“Gertrud” - Carl Dreyer (1964)

Carl Th. Dreyer’s last film, Gertrud (1964), is a difficult-to-classify work that has drawn a wide range of critical responses.  Made when the director was seventy-five years old, the work was initially widely criticized for its slow-moving, almost static, tempo and technique when it was released, and it proved to be a commercial disaster [1].  Later on, though, the film began to attract a devoted following [2,3], and in fact some noted reviewers, such as David Bordwell, who had early on panned the film, later reversed themselves [4]. By 2012 the British Film Institute’s two published rankings of all-time greatest films, as voted on by wide-ranging lists of international  film critics and film directors, had Gertrud ranked 43rd and 59th, respectively [5,6].  Even so, there has never been a consensus about the film, both in terms of its aesthetic value and its intended message.

The film’s story is based on a 1906 stage play of the same name by Swedish playwright Hjalmar Söderberg about an upper-class woman who seeks her own romantic fulfillment.  Although Dreyer made some changes to Söderberg’s work and relocated the setting to Denmark, the story still maintains the same cultural milieu of that period and so has drawn some comparisons to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). 

So some critics have judged Gertrud to have a fundamentally feminist theme and see the lead character, Gertrud, as being a forerunner feminist heroine [7].  Others found Gertrud to be so maniacally self-centered that they considered her to be a sadistic witch [8].  Still others have found the static staging of the story to be so absurd that the whole thing should be looked on as a comedy [9].  Following a different tangent, Jonathon Rosenbaum felt that the film reflected the lifelong traumas and concerns of Dreyer, himself [10,11]. 

From my own perspective Gertrud is less about women’s place in society and instead more about an even more fundamental issue – love and the various ways people may approach it.  In this connection it is interesting to consider Rosenbaum’s incorporation of thoughts about early 20th-century psychoanalysis [11] (which is explicitly referenced in the film as a contemporary revolutionary intellectual movement), and I will discuss them further below.

The story of Gertrud concerns, almost exclusively, five principal characters, all of whom are accomplished figures from upscale Danish society – Gertrud and the four men with whom she has personal relationships:
  • Gertrud (played by Nina Pens Rode) is an attractive former opera singer who is married  to Gustav Kanning.
  • Gabriel Lidman (played by Ebbe Rode, who was the real-life husband of Nina Pens Rode) is a prominent Danish poet who has returned to Denmark from abroad in order to receive an award for his poetry on the event of his fiftieth birthday.  He was Gertrud’s lover prior to her marriage to Gustav Kanning.
  • Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) is a successful lawyer who is about to be appointed to a cabinet position in the Danish government.
  • Erland Jansson (Baard Owe) is a brilliant young pianist and composer who is currently having an affair with Gertrud.
  • Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye) is a prominent physician and intellectual who now resides in Paris but who has returned to Copenhagen for the occasion of Gabriel Lidman’s award ceremony.
The story is told not in a realistic dramatic fashion (nor is it an example of either theatrical German kammerspiel or German Expressionism, which has sometimes been suggested), but is instead a presentation of lengthy artificial conversations that are delivered in rhetorical fashion. Many of these are presented in long shots lasting five or more minutes.  Often Gertrud’s face is artificially highlighted, while her male counterpart’s face is shrouded in shadows.  The two interlocutors in the conversation often do not face each other, but instead seem to be rhetorically looking away and speaking to themselves – as if they are self-exploring their own thoughts on the topic.  

This introverted and reflective style of presentation is what drives many viewers mad.  The first time I saw the film, the audience openly jeered the film during the presentation – just like when the film was first shown in Paris.  On the other hand, this very style of presentation has its fascinating side, too, and this is sometimes sensed only after repeated viewings (as was the case for me). 

The narrative of Gertrud can be broken down into seven parts, most of which consist of extended conversations between Gertrud and one of the four men.

1.  Gustav and Gertrud
Gustav and Gertrud have a lengthy conversation at home about their troubled relationship.  Gustav first tells her that they are to attend a banquet the next night celebrating the poet Gabriel Lidman, where Gustav is to give a speech.  But there are other things on Gustav’s mind.  After having his attempted kiss spurned, he complains to her that the door to her room has been locked to him for more than a month. Then their conversation is interrupted by a visit from Gustav’s mother. After the mother departs, Gertrud informs Gustav that she is leaving him and is in love with another man.  She says she rejects Gustav for his lukewarm attitude toward love, his prioritized preference of his professional life, and his relegation of his wife to a minor domestic roll.  She tells him,
“I must come before everything.  I don’t want to be an occasional plaything.”
She then tells him that she is going out alone to the opera that evening.

2.  Gertrud and Erland
Gertrud meets Erland by a pond in the park, and they vow their mutual affection for each other.  She tells Erland that she is free now.  At her request they then go to his flat, where she poetically tells him that “life is a long, long chain of dreams”.  They then retire to the bedroom to make love for the first time.

