Carl Dreyer’s unerring spiritualism hangs over Ordet like a ghostly pallor, but it does not – as many critics fail to realize – define the film’s essence, at least insofar as the ascetic way many scholars interpret the word “spiritual”. Much like Tarkovsky, who arguably took over the reigns for Dreyer as he was exiting the world himself, Dreyer’s spiritualism was not a nebulous, free-floating nexus of dogma and soul-searching but a physical, tangible expression of living, being, and breathing. Thus, while so many scholars reduce Dreyer to his otherworldly austerity, they fail to glimpse the glimmers and flickers of confrontational, even primal human emotion and active experience slathered all over the cramped walls of his human locals.
This is perhaps why the most interesting film for scholars of Dreyer today may be his final breath, 1964’s magisterial Gertrud, because its less incessant, more subdued spirituality leaves scholars and film readers without their favorite spectacles to view Dreyer’s filmography through. It forces them to debate with the human impulses of Dreyer, with the studious but freeing interlocking physical gestures, cadences, and dextrous mise en scene that have enlivened Dreyer’s view of human life since the silent days of Master of the House. Without the toolkit of religion to append to Dreyer, scholars are forced to actually see Dreyer for the first time, and to understand that his spirituality was not embedded in life but embodied by it.
Although Dreyer is often compared to Bresson in their preference for the spiritual over the lived, the transcendental style they are often lumped into is present in Dreyer’s quietly living, subliminally volcanic mise en scene, both diligent and dynamic, where fonts of desire both spiritual and romantic are embodied, even trapped, in fleshy prisons. Dreyer’s interest in human motion and the sensory experiences of everyday life, embryonic in Master of the House, were mostly deferred in the more parochial The Passion of Joan of Arc. But by Ordet, they had bloomed in full; Dreyer turns the most muted of human intimations into panic attacks and voluptuously anointed shards of feeling that threaten black-cloud conflagration. This is Dreyer’s secret; although he pines for spiritual freedom, he doesn’t suggest spiritual removal from the world, nor does he omnisciently set himself atop his characters or smother them. Rather than an inviolate set of dogmas or treatises, belief in Dreyer is a human battleground of churlishness and convivial desire, capricious needs and saturnine wonderment all entangled in the pas de deux of camera and characters.
Setting up a family of Danish farmers nominally fronted by Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), Dreyer and cinematographer Henning Bendtsen contrast the sonorous, even venomous caterwauling of the outsider wind with the festering hotbox of hidden emotion that is their house. Borgen’s oldest son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) seldom speaks to his father, perhaps a marker of his subdued agnosticism that sets him at a remove from the religious head of house. Middle son Johannes (Preben Lerdoff Rye), the most devoutly religious member of the family and maddened victim of his own deranged Christ study, wanders the ghostly path of a somnambulant trance, floating through scenes without really engaging presently with them. Anders (Cay Kristiansen), the youngest son, experiences a trauma of a different texture: unexpressed love of a more down-to-earth demeanor, with Mikkel’s wife Inger Borgen (Birgitte Federspiel) his only real outlet for sharing his dreams of affection for a girl from another family.
The stewing personal collision on display may bear the spiritual inklings of a Bresson, but its coiffed caliber as cinema is as closely linked to Renoir’s gliding, shimmering camera walks as it is to Bresson’s more insular, internalized worldview. The evanescent visions of community found in Bresson’s films, where collectivity was a facade or artificial escape from a true, unexternalized reality, are not apparent in Dreyer. Space – a mental fixture in Bresson – is instead plausible and tactile here as in Renoir or even Ozu, with the gilded camerawork by Bendtsen wryly, even sinisterly trading perspectives via representing calm disquiet from one point of view only to slide or slither to another with a mere tilt of the lens, a tip of the hat to Dreyer’s silent film kindred spirit Murnau who so famously unchained the camera back when Dreyer was more fixedly dogmatic about the native, stationary tranquility of his images. Not a reversion to an atavistic realm of cinema, Ordet is a heaving mechanism of expanding, cascading camera rhythms that suggest a harmony between family members who inhabit the same space even when they don’t realize it.
