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Dreyer re-reconsidered
7-9 minutes

The President (1920).

DB here:

I was late to the feast, but my contribution to the Dreyer site is now up, thanks
to Lisbeth Richter Larsen‘s quick work. You can read it here.

Danish cinema was the first national cinema I studied, and Dreyer was my point of
entry. I went to Copenhagen in 1970 to see his films for a little book I wrote in
the Movie/ Studio Vista series. The manuscript was finished but never published
because the series ceased. Good thing for me. I’d be embarrassed today if that book
was still floating out there.

Kristin and I went back to Copenhagen in 1976 to re-watch the Dreyer oeuvre, and I
saw the films with new eyes. I had learned a lot more about film analysis and film
history, so I was able to see different things in his movies. Now obsessed with how
films construct space and time, I drew up elaborate and clumsy plans of actor
blocking, camera setups, and camera movements.

What? You don’t recognize this as a string of shots from Day of Wrath? I even
notated actor movements offscreen (with dotted lines).

The result of all this fussbudgetry was a 1981 book on Dreyer. I think that some of
the ideas there still hold up. But as I learned more about film history in the
1990s, I came to believe that some of my conclusions were off-base.

In particular, my treatment of Gertrud as a radical, deliberately “empty” film

seemed tenuous. Influenced by minimalist cinema of the 1970s, especially that of
Straub and Huillet (huge admirers of Dreyer), I pushed the case that at the end of
his life Dreyer dared to make a movie that was by all ordinary standards simply

Steadier heads tried to talk me out of it, but I clung to the idea. What can I say?
I was young and stubborn.

As I studied more cinema of the 1910s, I began to see Dreyer’s career, and
particularly his silent films, as tied in complicated ways to other films of that
period–not least Danish cinema. For, as I’ve sketched here, Danish cinema of the
1910s was one of the richest traditions of “tableau” staging in Europe. I was able
to put my ideas about the Danes’ achievements into clearer form in the last chapter
of On the History of Film Style and in an invited essay on the Nordisk company
published in a collection at the Danish Film Institute.

Like their peers in other countries, the Danes often stuffed their shots with
furniture and props, in a riot of patterns and textures. Here is an example from
Den Frelsende Film (The Woman Tempted Me, 1916). It survives only in fragments, but
those fragments are in fine shape.

In addition, the Danes developed elaborate lighting patterns and complex, somewhat
Gothic special effects. You can see these options in Ekspressens Mysterium (Alone
with the Devil, 1914) and Doktor Voluntas (1915).

Above all there was the intricate staging in depth, often using mirrors. Here’s a
seldom-seen example. In Under Blinkfyrets Straaler (Under the Lighthouse Beam,
1913), the father has died, and his wife and son meet in the parlor. A mirror
catches them entering, in phases.

The mirror shows Hugo entering the room by moving straight and forward, but when he
gets into the shot he comes in somewhat diagonally from the left.

After a moment of sitting in silence, mother and son turn as a maid enters. They
look off left, but because we’ve seen Hugo enter in the mirror, we look to the
center and see her reflection as she shuts the door.

The maid brings the widow a letter from her other son, Robert. Hugo, fretful,
departs and in the mirror we see him look back at his mother.

Or does he? The angle of his glance makes sense compositionally: In reflection Hugo
seems to be meeting his mother’s eyes, left to right. But in my first frame, he
advanced into the room by looking straight ahead. If he looked straight into the
room again now, he’d be looking more or less at us, not at his mother. So I suspect
that in my last frame, the actor is actually not looking directly at the actress
but off at an angle. He has been directed to this position to allow the mirror to
create an artificial, but highly readable, image.

The novice Dreyer, I realized, didn’t indulge in such tableau trickery. His first
two films, The President (made in 1918) and Leaves from Satan’s Book (made in
1919), are quite different from the norms that ruled his local cinema. By the time
he came to directing, he was more oriented toward analytical editing and fairly
flat staging than were the old guard. In this regard he was closer to a younger
group of filmmakers emerging at the same time in other countries: Gance, Lang,
Murnau, Joe May, and many others, along with Americans like Ford, Walsh, et al. So
my newest take is that Dreyer is part of a generation of directors moving toward an
editing-driven cinema and away from the tableau style. This idea in turn helped me
see Gertrud in a more convincing light.

