Friday, August 31, 2012

Carl Theodor Dreyer | La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passtion of Joan of Arc)

Alone with God
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer (writers), Carl Theodor Dreyer (director) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) / 1928

In some ways the story of this great film, the trials of the saintly Joan of Arc, is similar to the story of the film itself. When Dreyer’s work was first released in France, the Archbishop of Paris demanded changes, and the film was severely truncated; when the movie failed at the box office in the early 1930s, moreover, it was released in a version with 20 minutes deleted. Even worse, the original negative was burned in a fire in Germany, and the French negative was also believed to have been destroyed in the studio where it was housed. Accordingly, few viewers knew the film in its entirety until a print of the original cut was found in a janitor’s closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in 1981. That print was restored and rereleased in 2003. As Gary Morris summarizes in the on-line Bright Lights Journal, “Like Joan, it [the film] was ‘denounced, cut, and burned,’…a story...that in its way is as fascinating as the film itself.”

Dreyer hired his brilliant actors from May to November of 1927, insisting that they remain in their roles for that period of time, even to the point of keeping their hair cut. But it is clear that Dreyer also had chosen his cast members for their fascinating faces (one is reminded throughout the film of Nora Desmond’s declaration in Sunset Boulevardthat the actors of the silent films “had faces!”). Through his constant intercutting of images, dramatic positioning of characters in relation to each other, and the insistent and often discomforting tilt of the camera, the director confronts the pure, rounded face of Joan (brilliantly played by Maria Falconetti) with men who appear to be less human beings than tortoises and toads out of paintings by Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel. The guards anachronistically appear like Prussian soldiers, and the chorus of British torturers seem out of later comedies of The Three Stooges.

Throughout the series of trick questions, mockery, and terrors with which she is faced, Falconetti (in her only film role of her life) plays Joan as an innocent, gullible, and yet religiously committed child of nineteen who, while clearly fearing all about her, speaks out in pure defiance against the clergy’s demands. Insisting to know whether she sees herself as in a “state of grace” in the hope that she may reveal a heretical view of herself in relation to God, the judges are stymied by her utterly innocent answer, which also reiterates her understandable dissociation of self:

If I am, may God keep me there!
If I am not, may God grant it to me!

In Dreyer’s vision of Joan’s world, nearly all is centered upon gender: it is a patriarchal and all-male world she must face and the very declaration that she, as a woman, has had communion with God who has commanded her to become a warrior in battle for France, determines her damnation. It is fascinating, accordingly, to observe in Dreyer’s version that when Joan asks for communion, the judges choose gender as her test; she can participate in the mass only if she ceases to dress as a man! Her refusal only reinforces their misogyny: her very clothes, they declare, are abominable to God! “The arrogance of the woman is insane!” The shearing of her hair is their last assault against her female identity, as they transform her into an image of themselves upon whom they might lay their hands.
The terrifying scene of torture, however, shows no touch of human flesh, but is represented entirely in mechanistic images, a near perpetual spin of triangular-shaped devices, like a series of tiny Judas Cradles that presumably will be applied to her flesh.

By condensing Joan’s several meetings with clergy into one session and dividing the film basically into five parts—her trial, her test and mockery, her torture, her admission and recantation, and her burning—Dreyer creates an alternating pattern between encounters of the mind and the body, which he reiterates time and again in his thousands of friezes of either Joan in shifting positions with other men or Joan suffering alone, generally with the camera face-on. It is the latter, obviously, which becomes her fate, as she burns in the lonely torment of the fire. But even in that loneliness—an isolation that is simultaneously painful and beautiful to behold—Joan recognizes the inevitability of the patriarchal world in which she exists: her hope, after all, is to be “alone with God.”

Los Angeles, October 18, 2008

Andrzej Wajda | Panny z Wilka (Young Girls of Wilko)

Where Sheep Eat Wolves
by Douglas Messerli
Zbigniew Kaminski (writer), based on a story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Andrzej Wajda (director) Panny z Wilka (Young Girls of Wilko) / 1979

Wiktor Ruben, who manages a farm connected to a school for blind girls, has just lost his "friend," Jurek. Standing over the gravesite of a man whom Wiktor describes as "ordinary" (but whom the priest later reveals as a poet), he falls to the ground, temporarily fainting. The doctor suggests Wiktor take a few weeks off, returning to a popular summer spot where he has, before the war, regularly visited, and where Wiktor's aunt and uncle have a farm.

