Carl Dreyer is the great Danish auteur, one of the masters of the cinema who created his own dark vision of human suffering and sacrifice. However, his increasingly formalistic style and austere universe placed him very far from mainstream Danish cinema. Dreyer's work is characterized by an intense formalism with carefully planned shots and by an uncompromising search for the inner life behind the surface of reality.
He started as a balloonist and journalist and came by coincidence into films in 1912. He wrote a number of manuscripts for Nordisk Film and also worked as editor. After his first film, the melodrama Präsidenten (The President, 1919), he made the ambitious Blade af Satans Bog (Leaves Out of the Book of Satan, 1920), four episodes about Satan's work in four different ages inspired by D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1918). During the next decade he worked in several countries. In Norway he shot a Swedish film, Prästänkan (The Witch Woman, 1920), a bittersweet comedy about a young man who has to marry the old widow in order to get the job as parson. In Germany he made Die Gezeichneten (Love One Another, 1922), a love story set in Czarist Russia against the background of pogroms, and Mikael (Chained, 1924) about a master painter (played by Benjamin Christensen) who becomes jealous when his young protege falls in love with a countess.
In Denmark he made the realistic comedy Du skal are din Hustru (Master of the House, 1925), about a father and husband whose tyrannical attitude is changed when his old nanny arrives. Its success led to an invitation to visit France, where he made La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), one of the uncontested classics of world cinema. For this gripping presentation of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, he developed a new ascetic style of closeups of an almost transcendental intensity. After directing the poetic horror story Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey (The Vampire, 1932), he returned to Denmark. Several international projects were aborted and it was not until 1943, during the German
Occupation, that he again made a feature film, the witchhunt drama Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943).
After World War II, he wrote the manuscript for a film about Jesus and, for the rest of his life, tried untiringly but unsuccessfully to secure financing for it. He made two more films, Ordet (The Word, 1955), based on a play by Kaj Munk about a young woman who dies giving birth but miraculously is called back to life by her disturbed brother-in-law, and the spare and slow-moving melodrama Gertrud (1964), the story of a woman doomed to solitude because the men in her life are unwilling to sacrifice work and career for love.
Dreyer's personal background is a strange drama. His Swedish mother, probably made pregnant by her Danish master at an estate in southern Sweden, put him up for adoption in Denmark and died soon after. In his work, Dreyer, born Nilsson, constantly circles around the women suppressed in a man's world.
Was this article helpful?