If you want the argument in full, you can check it on the Dreyer site. The lesson
for me is twofold. (A) Dreyer is inexhaustible. (B) The more you learn about cinema
(and about life), the more you can see in films that you think you have already

The only book in English surveying the cinema of Dreyer’s elders is Ron Mottram’s
indispensable The Danish Cinema before Dreyer (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988). It
doesn’t consider the dual traditions of staging and editing, but it offers a very
thorough history of studios, directors, and genres, and mentions some stylistic
patterns. The article I referred to is “Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic” in
Lisbeth Richter Larsen and Dan Nissen, eds., 100 Years of Nordisk Film (Copenhagen:
Danish Film Institute, 2006), 80-95. This gorgeous book can be ordered from the DFI
shop;I’ll be adding my essay here some time this summer.

For more on the tableau tradition, go to other blog entries here and here and here
and here. On the emergence of continuity editing, chiefly in the US, try here and
here and here. More detailed treatments are in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, On
the History of Film Style, and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging.

I’m grateful as ever to Marguerite Engberg, Dan Nissen, Thomas Christensen, and
Mikael Brae for their help in my research on Danish silent film.

PS 16 June: Jonathan Rosenbaum has republished on his site his detailed and
engrossing 1985 study of Gertrud, which includes discussion of the play from which
Dreyer adapted his film. Thanks to Jonathan for making his essay available.

The President (1920).

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This entry was posted on Monday | June 14, 2010 at 9:32 am and is filed under 1910s
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Bordwell on Dreyer (a book review)
13-16 minutes

From the November-December 1981 issue of Film Comment. I was gratified to learn
recently from David Bordwell, via his own web site (as well as an email to me),
that he’s eventually come around to agreeing with my major complaint about his
book. (For an update to his link to my subsequent essay about Gertrud, go here.)

The photograph of Dreyer immediately below is by Jonas Mekas. — J.R.

The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer by David Bordwell. 251 pp., illustrations, index,
University of California Press, $29.50

In relation to Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts,

David Bordwell — an academic marvel who organizes huge masses of material with an
uncanny sense of what can or can’t be assimilated –- should be considered a master
of the teacherly text. His ambitious textbook written with Kristin Thompson, Film
Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), has rightly been regarded as a
landmark to many film teachers – a sort of Whole Systems Catalog of formal
registers in film that, like Dudley Andrew’s The Major Film Theories, makes a good
bit of relatively difficult material accessible to students. Almost alone among
prominent American film academics. Bordwell has drawn a lot of sustenance from the
Russian formalists and more contemporary critics such as Noël Burch to articulate a
modernist position that, for better and for worse, has avoided most of the
ideological debates that his predecessors have engaged in.

In part because he has always defined his terrain as exclusively academic -– a

teacherly approach in more ways than one -– Bordwell has not had to worry about
those questions of national, existential, and vocational identity that have plagued
most other formalists during this century, including Carl Dreyer himself. (His
applications of Burch, for example, have always tended to domesticate and
deradicalize aspects of his work, making them part of an acceptable syllabus.)
Defining his turf as the range of his library, readers, and students, he doesn’t
mind working out a method for studying Japanese cinema that accommodates some of
the critical categories of André Bazin as well as Burch -– as he demonstrated at a
conference in Milwaukee a couple of years ago –- even if this entails gliding past
philosophical or political issues that might place Bazin and Burch at loggerheads
with one another.

Disciplined and expedient about what he takes and uses from others, Bordwell is
nothing if not pragmatic about his approach to formal film study. He includes
criticism of his own previous work -– an early appreciation of Citizen Kane in this
magazine (Summer 1971) extensively auto-critiqued in the anthology Movies and
Methods and a critique of his Filmguide to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Indiana
University Press, 1973) –- if this brings him any closer to the clarity he seeks.

Many will not be able to afford the hefty cover price of his The Films of Carl-
Theodor Dreyer. A beautiful object with large-format pages, beautifully illustrated
throughout by many well-produced frame enlargements, this may be the most
attractive of all the University of California Press’s book-length director studies
to date, and belongs on the shelf of every devoted Dreyer lover. In contrast to Tom
Milne’s useful and introductory The Cinema of Carl Dreyer (A.S. Barnes, 1970) and
Mark Nash’s interesting if semi-unreadable Dreyer (BFI, 1977) -– the latter is
tactfully and justly reviewed by Bordwell in a lengthy footnote — The Films of
Carl-Theodor Dreyer represents the first coherent exposition in English if Dreyer
as a modernist filmmaker, and for this reason alone stands as a seminal study that
other critics and teachers will build upon.

