At the time of its rather cavalier reception (at Cannes, the New York Film Festival, and virtually every other venue where it was timidly allowed to play), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final work, Gertrud, was so old-fashioned it seemed to be instantly outmoded. What, skeptics asked, is so cinematic about two people sitting next to one another and talking at oblique angles? But, on the contrary, Gertrud is a film that is as richly mysterious and inscrutable as it is earthy and wry. It’s this frequently unrecognized artistic relevance that continues to inspire debates, wild interpretations and, yes, frustrated indifference. This is not to say that debate and varied interpretation are the hallmarks of a work of great cinema, but rather evidence of a film that audiences still find vital and alive.
In contrast to the diverse, up-for-grabs critical readings of Gertrud, the status of Dreyer’s more famous film school relic The Passion of Joan of Arc as a visionary formalist experiment is often taken for granted to the point that most discussions on the film now seem embalmed. To compare current readings of the two extraordinarily different (and, I stress, equally essential) films—one hysterical, the other hysterectomized—is to understand how the body of work of any given director (even one so famously in near-dictatorial control as Dreyer) is apt to be diverse in style and, therefore, subject to the critical whims of the day. And at the time of its release, Gertrud, a becalmed and feminist artwork from a bemused man fond of slow cadences, was caught in a film world enraptured with whizzy pacing and nostalgic, pulpy riffs on noir and other boy genres. And though one of the foremen of that movement, Jean-Luc Godard, placed the film on his own top 10 list for 1964, few others followed suit.
Gertrud tells the story of a romantic young woman whose promising singing career was cut short by her marriage to a successful lawyer. Played by the tranquil Nina Pens Rode, Gertrud has a seemingly clear vision of a perfect, totally idealized love, and has made it her life’s passion to realize that vision without compromise. Spinning through her journey are four suitors—husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), poet and former lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode, Pens’s real life spouse), musician and current lover Erland (Baard Owe), and psychologist bon vivant Axel (Axel Strøbye). Based on a turn-of-the-century play by Hjalmar Söderberg (reportedly written after he had lost his own real-life object of affection), Dreyer’s adaptation emphasizes the exaggerated faults that Gertrud finds in each of the men in her life: Gustav is too focused on his career; Gabriel was too focused on conveying his own vision of love to pay attention or respect to Gertrud’s; and Erland cross-pollinates with other women, though Gertrud is more disturbed by his indifferent unresponsiveness toward her romantic joy.
Axel is a special case, because even though he doesn’t explicitly attempt to love Gertrud, in many ways he comes the closest. Gertrud is impressed by his drive for philosophical understanding, but almost immediately shuts him out once he starts speaking about his interest in psychology and age-old theoretical debates. He apparently is unwilling to focus his energy toward the only conceptual understanding that Gertrud believes really matters. The theoretical discussion of free will versus fate ends up coloring Axel’s visit with Gertrud in the film’s epilogue, set decades after the film’s main action. Gertrud is now older and cloistered in a mausoleum of her own construction, where her ideal vision of romance (or is it just plain intellectual masturbation?) has finally become her only source of romantic heat.
The woman’s lonely fate, in many ways, is foretold, but it’s also worth noting that it was Gertrud’s belief in free will that led her to continue seeking her own vision of truth up to the bitter end. She reads Axel a poem that she wrote at age 16 that still seems to sum everything up for her, and explains that she’s already bought herself a grave and a headstone that reads “Amor Omnia.” (It’s worth questioning whether the final, poignant scene of the film is not perhaps another idealized fantasy that exists in Gertrud’s mind, seeing as the overexposed cinematography and melodramatic sense of contentment follow in line with the film’s previous romanticized flashback sequences.)
Gertrud is so peculiar as to appear almost otherworldly, and indeed this very strangeness is often what first attracts people to the film, but Gertrud is not entirely without precedent. It takes a few cues from, most notably, the archly structured yet volatile unpredictability of Roberto Rossellini’s Ingrid Bergman films. Dealing, not unlike Stromboli and Voyage to Italy, with the disparity between overblown fantasies of perfect romantic ecstasy and the mundane reality of isolated human intimacy, Gertrud eschews melodramatic flourishes (like Stromboli‘s erupting volcano and tuna harvest) and instead turns its own heated emotions inward to the point that mere eye contact is an event of cosmic significance.
The film’s extreme, unfettered dramatic sensibility—focused with the intensity of a laser beam—has become a “point of entry” for many of the film’s admirers, as it were, and many read the film as a satire of typical Scandinavian emotionless stoicism: an exaggeration of Bergman-brand psychobabble. This is a natural response to a film that deals with contradictions and hypocrisies with candor and honesty. No one, especially not Gertrud, is beyond the winds of emotional indecision. If Gertrud is the official protagonist and the character audiences base either their respect for or unequivocal dismissal of the film upon, it’s because she is the only character who seems to be aiming for an ideal, rather than settling for what is within grasp. (Of course, all the male characters desire Gertrud, and she is arguably not within their grasp either, which is one of the film’s many stimulating incongruities.)
