Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Carl Dreyer: Maytag Man Miscellany

by Christopher S. Long

I have no idea if the brave soul who scribbled the words “Maytag Man!!!” on the title page (pictured above) of my library copy of Carl Th. Dreyer (edited by the late, great Jytte Jensen) intended anything beyond a mere pun, but it still seems inspired. Not only does Maytag make dryers (ah, you get it now!) but the Maytag Repairman is “the loneliest man in town.”

Carl Thedor Dreyer is known today as one of cinema's truly isolated visionaries. He didn't start out that way. Barely in his twenties, the young man who had run away from his adoptive family as a teenager had found his way into the heart and soul of the biggest Danish film studio (Nordisk) right at the height of a film boom in 1913, just as cinema was transitioning to the feature-length narrative film. Dreyer was a valued employee, a true young hot shot given a chance to direct at a young age.

By his second film (the amazing “Leaves From Satan's Book” of 1921) it was already clear that Dreyer was ill-equipped to work within a hierarchical system of any kind. Though he lost a very vocal battle with his studio bosses over the budget for the film, he walked away from what could have been a cushy studio gig to pursue a career as, in effect, a freelance contractor, an uncompromising path that took him to several countries and eventually to the complete box-office failures of two of his masterpieces, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and “Vampyr” (1932).

This is when Dreyer's path became a particularly lonely one. After “Vampyr” he spent most of the next decade failing to get film projects off the ground and eventually turning full-time to journalism, covering the courtroom beat in Copenhagen. It paid the bills, but Dreyer's true passion was always cinema and he was delighted to finally get the opportunity to direct his next film, “Day of Wrath” (1943) after a decade on the sidelines. Alas, it was another commercial flop, due in no small part to the understandable fact that Danes enduring years of Nazi occupation were in little mood for a downer film about the persecution of witches. Maybe if he'd made it into a musical...

My students from my recently-completed class on Dreyer at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute already know all this, at least if they were listening which I'm certain they all were. My intent with this informal post is to fill in a few of the gaps in Dreyer's later career that we had to skim over for time considerations, and to provide a few links and reading suggestions for anyone looking to continue their Dreyer study beyond the four films we screened in class: “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Vampyr,” “Day of Wrath,” and “Ordet” (1955).

The post-war years produced many developments (the rise of film festivals and a global art-house audience, for example) that would eventually bolster Dreyer's reputation, but after “Day of Wrath” flopped, he spent most of the next decade directing state-funded short documentaries and propaganda films. By propaganda I mean, for the most part, educational “issue” movies. These films are seldom masterworks but Dreyer wasn't like most directors.

The best of the bunch is a short titled “They Caught The Ferry” (1948). You can watch it just above, but I recommend you click on the “YouTube” button in the bottom right to get a bigger image in a new screen. If Dreyer's late features represent a move towards increasing stasis (if you've seen “Ordet” or “Gertrud” you know what I mean) this short film suggests that Dreyer had more than one gear (that's another bad pun, sorry.) Based loosely on a novella by Nobel Prize-winning Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, the short is intended to demonstrate the perils of reckless driving. With its cuts from the blazing tires of a motorcycle to the vertiginous scenery whisking by to the speedometer pushing inexorably clockwise, it's enough to make you wonder what Carl Dreyer's “The Fast and the Furious” might have looked liked. 

1950's “The Storstrom Bridge” is shot and edited more in the spirit of the poetic city symphony films like 1927's “Berlin: Symphony of A Great City” though Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens' “The Bridge” is a much closer antecedent. Dreyer's short is an ode to the then-longest bridge in Northern Europe, constructed between 1933 and 1937 and spanning the strait between the Danish islands of Falster and Masnedo. The link embedded above has no subtitles though that's only an issue for one screen's worth of information as the rest of the film is dialogue-free. If you want the English subs, just click on this link.


As we discussed in class, Dreyer's career would become substantially less lonely in the '50s with government funding, his job running the Dagmar theater, and the critical and commercial success of “Ordet.” The film's success is somewhat surprising considering the glacial pacing of the film. Whereas Dreyer was a strong proponent of montage in the '20s and '30s, he came to believe that in the sound era cinema needed to explore the power of the long take as much as possible. He even fantasized about the possibility of an entire film composed of just a few shots; too bad he wasn't around to tell us what he thought of “Russian Ark” and its 90-minute unbroken take.

