“Ordet” - Carl Dreyer (1955)


Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word, 1955) was another unique exploration of cinematic expression from the famed Danish director. All of the films from his long but sparse career (he directed only six films over the last 38 years of his career) seemed distinct from each other and from the rest of the international film production community, and Ordet is no exception.  And yet there’s enough expressive intensity to all his works that they seem to carry a common reference to a transcendent reality beyond the here and now [1].  This is one of the reasons why many critics and film scholars now regard Dreyer as one of the greatest filmmakers. Dreyer’s expressive intensity and single-minded approach to production didn’t usually translate to success when his films were released, though: Ordet was his only commercial success.

In addition to Ordet’s favorable financial returns, many critics have heaped the film with their highest praise, asserting that it is not only Dreyer’s greatest work, but perhaps the greatest film of all time [2,3,4].  Nevertheless, many of these same critics seem to be at a loss for words as to why they were so overwhelmed by the film.  Indeed several of them say that the film doesn’t even have a plot, but that it still has stupefying greatness, anyway.

I do think Ordet is a very good film, and I will explore some of its features that make it so.  There are two interesting aspects of Ordet to consider.  One is the film’s spiritual themes,, and the other is  Dreyer’s interesting and peculiar mise-en-scene.

Ordet is based on Kaj Munk’s 1925 stage play I Begyndelsen var Ordet (In the Beginning was the Word, or simply, The Word).  Munk was a Lutheran pastor whose opposition to the Nazi occupation (1940-1945) led to his martyrdom in 1944.  Dreyer saw Munk’s play when it was first performed in 1932, and from that moment he had the intention of making a film based on the play.  It took him twenty-three more years to realize that vision.

The story of Ordet is set in rural West Jutland and centers around the family of a prosperous farmer, Morten Borgen.  Because of the multiple-personality perspective of this tale, there are a number of significant characters:

  • Morten Borgen is an elderly widower and the patriarch of the Borgen family.   He has three sons. Mikkel, Johannes, and Anders.
  • Mikkel Borgen, the oldest son, is married to Inger.
  • Inger, Mikkel’s wife for eight years, has two daughters and is now pregnant and shortly expecting a third child.
  • Maren Borgen, the older of Mikkel and Inger’s two daughter, is about seven years of age.
  • Johannes Borgen, Morten’s next eldest son, has been insane since suffering a mental breakdown while studying theology to become a preacher.
  • Anders Borgen, the youngest of Morten’s sons, wishes to marry Anne Petersen, the daughter of Peter Petersen, a local tailor in town.
  • Peter Petersen, the tailor and father of Anne, belongs to a different Lutheran sect from that of the Borgen family.
  • Anne Petersen, Peter’s daughter, is in love with Anders Borgen.
  • the Pastor is a Lutheran minister who has newly arrived in the township.
  • the Doctor is a medical doctor who treats Inger for her medical condition.
I enumerate all these characters, because they all represent significant perspectives with respect to the main spiritual themes of the film.  We can consider the overall narrative to comprise four sections or acts.
1.  Johannes    
The film opens showing the mentally-ill Johannes wandering about the moors asserting that he is Jesus Christ and warning the multitudes, “woe unto you for lack of faith” (lack of faith in the “fact” that he is Jesus).  The Borgen family, knowing that Johannes is not of sound mind, chase after him.  Later during a family discussion, we learn that Johannes went mad while studying the works of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who famously wrote attacks on the Danish Church a century earlier.  It is in this section that we learn of an important difference between Morten and his son Mikkel.  While Morten is a upstanding member of his parish and devoutly religious, his son Mikkel confesses that he lost all faith in God and believes one must rely on human reason.

The viewer will get the impression in this section that Johannes will be a key narrative thread, but actually Johannes soon more or less disappears into the background until the closing stages.

2.  Anders and Anne
Now the story moves to the concerns of Anders Morgen and Anne Petersen, who wish to marry  but need permission from their parents.  Here, too, the viewer may believe that the love story between Anders and Anne will be a major narrative thread, but in fact Anders and Anne are not significant characters in this story.  The real issue here concerns the religious differences between Morten Borgen and Peter Petersen which block their children’s union.

