Friday, December 16, 2011

Ordet (1955)

Denmark, 126 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Kaj Munk, Carl Th. Dreyer
Photography: Henning Bendtsen
Music: Poul Schierbeck
Editor: Edith Schlussel
Cast: Henrik Malberg, Emil Haas Christensen, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Cay Kristiansen, Birgitte Federspiel, Henry Skjaer, Ejner Federspiel

There's every good chance this could well be the silliest, most frivolous and beside-the-point SPOILER WARNING ever issued, but I suppose it has to be done. The "twist ending" delivered here, in one of the handful of cinema wayposts given us by master director Carl Th. Dreyer (going well back into the silent era and including The Passion of Joan of Arc, previously discussed), is about as far from the usual kinds of narrative stunts we're supposed to warn about as it's possible to imagine. Not to mention it's almost better to know what's coming, the better to appreciate the pace and careful foreshadowing and development of themes that goes into this. Not to mention that the people who require these kinds of warnings probably have Ordet way down on their to-see lists in the first place.

Among the top 50 films on the list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, only L'Atalante rivals Ordet (with maybe a couple of others, still to come) among the most obscure for me; at least I had the advantage of knowing Dreyer from that long-ago college film class I've mentioned before. Dreyer's career is fascinating, nearly as sparse as his aesthetic, spanning the silent era and penetrating all the way into the '60s, based in Denmark but traveling well afield, with long gaps between projects, and a continuing obsession with religious themes approached from a variety of angles: Joan of Arc, one of the great vampire pictures (Vampyr), 16th-century witch hunting hysteria (Day of Wrath, produced and released during World War II). Ordet, with its radical and homely meditation on faith as lived and experienced, fits perfectly with these.

It's a slow, ponderous, austere, strange film, deeply religious with no apologies. Indeed, one of its most refreshing aspects is the simple way in which most of its characters are profoundly serious about coming to terms with and living their lives by their understandings of faith, seeing everything through that prism. And faith puts everything about daily life at stake for these people—who they will love, how they will love, how they will understand and respond to the setbacks in their lives, and more. The metaphysical issues of God's grace and presence in the world are vitally important here, even—or perhaps especially—among the nonbelievers.

It can, yes, become alienatingly religious, particularly as it gets deep into the sectarian divides between two strains of Protestant Christianity in 1920s Denmark. At those moments of conflict a skeptic like me almost wants to wave my arms around and bawl out, "How can you even tell the difference?" And, at that moment, I can imagine the characters turning their heads to the camera and launching into hectoring monologues for my benefit, touching on issues of transubstantiation or immersion baptism or faith-in-works or God's grace or any of the issues that these subdivided strains have picked to quarrel about with one another. (But at least, in that moment, united against me.)

I also found myself impatient with the holy-fool ramblings of the middle brother Johannes, who as one character helpfully mentions to another is "incurably mad." He spends much of the picture wandering about in a daze impolitely declaiming excruciatingly inapt lessons from the Bible. The nut who thinks he's Jesus—it just seems so easy. Yet, setting aside the incurable madness, he does work well on the level of plot device: a point of unbearable stress and sadness to his family, who are resigned to caring for him and putting up with him for the rest of his or their lives. And, of course, functioning as the messenger who repeatedly tells the others that their faith is insufficient, even during a horrible episode when a child and mother are lost in childbirth.

For as slowly as Ordet proceeds it is actually quite lean and a pleasure to watch unfolding. Setting and characters are established with quick strokes and then set in motion, hurtling off into destinies as seemingly inevitable as they are painful. The black and white images are carefully composed, almost soothingly so; one always feels in the hands of artists who know what they are doing. The performances are subdued yet stately, hitting their marks and getting the job done seamlessly and transparently at every point. Everyone and everything is believable, for the most part. The screenplay is a marvel of complication and concision. If the first half often seemed to be a lot of aimless hand-wringing and interpersonal complications on my first look, headed in no direction particularly good for anyone present, it all seemed to me much more tightly crafted the second time through.

But the last half hour seemed remarkable even the first time, simply because it pulls off what it intends to—and, if a second viewing is any indication, it only gets better as one is more familiar with it. A woman dies and it is a great tragedy, but the faith of those who believe bring her back to life—literally, back to life. And when she comes back, their faith is justified and spreads immediately, of course, to the nonbelievers among them, not to mention sealing the healing between the sects, already in motion even before the miracle.

The funeral itself felt to me absolutely real, which is crucially important—particularly the grief of the widower, the nonbeliever in the family. This funeral is no exercise of any kind in religious object lessons. It's a moment, like any funeral, when grief rules the day, when the reality of death in the face of the corpse and the incident of the ritual is impossible to deny and must be accepted—the purpose of funerals, along with the humble and sad words honoring the decedent's life, and the occasion it presents to the survivors to say, "Goodbye." It is perfectly done, with no corners cut. It is wrenching. And then the miracle occurs, out of a discomfiting welter of horrible, painfully "inappropriate behavior" (as we like to say) on the part of Johannes, who rudely stands at the feet of the corpse in her coffin and demands that she return to life.

It is truly utterly beautiful in that moment—transcendent, I guess I might as well say—a remarkable confluence of vision, performance, and a nearly breathtaking willingness to dare to take the story in such a radical direction. It wisely sets aside any impulse whatsoever for "special effects"—I have no doubt Dreyer never once considered it, but you have to wonder what others on the project thought might "work." No, instead the corpse simply begins to stir in the coffin and eventually opens her eyes even as Johannes outrages all present by standing there speaking in the way he is. I will say, conditioned to special effects as I am at this point, I had a hard time believing it the first time I saw it. But it worked better the second time, and I have no reason to think it won't work even better when I look again. In the end, Ordet proceeds with a remarkable will all its own. I guess that's Dreyer.


  1. I'm actually glad you issued the spoiler warning for new viewers, because when I saw Ordet I did not know what was going to happen and the "resurrection" hit me like a true miracle. I was uncomfortable with it to a certain extent, but it was a trupe shock/surprise.

    Excellent discussion of the film's strangeness and Dreyer's mastery: "one always feels in the hands of artists who know what they are doing." This is exactly how I felt re-watching The Passion of Joan of Arc recently. To me, Dreyer is probably the greatest filmmaker in cinema history. He just achieves effects no one else approaches.

    Have you seen Silent Light? A recent Mexican (I think) movie about Mennonites which is in some ways a remake of Ordet.

  2. Thanks Joel, that's good to hear -- I did feel a little silly doing the spoiler thing. I agree about Dreyer. There's something really uncanny about his movies. Haven't seen Silent Light but it looks interesting. I saw comparisons to Dreyer (and, more often, Bresson) for Of Gods and Men, but I was a bit underwhelmed by it. Maybe it's another one that gets better a second time? I would say that's true for Dreyer, but everything I know by him has always been pretty good the first time too.