Today, Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for one lost-and-found silent masterpiece, and five subsequent sound films shot many years apart – but the little-mentioned fact is that the 1920s were his most productive decade. The BFI’s forthcoming retrospective, The Passion of Carl Dreyer, offers a chance to to shift the balance. In March, you’ll be able to see all nine of the Danish director’s silent features on the big screen, from 1919’s daring The President to the timeless The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). A closer look at Dreyer’s silents is always rewarding, both for their continuity with the themes of religion and female suffering found in his later films such as Ordet and Day of Wrath, and for the revelation that this serious Scandinavian was also a master of comedy.
Dreyer had been working as a journalist when he was first hired by the Nordisk company in 1913 to write intertitles and to edit and write screenplays. This was a boomtime for Danish cinema: in the teens, Nordisk was not just making hundreds of films a year but exporting them widely too. From writing intertitles, he discovered the strength of distilled, almost elliptical speech – he later talked about how he whittled down the dialogue in Vampyr (1930) until it was almost a silent film, and it was all the more powerful, all the more eerie, for his labours. Dreyer worked on the screenplays of several literary adaptations at this time, which also cemented his opinion that great films should have literary sources – and all his features did.
It was as he grew more confident in his work at the studio, and was working as an editor, that Dreyer developed his signature film-making style too – before he had even stepped on set as a director. As David Bordwell has written, Nordisk’s films at this time were predominantly shot in the “tableau” style, with the actors blocked in sophisticated patterns on a deep stage. When Dreyer got behind a camera he ditched that approach in favour of an edit-heavy style more popular with American film-makers such as DW Griffith. This distinctive, modern, method is apparent in his very first feature, just as it is in the barrage of close-ups that comprise his final silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The purpose of this post is to offer a quick introduction to Dreyer’s silents, which are for the most part much less widely seen than his sound films – and really do draw a different picture of the director. I assume that most of you are familiar with The Passion of Joan of Arc – if you haven’t seen it, you must take this opportunity to do so – but I also highly recommend many of the others, especially The Parson’s Widow and The Master of the House.
The President (1919)
Described by Bordwell as “one of the strongest and most imaginative works of the era”, The President is notable for its bold style as well as its poignant story, told in a series of flashbacks. A judge looks back at his life and the terrible consequences of his decision to break off his engagement to a girl of a lower social class. Dreyer’s painterly compositions are completed by the inclusion of non-professional actors chosen for their interesting faces.
1 March 8.45pm, NFT2; 3 March, 6.20pm NFT2
Leaves From Satan’s Book (1920)
3 March 3.10pm, NFT2; 4 March 3.10pm, NFT2
The Parson’s Widow (1920)
Young cleric Söfren finds himself in a painful Catch-22: he can’t marry his sweetheart until he finds a position as a parson, but his new job comes with a condition attached. He must marry the predecessor’s widow. The situation is exploited for humour, but also tenderness, as the young couple’s opinion of the older woman changes over time. There are shades of the repressed love triangle in Michael here, but the dominant tone is pastoral comedy, with a dash of the supernatural.
3 March 8.40pm, NFT2; 6 March 8.50pm, NFT2
Love One Another (1922)
A ‘big’ film about antisemitism and the Russian pogroms of 1905, Love One Another is a break from the typically domestic setting of many Dreyer films, but its richly intricate story and grand, authentic scenery make for a powerful drama, with a sincere, serious message
4 March 6.20pm, NFT2; 9 March 8.40pm, NFT2
Once Upon a Time (1922)
The only incomplete feature here, this is a comic fairytale in which the Prince of Denmark plays a trick on the haughty, capricious Princess of Illyria, forcing her to to live with a ‘beggar’ in a cabin in the woods. Adapted from a popular Danish play, it was a domestic hit, but not one of Dreyer’s personal favourites. It’s beautifully shot though, and the restoration by the Danish Film Institute does well to fill in the gaps.
9 March 6.20pm, NFT2; 13 March 8.40pm NFT2
This magnificently photographed melodrama tells the story of an ageing painter, his young muse Michael and the glamorous countess who comes between them. The passion the older man has for the younger is not quite directly expressed but keenly felt all the same. Benjamin Christensen stars and Karl Freund handled the cinematography along with Rudolph Maté. High expressionist style, devastating emotional drama and a landmark in the history of gay cinema.
10 March 6.20pm, NFT2; 14 March 8.40pm, NFT3
The Master of the House (1925)
“The heroine of this story is called Ida. The ‘hero’ is called Victor.” There’s a feisty streak of feminism in this domestic comedy, but psychological truth, too. Victor is acting the tyrant at home and running his wife Ida ragged. She can’t bring herself to confront him, but his old nanny doesn’t think he’s too old for a slap, or to the have the tables turned on him. Dreyer’s camera glides into every corner of their claustrophobic flat; rapid cuts and close-ups enhance the poignancy of this delicate comedy.
11 March 8.40pm NFT2; 13 March 6.20pm NFT2
The Bride of Glomdal (1926)
Pastoral romance about a forbidden love affair between a rich girl and a poor boy in rural Norway. It’s a simple story but as with all of Dreyer’s films, told sympathetically and with great attention to psychological detail. Watch out for the action-movie climax, with some dramatic parallel editing that DW Griffith would be proud of.
11 March 4.10pm, NFT2; 12 March 8.40pm, NFT2
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Dreyer summarised his harrowing, cathartic dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc as, ‘a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life’. It’s a genuine masterpiece, one of the greatest, and most emotionally powerful films ever made. The hectic edits and swirling camera movements will dazzle you, but Falconetti’s performance in the title role will quietly astonish you. A film to be treasured, but more importantly to be watched on the big screen as often as possible.
5 March 6.20pm, NFT1; 14 March 6.30pm NFT1
All films are screened with piano accompaniment. You can book tickets for all the screenings in the season here on the BFI website. For lots, lots more about Dreyer, including screenplays, galleries and film clips, visit the extensive Carl Theodor Dreyer website. Alternatively, you can follow the great man on Twitter. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2003 essay on Dreyer is well worth a read.
Watch this space! Check out Silent London later in the week for a fantastic competition where you can win tickets to the BFI’s Dreyer season.