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

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