Friday, 2 March 2012

Truffaut: The Whiteness of Carl Dreyer

Vampyr (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
‘Through style one infuses a film with a soul, and that is what makes it art,’ wrote Carl Theodor Dreyer. Running until March 23, this month’s BFI Southbank season ‘The Passion of Carl Dreyer’ offers a chance to see all of the influential Danish director’s features, alongside rarely seen short films and the documentary profile ‘Carl Th. Dreyer, My Métier’.

Dreyer’s career spanned four decades from the silent era to sound and included comedies and melodramas to the great chamber dramas for which he is best known. Ranging from 1919’s anti-patriarchal melodrama The President to 1964’s controversial depiction of female autonomy Gertrud, via the powerful witchhunt allegory Day Of Wrath, made while Denmark was under Nazi occupation. Other highlights include an extended run for his striking meditation on faith and madness Ordet, plus screenings of his silent masterpiece The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and his first sound film, the strange and unsettling Vampyr.

Francois Truffaut wrote this famous article on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer shortly after the great Danish director’s death in 1968:

When I think of Carl Dreyer, what comes to mind first are those pale white images, the splendid voiceless closeups in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) that play back exactly the acerbic dialogue at Rouen between Jeanne and her judges.

Then I think of the whiteness of Vampyr, though this time it is accompanied by sounds, the cries and horrible groans of the Doctor (Jean Hieromniko), whose gnarled shadow disappears into the flour bin in the impregnable mill that no one will approach to save him. In the same way that Dreyer’s camera is clever in Jeanne d’Arc, in Vampyr it frees itself and becomes a young man’s pen as it follows, darts ahead of, prophesies the vampire’s movements along the gray walls.

Unhappily, after the commercial failure of these masterpieces, Dreyer had to wait eleven years, eleven years out of his life, before shouting ‘Camera! Action!’ when at last he made Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath), a movie that deals with sorcery and religion, and is a synthesis of the other two films. Here we see the most beautiful image of female nudity in the history of cinema – the least erotic and most carnal nakedness – the white body of Marthe Herloff, the old woman burned as a witch.

Day of Wrath (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
Ten years after Day of Wrath, at the end of the summer of 1956, Ordet overwhelmed the audience at the Lido Biennale. Never in the history of the Venice Festival had a Golden Lion been more justly awarded than to Ordet, a drama of faith, more exactly, a metaphysical fable about the aberrations dogmatic rivalries lead to.

The film’s hero, Johannes, is a visionary who thinks he is Jesus Christ; but only when he comes to recognize his delusion does he ‘receive’ spiritual power.

Each image in Ordet possesses a forrnal perfection that touches the sublime, but we recognize Dreyer for more than a ‘cosmetician.’ The rhythm is leisurely, the interplay of the actors stylized, but they are utterly controlled. Not a frame escapes Dreyer’s vigilance; he is certainly the most demanding director of all since Eisenstein, and his finished films resemble exactly what they were in his mind as he conceived them. 

There is no active mimicry from the actors in Ordet; they simply set their faces in a particular manner, and from the outset of each scene adopt a static attitude. The important actions take place in the living room of a rich farmer. The sequential shots are highly mobile and seem to have been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Rope. (In a number of interviews, Dreyer has mentioned his admira­tion for the director of Rear Window). And in Ordet, white predomi­nates again, this time a milky whiteness, the whiteness of sun-drenched curtains, something we have never seen before or since. The sound is also splendid. Toward the end of the film, the center screen is occupied by a coffin in which the heroine, Inger, is laid out. Johannes, the madman who takes himself for Christ, has promised to raise her from the dead. The silence of the house in mourning is broken only by the sound of the master’s steps on the wooden floors, an ordinary sound, the sound of new shoes, Sunday shoes....

Ordet (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
Dreyer had a difficult career; he was able to pursue his art only because of the income he had from the Dagmar, the movie theater he managed in Copenhagen. This profoundly religious artist, filled with a passion for the cinema, chased two dreams all his life, both of which eluded him: to make a film on the life of Christ, Jesus, and to work in Hollywood like his master, D. W. Griffith.

I only met Carl Dreyer three times, but it pleases me to write these few lines as I sit in the leather-and-wood chair that belonged to him during his working life and was given to me after his death. He was a small man, soft-spoken, terribly stubborn, who gave an impression of severity although he was truly sensitive and warm. His last public act was to gather the eight most important men involved in Danish cinema to write a letter protesting the dismissal of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque Francaise.

Now he is dead; he has joined Griffith, Stroheim, Murnau, Eisen­stein, Lubitsch, the kings of the First generation of cinema, the genera­tion that mastered, first, silence, and then sound. We have much to learn from them, and much from Dreyer’s images of whiteness.

– ‘The Whiteness of Carl Dreyer’ in ‘Francois Truffaut: The Films in My Life’

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