Wiktor arrives at the neighboring farm, Wilko, a peacock running ahead of him which he seems to be prodding with a horse crop. Indeed, what he discovers at Wilko needs all the control of a man's pride that is possible, for inside the house sit five sisters, Julcia, Jola, Zosia, Kazia, and Tunia, four of whom he has known—along with another sister Fela—from his childhood visits to this spot. The women have all grown a bit older, and what one can imagine as their lithe, youthful bodies have rounded out a little, but they are all still quite glorious beings, the first four now married with children. They are astounded to see Wiktor after a fifteen-year absence, but it is obvious that they are also delighted by his return; he is still fit and handsome, and they, it quickly becomes apparent, were, at one time, all in love with him.

"Where is Fela?" Wiktor wonders. She is dead, and slowly it dawns on the viewer, that her death has been connected to his departure so many years ago.

Wajda's quiet and sumptuously beautiful film appears, accordingly, to be headed in the direction of a meditation on past and present, focusing on these beautiful women, none of whom, apparently, won his heart. Tunia, not of age on Wiktor's previous visits, is now solicitous of his love. Certainly his aunt and uncle encourage him in that direction, but as his aunt mentions, divorce is always a possibility in the Wilko house; for the women of Wilko are all unhappy in their marriages, particularly the eldest, Julcia, whose husband now penuriously controls the estate. While it is clear that she was once beautiful, in her hairstyle and dress she now looks quite maidenly, having long ago retreated into her intellect—and kitchen, where she cans hundreds of jars of jellies.

Accordingly, while Tunia, who fondly reminds Wiktor of the dead Fela, devotedly watches over his comings and goings, each of the daughters attempts to rekindle her past love and perhaps win him over to her cause. Clearly Wiktor is attracted to and amused by all these appealing—and sometimes not-so-appealing—specimens of flesh. And Jola, specifically, seems quite ready to fall into bed with him. Yet, as Dan Schneider has noted in an online review of the work in 2007, instead of greeting these attentions with joy, Wiktor (played by Daniel Olbrychski) "deftly conveys the sense that the character is not in conscious control of his reactions, with seemingly involuntary twitches and facial expressions" that, I would further argue, reveal his discomfort in the various situations. Asked why he never chose any of them for marriage, he admits he was a "coward."

That has, in turn, led many critics to see the film as a portrait of a failed man, a man unable to accept the joys of life; Wiktor seems more comfortable, as he mentions earlier in the film, working; life's pleasures seem as allusive now as they evidently were in his youth.

As Schneider also astutely points out, however, the "lambs" of Wilko—who seem so willingly led to sexual slaughter—live in a world, as one of the sisters describes it, where "wolves are eaten by the sheep." If the sisters work as a kind of sexual unit, they also cleverly manipulate the men around them, and as each secretly vies for Wiktor's love, they employ everything from military-like maneuvers to various kinds of passive aggression.

In Wiktor, however, unlike their equally unhappy husbands, these "maidens" have met their match. Despite all their ploys and gestures, their suicidal threats, he remains aloof, as if, he suggests, he were "a strange soul from another planet." Accordingly, the past repeats itself, as Wiktor once more leaves these lovely "girls" of Wilko in the lurch in order to return to a world of the blind.

Perhaps Kaminski and Wajda were attempting to create just such a shadowy figure, a man trapped in his own indecision, a being unable to truly engage in love. But I believe, if one carefully focuses on the earliest scenes of this film, it becomes quite apparent why Wiktor has chosen none of these manipulative women for his wife.

The only truly emotional response he demonstrates in this work, one must remember, is his collapse at the grave of his friend, Jurek, the man he describes, not simply as his best, but his only friend. Without pinning Wajda's subtle film to one reading, I would venture to suggest that Wiktor is gay*, and that the cowardice to which he admits, is not his inability to fall in love with one of the Wilko women, but his refusal to admit his love of men. He is, indeed, from another planet, a world outside of the orbit of these provincial beauties. His world is not so much a world of the blind—even though he is surrounded by the blind—but of the hidden, faced as he is by an unnamable love, now forever lost.

