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Love One Another: Early Dreyer at BAM

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Love One Another: Early Dreyer at BAM

The last five films of Carl Theodor Dreyer are accepted classics of world cinema, written about, shown regularly, and given the full Criterion treatment on DVD. Many who have only seen a few silent films have seen his The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Criterion recently put out a comprehensive Vampyr (1932) that helped to shed some light on that misty, eternally disorienting film, with its radical, bizarre use of space. His three late sound films stake their claim in an essential Criterion box set: Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) continues to exert its nearly unbearable tension; watching it is like working up a sweat, almost dying, then letting the sweat evaporate off of your mind and body until you are as free of fear as the accused witch Anne (Lisbeth Movin). (Dreyer disowned his next film, the nearly never-seen Two People {1945} but I’ve heard that a rare print was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and I can only hope that this final piece of the Dreyer puzzle will someday play in New York and elsewhere.)

Personally, I’ve always found Ordet (1955) stupefying, with its slow religious discourses and alienating, gloomy actors, but watching the great Gertrud (1964) is akin to undergoing deep hypnosis; with her young lover, Nina Pens Rode’s Gertrud claims that she’s “a mouth, searching for another mouth,” a reminder that Dreyer openly explores earthly eroticism as a way of searching for spiritual meaning. The films Dreyer made before The Passion of Joan of Arc have been difficult to see, and when they are alluded to they are often discounted as minor or without much interest (the Dreyer documentary My Metier skips right from his first film to The Passion), but a recent Dreyer retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music offered a valuable opportunity to see the steady, sometimes surprising development of this major director’s visual and emotional ideas.

Dreyer was the illegitimate son of a girl who later died trying to abort a second baby and was raised by coldly unloving adoptive parents (apparently he was not brought up as Lutheran, as early biographies suggested, yet the subject of religion pervades nearly all of his work). He made a living as a journalist and court reporter before going into filmmaking, and his first film as director, The President (1920), shows a reporter yawning at a murder trial (is this Dreyer’s knock at his former profession?). It’s a confused and confusing movie (a colleague charitably called it “elliptical” after the BAM screening), but there are moments even here when Dreyer shows his uncanny ability to transfigure a human face, especially when a young unwed mother is found guilty of murdering her baby; he cuts to her profile as she slowly swoons and bends her head downward, and it’s possible to see the first genesis of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc in this elaborate, very abstracted shot. Otherwise, Dreyer is content to give the film’s unwed mother the happy ending that his own birth mother was denied; he also insists on continually cutting to close-up shots of cute puppies (was this a commercial or an artistic consideration?)

In The Parson’s Widow (1920), which is on DVD, Dreyer gives us his first memorable old lady, Margarete (Hildur Carlberg), a formidable figure who comes as the wife in a package deal for any young parson. Even in the first, comic scenes, Margarete has a kind of stiff-backed dignity, and Dreyer feasts on Carlberg’s stoic, melancholy face. His third film, Leaves from Satan’s Book (or, as I prefer to call it, Blades from Satan’s Bog) (1921), is a film in four parts that apes the structure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), and it displays Dreyer’s already palpable sense of good and evil, guilt and fear. But it’s his next film, the obscure Love One Another (1922), which was the real find of this Dreyer festival, a fascinating treatment of anti-Semitism in Russia, shot in Germany, with very subtle actors from the Moscow Art Theatre (including a young Richard Boleslawski). Dreyer uses dynamic switches of perspective to sketch in the sensual attraction between Boleslawski and a young girl; she lifts her skirt for him, and then she stares at him with his shirt off (in the framing section of The President, Dreyer uses two shots of a peasant girl’s breast almost falling out of her shirt to show how she attracts the man who will lead to her downfall). The crosscutting action climax of Love One Another is still exciting, and surely it’s a movie that deserves wider exposure (it would seem a perfect fit for a Kino International DVD.)

In these early films, Dreyer is something of an “issue” director, sensitively treating illegitimate birth, anti-Semitism, homosexuality (Michael {1924}) and feminism (Master of the House {1925}). Only fragments survive of Once Upon a Time (1922), and it’s impossible to make a definitive judgment on it, but the first twenty minutes or so of this fairy tale are fairly complete, and they’re unlike anything else Dreyer ever did, as exquisitely, cuttingly comic as the best of Lubitsch. Finally, before making his masterpiece on Joan of Arc, Dreyer filmed a simple bucolic romance, The Bride of Glomdal (1926), which is memorable for the full-out tenderness of the film’s two lovers; they caress each other slowly, wonderingly, like Eric Rohmer’s Astrea and Celadon. In a truly lovely scene, our heroine Berit (Tove Tellback) yawns expansively and stretches out on the grass in an openly sexual way, then lifts her left leg in its heavy white stocking and scratches it. There’s a cut to her fiancée Tore (Einar Sissener) staring at her, and he does a wonderful “ain’t I lucky?” sidelong leer off-camera before going over to embrace her. The Bride of Glomdal is a minor film compared to The Parson’s Widow or Love One Another, and surely it can’t stand any comparison to The Passion of Joan of Arc or Gertrud, but every frame of it is infused with Dreyer’s commitment to romantic and sexual love between two people as the living embodiment of God on earth.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.