DVD Review Of Ordet
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/07
Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer was one of the great auteurs of early cinema, and such masterpieces as Vampyr and Day Of Wrath attest to that fact. Many critics, however, have hailed either his earlier silent film, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, or his later Ordet (The Word) as his greatest work, and while I’ve never seen the earlier film in a full restoration, having just watched Ordet I can say, uncategorically, that it is not in a league with Vampyr nor Day Of Wrath. This is not to say that the film is a bad one, but it is nowhere near a great one.
The cinematography, even in this lush The Criterion Collection DVD restoration, is a bit murky, and, unlike in Vampyr, this effect adds nothing to the film. There are a few key moments where lighting is effectively used, such as when the headlights from the doctor’s car feed into the insane Johannes’ delusion that he is watching the wraith of Death move about the family home, or shots of the old Morten on a lonely dune in the fen, but, overall, the cinematography by Henning Bendtsen, John Carlsen, and Erik Wittrup Willumsen, is less than stellar. And the DVD features are rather spare, lacking even a commentary track, with just some stills and some deleted footage from the documentary Carl Th. Dreyer- My Metier, which can be seen in full in the fourth DVD disk in this boxed set of Dreyer films which also includes Day Of Wrath and Gertrud. The film is shown in a fullscreen 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The acting, although deliberately slow paced, and with good effect at some moments, usually with unintended comic effect, simply is not good. In the earlier Day Of Wrath, set in the Renaissance, such mannered acting was much more effective, for it truly brought you back to another time, and one might even believe another planet or reality. But, since this film is set in the Denmark of 1925, or the relative present, since the film was made in 1955, the stiff acting, and almost somnolent reactions of the characters lends an almost Night Of The Living Christians feel to the film. The seemingly miraculous ending, wherein Inger, the wife of Mikkel, is raised from the dead by the deluded Johannes, plays into this feeling, when we see the dead woman look at her husband, their heads meet, and we are reminded both of the Romero film zombies and their penchant for biting into the necks of the living during such moments of embrace, and a scene from Dreyer’s earlier Vampyr, wherein a female vampire, in bed, smacks her lips, bloodhungry, and looks lasciviously at the living.
When a film so unconsciously gets a viewer looking for things that are unintended, however, it is almost always a sure sign that the film is misfiring on all cylinders. That this film still retains a bit of focus is a testament to its very strangeness, and Dreyer’s talents, for it is truly one of the most unique film experiences a viewer can encounter. The story is a straightforward and simple enough tale. Old Morten Borgen is a farmer. His farm is renowned in the area, for years earlier he brought a sunny form of Christianity to the dull fennish region, one which neighbors like Peter Skraedder (Ejnar Federspiel), the tailor, loathe, and deride as heathenism. Morten has three grown sons, the oldest of which is agnostic Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), who claims to have lost ‘even faith in faith’, and whose wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) is pregnant with their third child, whom she promises to Morten will be a boy. They have two girls, Maren (Ann Elisabeth Rudd) and Lilleinger (Susanne Rud). The middle son is the deluded Jesus Christ wannabe Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye, who played Martin a decade earlier in Dreyer’s Day Of Wrath), whose deliberate and almost retarded acting style is both abominable and memorable, yet who looks like the Classical image of Christ, with dark facial hair. I nearly burst out laughing when, after it is revealed he was studying theology, he went insane after reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard, the noted 19th Century existentialist and pessimist, who posited that true faith entails doubt, which is at the core of this film, yet which Johannes seems to have reacted against, as he derides his clan and townsfolk as all half-believers. The youngest son is Anders (Cay Kristiansen), who loves Peter’s daughter Anne (Gerda Nielsen), but is denied her hand in marriage by the tailor for he is a Borgen, who lacks true faith in the doom and gloom apocalypsism of Peter’s devotees, whom Morten correctly derides as all having ‘undertaker faces’.
One would think that the film is setting the viewer up for a typical Romeo And Juliet sort of romance, but this film does succeed in subverting many, if not all, such expectations. When Anders is denied Anne’s hand, old Morten, after initially disapproving of their union, when told of it by Inger, ferociously defends his son, and confronts Peter. Ok, the term ferocious may be a bit out of place in a laconic film like this, but it is one of the few scenes that elicits passion, as, after Peter condescendingly snubs Morten, after an exchange of religious points of view, the old man tries to choke the tailor, especially after a callous remark wherein Peter speculates that Inger’s soul might be better off if she dies in childbirth, for it would teach the Borgen clan a lesson. As Morten and Anders are leaving, word comes that Inger’s gone into labor, and it is not going well. A midwife and doctor arrive, but Inger’s baby boy dies, and his remains end up in a pail. The doctor saves Inger’s life, and then colloquies with the region’s new pastor on science vs. religion. It is not a deep conversation, but the two men leave on jovial terms. Not long after, Inger abruptly dies, after all felt she was on the road to recovery. All that is except Johannes, who has predicted her death, and there are some unintentionally funny moments where the rest of the clan keeps telling him to stay in his room, for they are sick of his insane ramblings, or when Morten wishes it was Johannes who was put out of his misery, not Inger, and then the old man rues that he’s not even granted that favor, for his belief, from his God. Another near riotous moment occurs when Johannes declares that Inger is doomed to rot because the modern world is rotten. In a film wherein high ideals are bandied about, such a blunt and silly statement sound like they were lifted from a contemporaneous film by American schlock film auteur Ed Wood, who had his head alien in Plan Nine From Outer Space declare that human beings were all ‘stupid, stupid, stupid.’ Johannes claims to see, lurking about their home, a Grim Reaper figure no one else does (not even the camera). He has told Maren that when her mother dies he will raise her from the dead. Anders stays with him in his room, but Johannes escapes during the night, through a window, to wander the fen, because he is fed up with the others only believing in the long gone miracles of the dead Christ, not those of the living Christ he feels he embodies. Earlier, he even chided the appalled pastor, when they met, as yet another phony believer, for the pastor as declared that miracles no longer happen. Johannes says: ‘People believe in the dead Christ, but not in the living. They believe in my miracles from two thousand years ago, but they don’t believe in me now. I have come again to bear witness to my Father who is in Heaven, and to work miracles.’
