When I first read about Ordet, I knew immediately I would really like it. When we finally got ahold of a copy of a DVD at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee library, my suspicions were confirmed. We watched it, loved it, discussed it, told everyone about it, and subsequently watched all of the other Dreyer films we could get our hands on. Based on a play by Kaj Munk, a Danish priest and WWII martyr, the story follows a family with three sons in a small Danish town with two major Christian sects. The eldest son is an kind, agnostic man, but is married to a woman with great faith and hope that her husband will return to God; the middle son believes he is Jesus, having gone nuts studying Kierkegaard at University; the youngest son is in love with the daughter of one of the elders of the other Christian sect – a Romeo and Juliet of sorts. As the family prepares for the birth of the newest grandchild – the child of the eldest and his wife, they try to seek God and discover who He is and how He works on Earth.
Munk’s was the only name that appears in the credits in the original release, emphasizing the audience should pay close attention to the words and themes of the story. Even so, Dreyer directs the film simultaneously tenderly and starkly. It is a beautifully crafted film: the lighting, mise-en-scene, the patient way the camera moves all build up to the climax. And what a climax it is! The entire story hinges on one moment at the very end, the belief systems of each of the characters sharply seen, sometimes shattered, until finally…! Not that everything that came before it was a trifle – far from it – each scene is deliberate and careful, capturing glimpses of the internal and external conflict of all of the characters and focusing on each of the characters closely held belief systems. Although it’s slow, deliberate pacing may not work well for some modern audiences, it has a modern sensibility in the honesty with which it approaches its themes and characters. It is a deeply challenging film, spiritually and artistically, and I encourage each of you readers to dive headfirst into this incredible work of art.
|The middle son, believing himself the Christ|
Carl Theodor Dreyer is to film what Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky are to literature – a prime example of a brilliant artist operating from a Christian worldview, expertly expressing his faith through his work, not with pompous overtures, but in earnest humility. As a result, his films are not off-putting for those who do not share his convictions. Instead, they invite all to a shared discussion of difficult and weighty topics. Ordet (which translates as “The Word”) is his best, most heartfelt film. No, it is not his most visually stunning film (that prize goes to his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc), but its visuals are suited to its purposes, and it is his most well-structured and affecting film. As a Christian, its call for ecumenicity is deeply convicting, as Dreyer’s own heart and sadness over conflict within the church is clearly felt. His rebukes, as with any Godly rebuke, are gentle and mournful, rather than brash and prideful.
What makes this film work so well is that it gives us time to process its events. Its visuals are simple and its pacing is deliberate, which draw our attention to its characters and the weight of their plight. All characters are complex and deeply troubled, and Dreyer does not seem to be content to discard the importance of any of their stories. In every moment, there is unrest, but its characters’ discontentment is hard to place. What we see is more than the simple existential angst of Bergman (who was in many ways a disciple of Dreyer himself) – it is a buried sense of stubborn resentment for God in the recognition of guilt. It is not so much that the characters are angry with God, but simply that they refuse to recognize they are disappointed in their own weakness and petty scruples. Rather than run to God in weakness and find true solace, they pridefully suppress their pain and frustration. Dreyer uses his camera to achieve much of this feeling, which subtly puts his audience into a similar place of discomfort, emphasizing the confusions of faith and the brokenness of our present reality. The film’s final image answers with powerful impact – there are no easy answers in this world, and pain is unavoidable, but we are never alone. In the midst of our doubts, God loves us and seeks to comfort us, calling us to shed our pretenses, put our silly quarrels in perspective, and recognize His power and wisdom is infinitely greater than our own.