's use of close-ups, to capture every groove of his actors' faces, and all that they expressed. There are the hardened lines of the gruff and unyielding judges, but then there are the freshly quivering lines of the face of Maria Falconetti as Joan. Falconetti has been rightly praised for giving one of the most captivating screen performances of all time, though you can't say it is 100% realistic -- her Joan often behaves as though she is in some kind of trance, which is consistent with the character's purported religious state, I guess. It's impossible to look away from the expressions of horror, despair and ecstasy Falconetti gives us, her eyes the size of saucers. It was instantly clear to me that Sinead O'Connor must have modeled at least some aspects of her persona on Falconetti. But Falconetti's performance and Dreyer's close-ups are not the sum of this movie's greatness, and I'd like to quickly mention three other stunning things about it: 1) Dreyer's use of a panning camera. I can't say to what extent it was used by other contemporary filmmakers, but it is used wonderfully here. 2) The editing in the scene where Joan is gradually slipping into a faint while viewing the spinning wheel of the implement that will be used to torture her. Dreyer goes back and forth between the two, with ever closer shots of this spinning torture device and the man who is impassively spinning it. 3) Joan's execution. It is incredibly detailed. The camera never looks away from what's going on, and that includes seeing a slumped and blackened corpse being licked by flames. I have never seen a movie like this, and it was made nearly 85 years ago. One note: If you are going to watch this, be sure to watch it with Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light" score accompanying it. At the time it was made, Dreyer showed it with different music at different times, so there is no definitive native score. If you watch it without the score, you will be watching nothing but silence for the entire running time. After about two minutes of this, I decided I couldn't do it. (Plus, the score Einhorn composed in 1994 is really beautiful.)

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Thursday, April 19th
One sentence plot synopsis: Following the decision to have a woman burnt at the stake for witchcraft, a pastor must consider evidence that he may be married to a witch himself -- and that this witch may have cast a spell on his son.
My thoughts on the film: I must admit, I chose this film more for the title than because of any particular reputation it had. You may recall that I wrote a piece on the use of the word "wrath" in movie titles when Wrath of the Titans came out, so I thought this would make a logical choice for something to see. Fortunately, it's also pretty brilliant. The film is more or less divided into two halves, the one leading up to the execution of a woman thought to be a witch (which rivals Joan of Arc in terms of being surprisingly graphic), and the second involving the wife of the pastor, who seduces his son. Day of Wrath lulls you with its pacing, but it also has this understated yet exotic beauty with its black-and-white cinematography. In fact, it was this film that first caused me to make the connection to the works of Bergman. Lisbeth Movin is otherworldly in a way that's truly chilling, playing the young "witch" (I'm putting it in quotation marks because it's only assumed, not known) who casts a spell on the ordinarily pious son of her pastor husband. You can't tell if she's truly in love with this son, or if she's merely acting out against a man at least 20 years her senior who made her his wife against her will, or a little of both. But the effect is dreamy. There's plenty more to ponder on the idea of godliness and its opposite, and whether "good" men are truly good, or "evil" women truly evil. As this film employs dialogue and Joan of Arc of course did not, I became aware for the first time of Dreyer's keen abilities with the pacing of dialogue and his minimal use of score/sound effects. Many sequences in this deliberate and spartan film are scored only with the sound of the whistling wind, and the effect is both lonely and oddly captivating.

Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Monday, April 30th
One sentence plot synopsis: Heads of two neighboring homesteads clash over their different approaches to believing in God as one tries to marry his son to the other's daughter.
My thoughts on the film: Dreyer's second-to-last feature film is also considered by many to be his masterpiece. (Joan of Arc notwithstanding, I guess.) I am almost in agreement, but I guess I have to give Joan of Arc the slight age as seeming more radical and groundbreaking for the time it was made. Needless to say, Dreyer continues to struggle with religion in this film, which would seem to serve as a kind of overview of his whole career. (I'd have to see his other films to be sure.) You can see elements of both the previous films I've discussed in Ordet (translation: The Word) -- the farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) has a son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes himself to be the resurrection of Jesus Christ (in a bit of "blasphemy" similar to Joan's purported crimes), and the pacing, precise framing, cinematography and themes of family and religion seem to directly echo back to Day of Wrath. But this film may contain more philosophical meat than either of the others, as the dialogue frequently touches on the difference between believers and non-believers, believers and different types of believers, and the intersection between science/medicine and faith. For a fairly simple film that's easy to follow, there's quite a bit going on here. And it's in this Johannes character -- who, trance-like, tells people that they can't believe in him (Jesus) walking the earth now, though they did then -- that I'm seeing some of von Trier's later efforts. We watched von Trier's The Kingdom horror TV series, which includes a boy with Down's Syndrome working in the hosptial's dishroom. For all intents and purposes, he and a fellow female dishwasher with Down's Syndrome function as the "chorus" of that TV show, commenting on the action with an all-seeing eye but not involved directly in it, and his trance-like delivery is very similar to the trance-like delivery of this character Johannes. As I mentioned earlier, this film also has a suffering female character, the godly wife of Morten's atheist son, who is about to give birth to a baby and has numerous trials in store for her. That's all I'll say about that. All of these philosophical ideas about belief or lack of belief in God come to bear on these two families with their stubborn father figures and their innocent children suffering indirectly at the hands of their stubbornness. And it's all encased in Dreyer's unique style, with its deliberate pacing and that eerie use of the whistling wind outside as one of the only noises you hear other than the dialogue. Quite simply, I was blown away. This despite the fact that my schedule meant I had to watch it in four -- four -- different sittings. Now that's a great movie.

Conclusion: I am a full Dreyer convert. Up soon, I hope: Vampyr and Gertrud.

Favorite of the three: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Although I may be a bit exhausted by the greatness of Dreyer, that's not why I'm taking the month of May off from Getting Acquainted. It more has to do with me being out of town this weekend, then going headlong into moving. That's right, we bought a house, and escrow is supposed to close on May 25th. (There, that was my grand announcement to you that I'm becoming a homeowner.) I just figure things will be too chaotic leading up to the move to give any cinematic luminary my full attention this month.

Even though things will still be pretty chaotic in June, I do hope to return then. (If not, definitely July.) I have a number of next candidates for Getting Acquainted, but we're due for a woman on the schedule, so I've decided to go with Clara Bow, the first ever "It-Girl." This will allow me to finally see the first film to win the Oscar for best picture, Wings. I'll also see It (appropriately) and The Plastic Age (because it was one of her only other titles I could find on Netflix).

See you back here then ... in the meantime, enjoy all my regularly scheduled programming, about five times a week.

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