Los Angeles, Valentine's Day, 2009

*I should note that nothing in Iwaszkiewicz's original story, nor in Kaminski's script, for that matter, says anything specific about Wiktor's sexuality. Jurek is simply described as his "only close friend." The key passage in Iwaszkiewicz's story begins with Wiktor telling the local doctor of his relationship with Jurek: "He couldn't sleep at night, he felt very nervous and he couldn't work at all. And he couldn't stop thinking about his friend who had died of consumption two months earlier. He told his story casually, but he couldn't talk about Jurek without emotion. Jurek was the only close friend he ever had. He was a seminarist, the nephew of the camp's Mother Superior, not an unusual person, but Christian, quiet and good."

Orson Welles | Touch of Evil

some kind of man

by Douglas Messerli

Orson Welles, Paul Monash and Franklin Coen (based on a novel by Whit Masterson), Orson Welles (director) Touch of Evil / 1958

Reviewing the 1998 restored version of Welles' underrated film, Touch of Evil, the other day, I was struck by how strangely prescient this film was concerning border relations between the US and Mexico. The hero of this work, Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston), is set to testify against a Mexican drug lord in Mexico City, his life threatened by members of Grande's large family for his actions. The local US authorities, not at all sympathetic to Mexican issues, are satisfied to be arresting Mexican citizens by planting evidence. Although the film seems to be taking place in border towns in Texas it might as well have been in contemporary Arizona, with a Sherriff like Paul Babeu at the helm. The US authorities want to believe in the heroism of Welles' "mess" of a human-being—as his former lover, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) describes him—detective Hank Quinlan, more than they desire truth, whatever that may be.

     The incident that sets off the series of dark events of Touch of Evil is a border bombing of a local American business leader, who has been partying with a whore on the Mexican side of the border, and whose car blows up as he moves to the American side. Walking alongside of that car is a newly married couple, the Mexican Vargas and his American-born wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), as they move among the various honky-tonk establishments, each blaring out various mambos, rock and roll, and jazz music, the effect of which Welles demanded was necessary to establish the tone of his film. At the border crossing each couple, the walking pair and the car-bound couple are briefly stopped and checked before the explosion sets the movie into motion.

      Various American authorities come running, including Detective Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), District Attorney Adair (the ever-shining Welles player, Ray Collins), and, finally, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the latter looking like an unshaven, unkempt disaster of a human being. All are determined to get to the bottom of the event, with Quinlan—who relies more on the hunches his game leg provides him than the facts—in the lead, attended by Vargas, who is afraid of the implications of the event. As Vargas attempts to explain to his still all-too-American wife.

                         Vargas: This could be very bad for us.

                        Susan: For us?

                        Vargas: For Mexico, I mean.

      The "us" of his statement is revelatory, for Vargas is a man of international repute, a man who one might describe as caring more for his causes than for the cause of love. Indeed, studio execs complained to Welles and changed some of his scenes on account of what they saw as the unbelievability of Vargas' quick abandonment of his brand-new wife for the chase of the murderer. In a 58-page memorandum, outlining his disagreement with their reediting of his film—a problem Wells would face on nearly every one of his movies—the director explained Vargas' character this way:

                          A honeymoon couple, desperately in love, is abruptly

                          separated by a violent incident (the bombing of the car) -

                          an incident which, although it had no personal bearing on

                          either one of them, the man considers as a matter of his

                          urgent professional concern. This feeling of responsibility

                          by Vargas is, of course, an expression of the basic theme

                          of the whole picture; further, his wife (stet) resistance to such

                          masculine idealism, her failure, and even refusal to understand,

                          is human and very feminine reaction which any audience can

                          grasp easily and sympathize with. She is, after all, in a foreign

                          country and has been subjected to a series of indignities which

                          irritate and bewilder her, and which her husband fails to

                          completely appreciate. Vargas' behavior and her reaction, make

                          it necessary to dramatize and underline this temporary misunder-

                          standing between them. By minimizing it; by sweetening their

                          relationship at the wrong moment, and warming it up at

                          precisely where the distance separating the man and woman

                          should be at its greatest, there is a sharp loss in dimension, and

                          both Vargas and Susan emerge as stock characters - the sort

                          of routine "romantic leads" to be found in any programme


      Surely we might agree with Welles assessment of his script, but it does pose a problem, again and again, since Vargas' near total abandonment of her and her susceptibility to the local Grande's threats makes if difficult, at times, to comprehend the characters. When Vargas allows her to travel to an isolated hotel, empty in this off-season period, without even checking upon who owns the place (Joe Grande himself), we even wonder about his ability as a detective. Yet it is these very tensions, Vargas' determination to follow along with the corrupt Quinlin even though he has no authority to participate in the investigation, and Susan's feisty but ineffective battles with Grande's malicious young boys and girls that creates the marvelous tensions of the film.

