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The Tyrannical Dane
A public library reading-room is not the place one would ordinarily expect to find a film director. In the complicated industry which filmmaking has become, research is an odious task shoved off on anonymous flunkies, leaving the director free to contemplate his budget, his option, and the other artistic aspects of his work. Habitués of the New York Public Library early last year, seeing a slight, white-haired man with compelling pale-blue eyes poring day after day over ancient Biblical texts, would more likely have taken him for a theological scholar than for a man even remotely connected with films. Certainly no one had any reason to pick him out as Carl Dreyer, the Danish director whose "Joan of Arc" and other cinema works have established him among the very few genuine artists of that treacherous and much abused medium.
Dreyer's films, with one exception, have never attracted large audiences. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" can be seen only at the Modern Museum in New York or in special screenings privately supported by clubs and schools. "Vampire" has had even less exhibition. "Day of Wrath," which opened in New York in 1948, caused so violent a schism among film critics that readers were left to wonder whether these heated gentlemen were all discussing the same film. Few readers, unfortunately, ever took the trouble to see it for themselves; "Day of Wrath" is still occasionally encountered in revivals at the smaller art houses, but it was by no one's standard a financial success. Except for a few short documentaries, these three vastly unlucrative efforts constitute Carl Dreyer's entire output for the past twenty-five years, but each of them is in its way a classic.
Although Dreyer works in a field which has become inextricably associated with artificiality, trickery, and commercialized hoopla, his films have the personal, almost austere cohesion and integrity which mark them as the expressions of a single, quite extraordinary personality. There is in French the word cinéaste, which. has no equivalent in English and is applied to anyone who works, in any capacity, in the film medium; Dreyer, by his ubiquitous interest and direction, is the apotheosis of the cinéaste. Had he been a novelist, Dreyer's list of works would almost certainly have been longer. He has not been at a loss for material; the film which he is now preparing on the life of Jesus, a film which Dreyer himself expects will be his magnum opus, has occupied him intermittently for the past thirty years, but there are other films he would also like to make, if given the opportunity. Since the medium of his expression is expensive, it has never been easy for Dreyer to find the working conditions he requires. The fact that his last three films, his major efforts, have all lost money is hardly an enticement to potential backers. And the number of moneyed patrons, willing to aid young artists to the extent of paints, canvas and occasional rent checks with no thought of future financial return, seem to include none willing to risk an encounter with the high costs of raw film and union labor. Dreyer accepts this with resignation. He bides his time, working fifteen or sixteen hours a day on the research, writing, and revision that go into his shooting script; when the opportunity does present itself for him to go to work with actors and technicians, he knows in the most exquisite detail just what he requires from them, and he explodes into action with an energy so violent that his company is left physically and emotionally spent. Nothing, whether sleep, or the sensibilities of his actors, or the tentative suggestions of his associates, stands between him and the accomplishment of his work. He writes his own script, finds his own camera angles, sometimes collaborates on the decor, and in all instances works in the cutting room till the final print is completed.
Dreyer's major works have all been concerned with anguish and horror, and his methods of achieving these effects have caused some hard feelings among his actors. The commonest charge against Dreyer is that he is a sadist. He has been known to pinch an actor cruelly in order to get a desired expression of pain. When Maria Falconetti played "Joan" for him, Dreyer ordered all her hair cut off; Falconetti pled, raged, and, finally, conceding, wept bitterly; Dreyer not only filmed her weeping, but there were among those present some who swear he derived an uncommon enjoyment from the spectacle. They say the same of his decision that a young actor in "Day of Wrath" be shorn of his rich, flowing locks - to no apparent purpose, as far as the plot and period were concerned. To achieve the proper wildness in the eyes of Anna Svierkjaer, who was burned as a witch in "Day of Wrath," Dreyer left her bound to a ladder for two and a half hours in a blazing summer sun before photographing her; after the scene, Dreyer untied her and was solicitousness itself, but the 66-year-old actress had difficulty standing or even sitting up for several hours afterward. Dreyer got precious little consolation from his company when a self-assertive goat, figuring in the same film, caught Dreyer unawares and butted him flat onto his face.
Just as the divided critics of "Day of Wrath" seemed to be discussing two different films, anyone who meets Dreyer off the set wonders whether this can be the same man whose terrorized actors speak of him with such a show of strong feeing. He is polite and gracious almost to the point of courtliness, but not indiscriminately so: if a person fail's to interest him, Dreyer is capable of staring silently and without embarrassment into space for an indefinite period, until the caller takes the hint and goes his way. Dreyer went to the United States in 1949 at the invitation of Blevins Davis, the adventurous producer of the forthcoming Christus film, and spent part of the winter writing sixteen hours a day at the home of Mr. Davis's father in Independence, Missouri. During the Christmas holiday there was a party there which President Truman and his family attended, and Dreyer, somewhat against his will, left his work to get into a dinner suit and join the crowd downstairs. Dreyer exchanged affable small talk with various guests, and eventually found himself in a tete-a-tete with the President. After a few minutes of discussing the Christus film ("I can talk only about films," Dreyer says), he shook the startled President's hand and said, with a charming smile, "You must excuse me. I must get back to my work."
