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Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker

Jan Wahl
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet
    Book Description:

    Regarded by many filmmakers and critics as one of the greatest directors in cinema history, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889--1968) achieved worldwide acclaim after the debut of his masterpiece,The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928), which was named the most influential film of all time at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. In 1955 Dreyer granted twenty-three-year-old American student Jan Wahl the extraordinary opportunity to spend a unique and unforgettable summer with him during the filming ofOrdet(The Word[1955]).

    Carl Theodor Dreyer andOrdet:My Summer with the Danish Filmmakeris a captivating account of Wahl's time with the director, based on Wahl's daily journal accounts and transcriptions of his conversations with Dreyer. Offering a glimpse into the filmmaker's world, Wahl fashions a portrait of Dreyer as a man, mentor, friend, and director. Wahl's unique and charming account is supplemented by exquisite photos of the filming and by selections from Dreyer's papers, including his notes on film style, his introduction for the actors before the filming ofOrdet,and a visionary lecture he delivered at Edinburgh.Carl Theodor Dreyer andOrdet details one student's remarkable experiences with a legendary director and the unlikely bond formed over a summer.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3620-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    As a child, I was taken to a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s featureThe Gold Rush. It had no talking, although in this version, Chaplin himself narrated. The bun dance enchanted me; suddenly I was aware that a totally different kind of film existed besides those with Betty Grable and Tyrone Power. Therefore, I elected to dip into the history of movies.

    The public library in Toledo, Ohio, had a first edition of Paul Rotha’sThe Film Till Now. The stills fromCaligariwere thrilling. Only a handful of older films were available through the Museum of Mordern Art and...

  5. 1 Pastries at Rungsted
    (pp. 7-16)

    When I arrived, the day was shining. The Dreyers were staying at a modest painted house on a low hill surrounded by a yellow-green, abundant, leafy garden. I went up the round stone steps to ring the bell. Carl Theodor Dreyer opened the door himself, remarking gently, “The sun has come to light your visit.”

    In the hallway he informed me that his wife, Ebba, was absent, buying cakes and cookies for us at the bakery, and would soon be back; perhaps we could wait for her in the parlor. He led me in.

    Nowhere in the house did I...

  6. 2 Small room with a view
    (pp. 17-24)

    Vedersø is located in a remote part of Jutland, which sticks up from Germany like a rather large thumb. To reach it, I took a series of trains with a boat in between—coming to the last part of the trip by bus. That is, I arrived as far as the village of Ulfborg, where there was a travelers’ inn. Carl Th. Dreyer and his company had used up every spare room in the vicinity of Vedersø. I’d left Copenhagen on the island of Sealand, crossing the tiny island of Fyn (going through Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace of Ødense), and...

  7. 3 Sardines and cigars
    (pp. 25-34)

    Before lunch, we took a walk over the dunes to the North Sea, which crashed upon the shore some hundred yards behind the hotel. Walls of concrete helped keep the protective dunes from blowing away. There were several large pillboxes left as souvenirs from the Nazi occupation.

    “Imagine,” said Dreyer, “a strong, loving father like old Borgen who is disappointed by his three sons. The oldest, Mikkel, though he has a fine wife, Inger, and two small daughters, lacks the faith of the father. The youngest, Anders, has fallen in love with Anne, daughter of Peter Tailor—that is a...

  8. 4 Lambs in the front yard
    (pp. 35-42)

    There was a tiny bluish, oval-shaped glass, a type of lens Dreyer usually wore about his neck on a cord, made for him by a famous Venetian glassblower. If you looked into it, you could anticipate how objects might appear on-screen, since color values were transmuted to tones of black and white and gray.

    He’d gaze through it intently, standing in a field. Sometimes he assumed the role of a camera—squaring his hands in front, holding an invisible camera box. He would move forward as if rolling on a track, making a panorama of the landscape, gliding into it,...

  9. 5 A feeling for atmosphere
    (pp. 43-50)

    Dreyer stood on a heath-covered dune facing the North Sea. “The sun was to set at eight twenty-six tonight,” he said. The horizon over the vast water instead had an opaque glow, a ghostly haze brushed dimly with pink. From the southwest, a procession of black clouds was heading toward Vedersø.

    “It is difficult, very difficult, Herr Wahl, for me to sleep these nights,” he admitted. “I become so anxious—waiting for a morning with good light. We are caught in the middle of two low-pressure systems. If we had one strong rain, it might act as a stout broom...

  10. 6 The rain and the fiddle
    (pp. 51-56)

    The lip of Cay Kristiansen had healed. And Henrik Malberg was well again. Scenes were to be shot of mad Johannes leaving the house at night at the start ofThe Word.

    Preben Lerdorff’s collar had to be turned up in a special way, as Christ’s cloak, to frame his face; the coat was fixed in place by Fru Jensen with thread and needle. Sheep were to follow Johannes over the dune as he ducked under the clothesline. Then his father and brothers were to follow. Malberg was expected to stumble as he hurried up the hill. Cay was instructed...