     Both Vargas and his wife are swept up in the corrupt American battles that presume guilt and rely on bigotry and hate. Vargas, discovering an empty shoebox in the apartment of the bombing suspect Manolo Sanchez, is shocked when detectives soon after discover two sticks of dynamite in the same box. Determined to out Quinlin's chicanery, he investigates the American detective's chicken ranch to discover that he has purchased ten sticks of dynamite, two of which are now missing and, after investigating former cases, discovers that in almost all of Quinlin's investigations evidence was found on site that the criminals declared to have been planted.

     To fight back, Quinlin joins forces with the evil Joe Grande to torture Susan and link her—and ultimately Vargas—to drugs. In a kind a terrifying dry-run of Hitchcock's Psycho of a few years later, Janet Leigh as Susan must endure a horrifying attack in an isolated motel, where she is shot up with sodium pentothal (pretending to be a potent drug) and—after being transported back to town—is involved in what appears to be the murder of Grande, an act committed by Quinlan himself in a kind a mad revenge against both Vargas and the long-ago strangler of his own wife.

      Although this is an extraordinarily dark piece, a grand noir work, Welles seems also be having some fun when we discover that Quinlin has left behind, at the murder scene, his cane. As I mentioned earlier, Quinlin is a fat, bewhiskered man whom the authorities are desperate to believe in. So does Welles almost turn his figure into a kind of sweaty Santa, a drunken, dark man who, while standing in for all the values of goodness, is only to ready to twist and turn them inside out.

     Vargas, finally joining forces with Menzies, who has so dearly loved Quinlin that he has stupidly allowed himself to be a pawn for years, gets admissions on tape from Quinlin. Such a monstrous figure is Quinlan, however, that when he perceives he is being taped, he kills his own best friend—his only true companion—before turning the gun on Vargas. Just as he is about to kill again, however, Menzies, not quite dead, shoots the man he has loved to death, saving Vargas' life.

      Only now does Vargas finally return his attentions to his wife, as the couple is determined to move away from this border world—which, as Vargas has earlier told Susan, always brings out the worst of societies—to Mexico City where they can lead a better life. The final scenes represent the emptiness not only of the place but of the man so lionized thereabouts.

      As Tanya arrives at the scene, she asks "Isn't somebody gonna come and take him away?"

      The interchange between Tanya and Schwartz is one that has always intrigued me:

                     Schwartz: ....You really liked him didn't you?

                     Tanya: The cop did...the one who killed him...he loved


                     Schwartz: Well, Hank was a great detective all right.

                     Tanya: And a lousy cop.

                     Schwartz: Is that all you have to say from him?

                     Tanya: He was some kind of man... What does it matter

                           what you say about people?

      For years, I interpreted that line, "He was some kind of man," as suggesting that despite Quinlin's evil failures that he was special, a kind of incredible man. But, for the first time, in seeing this film yesterday, I realized that Tanya was not speaking of him as a special being, as a kind of magical "saint" who so many perceived him to be, but simply recognizing that he was a failed human being, not a perverse Santa, but a man, a man without a future. It no longer matters what you say about the dead.

Los Angeles, August 30, 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

George Stevens | The More the Merrier

full steam ahead!
by Douglas Messerli
Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, and Lewis R. Foster (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Russell and Frank Ross), Garson Kanin (uncredited contributor), George Stevens (director) The More the Merrier / 1943

The preposterous “hero” of George Stevens’ slightly offbeat wartime comedy, The More the Merrier, is Benjamin Dingle (played by the noted character comedian Charles Coborn), a figure who believes—like Captain Farragut of Civil War History that life should be lived by “damning the torpedoes” and moving “full steam ahead” —steams through this comedy at such a terrifying trajectory that he almost succeeds at putting all the other characters under water.  Fortunately, the other two leading characters, Constance Milligan (the incomparable Jean Arthur) and Joe Carter (the affable and laid-back matinee idol of this period, Joel McCrea) are good swimmers, standing up to his bullying tactics with surprisingly strong tactics of survival.