The problem is that Morten Borgen is a lay leader of the local Lutheran congregation and is proud of having restored Christian religiosity to the area, while Peter Petersen is the leader of the Inner Mission evangelical sect in opposition to the mainstream views of the Borgen-led parishioners.  Morten initially opposes the marriage, but when he learns that Petersen has rejected Anders’s formal proposal, he is insulted by the indignity and reverses himself.  He now vows that Anders and Anne will marry no matter what Petersen thinks.

3.  Inger’s Plight     
49 minutes into the film, a new situation arises.  Inger’s pregnancy takes a bad turn, and a doctor is urgently summoned.  It turns out that Inger is in a life-threatening situation, but after the doctor surgically aborts the fetus, he assures the family that she will be all right.  They all rejoice, and there seems to be no evident remorse about the death of the stillborn child.  Only Johannes is grim, and he tells them that if they had believed in him (that he is Jesus), this tragedy would not have happened.
 “You are seeking grapes on thorn bushes.  The vines you pass by.”
Inger’s innocent daughter Maren then comes to visit Johannes in his room, and he tells her that Inger will soon die and that only he could possibly resurrect her, if the others would let him.

This thread has now taken prominence, because it unites all the characters’ concerns.  Morten Borgen has been praying for Inger’s recovery, while Mikkel and the Doctor count on modern science.  In this connection the subject of miracles comes up.

In an earlier discussion between Morten and Inger in Act 1 about Johannes’s condition, Morten had lamented that miracles no longer happen because we are lacking true faith in God.  But Inger responded that she believes God’s miracles are happening all the time but that we don’t notice them.  Now here in this part of the story, the Pastor and the Doctor get into their own discussion about belief in miracles.  The Pastor confesses that God no longer performs miracles, because they would be in violation of His own laws of nature that He has set up.  It was only during the exceptional situation with His son, Jesus, the Pastor says, that God permitted miracles.  The Doctor just smiles and says he believes in the scientific miracles like those that he performs.

Johannes is more doleful.  Now he arrives and pronounces ominously to all of them that he has just seen Death with his scythe arrive on the scene and is about to take a life.  And so it eventuates.  Shortly after the Pastor and the Doctor depart, Mikkel goes in to Inger’s room and discovers that she has passed away.

4.  Life  
This departure of the most compassionate and understanding character in the story with thirty more minutes remaining is unsettling.  Inger, it seemed, was the person who had held things together.  But her death does bring them all together to mourn her passing.
Inger’s death is duly reported in the newspaper, and the burial is about to take place.  Peter Petersen repents his past stubbornness and comes to the Borgens to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to Anders. The Pastor utters words of blessing, assuring them all that Inger is going to a Heavenly place and it is we who must suffer her absence. Morten assures the grief-stricken Mikkel that Inger’s soul is now with God.  But Mikkel sobs, “her body is here.  I loved her body also.”  Yes,  when a loved one passes away, we know, as Mikkel knows, that it was in a physical form that we interacted with and cherished that loved one.  And that physical form is left here on earth to rot away.  That beloved form of interaction is lost forever.