Meanwhile Gustav, missing Gertrud, goes to see her at the opera and learns that she never went there to attend it.

Back with Gertrud and Erland after their lovemaking, Gertrud asks him not to go to a party at the dwelling of a courtesan named Constance that he had said he had been invited to that evening by some of his male friends.

3.  The Banquet for Gabriel Lidman
At the celebratory banquet for Gabriel Lidman, Gabriel is touted as the “great poet of love”.  But in his acceptance speech, Gabriel says there are actually two important things in the world: love and thought. Then Gustav gives his own speech honoring Gabriel, during which Gertrud becomes ill and must retire to a side chamber.  There she is attended to by Professor Axel Nygren, and they renew their old friendship.  After Axel leaves, Gustav enters the room and tells Gertrud that he knows she wasn’t at the opera the previous night (we know she was with Erland).  Then Gustav is summoned out of the room to speak to the Vice Chancellor hosting his event, and Gabriel comes in to the room to speak to her.

4.  Gabriel and Gertrud
Much of this scene is embodied in a single ten-minute shot of Gabriel and Gertrud speaking alone to each other.  Gabriel says he is still madly in love with Gertrud and has never gotten over Gertrud having broken off their relationship years earlier. He also agonizingly tells her that he attended a party the previous evening at the home of a woman named Constance, where he heard Erland Jansson crudely boasting about his latest romantic conquest, Gertrud.  Gertrud is unmoved by Gabriel’s suffering and coldly tells him that she still loves Erland anyway.  At this, Gabriel cries and departs the room.

Now Gustav and Erland enter the room and inform Gertrud that she has been asked to sing an aria for the Vice Chancellor.  She agrees, but in the midst of her performance, she faints to the floor and appears to pass out.

5.  Gertrud and Erland again
Gertrud again meets Erland by the pond in the park and pleads with him ( in a five-minute shot) to run away with her.  Evidently despite Erland’s crude boasting about his conquest of her, she is still madly in love with him.  Erland wants to continue their affair but not commit himself to a total union.  He finally confesses that he can’t run away with Gertrud because he has made another woman pregnant and is committed to that woman.  Gertrud glumly realizes that her affair with Erland is over and tells him that.  Before departing, Erland scoffingly tells Gertrud that she is too proud to have a real love relationship.

6.  Gertrud and Gabriel again
At the Kanning home, Gabriel is visiting and speaking with Gustav.  But Gustav is called out of the room, and again Gabriel and Gertrud have a chance to speak alone together.  Gabriel desperately asks her to run away with him, but again Gertrud demurs.  She quotes a line from one of his poems that was apparently his creed:
“I believe in the pleasure of the flesh and the irreparable loneliness of the soul.”
And she confesses that her marriage to Gustav was merely an entry into the pleasures of the flesh after the failure of her love affair with Gabriel.  Then she relates to Gabriel, by means of an extended flashback, the story of how she came to give up on her love for him.  In the flashback, which is presented in overexposed lighting to highlight its imagined recollection, Gertrud comes to Gabriel’s flat while he is away and lovingly begins tidying up.  This tidying scene lasts 2:20 and slowly embeds the viewer into Gertrud’s loving mood.  Still in the flashback, she notices a scrap of paper on his desk on which he had written,
“a woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.” 
This made her realize that Gabriel could never devote himself totally to love, and it was the moment for her when their relationship was finished.  After telling Gabriel about this past moment, he still begs her to run away with him, but she tells him that they cannot now resurrect something that is dead.   She goes out to the kitchen and phones Professor Nygren to tell him she will be coming to Paris to join his group at the Sorbonne to study the new field of psychoanalysis. 

Gustav now returns to the room and reports that he has accepted the governmental cabinet position.  However, Gertrud reminds him in front of Gabriel that their marriage is finished and his appointment is meaningless to her.  After Gabriel sadly departs, Gustav begs Gertrud to remain with him and that he will even tolerate her having an extra-marital affair.  However, after Gertrud tells Gustav that she never really loved him, he orders her to get out.

7.  30-40 years later
In a coda that Dreyer appended to Söderberg’s original play, Gertrud is seen some 30-40 years later living alone.  She is visited on her birthday by Axel Nygren, and they exchange cordial greetings, with Axel giving her a copy of his latest academic book.  He courteously chides her for not answering all his letters, and asks with a smile, “so do you still care about me a little?”  She assures him that she does, and they reminisce about their longtime friendship since those days in Paris – “a friendship that never turned to love”, Axel remarks, pointedly. Most critics consider their relationship to have been passionless, but Axel’s remarks suggest to me that he may have wished it to be otherwise.

