It is quite common to hear film people, even critics, acknowledge Carl Dreyer’s greatness with the merest hint of a yawn, as if this Danish director of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) was a film-maker relevant to film history but not to us today. Yet Godard paid tribute to him in Vivre Sa Vie (1962); and Antonioni, Resnais and other directors who came to prominence in the 60s freely acknowledge their stylistic and moral debt to him.
Nothing could be further from the truth than to characterise him as a close relative to Shakespeare’s gloomy Dane and his films as too slow and lingering, too concerned with martyrdom and suffering, and too intent on marketing a gaunt spirituality to reach out to modern audiences. Vampyr, for instance, was one of the most poetic horror films ever made, and Day of Wrath (1943) one of the most terrifying.
The fact is that almost all Dreyer’s films, stretching through the silent era into sound, etch themselves in the memory. And if they deal with the kind of subject matter today’s film-makers, and some audiences, find largely beyond them, that is surely not to his discredit. He stands among the greatest, most profound, artists of the 20th century.
Day of Wrath is about the persecution of witches in the 17th century and is sometimes seen as an allegory of the German occupation of Denmark. Anne, the second wife of an old pastor, who has given refuge to an alleged witch, discovers that her own mother, also accused of witchcraft, was saved from the stake by the pastor in exchange for her hand. Falling in love with her stepson, she is wracked with guilt and confesses to her husband. When he dies from the shock, Anne is denounced as a witch and burnt at the stake.
The film , in some ways reminiscent of the paintings of Dutch masters , examines the cruelty of the time, which is supposed to be the workings of divine law. One of the two central characters admits under torture that she is a witch; the other volunteers to die, convinced of her own evil. Dreyer’s measured pace and stark visuals , long, horizontal pans and close-ups of riven faces , accompanied as they are by acting of intense realism, make this a morality play of enormous power.
The scenes of torture and burning, though discreetly handled, are almost unbearable, at least partly because the torturers and burners are not mere hysterics but convinced they have divine justice on their side.
What Dreyer achieves is the sense that for these sternly Protestant people, whose inscrutable faces conceal great passion, witchcraft was a frightening reality. He does not argue for or against them, but simply, as one critic has said, evokes the dark night of the soul through an intensely physical world. Most directors refine their style towards the end of their lives, and Dreyer did so with Gertrud, which some regard as one of the dozen or so greatest films ever made and others as an impenetrable bore; just as The Passion of Joan of Arc is regarded either as a masterpiece of the silent cinema or redeemed only by the luminous face of Renee Falconetti.
Dreyer was not everybody’s director. He was, however, over some 45 years of work, a unique and innovating talent.