Saturday, January 23, 2010

Films I Love to Hate

[Just to assure my readers (all five of you) that the only films "I love to hate" are not all made in the U.S.A., I concentrate this time - as much as I can anyway - on a Danish film that has acquired a definite "cult" following.]

Ordet (1955)

"It is required
You do awake your faith."
(Paulina, The Winter's Tale, Act V, Scene III)

Kaj Munk (1898-1944) was a pastor whose religious preoccupations were often the subject of his creative writing. He had the personal courage, in 1940, to denounce the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and to attack Nazism in his plays.(1) This led to his arrest and eventual murder by the Gestapo in 1944. Because of this, Munk and his writings received a great deal more attention from Danish readers. His play Ordet was written in 1925 and was made into a quite straightforward film directed by Gustaf Molander in Sweden in 1943. In itself, this was a rather daring act in a nation (Sweden) that, to save itself from the fate of Denmark, was officially neutral throughout World War II.

The Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer made Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag) that same year in Denmark. Concerned as it is with the story of a young woman's sexual awakening and her being accused of witchcraft when her older husband dies suddenly (right after she has told him that she loves his son), the film quickly developed an unfortunate reputation as a horror film. It was shown in New York, where James Agee wrote of it, "Movies seldom contain any material, except by inadvertence or head-on outrage, which can interest the morally curious; this one contains a good deal, and none of it is inadvertent or outrageous."

Despite the critical and commercial success of Day of Wrath, Dreyer would not make another film for more than a decade. He had wanted to make a film of Munk's Ordet in the 1930s, but lacked the financing - that time-honored and insurmountable obstacle of filmmakers. Dreyer, despite being revered as one of the founders of Danish cinema, had to wait until 1955, when he was 66, to complete his Ordet. If he had retired from filmmaking altogether after Day of Wrath, he could have done so with his head held high. Ordet, while it is achingly serious, showed how ossified Dreyer's cinematic ideas had become.(2)

With his two previous films, Vampyr (1932) and Day of Wrath, Dreyer revealed an obvious interest in the supernatural. Both of those films originated with the assumption that such things as vampires and witches were real, and the effectiveness of the films has a sometimes hair-raising impact on the viewer (3), not at all mitigated by our knowledge that such things may be more fictional than real. But vampires and witches are nothing compared to what we are expected to swallow in Ordet, in which a clearly deranged man who is convinced he is Jesus Christ, raises his sister-on-law from the dead.

The scene takes place at the very end of more than two hours of the most tedious filmmaking conceivable, with actors moving very little, standing or sitting stock-still as if for a portrait and staring at a spot just past the camera lens, while droning on and on about which brand of Christianity - the guilt-ridden or the enlightened variety - is the one true faith. The outcome, in which the God of the Old Testament supposedly reveals himself through Inger's resurrection, is preposterous precisely for being staged and shot so matter-of-factly. The event has not even the effect of a magic trick, which involves some illusion or other, that one has just witnessed something that cannot have happened, and which calls for a suspension of disbelief.

Dreyer, who evidently believed in miracles, chose to refrain from trickery of any kind - no dramatic emphasis through lighting, camera angle, or action. His use of such "devices" are what gave Vampyr and Day of Wrath a certain level of realism - realism of the fantastic, that made them, if only momentarily, convincing. Inger's resurrection, however, is not intended to frighten us (although, in reality, it would have sent some of the characters who witnessed it screaming from the room).

Dreyer's approach is bald rather than bold. Instead of suspending our disbelief, Inger's awakening is intended to inspire belief. But the very realism he uses raises more questions than it tries to answer, or dismiss: would not the body of Inger, even in her insulated farm community, have been prepared in some way for burial - I mean in some way that might make her sudden return to life even more impossible? In the midst of so much humanity, even in so stifling a drama as Ordet, the appearance of the inhuman only produces a shock and, ultimately, distaste for everything that comes before it.

(1) Munk had earlier expressed admiration for Hitler. He was also decidedly anti-democratic and in favor of a "Nordic dictatorship." He quickly repudiated these views when the Nazis ignored Denmark's sovereignty and occupied the country.
(2) Alas, Dreyer would make one more film, Gertrud (1964). It is unbelievably slow, which was deliberate because Dreyer wanted the audience to adapt to the pace of a slower time, as he did in Day of Wrath and Ordet. To "adapt" to Dreyer's pace, you would have to take a horse tranquilizer.
(3) Specifically, the scene in Vampyr in which Allan Grey finds himself inside a coffin as he is transported to his grave, and Lisbeth Movin's scream in Day of Wrath when her husband drops dead.

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