 Arriving in the war time capitol of the USA as an advisor on the housing shortage two days early, Dingle finds his hotel suite unavailable, the following discussion, typical of his bullying tactics, following:

                  Hotel Clerk: [looks over Dingle’s reservation] Senator 
                       Noonan engaged a suite beginning the 24th. Why, 
                       this is only the 22nd. You’re two days early.
                  Dingle: Anything wrong with being two days early?
                  Hotel Clerk: Why, no, sir.
                  Dingle: Everybody ought to be two days early. When 
                       this nation gets two days early we’ll be getting somewhere.
                  Hotel Clerk: Yes sir. But unfortunately this suite won’t be 
                       vacated until day-after tomorrow.
                  Dingle: Can you connect me with Senator Noonan?
                  Hotel Clerk: The Senator’s out of town.
                  Dingle: Oh. When will he be back?
                  Hotel Clerk: Well, he was due back, uh, day-before-
                        yesterday, but he’s, he’s, uh….
                  Dingle: Two days late.
                  Hotel Clerk: Yes, sir.
                  Dingle: Well when Senator Noonan gets back late, 
                        tell him I was here early.

 The early-late motif is played out for all of its possibilities throughout the film, as the metaphor is extended not only to time schedules but personal relationships.

       What can such a determined speedster do but to find a newspaper add offering an apartment room, and claim it for himself against a mob of other good intentioned prospectors? A single woman, Constance Milligan, has decided to sacrifice her two bedroom apartment by sharing it, but before she can even become involved in the rental decision, Dingle has sent all the others home and declared himself, despite her protests that she is determined to have a woman tenant, her new roommate.

                 Constance Milligan: …I’ve made up my mind to rent to 
                     nobody but a woman.
                  Dingle: So, let me ask you something. Would I ever want 
                     to wear your stockings?
                  Constance: No.
                  Dingle: Well, all right. Would I ever want to borrow your 
                     girdle, or your red and yellow dancing slippers?
                  Constance: Of course not.
                  Dingle: Well, any woman, no matter who, would insist 
                    upon borrowing that dress you got on right now. You know 
                    why? Because it’s so pretty.
                   Constance: I made it myself.
                   Dingle: And how would you like it if she spilled a cocktail 
                     all over it…at a party you couldn’t go with her to because 
                     she had borrowed it to to it…in?

Before the poor Miss Milligan can even answer, he’s flipped a coin and won. He’s in.

       But she, in turn, presents him with an impossible time schedule for their bathroom and kitchen use in the morning, an instant by instant determination of everything from their awakening to their bathroom habits and their eating patterns—an impossibly intricate interweaving of two individuals that is doomed to failure, and which punishes poor Dingle by leaving outside the apartment door in his pajamas.

       In part to retaliate, but also just out of his impetuous personality, he leases his half of the room to Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) who has no place to stay as he waits to be shipped overseas. Obviously, the action leads to even greater friction between Dingle and Milligan, and, ultimately, when he reads her diary she has accidently left out in a rain storm, ends in his ouster. But, just as any perceptive viewer might have guessed, it also leads to romance between Miss Milligan and Carter.

       The only difficulty between these two from their former tenant is that they are not nearly as eager and determined to act. Milligan is engaged to a high-paid bureaucrat, Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), who even by his name we know is not suitable for her breathy, down-to-earth sensuality. And when Dingle is forced to deal with Pendergast at a luncheon he dislikes him the moment he sees him, again interceding, perceiving that Joe would be a far better match.

     When Joe is arrested, due to the good boy intercession of a teenage neighbor, for being a Japanese spy, Miss Milligan is forced to testify in Carter’s behalf, but a reporter haunts the couple and they, to avoid scandal, are forced to marry (through Dingle’s nefarious suggestion)—temporarily—with plans for an annulment. Returning to the apartment, however, the two discuss their predicament through the separating walls, before coming to realize that they truly love one another. So does Dingle, the retired millionaire, speed on, having swept away of another couple of unsuspecting passersby, who are now quite capable of swimming on their own. “Full steam ahead!”