A harmony, admittedly, that Dreyer’s godly deployment of character blocking and gesture reveals to be apocrypha. The cryptic tale is rendered crystalline in Morten’s embittered sangfroid, a reminder of the ossified movements uniting the men of the film in a solidified stagnancy of mind. Johannes’ descent into religious fervor marks him via distinct cuts to his singular, outcast status as an unwanted specter levitating through frames. Even when he is enjoined to community, as in a shot where he walks out of a room to light two candles, his frigid, canted gait and unwavering head – never once acknowledging the others in the frame – sequester him from the other characters. Ostensibly a scapegoat, the wryness of Dreyer’s framing is to suggest that the other men – Morten especially – is truly no different in his own cadaverous refrain from enjoying or acknowledging the insouciant joys of chance or chaos. Trapped in self-anointed shield of post-traumatic detachment, he, like Johannes, seems set adrift in the frame rather than one with it. Even when he joins the other characters to question Johannes’ spiritual search, Morten is encased in his own miasma of gloom architecturalized in the film’s refusal to group him with others in the frame.
Fluid, adaptable Inger is the tentative glue desperately tying these stone walls together. Throughout the film, she alone embarks on inter-character quests, perusing the walls of the house and the mental sediments encasing the individual characters by trying to scratch away at their shells. While the camera peerlessly inhabits a mind of its own, perusing the characters who refuse to perceive their own inner sanctums, the lens alone follows Inger through the house. While other characters exist within rooms – as if steadfast totems placed their centuries ago – we follow Inger through the perilous halls, not voluminous in reality, but afforded a perilous, even pernicious caliber by the biting black-and-white cinematography and the psychological minefield they contain. She alone threatens the inflexible humans around her, interrogating and exhibiting a present-mindedness of place and space that burdens her with the weight of deforesting the treacherous pathways between people. The film’s most haunting moments are simply watching Federspiel lean in to characters, giving herself to them mentally and physically, while the walls the others put up – visualized in their stoic angularity – refuse to crumble.
A textbook of embodied rather than embedded meaning, Ordet expresses the torturous contortions of physical space as it imparts connection onto the characters through its open framing and tracking motions while also undercutting that very cohabitation by relying on disparate actorly gestures, glances. Through these contrasts, Dreyer envisions a world where cohesion and disarray, connection and disaffection, exist in layered unison rather than as diametric opposites. Call it a conversation between cinematic forebears – Ozu, Renoir, and Bresson having been mentioned already – but Dreyer’s style creates a vision of experience that is all its own. For one, his expressive reliance on prismatic gray shading – a vestige of his silent days now bearing fruit in the sound era – to suggest the monumental variances of emotion in this ostensibly closed space knows no progenitor. And Dreyer’s maelstrom of external wind attains a carnal import that brackets Ordet as much with Val Lewton or James Whale as much as any of the more cosmopolitan masters of the craft he is traditionally partnered with (one suspects, at minimum, that Robert Wise drank a cup of Ordet every morning while making The Haunting 8 years later).
The spiritualists in the audience usually have a field day with the finale of the film, a divine, metaphysical resurrection scene, but the sequence remains the rare left-field intrusion that is dynamically foregrounded in every scene that came beforehand. All this time, the ousted, demented Johannes had been bellowing the virtues of the present rather than the past – casting himself as a modern day Jesus and criticizing others for their imprisonment within a religious past. It turns out that a fellow do-gooder and unifying thrust had been wandering the halls with him, and everyone, all along. Dreyer closes with a deceptive lament: everyone together, gathered around the figure that had been conjoining them throughout the film. If only, he wonders, they’d been able to notice her affection in the here-and-now.