The early chapters show Bordwell at his best in setting down many of the formal
parameters and conflicts in Dreyer’s work. There’s the use of a book or privileged
text (beginning with the first shot of The President, Dreyer’s first film) to
guarantee “a teleology of closure” that frames each film as “a model of the
adequacy of token to truth.” Then there’s a fascinating account of the construction
of space in the early films, and the way that Dreyer’s use of the painterly and
theatrical tableau conflicts with narrative logic and the latter’s control of
cinematic space. This takes on an additional interest and coherence when Bordwell
gets to Dreyer’s use of the closeup: “In order not to relinquish the tableau,
Dreyer turns the face into a theatre.”

The latter emphasis naturally becomes a central aspect of Bordwell’s analysis of La

Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, which is effectively and copiously illustrated with frame
enlargements taken from the Danish Film Archive’s print of the movie — making this
chapter, like most of the others, in part an impressive slide lecture. Yet it seems
characteristic of Bordwell’s approach that sixteen of the twenty-six pages in this
chapter pass before something as basic to the film as blood is mentioned, and in a
seemingly unconscious way that could hardly be more oblique: “The [spatial]
uncertainty at work within each composition bleeds across most of the cuts as

One senses that, for Bordwell’s Joan of Arc, the “bleeding” of a formal attribute
counts for more than the actual blood shed by Falconetti; and a few pages later,
he’s discussing Joan herself as a formal device. In the chapter on Day of Wrath,
“Christianity becomes Dreyer’s most powerful formal device,” while in Ordet, “If a
character typically possesses traits, desires, wishes, Johannes is not a character.
He is, rather, a formal need of the text, a manifestation of Ordet‘s demand for
Christian legibility and narrative closure.”

The setting up and subsequent solving of problems becomes the focus of each
chapter, with the Dreyer film often serving more as the medium than the message of
the process. Consequently, the strength of Bordwell’s analytical grids and systems
steadily grows as the book progresses, while the films themselves appear at times
to shrink. In the chapter on Vampyr, there’s virtually no discussion of the film’s
soundtrack or the incestual lesbian lust that’s mixed with the thirst for blood —
two facets of Vampyr that I find fundamental — but the analysis of many of the more
complex and ambiguously motivated camera movements and the diverse problems they
raise are particularly illuminating.*

Occasionally, Bordwell’s absorption in his systems can make for a little

unconscious humor. One chapter begins, “Day of Wrath is probably Dreyer’s most
popular film, which already indicates something of the problem it poses.” (As a
director who only managed to make about one feature per decade during the entire
sound period, one wonders whether Dreyer might have appreciated the joke himself.)
On the other hand, Bordwell’s flair for visual analysis remains striking and

One should not infer…that a chiaroscuro is statically laid against the decor, like
the traceries in Morocco or the web-motif in Suspicion. In Day of Wrath, the blocks
of light and darkness become visible only when a character passes through them. The
steepness of many light sources is often not apparent in the static shot; figure
movement is required to reveal the unexpected patches and angles of illumination.
Even as simple a task as crossing a room or going to a door…becomes a stream of
optical transformations, inducing the characters to penetrate a three-dimensional
network of darkness and light. This effect is most pronounced at night, when the
rectory’s volume is shot though with a light evoking the supernatural. As Ann
circles Martin, she passes through thicknesses of light and shadow which are never
projected onto the floor but which endow her with an aura at once mysterious and


Significantly, it’s only when Bordwell arrives at the incomparable Gertrud that the
limitations of his approach come to the fore. The passionately personal,
intransigent, and relentless aspects of the film seem to confound him because he
can’t rationalize them sufficiently into formal properties, so he tends largely to
limit his view of the film to reductive criticisms. “Thus the film’s tempo creates
a constant supply of dead spots,” he writes at one point, “from which no narrative
information is forthcoming.” It appears that he’s defining a dead spot as a moment
“from which no narrative information is forthcoming”. This is a narrow piece of
circular reasoning that fails to acknowledge the meditative dimensions of the film,
a clear indication of Dreyer’s oft-expressed desire that the spectator reflect on
what he or she sees and hears — think about the lines, for instance, and what they
mean — and not merely be concerned with formal classifications.