A listing of the Average Shot Length (ASL) of Dreyer's films from 1928-1964 shows the unmistakable progression. “Joan” represented an extreme; Dreyer's earlier silent films had longer ASL's


The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – 3.3 seconds
Vampyr (1932)– 9 seconds
Day of Wrath (1943) – 14.8 seconds
Ordet (1955) – 65 seconds
Gertrud (1964) – 82 seconds

Of course there's much more to the perceived pace of a film than just the average shot length. Many modern Hollywood blockbuster have ASL's of 2 seconds or less and seem unbearably tedious. But Dreyer was intentionally trying to slow things down. He believed that sound cinema had pushed the image to the side, diminishing its importance in favor of dialogue and he felt viewers needed to be able to “rest on the pictures” rather than be rushed to the next scene/conversation without time to contemplate.

One the most exciting (and frustrating) things about cinema is that there is no set way any or all viewers will respond to a visual device. All languages are inherently ambiguous at some level, this relatively new audio-visual grammar far more so than the more venerable spoken word. Dreyer's combination of long takes and tableau compositions impacts viewers in multiple ways. For some it simply seems stuffy, an inefficient way of telling the narrative, or just canned theater. Why does he have to linger on so many details and stretch out so many moments when he could just get to the point?

For others, the effect of these long takes and tableau compositions is actually closely related to the disorienting presentation of space and time in “Vampyr” where Dreyer was clearly attempting to establish and maintain an uncanny tone. By making viewers so conscious of the passage of time (the ticking clocks and other off-screen sounds contributing) and by going to such great pains to present every nook and cranny of the rooms in which people interact, Dreyer engages in a process of defamaliarization, giving the everyday and the mundane a sense of the otherworldly. Think of how strange a familiar word becomes when you say it over and over. The film also creates a sense of “something else” lurking beyond the periphery, storm clouds gathering but refusing to loose their lightning until the final scene. This style is a conscious rejection of the sensory and narrative overload of more traditional narrative cinema and I would argue it can be every bit as radical as Dreyer's borderline avant-garde work on “Joan” and “Vampyr.” It is certainly damned weird.

You may or may see that on an initial screening of “Ordet” or “Gertrud” which certainly have earned the adjective “difficult” and it's possible you won't see it on a repeated viewing. I encourage skepticism, but also curiosity. If you're in the skeptic category, jot down a note to revisit one or both of these films in a year or two and see if you have a different experience.

As also mentioned in class, Dreyer's combination of long takes and tableau compositions provided a template of sorts for a certain strand of art-house cinema. More broadly you could just refer to this strand as minimalism, though more specific versions have been called “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema.” I prefer the term “walkout cinema” for the effect it has on festival audiences. Indeed, a look at the directors who voted “Ordet” as one of their top ten films in the2012 “Sight & Sound” poll reveals a list of some of the best-known practitioners of minimalism or so-called slow cinema, including Pere Portabella, Jose Luis Guerin, and Hong Sangsoo with “slow” Romanian director Corneliu Porumboui casting his vote for “Gertrud.” By the way, feel free to lose about two weeks of your life sorting through the database in that Sight&Sound poll. I still check it out every few days. I'm particularly fond of seeing how people's tastes form clusters.

Among the many filmmakers who have cited Dreyer, and particularly “Ordet” and “Gertrud,” as major influences are Marguerite Duras, Susan Sontag (who described “Ordet” as “a kind of ideal experience of my imagination”, the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, and even Jean-Luc Godard. 

Livin' Lars

And, of course, Lars von Trier. One wonders if the influence extends far beyond a shared national heritage and an idiosyncratic approach to spiritual material. But it is a comparison Von Trier has strongly encouraged at certain points in his career. The most direct connection was Von Trier filming Dreyer's posthumously published screenplay of “Medea” in 1988. Von Trier also used actor Preben Lerdorff Rye (Martin from “Day of Wrath” and Johannes from “Ordet”) in his films “The Element of Crime” and “Medea.” Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen (“Ordet” and “Gertrud”) also shot Von Trier's “Epidemic” and “Europa.”


Danish director Gabriel Axel was obviously a big Dreyer fan. In his 1987 film “Babette's Feast,” he reunited Lisbeth Movin and Preben Lerdorff Rye (Anne and Martin from “Day of Wrath”) and also cast Birgitte Federspiel (Inger from “Ordet.) Cay Kristiansen (Anders from “Ordet”) also has a role.