Though his perfectionism was limitless (look to his direction of clouds in Ordet or the fact that the Parisian headache pills Axel takes in Gertrud were actually from Paris), and his ability to cast “faces” (as he described this process during the filming of Joan of Arc) is predictably faultless in Gertrud. He always put incredible emphasis and, consequently, burden on the eyes of his leading female actors, and up until Nina Pens Rode, those eyes were spectacularly clarified. Master of the House succeeded marvelously on the beady, judgmental glare of Mathilde Nielsen’s Mads. Day of Wrath‘s very core of sensuality and terror is to be found in the wide eyes of Lisbeth Movin and Anna Svierkier. (One assumes that nothing more needs to be said about Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.) But Nina Pens Rode’s eyes don’t have the same easily readable quality. They seem to hide behind her eyelids, holding her vast reserve of disappointment, except for those rare moments when she is overcome with reverie that her eyes seem to threaten to leave their sockets to catch a closer glimpse of that vision that, judging from her glassy gaze, is in a complete other dimension. When they do come alive, as when Gertrud bids farewell to the young composer Erland after a midnight tryst and her face goes through roughly two score emotions in five seconds, it’s a marvelous sight to behold.
Also marvelous is the stunning cinematography by Henning Bendtsen, whose copious lighting savvy make Gertrud just about the most colorful black-and-white film ever lensed. It would be enough to drink in Gertrud‘s abundance of contrasting grays, but Bendtsen’s modest, expressionistic curtains of shadow and white-hot backlighting (during Gertrud’s interludes of reminisce) reveal how limitless so-called monochromatic photography can be. He also turns single shots, even ones that seem to merely display two statuesque figures lounging uncomfortably on a breezeway couch, into tactile studies of shifting balance and physical weight. An early shot of Gertrud telling Gustav that she is leaving him shifts perspective multiple times without ever cutting away. Depending on who has a tangible upper hand on the ensuing argument, Gustav and Gertrud are alternately standing, slouching, leaning forward, recoiling back, facing each other, averting each other’s gaze. Those who decry the film’s alleged lack of cinematic action are ignoring Bendtsen’s persistently transitory approach to framing, or are unable to recognize his subtle angular perceptions. Complementing Bendtsen’s cinematography are Jørgen Jersild’s obliquely angular musical interludes, scored with the sensualist underpinnings of Stockhausen.
Probably the most unnerving thing about Gertrud, and what makes it a particularly rich film to revisit and revise one’s reactions to, is Dreyer’s almost obsessively balanced sense of symmetry. In cinematographic composition, in pacing (contrary to popular belief, Gertrud does contain rather brisk interludes to counterbalance the epic-length single shots), in emotional circuitry, Gertrud is a perfect cube of a film. Important actions are mirrored (Gertrud tears up Gabriel’s photo; later Gustav does the same to Gertrud’s portrait), visual cues are echoed (the park where Erland and Gertrud meet to share love is festooned with a statue of Aphrodite; later, when Erland falls short of Gertrud’s expectations, she seems to freeze up on the bench facing Aphrodite’s figure into a statue of her own).
On the other hand, Gertrud’s own frustrated search for ideal love leads to perfectly balanced contradictions as well. In one scene, she declares to Gabriel rather flatly that “love is unhappiness.” This is decidedly not her approach to love in earlier scenes with Erland, as she is full of wide-eyed optimism. There is symmetry along the line of the sexes. At the precise moment when Gertrud is closest to achieving the highest romantic reverie (making love with Erland), Dreyer cuts to Gustav sitting in his coach and gives him the luxury of a voiced-over internal monologue. This is the only time in the film Dreyer allows us such intimate knowledge of any character’s thoughts, and it immediately tips the scales of judgment back into place. If even just momentarily, Gustav’s philosophical quest is portrayed to be just as significant as Gertrud’s. The film’s ultimate dialectic manages to be both completely in support of Gertrud’s overblown notions of perfect love (simply witness Dreyer’s direction of the piano sonate duet-seduction sequence: as good a cinematic case for swooning, lush eroticism intertwined with creative expression as one could hope for) as it is skeptical of the human condition ever being able to match such ideals.
If one can capitulate one’s resistance to such deliberate provocation (a cube is a difficult shape to embrace, to be sure), the pugnacious incongruities of Gertrud, instead of feeling like a proverbial white flag from a man who never learned to love (and no one who knew Dreyer seems to discount the possibility of this scenario), rather seem to have the tranquil logic-seeking intent of classic Platonic dialogue, as well as the que sera sera of Zen enlightenment. Ying-yang feelings flow throughout Dreyer’s ultimate cinematic experiment, and any viewer who surrenders to Dreyer’s film (and without resorting to ironic readings) will surely come to the conclusion that what seemed hopelessly dated and uncinematic in 1964 is actually much closer to timeless. And what seemed a hyperbole of Scandihooey is actually peerlessly worldly and multicultural. For Dreyer, it’s not enough that he attempted to let us in on the sort of omniscience and freedom of interpretation most directors would cling to like a squirrel hoards acorns. With Gertrud, Dreyer attempted to balance the disorder of the world.