     If this comedy is not quite as hilarious as it wishes itself to be, and if its predictability sometimes interferes with the screwball antics it would like to emulate, Stevens’ film still provides a great deal of pleasure, mostly due to Jean Arthur’s comic acting performed with a voice pitched between improvident prudence and a petulant purring that is nearly impossible to resist. Despite the bland appeal of McCrea, he is just handsome enough that we desire him to fall into the abyss that any “dingle” (the word meaning a small, deep, concealed dell) might have lured the two into. Finally, the communal manner of living the movie espouses is perhaps the closest American cinema ever got to a concept of social(ist) or group love before the late 1960s, as the intrusive camera moves, like another household guest, winds in and out of walls and windows, assuring the apartment's tenants little privacy. But then Washington, D.C., in this topsy-turvy wartime world, is somewhat like living in a vast dormitory. Men and women encamp at night in hallways. And a simple visit to a night club leads Joe Carter, in this male-depleted society, to have to fend off an entire room of swooning women. Marriage is clearly the only thing two people can do without others.

Los Angeles, August 28, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Carl Theodor Dreyer | Ordet (The Word)

faith in death, faith in life
by Douglas Messerli

Kaj Munk and Carl Theodor Dreyer (screenplay), Carl Theodor Dreyer (director) Ordet (The Word) / 1955

Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet is a study in various degrees of faith. Certainly in Munk's original 1932 play that statement might suggest a kind of Ibsen-like dialectic, a stage-bound discussion of serious religious issues; in Dreyer's version, however, everything is honed down to the lives and  the works characters, and, although, at times, the film does move toward the edge of the murky theological concerns behind the original work, for the most part Dreyer grounds these characters in their daily actions and their motivations in their struggles with faith have more to do with one another and the communities in which they live than in the abstract ideas behind them.

      That is not to say that Dreyer's work is not true to Munk's more polemical play, just that Dreyer has refocused the play, as critics have described it again and again, to its essentials. For Dreyer, the film's title, "The Word," matters less than the actions his characters play out in relationship with one another. For Dreyer, the human face is always at the center of his significant films, and it is the interconnections of the beings these faces represent that is of what is most importance.

      Even the sets are stripped down to their essentials. Well known is Dreyer's statement that he "made the film crew equip the kitchen with everything he considered right for a country kitchen. Then...set about removing the objects. Finally, only ten to fifteen remained, but they were just what were wanted to create the right psychological illusion." For the rest of his imagistic backdrop, Dreyer relied on the light and dark of his cinemagraphic images, which are so powerful we hardly need more "furniture." Similarly, the dunes of the small Jutland village, Vedersø, the same area where the Lutheran minister Munk lived, are perfect to convey the shifting sensibilities of family members and the neighboring town-bound congregations.

      Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), the patriarch of the Borgen family, has created a clean, well-run farm a ways out from the village, which seems to be rich in sheep, pigs, and other commodities. At the center of this rich-seeming life is his daughter-in-law, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) who is a strong believer, but who nonetheless lives a rich sexual life with her husband Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), as well, balancing her deep faith with an almost innocent and certainly lovingness of the world at large. In her daily acts of cleaning and cooking, advising and simply expressing her joy in life, she is at the center of Borgen existence.

      Mikkel, a born agnostic, has no time for religious faith. But Inger recognizes that he has something more important, a good heart, and she is happy in their relationship. The youngest son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen) seems to have no interest in the various relationships with belief that trouble his family; as a young man his whole attention is taken up with his love of a young village girl, Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of the tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel).

      It is the second son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who most troubles the family. Sent to theology school, having the gift for philosophical thought, he has gone mad studying the works of the great Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, believing he is the reincarnation of Christ, and spending his days warning his family and neighbors of their errant ways for refusing to recognize him. Despite his father's deep-held beliefs, Johannes is now a sad embarrassment of all his hopes that he might raise a son who could bring the community at large into a deeper commitment with God. Ironically, that is what Johannes has done, but his "leap of faith" has also taken him beyond the understanding of these ordinary folk, and despite Morten's prayers that his son might return to normalcy, the mad son sneaks out of the house early in the mornings to preach to an absent audience from the cliffs of the beach. The whole ordeal has shaken Morten's faith as well.

      In and out of these events weave the liberal-thinking new pastor of Borgen church and the scientific-thinking local doctor, who are even more troubled by Johannes' mad ramblings than the family itself.