Now at this point, just before they are about to put the lid on Inger’s coffin, Johannes, who had disappeared into the moors on the day of Inger’s death, suddenly reappears, this time without his customary mournful cowl, and now looks perfectly sane.  He again castigates them all for their lukewarm faith in God’s miracles.  Maren comes up to him and innocently asks him to restore Inger to life.  Johannes smiles when he sees her complete faith in him and looking upward says,
“Jesus Christ, if it is possible, then give her leave to come back to life.  Give me the Word, the word that can make the dead come to life.”
Inger stirs in her coffin and comes back to life.  Mikkel rapturously hugs her and says to her, “Now life begins for us.”  Inger kisses him passionately and responds wondrously,
“Life, yes. . . Life.  Yes.  Life.”
Dreyer’s Mise-en-scene  
An interesting aspect of Ordet is the stark black-and-white cinematography and unusual mise-en-scene that Dreyer uses to tell this story. There are only 114 shots in the entire film, and most of the interior shots are  several minutes long, with three of the key conversations in the film each lasting more than 5:40.  However, despite what must have entailed very careful planning for these shots, they are not particularly fluid, in the manner for example of Antonioni or Mizoguchi. Instead they are very deliberate shots, with the camera moving slowly from a medium frame of one character to that of another as a conversation evolves.  This gives quite a different feeling from the usual experience of the “invisible witness” that represents the viewer’s perspective [5].  In an Antonioni film, for example, the invisible witness sometimes nimbly moves about, even within a single shot, in order to get the best perspective on what is happening.  That can mean shifting to an over-the-shoulder shot of a person listening to another character speaking to him or her and thus enlisting an empathic feeling for the person listening.  Here in Ordet, though, the invisible witness mostly remains static, almost as if this witness is sitting on a chair and watching the proceedings.  This feeling of a static witness is accentuated by keeping the camera framing mostly in medium shots, so that the camera movements are almost like a person turning his or her head to see another part of the room. 

Another interesting thing about these camera movements is that they sometimes precede an action that might be thought to elicit one’s attention.  For example, sometimes the camera pans slowly to a closed door, and only then does the door open and someone enter the room.  This suggests narrative anticipation of the part of the witness that borders on omniscience [5]. 

These two basic camera effects and the way they affect the invisible witness – (1) the static physical location but fluid “head movement” on the part of the invisible witness and (2) the anticipatory camera movements – give an eerie feeling to the visual presentation that is difficult to characterize in words.

There is also a further bizarre camera movement when Maren comes to visit Johannes in his room in Act 3, and he tells her that Inger will soon die.  Johannes and Maren are shown in one of the rare medium closeups in the film, as the camera appears to rotate slowly around them as they speak.  At the same time the room background, in what may be a back-projection effect, rotates around in the opposite direction, but more rapidly than the camera’s rotation.  The direction of the background’s rotation is as you would expect, but its pace of rotation does not correspond to the camera’s movement.  The overall effect is a further eeriness to Johannes and this scene.

I have also remarked in connection with my reviews of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932) about Dreyer’s interesting emphasis on the human face.  In those films there are more closeups that concentrate on personal expressiveness.  But even here in Ordet, where there are few closeups before the final scenes, there is an emphasis on the face.  This is achieved by having the characters often speaking rhetorically and not looking at the person with whom they are speaking and instead facing the camera (the invisible witness again).  This is particularly true of Morten Borgen and Johannes.  And in general a character often retains a marked and emotive facial expression that has an almost expressionistic feel to it.

The expressionistic presentation of faces is further accentuated by the way Dreyer maintains sculpted studio highlighting on the faces of characters, even as they move about a room.  This is artificial, but the viewer is unlikely to notice it and only experience the expressionistic feeling indirectly.  A noteworthy exception to this lighting effect is the way that Johannes is lit – his face is always kept in relative darkness (until the final resurrection scene, in which his now-sane countenance is also highlighted).

Ordet’s Spiritual Theme  
Reflecting on what has occurred in the film, we can see that this film does have a plot, but it is not about such mundane things as a madman or the romantic love between Anders and Anne.  Instead it is about faith in God and the different ways that people have in trying to come to terms with death and life. I do not believe that Dreyer was putting forth a strictly religious interpretation of faith like that of Morten Borgen – that miracles will occur if only you believe strongly enough.  In fact Dreyer, himself, was not particularly religious, although he was interested in spiritual issues [2].   In this film he shows us people from four different religious domains or spheres that are associated with how people look at the infinite.  These are four distinct approaches that are commonly taken by people, and they are each represented by some key characters in the film.  I say “spheres”, because people can lie somewhere within or outside of these general spheres, which encompass various ways people have of relating to God.