The problem with Bordwell’s approach to Gertrud is that it simply draws a blank.
Bordwell argues that the film possesses an “emptiness…[that] persistently seeks to
negate meaning” — a curious hypothesis, insofar as emptiness is not ordinarily
assigned a particular goal, much less a persistent one. But at this point in the
argument, Bordwell is also willing to assign knowledge to a film rather than to a
filmmaker or a spectator: “Knowing our desire to make the very absence of meaning
significant, Gertrud does not actually destroy meaning; instead, the film proffers
meaning only to withdraw it.”

Yet in fact, this is precisely what Bordwell does in his book — a sly bubble-dance
that Gertrud cannot be accused of performing. And the critic’s withdrawal of
meaning becomes, in effect, a denial of Gertrud’s towering and unbearable
achievement. Thus a number of isolated elements in the film are reduced to clichés
through Bordwell’s limited descriptions of them; these reductions are then labeled
clichés so that we can be asked to consider Gertrud‘s (as opposed to Bordwell’s)
“use of the cliché”. Within the space of a couple of more paragraphs, this has
developed into the position that we can’t accept the film as either a tragedy or a
work of religious art; ergo, as the old civil rights anthem has it, We Shall Not Be
Moved: “In large part, the film’s persistent emptiness denies the richness and
complexity, the meaning and pleasure, of ambitiously humanistic art. Gertrud
refuses to be a great film. We cannot call it a masterpiece (or a failed
masterpiece, or a failure). Gertrud‘s empty intervals declare it to be
categorically against masterpieces.”

But the denial and refusal in this case are Bordwell’s, not Dreyer’s. A little
later, he’s reverting to his (formerly persuasive) argument about privileged texts
in Dreyer’s films; only this time he’s using his incomplete knowledge of Gertrud as
a means of cinching his case, and I’m no longer convinced: “Earlier Dreyer films
had halted us at the threshold of a secure authorial voice, a nondiegetic master
meaning: the authorial word of the intertitles (Vampyr), Dies Irae (Day of Wrath),
trial transcript and final title (Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) or Christian
scripture (Ordet).”

According to Bordwell, Gertrud “refuse[s] to situate its narrative within such a

framework.” But while he has even taken the trouble to compute the average shot
length of Day of Wrath — 14.8 seconds, to be exact – he is more lackadaisical
about discussing Gertrud in its integral form. Despite his assurance at the book’s
beginning that “As much as possible, this book returns to the original texts,” he
has not taken the trouble to discover that all American prints of Gertrud are
missing four or five intertitles of rhymed verse that were removed by the
distributor; indeed, to all appearances, Bordwell seems unaware that these
intertitles ever existed — and continue to exist outside the U.S.**

It’s on this basis, in any case, that Bordwell can deny Gertrud the framework
outlined above. I would argue, first, that the intertitled rhymed verses which mark
the play’s five-act divisions — which are “spoken as if by an interior voice to the
heroine,” as Elliott Stein has noted in his invaluable piece about the film in the
Spring 1965 Sight and Sound — constitute precisely this framework; second, that
beautiful as these intertitles are, at least in my memory, they alone scarcely
suffice to convert Gertrud from an “empty” film into a fully rounded masterpiece.

So there’s more at stake here than a minor textual dispute. The problem, I think,
is that, like Stein and Milne, I’m more concerned with Gertrud, while the final
concern of Bordwell, like Nash, appears to be with his own methodology and
categories. This is a brilliant book, but Dreyer is a filmmaker who (fortunately)
goes well beyond brilliance — and Gertrud a film that goes well beyond Bordwell.


*On the sequence in which Leone, after being attacked, is carried into the chateau,
I had occasion to make some related observations of my own, in my review of the
film in the August 1976 Monthly Film Bulletin — which I mention here only because
Bordwell and Nash both fail to do so in their bibliographies. Considering the fact
that they both also omit any references to James Agee or Robert Warshow on Day of
Wrath, though, I consider myself in good company.

**2010 note: My own account here is somewhat inexact. For a fuller (if still
incomplete) account, cf. my subsequent essay “Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire
for the Image”, which also reproduces in its third section (“Gertrud as Passage and
Process”) all four of the intertitles in English translation.

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