The next morning, the clan searches for him, to no avail. He is presumed dead or lost as Inger’s wake arrives. There, the usual platitudes are uttered, and the doctor and pastor pay their respects. The doctor tells Mikkel that, ‘In pain there is beauty,’ and in perhaps the most cogent line of the film, Mikkel bitterly retorts, ‘And that beauty is so frightfully important.’ Even the Skraedders, including Peter’s wife Kirstin (Sylvia Eckhausen), drop by, and Peter offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to Anders, as a gesture of atonement and good will, as he and Morten make peace. Then, rather predictably, the insane Johannes reappears, and Morten believes he is sane again. There is a different cast and tone to his bearing, but, within a minute, he is still uttering the same old nonsense. He again chides the non-believers, and, with Maren by his side, raises Inger from death, as the film ends with the miracle. One senses the film, via the camera’s focus, is placing the burden of the miracle not on the insane Johannes but the true and pure belief of the innocent, and almost Oz-like Dorothy Gale stand-in, Maren, in both God and her uncle.
Now, putting aside the fact that this is a filmic work of fiction, the question of a true miracle occurring within that context is not really an issue, for, since the wake is the next morning, and there has apparently been no preparation of the corpse, it is reasonable to assume that Inger merely lapsed into a coma, and reawoke at an opportune time to fortuitously make Johannes seem like a prophet, which was what his father originally sent him into theological studies to become. There are many such past recountings of what we now know were the comatose who seemingly were revived from death. Another facet, unmentioned in the few dozen reviews of the film I could find online, and in archives, is that the whole film may indeed be a dream, for the very first scene is of Anders, the film’s naïf dreamer, waking up, ala Gregor Samsa from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or even Number Six’s weekly travails in the cult tv classic The Prisoner, whose opening shots always show him waking up to the same nightmare reality. This dead giveaway that what we may be watching is all a dream of Anders’ seems to have been wholly missed in discussions of the film, yet, frankly, this does not surprise me any longer, for most critics, these days, merely seem to crib the ideas that one or two of the main ‘big name’ critics toss about, and then don’t even engage the film nor book they are reviewing with their own gray matter.
But, even if we put that aside, the larger issue of this work is not whether there was a miracle within the film, but whether or not delusion, such as Johannes’ that he is Christ, gets a kickstart from such synchronicities. History suggests it does, and far more interesting than Inger’s ‘resurrection’ at the end, would have been to open the film with a five or ten minute condensed prologue that recounts the full 125 minutes of this film’s actions, then heads into the far more interesting tale of whether or not Johannes became a cult leader, and united the schism between the ‘happy Christians’ of Borgens Farm, and the dour ones that the tailor ministers to. That sort of deeper inquiry, however, was not simply the sort of thing that a mid-Twentieth Century mind like Dreyer’s was capable of. Also, the film was based upon a 1944 play by a Danish Lutheran minister named Kaj Munk, who was killed when the Nazis occupied Denmark, and that seems to have circumscribed any larger and deeper thrust.
Yet, Ordet is not even a direct allegory on evil and complicity with it, as was the earlier Day Of Wrath, made during the occupation. In fact, it is not really an allegory at all, merely a simple tale of faith, and a none too original one, at that. Its ending is telegraphed all throughout the film. Its ultimate message, about the power of faith over strict rationality, is also not a new one, and its rendering here is not in the least powerful. Compared to, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, made only a few years later, this film pales in every measure of comparison. That later film was loaded with vitality, even as it was a despairing film. Despite this film’s seemingly upbeat ending (resurrection is a good thing, right?), it has none of the verve nor power Bergman’s film has. Its characters never resonate with the viewer the way Bergman’s tormented pastor and his scorned lover do, in their anomic faith and intellect, and their probing of it. Nor were Munk nor Dreyer the writers that Bergman is. And, compared to Day Of Wrath’s ending, wherein that film’s female protagonist’s descent, into the insanity of feeling she has become a witch, haunts a viewer with regret, the resurrection of Inger seems too pat an ending, and not too challenging in terms of religion, nor science. To answer, though, that this is because this film is about faith and its necessity doubt, as framed by Kierkegaard, therefore one must suspend disbelief to ‘get it’, is to let Dreyer’s own filmic and writing failures off the hook because those things he was in control of also fail, despite or because of that belief system. I’m sure that there are many critics who have been, and are, more than willing to grant the director such favor, as I read enough of them in my researching the critical reception this film got, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for such poor critique. If the Internet bores you, try the books of Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert. I’ll be rewatching Vampyr in the meantime. I need its fillip after Ordet.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unspoken Cinema website.]
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