March 19th, 2021

Ordet

Dreyer made five feature films in the sound era, one of which he disowned. Ordet- which translates as the Word- was the last but one. It's based on a play by Kaj Munk, a Lutheran pastor who was murdered during the German occupation of Denmark. It centres on a deeply religious farming family- one of whose members- driven crazy by too much Kierkegaard- believes himself to be Jesus Christ.

It looks like television- 1950s television: set-bound, very long takes, few close-ups, the camera observing from a distance, with a few exterior shots to break up things up.

But this minimalism was achieved with great and finicky care. Dreyer used more lights than any other director, dressed his sets with enormous attention to detail and had the camera perform extremely complex manouevres around his actors; but we, as audience hardly register any of this- because he's at pains to hide his artistry- like a zen gardener sweeping his footprints away with a twiggy broom as he moves backwards through the sand. At this stage of his career- 30 years after the expressionist bravura of Joan and Vampyr- he's all about simplicity- not letting anything take attention away from the actors, what they're saying and doing- keeping all of them in view, with no cutting between speakers- because he wants us to see how they relate to one another, how the chemistry is working, what the body language is.

This style takes some getting used to. It looks primitive. But the primitivism is of the same order as Picasso's- who said he'd spent a lifetime learning to draw like a child. Submit to its oddity, its simplicity- and Ordet becomes a thrilling experience. Like Vampyr and Joan it occupies a space at the very edge of the known world- with other dimensions, higher and lower, pressing in, breathing on the glass that keeps them out- and it's all done without camera tricks, or special effects- which doesn't preclude an ending that is one of the most extraordinary, breathtaking coups in all cinema.