  • Johannes  – Spirit.  
    Johannes represents the mystical, the unquestioned belief that there are saviors and miracles.  There is no logic to this sphere, and virtually everyone is outside of this sphere’s compass. Only prophets and people like Johannes are inside this sphere; although other people outside of it may look worshipfully to the mystics from this sphere for guidance. But the few people from within this sphere are darkly mysterious, and that is why Dreyer keeps the mad Johannes’s visual countenance in darkness.

  • Morten, Peter, and the Pastor – Religious Mind.  
    A second sphere concerns conventional religious doctrine and practice.  Here we have people who follow various rules to find hopeful salvation.  But they are using the mind to follow their holy path.  Morten complained to Peter that Peter’s faith was too sour, that his own faith was eternal joy, while Peter’s faith longed for death – as he said,
    “My faith is the warmth of life, and yours is the coldness of death”.
    However, when Morten prays for a miracle and it doesn’t happen, he has a mechanistic belief that his own lack of faith must have made the pray–>God–>miracle process not work on that occasion. This is similar to the feeble and now-falsifiable "Law of Attraction" notion that gets passed around these days [6].

    Many people are within the scope of this particular sphere, although they, like Morten and Peter, may be in opposition to one another.
     
  • Mikkel and the Doctor – Scientific Mind.   
    Mikkel and the Doctor are benign humanists who put their faith in human reason.  These are the rationalists, and many modern-day educated people are within the scope of this sphere. They have faith in scientific progress, but the scope of their thinking and their conceived powers is tiny compared to the infinite wonders of life.
      
  • Inger – Love and Life.   
    Inger represents the fourth sphere, love. Her idea was that the miracle of love and life was happening all around us all the time.  She doesn’t argue the point intellectually; she embodies it.  In this sense she is another one of Dreyer’s physically embodied existential feminine heroines that are distinctly his.  As I remarked in connection with my review of Dreyer’s Vampyr,
    "Dreyer, like Mizoguchi, always had a fascination and sensitivity for the feminine role in human interactions . . . Like Kenji Mizoguchi, the feminine role is not an abstraction for Dreyer, but is always a very physical presence in his films. Yet it is far distanced from the typical male fantasy of a feminine abstraction. . . . Von Sternberg’s women are idealized and viewed from the man’s perspective. But throughout Dreyer’s career, his women, like Mizoguchi’s, are grounded in the physical world, and yet have some strangely 'spiritual' dimension, too."
    The resurrection that happens at the end, in my view, is not just a matter of Maren’s sincere belief  that makes the pray–>God–>miracle mechanism (that Morten referred to) work this time.  No, it was actually a true, incomprehensible miracle that defies our understanding but which Inger embraces, as she does all aspects of life.
       
    Inger’s sphere of Love and Life can include religious feelings, but these would be driven by love and compassion and not by harsh proscriptions [7]. Everyone can be inside the compass of Inger’s sphere, and I believe this is where Dreyer stood, as well.
The magic of Ordet derives from showing people from all the above-mentioned four spheres interacting with each other and engaged in meaningful dialogues. Overall, this is a rich and fascinating film, and repeated viewings may lead you to new insights and different responses about death, life, and love.  I would only say that for me (and Dreyer), Inger’s final word is the word.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s ORDET”, Jonathan Rosenbaum (JonathanRosenbaum.net), (16 February 2016).
  3. Roger Ebert, “Ordet”, RogerEbert.com, (8 March 2008). 
  4. Chris Fujiwara, “Ordet”, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001). 
  5. Ray Carney, “‘Knowledge in Space and Time,’ a discussion of Ordet (The Word)”, (excerpts from his book Speaking the Language of Desire: the Films of Carl Dreyer) (1989).  
  6. For further comments on the pseudoscientific "Law of Attraction" notion, see
    • The Film Sufi, "The Secret", The Film Sufi, (26 April 2008).
  7. In terms of my comments on “The Two Religions”, Inger’s spiritual feelings would correspond to “Religion 1", while those of Morten, Peter, and the Pastor would correspond to “Religion 2":

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