love is all
Carl Theodor Dreyer, despite his often painful investigations into religious fanaticism, might also be described as the Scandinavian author closest in sensibility to the Austrian fin de siècle writer Arthur Schnitzler. Underneath the dire examinations of La Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, Ordet, and Vredens is a man completely accepting of human sexuality and a director with strong gay and feminist perspectives in his oeuvre, particularly in his 1924 film Mikaël based on a novel by Herman Bang and his last work, Gertrud, based on a play by Hjalmar Söderberg. In both of these works, love and its loss are the central themes, but as in his Joan d’Arc film, it is passion, more that even love, that is essential t—and this despite his heavily Nordic sense of control and, reportedly, almost dictatorial rule over his filmmaking procedures. Even in the cruel religious world of Ordet women rule, and the sensuous wins out, ultimately, over cruel male-constructed restrictions.
Although not afraid, like Schnitzler’s Hands Around characters to participate in sexual affairs, Gertrud is far more like the same author’s Bertha Garlan, who becomes determined to find an open love, in her case with a past friend who is now a musician. Like Gertrud’s passion for a pianist, however, it ends badly, with her, finally realizing, that men simply aren’t as committed to love as are women. Each of her lovers—representing, as Eric Henderson, writing in Slant quite brilliantly observers, a cube of inter-relating patterns of images and actions—is more interested in career, fame, money, and, particularly, in the case of her husband, power than they are simply in committing themselves to love. Love, she argues, again and again, must be the center of all things, as if restating Christ’s injunction that among all the things in the world, the most important is love.
They all claim that they still love her—after all, she is a stunningly beautiful Aphrodite who, until the very last scene, never seems to age. Yet, none of them can seem to comprehend that in their utter shift of focus to their personal lives and career perspectives, it is they who have left her, not she who has left them. By the middle of this drama, the liberated Gertrud can only perceive love as a “great disappointment,” providing only a world of loneliness, a kind of series of linked dreams (again a reference to Strindberg)—but still will not and cannot imagine giving up her search. She has, after all, already given up a promising career as an opera singer! And now she embarks on a career as a psychologist in Paris.
Yet, those audiences were, in retrospect, entirely wrong. One simply has to watch Dreyer’s film more sympathetically, and admire the beauty of it, to realize that this, perhaps, was one of his very greatest of films. If the long dramatic sequences of talk seem static, one only has to perceive that in the constant cuts between characters and, more importantly, their constant movements from couch to couch, from standing to sitting, from stalking the room, to patiently waiting out their interlocker’s comments, present a remarkable cinematic representation of their shifting roles and relationships with one another. The drama here does not lie entirely in the articulate dialogue but in their constant movements, up/down, across/over, and, always, as in Schnitzler’s famous La Ronde, around and around each other. These figures are constantly circling one another, expressing their desires and failures in their very indeterminate motions. They are a very nervous folk—despite all their professed assuredness in the positions for which they stand.