Dreyer revealed little about his private life. He married Ebba in 1911 and they remained together until his death in 1968. Biographers Jean and Dale Drum suggest that while their marriage was a devoted one, Carl often put film and his career ahead of Ebba and that she sometimes suffered for it. Ebba worked on most of Dreyer's films in a general all-purpose mode, though most often in the job then described as “script-girl” which meant it was her job to maintain continuity throughout a shoot, to make sure costumes and d├ęcor matched from shot to shot, that everyone had the right script pages, etc. She also dealt with the cast and crew when her husband didn't quite want to. Ebba passed away in 1977.

Ebba and Carl

The Dreyers had two children. We know little about son Erik save that he was described as having a drinking problem and relied on his father for financial support Daughter Gunni may or may not have suffered from mental illness though it is possible she also suffered from lingering problems from a disease she contracted in her twenties. Gunni lived with her parents well into her forties. Gunni died in 1990, Erik in 1977.


One of the best online resources is the Dreyer site which is presented both in Danish and in English. I assume you'll want a link to the latter. This site offers many short summaries of films, some video links as well as links to a handful of research articles and PDFs of original documents (though most in Danish). It's comprehensive if not particularly in-depth.

David Bordwell has been, in my opinion, the most perceptive writer on Carl Dreyer and I recommend his book below. You can also get a sampling of some of the online criticism by Bordwell and his wife Kristin Thompson, another brilliant critic, at this link.

Not directly related to Dreyer at all, but if you ever wake up at night wondering what the average shot length in a particular film is, you might be able to find it at the Cinemetrics website.


I recommend all of the films directed by Carl Dreyer, of course. However, I would first point you to the 1926 silent “Master of the House” which is now available on a Blu-ray released by Criterion. “Gertrud” is another Criterion release. Criterion also released an interesting documentary “Carl Th. Dreyer – My Metier” (1995, 90 min.) directed by Torben Skjodt Jensen. I highly recommend it.

We also mentioned another Danish film in class, “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages,” a 1922 silent directed by Benjamin Christensen. I am reluctant to link to full copies of the film online due to their questionable legality, but you can check out  a trailer here. I would describe it as history related though the haze of a paranoid fever-dream with a the occasional orgy thrown in for the whole family. Christensen was one of the few accomplished Danish directors who preceded Dreyer, and Dreyer respected him very much. In fact, Christensen played a major role in Dreyer's “Michael” (1924).

As far as books on Dreyer, there are many to choose from. I think David Bordwell's is the best, but it is also a close formal reading with in-depth shot analysis and may not be suited to all tastes. The MOMA book on Dreyer, edited by Jytte Jensen, is deceptively slim and loaded with pictures, but is more substantial than you might expect and readily accessible. “Dreyer in Double Reflection” contains articles by Dreyer or transcripts of Dreyer interviews that provide a sense of just how much his opinions about film evolved over the years, not just his shift to longer takes but also his changing belief in the primacy of the writer vs. the director. The BFI booklet on “Vampyr” by David Rudkin is an intriguing combination of heartfelt appreciation and careful textual analysis.

Director/screenwriter/scholar Paul Schrader published a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” in 1972 in which he discusses the work of directors Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Dreyer. He identifies commonalities in what he calls “transcendental style” though he comes to the conclusion that Dreyer doesn't really fit the model as well as the other two directors. It's rather esoteric and I think a lot of what Schrader identifies as transcendental style has since been subsumed into studies of art-house narrative, but it's interesting.

For a discussion of the project that consumed much of Dreyer's final twenty years and which may be the most famous film never shot (along with Stanley Kubrick's “Napoleon”). It includes the mostly-completed manuscript and background on the project, including Dreyer's passionate battle against anti-Semitism [TEXT CORRECTED: I had previously left out a word and thus accused Dreyer of anti-Semitism which is not true at all - sorry, Carl!]  One of his primary motivations was to make a film that did not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.

Partial List of Recommended Books:

“The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer” by David Bordwell

“Carl Th. Dreyer” (Museum of Modern Art, ed. Jytte Jensen)

“Vampyr” (BFI Film Classics) by David Rudkin

“Dreyer in Double Reflection” by Donald Skoller

“Transcendental Style in Film” by Paul Schrader

“My Only Great Passion” by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum

“Carl Theodor Dreyer's Jesus”

May the Maytag Man never be lonely again!

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