The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour

This is an extended version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of The Parson’s Widow at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied brilliantly by John Sweeney – who will be playing live for the film in Bristol soon. See details below.

Don’t let the forbidding reputation of Carl Th. Dreyer, legendary director of films including The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, mislead you. Dreyer didn’t believe that seriousness and quality went hand in hand. “God forbid! It would be a terrible world if we only had problem films,” he said. “I put, to be sure, farce and comedy just as high. Only one most note that in back of it all is love, heart, and warmth.”

The Parson’s Widow (1920) was Dreyer’s first comedy and is a wonderful example of not just his humour but his humanism. In the words of film historian Eileen Bowser: “Once we have seen The Parson’s Widow, is it easier to find a comic element in even the most serious Dreyer films, stemming from Dreyer’s humanism, his acceptance of man for what he is, with all his weaknesses and strengths.”

The Parson's Widow (1920)
The Parson’s Widow (1920)

In 1920, after two critically acclaimed films for the Nordisk studio in Copenhagen, the Danish-born director looked to Sweden for a fresh challenge, and to Norwegian literature for his inspiration. Having admired films made by the great Swedish directors Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, he felt that the studio they worked for, Svensk Filmindustri, would offer him an opportunity to experiment. Not only that, but in contrast to the Nordisk’s preference for modern-dress society dramas, Dreyer would finally be able to shoot a peasant story, set in the past.

The source for The Parson’s Widow is a novel of the same name by Kristofer Janson set in 17th-century Norway. The protagonist, Söfren (Einar Röd), wins a job as a parson in a country village, but only on the condition that he marry his predecessor’s widow, an elderly and formidable woman known as Dame Margarete (Hildur Carlberg). Despite the fact that he is engaged already, Söfren accepts and moves his fiancée Mari (Greta Almroth) into his new home, posing as his sister.

It may seem a bizarre scenario, but it has an historical basis – marrying a new parson to his forerunner’s widow saved the parish from supporting two separate households. Dame Margarete herself was inspired by a legend going about that one geriatric lady had seen off three parsons in her time. Therefore, the stage is set for rustic comic capers, as Söfren tries to sneak some intimate moments with Mari under Margarete’s nose, and even to “encourage” his wife’s demise by inventive means. His freakish Nosferatu getup, donned in order to frighten Margarete to death, is a particular highlight. Was ever such a terrifying vision undone by his bedroom slippers before?

parsonswidow-1

Dreyer was famously a stickler for realism and authenticity when it came to production design, but for this film he did not need to build a single set. Once the snow had thawed, the film was shot in June 1920, at Maihaugan, an open-air museum near Lillehammer. Dreyer made use of the existing wooden buildings for both exterior and interior scenes (the extra light needed to illuminate the dark rooms damaged the actors’ eyes) as well as many of the historical props. He brought a Danish and Swedish cast and crew with him to Norway, including his brilliant Danish cinematographer George Schnéevoigt (whose directorial debut Laila also screened at Hippfest 2019). For the role of Margarete, he had chosen an actress with a remarkably lined and characterful face, which he had admired in a Sjöström film. The extras were recruited locally, with the help of local poet Olav Aukrust, who also plays one of the disappointed candidates for the job of parson.

Dreyer remembered making The Parson’s Widow as one of the happiest times of his life, and the final product as “very successful”. He especially valued the freedom with which he was able to work, and his highly motivated team, as well as the glorious Lillehammer scenery. His wife, Ebba Dreyer and  their six-year-old daughter Gunni joined him for the shoot, too. 

Anders Sandvig, the dentist who had founded the Maihaugan museum, also looked back on the time fondly: “I must say I have the greatest respect for Mr Dreyer, both for his insight and for his ability. There was discipline, but at the same time the most pleasant atmosphere … The most amusing were the extras, humble folk from the valley who worked in the film because they loved the story. In the restaurant … it was like a wedding the whole time. The actors went around town with their costumes on, and almost caused a riot.”

The Parson's Widow (1920)
The Parson’s Widow (1920)

The critics were in decidedly mixed minds about The Parson’s Widow were mixed. One Swedish critic thought it is fabulous, saying: “There is life in the portrayals, the people appear more real, there is stronger dramatic cohesion.” Berlingske Tidende, where Dreyer once worked, was equally besotted: “Otherwise full of amusing moments, this film evokes both tears and laughter. However, another Danish paper called it “quite thin and rather uninteresting; there is a lack of action: nothing h a p p e n s.” Ah, but it’s not the action but how the action unfolds, with Dreyer.

Sadly, Dreyer’s leading lady, the imperious Hildur Carlberg, was in failing health, which worried the director. He recalled: “One day she took me aside and said, ‘Don’t be alarmed. I promise you I’ll not die until we have finished the shooting.’” She was as good as her word, but she passed away later that summer, leaving Dreyer to regret that she never saw the film. It’s a sad conclusion to the story of this warm, and humanistic film, in which sorrow and sympathy coincide with mischief and good humour.

  • South West Silents present The Parson’s Widow with John Sweeney at the Cube in Bristol on 17 May  – more details here.
  • My Sight & Sound report from this year’s Hippfest is online here.
  • You can read David Cairns’s reports and notes from the festival here.
  • Georgina Coburn’s beautiful writeup is here.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page
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5 thoughts on “The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour”

  1. A much needed article, updating an article written in 2005 by Marguerite Engberg – grand old (born 1919) Lady of Danish Silent Film. Her article takes an original look at experimental and humorous elements in Dreyer’s films. Published in “Som i et spejl. Om film og filmkunst” – eds: Anne Jespersen & Eva Joerholt – unfortunately, the language is Danish. But thank you for drawing attention to these lesser known sides of Dreyer!

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