(Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
Mysteries of Life
There is perhaps no other film in the history of cinema that has confounded viewers yet remained so passionately beloved than Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet. For there are those who cherish the absurdities of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but there is also a substantial group of those who dismiss it as pretentious drivel. And, while Casablanca consistently ranks as one of the most popular films of all time with critics and moviegoers alike, it’s also often criticized in some circles for its lack of depth or auteur artistic merit. Not so with Ordet. In my poring over seemingly endless analysis of Dreyer’s most dissected film, I cannot find even two interpretations that are exactly the same.
Does Dreyer, typically regarded as a religious skeptic, finally bow to the tenants of Christian faith with the film’s unexpected ending, or is it more a demonstration of the power of and faith in cinema itself? Is the anchoring character of Inger to be pitied for her position as housewife and mother at the hand’s of an oppressive patriarchal society, or is she the exemplar of a fuller, more accepting religion? Are the many diverging opinions and beliefs on display a biting satire of the inconsistencies Dreyer sees in Christianity, or are these realistic manifestations of the divisions that the film’s narrative brings together with such an earth-shattering miracle? That these questions might be answered differently depending on who’s watching might frustrate some viewers partial to clear-cut and singular interpretations. But, from this viewer’s perspective, the ambiguity inherent in Dreyer’s masterstroke – especially in its phenomenal, jaw-dropping finale – elevates the filmmaker’s work to one of the finest examples of cinema as art – a work that demands wrestling with, repeat viewings, and its constant, warranted discussion.
If there is one point on which no one would argue, it’s that Dreyer has again crafted a spectacularly beautiful film with his ever-expanding, yet wholly unique aesthetic. If The Passion of Joan of Arc found him mastering the close-up, then Ordet might be the finest film of near-exclusive medium shots in a pre-Hou Hsiao-hsien era. Dreyer makes good use of his signature long takes with impeccable staging of his characters that gives the film a very theatrical feel (that it takes place almost exclusively in the living area of the Borgen family’s farmhouse also lends to its theatricality). Dreyer’s camera moves nearly at all times slowly tracking from side to side to highlight the physical and emotional proximity or distance between his characters and to keep them all in one shot. There is a wondrous shot early on when Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) confronts her father-in-law Morten (Henrik Malberg) at a table set for coffee that begins with the patriarch facing the camera to catch his reaction to his daughter-in-law’s suggestion, and then seamlessly (though not unnoticeably) tilts ninety degrees to capture both of their faces as they sit down at the table. In small moments like these, Dreyer demonstrates his commanding mastery of the frame. Too, much has been made of his use of lighting and the shadowy black and white contrasts of brief sequences outside and those inside captured by an abundance of strategically placed lights. Indeed the effect is utterly suffocating as the three brothers and father await the news of Inger’s troubled labor in the adjoining room.
While the film’s accomplished photography is reason enough to sing its praises, Dreyer’s film is more often heralded – and rightly so – for its philosophically inclined narrative and religious implications. Few filmmakers took on religion as frequently and frankly as Dreyer, and though Ordet isn’t as much an outright criticism of unchecked traditionalism as Joan of Arc or Day of Wrath, it’s easily his most thought provoking on the matter for it eschews any specific interpretation. Part of this success is due in large part to the rich characterization Dreyer gives to his characters. Each character (both Borgen family members and peripheral town folk) approaches religion from a different angle, but it’s remarkably believably so. Because these characters are not mere archetypes, it’s easy to buy into the disparate viewpoints this closely knit family holds. Morten ascribes to a more optimistic faith tradition than his fellow villagers, and thus clashes with Peter the tailor (Ejner Federspiel) to whom Morten’s youngest son desires to marry his daughter. The eldest Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) has renounced the faith entirely though his wife Inger clings to it fiercely. The middle son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) has suffered a mental breakdown and subsequently believes he is Jesus Christ incarnate. The youngest Anders (Cay Kristiansen) presumably shares his father’s faith, but for the duration of the film is more concerned with winning over the father of his beloved Anne (Gerda Nielsen). In addition to this bunch, Dreyer provides a welcome juxtaposition of a secularist doctor (Henry Skjær) and a conservative minister (Ove Rud) as a dichotomous conversation starter for his leads between the traditional power of faith versus faith in science argument.
Through these characters Dreyer explores the limits of faith as each is tested first when Peter the tailor denies Anders his daughter’s hand in marriage due to their religious differences, and then when Inger falls gravely ill during childbirth. The film’s most powerful segment features all major characters as Morten and his sons interact with each other and then the doctor and minister while they wait for Inger to recover. Morten’s doubts bubble to the surface, but he determines to praise God in hopes that he’ll spare his beloved daughter-in-law. Mikkel loses any shred of faith he may have kept for the sake of his wife when the doctor pulls his dead newborn son from his mother’s womb. And, Johannes watches on rebuking the lack of faith he sees in all involved. Eerily he predicts the death of both child and mother claiming to see the Lord walking through walls with a deadly scythe. In all of this, despite her brief screen time, it is perhaps Inger who Dreyer most closely associates with. In the film’s first half she appears to be the family’s moral compass and the glue that keeps the loose strands together. She has a strong faith, but she also wholeheartedly believes in the goodness and potential of the human heart. She has faith in God, yes, but she also has faith in the human spirit. This, it seems, may be what Dreyer could only hope religion and spirituality could look like in the real world.
If the fascinating dynamics between these wonderful characters isn’t enough, Dreyer delivers a cinematic punch to the gut with the film’s climatic final moments. While most of the characters have resigned themselves to the fate of Inger – including both the doctor and minister whose science and faith seem to have failed them – Johannes appears chastising the room full of Christians once and for all for their severe lack of faith in God. Protests to his brief sermon fall on deaf ears as he grasps the hand of his niece – the only one he believes has enough faith – and speaks the word to bring Inger back to life. In an agonizingly long static shot on Inger’s casket, the deceased begins twitching with signs of life before she sits up to the utter amazement and bewilderment of both characters and audience. Mikkel embraces his resurrected wife and exclaims that he’s found her faith. It’s a powerful ending, one that some have justifiably read as an endorsement and testament to true faith – something the film suggests only a few of these characters possess. But, I wager that Dreyer’s intentions shouldn’t be so easily surmised and this extraordinary finale shouldn’t be taken at face value.
Are we to believe that God through Johannes truly raised Inger from the dead? Perhaps, but it’s best to remember – as all great filmmakers from Godard to Kiarostami to Lynch attempt to remind us – that we’re still just watching a movie. As a man of no faith yet one so entrenched in it from his childhood, Dreyer is likely making no great claims about God or religion. But, one thing is for certain: there is great meaning in Inger’s final utterance that closes out the film. Mikkel has just proclaimed his newfound faith in God, thanking him for bringing Inger new life, and his wife’s simple response is a one-word rumination on life itself. Life is precious, valuable, and worth living. Dreyer sees that in his art whether it’s a criticism of those who willingly end it (Joan of Arc) or an affirmation of the human desire to live (Ordet). Thus, perhaps Inger’s resurrection is religious, tied to the central event of Christianity itself, but it might also be a complex and beautiful ode to the mysteries of life as well.