Gertrud, though, is now thinking of her final days.  Not wanting to have her private things examined by other people after her death, she returns to Axel all the letters he had sent to her, which he promptly burns in the fireplace.  He asks her if she has ever thought of writing poetry, and she proceeds to recite her only poem, which she had written at the age of sixteen:

                Just look at me.
                Am I beautiful?
                No, but I have loved.

                Just look at me.
                Am I young?
                No, but I have loved.

                Just look at me.
                Do I live?
                No, but I have loved.

And she tells him that she has made arrangements for her tombstone epitaph to read only “Amor  Omnia” (which means “love is all”). 

Then Axel politely makes his departure.  She watches him go and then disappears behind her closing door as the film ends.

My reaction to Gertrud the first time I saw the film, like that of a number of critics, was that the main character was too demanding and obsessed with her own emotional needs.  Her overreaching demands cut herself off from full engagement with life, which we know is inevitably a compromise for everyone.   But after watching the film again, I can feel more sympathy and appreciation for Gertrud, perhaps because I have known some people quite like her and who were devoted to love.  And the male characters around Gertrud are not so artificial as they first might appear.  All four are realistic and recognizable types.
  • Gustav Kanning did place his career interests ahead of his domestic concerns, but he did also seem to love Gertrud, too.  In the end, he is even willing to accept a humiliating arrangement as a cuckold just so he can continue to be part of her life.
  • Gabriel Lidman loves Gertrud passionately, and his fault was not placing his career ahead of Gertrud, but merely placing it on an equal footing with his relationship with her.  Gertrud,  however, demanded total submission to love.  In the end, he, too, seems to be willing to give in to her demands, but she has lost her feelings for him.
  • Erland Jansson loves Gertrud, but there are limits.  He is already committed to another woman he has made pregnant.  He is a rational modernist trying to balance things in the world.  When Gertrud asks him if he believes in God, he answers, perhaps echoing Dreyer's own view, “I don’t know; there must be a higher spirit, somewhere, otherwise so many things are inexplicable.”
  • Axel Nygren is cautious and polite, but it seems to me he wished to have a romantic relationship with Gertrud, too. His deferential demeanor masked a hidden ardor that never came to flower.
And what about Gertrud, herself?  How does she contrast with these four types of amorous comportment?  Jonathon Rosenbaum, seeing an influence on Dreyer from early 20th-century psychoanalysis studies, has cast the difference between Gertrud and her men as representative of a fundamental gender difference – a difference between narrative and image [11].  Men, according to this view, are driven by narratives, while women are captured by image.  This is an interesting suggestion, but I consider it to be overly Procrustean. 

I would say that Gertrud is not like Goethe’s Faust or Sartre’s Anny (in Nausea), perpetually waiting for that perfect moment and hoping to fixate on it.  Gertrud is just as dedicated to the dynamics of narrative as the men were and not just focused on the static image.  Moreover, Gertrud is not a hedonist like Kierkegaard’s “A” expositor in Either/Or, merely seeking an endless “rotation” of momentary hedonistic pleasures.  No, she is someone seeking the truly immersive romantic narrative.  This is evidenced in her two recollections shown in overexposed flashback, where she is shown fully engaged in her loving mode of being.  Like all narratives, these are dynamic, not static. 

What distinguishes Gertrud from her men is that her narratives are more open-ended and intensely guided by her passion for “the other”, her loved one (“life is a long, long chain of dreams”, she said).  In fact she is so focused on her romantic narrative that she shows no compassion when she is out of love for someone, even when that person is still in love with her.  This is her failing.  Her intense willingness to give all of herself to her beloved is accompanied by a narcissistic demand to receive the same from her beloved.  Love needs to be immersed in the give-and-take of life in order to be able to offer its gifts and to realize its potential.  Gertrud was unwilling to do that.

And yet I can understand Gertrud’s feelings and have known loving people like her.  In fact to some degree I see a little bit of myself in all the characters in this story – the four men and Gertrud, too.  Perhaps some of you will feel the same way, as well.

  1. “Screen: A Dreyer Film: New Yorker Presents Danc's 'Gertrud'”, The New York Times, (3 June 1966).   
  2. Martin Bradley, “Gertrud (1964): Danish master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (April 2013).   
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), "Carl Theodor Dreyer GERTRUD (1964, 119 min)", Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:9), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (27 October 2009).
  4. David Bordwell, “Dreyer Re-reconsidered”, David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, (14 June  2010).  
  5. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  6. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  7. Emilia van Hauen, “… But Am I Loved?”, Carl Th. Dreyer, (23 May 2010).   
  8. Dennis Delrogh, “Can Witches Suffer Too?”, The Village Voice(16 December 1974).   
  9. Phillip Lopate, “Gertrud”, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001).  
  10. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “Watch with Mother”, The Guardian, (30 May 2003).  
  11. Jonathon Rosbenbaum, “Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image”, Jonathon Rosenbaum, (7 January 1986).        

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great analysis... way to go!