Friday, March 8, 2013

2013 Blind Spot Series: Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)

The great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr), regarded by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers to ever work, returned to filmmaking following Day of Wrath (1943) and Two People (1945, later disowned by Dreyer, having made it during Swedish exile) the decade prior, to make Ordet [The Word], his second-to-last feature (preceding Gertrude) and his only film in the 1950's. Adapted by Danish pastor Kaj Munk from his own play, Dreyer was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and Ordet is now regarded as one of the most powerful films ever made about the themes of love, faith, spirituality and the presence of miracles.

Ordet centers around the Borgen family in rural Denmark. The devout widower Morten (Henrik Malberg), patriarch of the family, prominent member of the community, and patron of the local parish church, has three sons. Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), the eldest, has no faith, but is happily married to the pious Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), who is pregnant with their third child. Johannes (Preben Lerdoff Rye), who went insane studying Kiekegaard, believes himself to be Jesus Christ, and wanders the farm condemning the faith of those around him, including the new pastor of the village, who pays the family a visit on several occasions. The youngest son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), is in love with Anne Petersen (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of Peter (Ejner Federspiel), the local tailor and the leader of of a Christin sect. Following Anders' refused proposition by Peter, Morton - formerly against the marriage - protests the refusal, viewing it as a dishonour to his family. Their conflict, Johannes disillusionment and the approaching birth of Inger and Mikkel's child culminates in a stunning finale.

Having seen The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr prior to this experience, my interest in Ordet was piqued when I was watching A Story of Film and saw Dreyer and this film feature heavily. What is extraordinary about Ordet is that for even a viewer with absolutely no religious beliefs, it presents the possibility that miracles can happen. The varying faiths, or lack of, present within these characters clash with one another, and it isn't until the conclusion where we see just how united a group of disparate people can become. I can't think of a film I have seen, perhaps with the exception of Ingmar Bergman's pair of Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly, that deals with the power of spirituality and faith in such a profound way.

Minimalist set dressing and a sparse mise en scene, a feature very evident in what I still feel is Dreyer's masterpiece, Joan of Arc, accentuates the characters in the frame and keeps the image simple, uncluttered and reliant on the essentials. It will be their individual crises and misfortunes, and conflicts between the characters, that make up this story. Dialogue is also stripped bare.

There are not a lot of cuts in this two hour feature. Dreyer used lengthy takes and a slow moving camera, allowing the natural sequences, and the film, to feel like it plays out in real time. The lighting is extraordinary and Henning Bendtsen's gorgeous black and white photography gives the cottage a glowing, dream-like appearance and the surrounding dunes, and the road leading to the tailor's house a somewhat haunting/gothic look. 

Though we find it hard to relate to the lives of these characters - simple farm folk  - we understand their plights - Anders' love for a woman his father (and her father) will not permit him to marry, Morten's hurt pride when his son his rejected by a man who he views to have an inferior faith, Mikkel's absence of faith and how this affects his relationship with his father - and feel attached to these characters.

Ordet is a difficult film to discuss so I will leave this short and just suggest that everyone make the effort to see it. It is a technical marvel and a masterfully restrained and minimalist work, yet it's themes of love, opposing faiths and honour are so much bigger. A challenging film, certainly, but a wonderful one.


  1. Having discovered Dreyer last year, this and Day of Wrath are the films I'm eager to see as I think have one of them on my DVR hard drive. I hope to catch up w/ those 2 films sometime this year as I really like what I've seen from him so far.

  2. It is an amazing, powerful film and one that is very hard to talk about without getting into the ending. This is easily my favorite Dreyer and among my all-time favorites. Love how simple, elegant and powerful each scene is.