      Only two major events, the search for love and a difficult childbirth, bring these various struggles with belief to a head. In his attempt to marry Anne, Anders begs that Inger and his brother Mikkel talk to his father Morten. As delicately as she can, Inger approaches Morten, who remains—at first to our way of thinking inexplicably—opposed to Anders relationship with the tailor's daughter. Despite Inger's gentle persuasion, the patriarch remains adamant.

      Meanwhile, Anders has been encouraged by Inger and Mikkel to talk to Anne's father about his love for her. That interchange is even more discouraging, as Peter not only refuses Anders his daughter's hand, but kicks him out of his house, insisting he is not worthy of her. What we discover is that Peter and several townspeople belong to a far more fervent religious sect who meet in his house for prayer revivals. They are what might be described today as "born-again" Christians, unaccepting of the other church-going locals.

      When Morten hears of Anders' treatment, he is outraged and, taking the boy in hand, returns to Peter's home, amidst a religious meeting, to talk to the girl's father about his behavior. The meeting ends badly, with Peter insisting that such a marriage could only take place if the Borgens convert to their sect, as Morten, refusing, outlines what he sees as the difference between them: his is a faith of life, while their's, he insists, is a faith of death. During this intense conversation the telephone interrupts to tell Morten that Inger is in childbirth, having a difficult time of it, demanding that he and Anders return home. Peter takes advantage of the situation to warn Morten that he must face great sufferings for his stubborness, almost implying that he seeks Inger's death. A fight insures, broken up by the families' children.

       Back at the Borgen manor, Inger is indeed very ill, near death. When the doctor arrives, he is forced to cut away the baby, their first son, dividing the body into four parts. But Inger has survived, and Morten and the children can only be joyful that she lives. Johannes, however, continues to see the angel of death cross in and out of the room, warning that Inger will die if the family does not join in prayer and accept his intercession.

       Angry, Morten dismisses his son. But just as the doctor leaves, what Johannes has foretold occurs: Inger suddenly dies, the family becoming devastated. Only Johannes insists that she can still be brought to life if they only hear the word of God. Frustrated, Mikkel takes Johannes into his bedroom to have him witness Inger's corpse, Johannes collapsing into a kind of trance. The next day, he disappears, the family unable to find him and return him home.

       A death certificate is signed, funeral notices issued, and, a few days later, a funeral is underway. Peter, reading his Bible, is suddenly struck by his own lack of Christian behavior to Borgen and the family, realizing his has failed "to turn the other cheek," and with his wife and daughter determines to attend the Borgen funeral.

      The long final scene is played out at the bedside of the dead Inger, where, despite Mikkel's despair, they await the parson to say a few words over the body before putting the cover over the coffin. The parson arrives, the words are spoken; Peter and his family arrive, the tailor offering Anders his daughter as apology for his behavior. Just as they are about to cover Inger, Mikkel breaks down into a tearful lament, arguing that it was not only the spirit of Inger he loved—which family and friends commend him to remember—but her body. He becomes resistant to even losing the sight of her.

     Suddenly Johannes reappears. He seems to have recovered his self, having abandoned the mad look of his eyes. But he is just as adamant in his denouncement of the whole community, not one of whom have prayed to God that Inger might be returned to them. He has convinced Inger's young daughter, however, that we will raise her from the dead, and she, a complete innocent, stands with him encouraging him to hurry with the act. With her faith beside him, Johannes prays, asking for the right word to raise Inger from the dead. Naming Christ, Johannes prays for her salvation.

     Throughout Inger has argued that miracles do happen, even if they are perhaps only little ones that add up to something bigger. Now, she is herself subject to a miracle, as she moves her eyes and, slowly, her hands, Mikkel bending to hold her and kiss her. Both Morten and Peter are reconciled, recognizing in the miracle their God of old. Even Mikkel finds new faith.

      Instinctively, I find something stagey about this ending, with a kind of deus ex machina intrusion that doesn't seem necessary given Dreyer's argument throughout for a religion of life. Yet these men and women of faith in such a provincial and isolated world, would have seen such an occurrence precisely as this. If we, like the Doctor, can dismiss these events as simply mistaken diagnoses, we are certainly the less fortunate for it. And it is precisely this miraculousness of the human spirit which the film throughout has so carefully detailed.

      If Dreyer's great film does not dismiss the beliefs of these tormented small farmers and towns-people, perhaps we should equally embrace their gentle wonderment, accept the miracles of their faith.

Los Angeles, August 28, 2012