  11. 7 Magic of the lens
    (pp. 57-62)

    A specialty of the hotel cook was fried eel. I grew fond of it and never would have guessed it was so tasty. Always there were several kinds of potatoes. The small Jutland potatoes are most delicious boiled and without skins, then sautéed with a light coating of sugar. The local bakery tempted us each afternoon with wondrous delights, flaky and devilishly tasty.

    Since I was a student and had no work permit, I had no official capacity. However, I would fetch obscure objects required by Herr Dreyer—such as a 1925 Jutland newspaper. It had to be in pristine...

  12. 8 Something about Jesus
    (pp. 63-70)

    The density of rain was not what plagued Dreyer most. The rainfall often was easy, though it never seemed to cease because it hovered over, threatening, even if the pattering stopped—ready to begin anew.

    Some shots demanded full overhead or noon light; others demanded softer early-morning or late-afternoon sun. Technicians and actors were ready; the waiting was endless, a heavy burden.

    Dreyer had already waited a decade to begin a new film. Now time was running out; Palladium expected the outdoor shots to be finished in a matter of days. Therefore, when the contracts had been drawn up in...

  13. 9 In the end is my beginning
    (pp. 71-74)

    Dreyer’s discourse invigorated both of us, and it was well past bedtime. He was sharing; I was absorbing. His main intention inThe Life of Jesuswould be to show with respect the Jesus that may have been, historically—not a figure devoid of breath, not an incantation hidden under gold and incense.

    “Not a formula from Rheims or Augsburg,” Dreyer stated, “but the Jesus of Galilee. To find him, it is essential to seek him out in his own place. To relive the Scriptures that he knew well, one must feel the suffering and humiliation.” And Dreyer opened a...

  14. 10 The word that crushes cliffs
    (pp. 75-80)

    The two or three days little Gerda Nielsen had envisioned stretched out for weeks. We drank lots of Fru Kristensen’s strong coffee.

    One morning during a downpour, “Vicar” Ove Rud and I took refuge in a shed at Borgensgaard. He mentioned the Stanislavsky method of directing, then turned to the Dreyer method. “He has in his head every exact movement or shade he wants,” Ove told me. “The swing of the shoulders, the pauses. Everything is explained.” So there was no need to refer to a script during the actual shooting.

    We lightened the conversation when a flock of hens...

  15. 11 Leaves from a journal
    (pp. 81-90)

    Herr Dreyer sent a car from Palladium Studios to pick me up, after our return to Copenhagen. The interior sets were being finished at Hellerup, so he begged me to “taste them.” He was immensely pleased with the work of Erik Aaes, the designer.

    As I was taken through the constructed rooms of the farmhouse, Borgensgaard, I marveled at the painstaking, Dreyeresque realism. Each room was connected to the next exactly as it would have been in the home. The following pages are directly from my journal.

    14 August,Saturday. Bendtsen was left to finish two shots: the one at...

  16. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  17. 12 Did they catch the ferry?
    (pp. 91-94)

    Ebba Dreyer cooked a terrific meal the next Sunday before I left Denmark. Goose, actually. I hope not from Vedersø. Herr Dreyer made it clear that for all studio scenes he must work in isolation, and I recognized it was prudent for me to accept the scholarship at the University of Michigan. I was loath to take leave of the Dreyers—the end to the evening was poignant. I describe the finale in my bookThrough a Lens Darkly.

    I returned to Copenhagen by bus and by ferryboat. The latter crossing reminded me of the short film by Dreyer I...

  18. Afterword
    (pp. 95-98)

    I received a fascinating postcard from Herr Dreyer once, yet to my regret, I managed to lose it. It stated that while searching out locations forThe Life of Jesus,he had planted a tree in Israel in my name. I was deeply moved by this gesture.

    I recalled an evening at the Dreyer flat on Dalgas Boulevard in Frederiksberg when he revealed a possible theory as to the character of Jesus. He suggested that Jesus was an insane (too strong a word, perhaps), brilliant young rabbi, truly believing himself to be the Messiah.

    Dreyer stared at a blank spot...

  19. Appendix A. “Now the life will begin”: Dreyer’s introduction for actors in the film
    (pp. 99-102)
  20. Appendix B. Plot Summary of Ordet
    (pp. 103-108)
  21. Appendix C. Letters from Denmark
    (pp. 109-118)
  22. Appendix D. Dreyer on color film
    (pp. 119-124)
  23. Appendix E. Dreyer’s lecture at Edinburgh: “New Impulses”
    (pp. 125-134)
  24. Appendix F. Dreyer on film style
    (pp. 135-144)
  25. Filmography
    (pp. 145-154)
  26. Index
    (pp. 155-158)