Monday, January 10, 2011

Carl Theodore Dreyer

PFA had a program featuring the works of celebrated Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer. The retrospective ran from November 5 to December 12. The centerpiece was The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. All the other films in the series screened at the PFA in Berkeley.

I ended up only seeing three films in the Dreyer series. I wanted to see more films from the series but the Chinese American Film Festival and Third I conflicted with several of the screening.

Day of Wrath; directed by Dreyer; Danish with subtitles; (1943)
Two People; directed by Dreyer; Swedish with subtitles; (1944/45)
The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Maria Falconetti; directed by Dreyer; silent with intertitles; with live accompaniment; (1928)

Two People was preceded by a 12 minute short film called They Caught the Ferry (1948). They Caught the Ferry was directed by Dreyer and was in Danish with subtitles. It was about a young couple on motorcycle who race through the countryside at speeds which ultimately too fast for their safety.


The first thing I notice when reading the synopsis of Day of Wrath is that its release date (1943) falls within the period that Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. A little bit of research reveals the Danes had a relatively cooperative relationship with the Nazis until 1943 when acts of sabotage increased and Germany dissolved the Danish government. At that point, many Danish Jews and naval officers took refuge in neutral Sweden. Coincdentally, that's where Dreyer's Two People was filmed in 1944. There is probably an interesting story to his career during WWII.


Day of Wrath covers familiar territory. An older widower marries a younger woman. The man's adult son arrives at their house for a visit. His wife and son proceed to become "acquainted." I've seen that plot adapted to Westerns, noirs and now a literal witchhunt film. There are a few twists to the plot such as the husband being witchhunter who spared his wife's mother at trial to bolster his chances to gain her hand in marriage. Day of Wrath balances the melodramatic aspects of the film with the political. The atmosphere of fear, repression and mass anxiety was as relevant in 1623 Denmark as 1943 Denmark. Instead being accused of being a witch, one was accussed of harboring Jews or collaborating with the enemy.

I enjoyed Day of Wrath. It was a little overwrought at times. I couldn't help but think that Dreyer had more masterfully covered some of this same material in The Passion of Joan of Arc.


Two People was an interesting experiment although a failed one. Dreyer had the idea of making a film using only two actors. In this case, the two people are a husband and wife; there is also an affair, a missing glove, poison, etc. The film feels like a Agathie Christy story on stage due to the limited sets (one set location, I believe). More importantly, Dreyer could not get the two actors he wanted for the roles. According to the PFA notes, Two People ran for five days before it was withdrawn from theaters, and Dreyer refused to let it be screened during his lifetime; it remains one of the director’s rarest works. Other sources use the term "disown" when referring to Dreyer and Two People.

I think the key was in the casting or lack thereof. Actors Georg Rydeberg and Wanda Rothgarth couldn't keep me interested in the story for the modest runtime of 74 minutes. In short order, I became apathetic to the mystery being presented. Although the wooden performances didn't help, I believe the plot was enough to support even 74 minutes on screen. Perhaps that's why Dreyer disowned the film and it is so rarely screened.


With this entry I have completed documenting all the films I've seen in 2010.

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