Dreyer has worked in films since 1912, when he went to work writing subtitles for Nordisk Films Kompagni in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he had been one of the severest critics of the inane literary tone of the silent pictures' intermittent text, and Nordisk invited him to come try to do better. At his suggestion - quite a radical one at the time - Nordisk began buying novels and plays, which Dreyer adapted for the silent screen. After a period as a cutter,he was assigned to direct his first picture, "The President," in 1919. His second film, "Leaves from Satan's Book," foreshadowed his later work; the film dealt, Griffith-like, with the Devil's role in four historical episodes: the betrayal of Christ, the Spanish Inquisition, the French revolution, and the abortive Finnish Communist uprising of 1918.
Dreyer made four other films, under Danish, Swedish, and German auspices, before directing "Thou Shalt Honor Thy Husband" in Denmark in 1925; this turned out to be his first and only box office success. The film caused a sensation in France, where it was shown as "The Master of the House"; during one three week period it played at fifty-seven theatres in Paris alone. The film told a sardonic, naturalistic story of a middle-class family tyrant in the Christianshavn section of Copenhagen, and was among the earliest successful attempts to use documentary technique in a narrative film. The picture and its stunning popular success caught the eye of the Societe Generale de Films in Paris, and they invited Dreyer to come make a picture in France. By his own standards Dreyer had never, up until that time, been completely in control of his films, and therefore never in a position to do exactly as he wished. After first making certain he would be subjected to no backtalk from the front office, he left for Paris with his wife and son to make the first of the films which he feels are truly his.
As a story, he chose the trial and martyrdom of St. Joan. Dreyer's company and crew in Paris regarded him as a combined master, crackpot, and lunatic. He suddenly found himself free to indulge the experimental ideas he had had to repress before, and his imagination spread itself luxuriantly. His cameraman, Rudolf Maté, entered into the spirit of things handsomely. Dreyer was one of the earliest champions of the closeup as the nerve centre of filmed drama; since the tension of "Joan of Arc" never relaxed for a moment, scene after scene was shot with the actors' faces so enlarged that the screen's format could contain only a part of them. A crowd of soldiers entering the castle through an arch was photographed by a camera hung from the archway ceiling; upside-down, the camera caught them head-on, outside the castle, then followed them straight through till they passed under the camera and into the courtyard, and the cameraman - as well as the image which bemused audiences were to see on the screen - swung gradually from upside down to right side up. For angle shots, Dreyer had numerous seven-foot-deep holes dug in the earth to house the camera; after a few days of this, the terrain so resembled a giant slab of Swiss cheese that the crew took to referring to the director as "Carl Gruyère."
"Joan of Arc" had its premiere in Copenhagen in April of 1928; its reception there and everywhere it was shown was tumultuous. Judged even by today's standards, the technique of the film seems remarkably advanced. Dreyer had wrung from his company (which included, besides Falconetti, Eugeène Silvain, Antonin Artaud, and Michel Simon) performances so genuine and affecting that even the unrelenting closeups failed to reveal the slightest trace of phonyness or "acting." On the basis of this one seventy-minute picture, Carl Dreyer became incontestably established as one of the first men to adapt the cinema medium to creative dramatic use.
The reaction of the Societé Generale de Films, however, was less gratifying. As far as they and the ticket-buying public were concerned, Dreyer had laid a 7,000,000-franc egg. During the eight years prior to "Joan," Dreyer had made an average of one film a year; after "Joan," he had to wait five years before anyone was willing to finance his next venture. The picture was "Vampire," a very free and blood-curdling adaptation of a Sheridan LeFanu story, in which Dreyer's relish of the macabre ran riot. The actor in one of the leading roles was billed as Julian West; this pseudonym concealed the identity of the Baron Nicholas de Gunzburg, a wealthy young man who found himself considerably less wealthy by the time he had fulfilled his agreement to finance the film.
As in the production of "Joan of Arc," Dreyer maintained tyrannical control over all phases of the operation. The company was on location in a chateau at Courtempierre, in France, and there was no escaping Dreyer, who worked them like a man possessed. When the local churchyard struck him as insufficiently populous, he despatched the crew in trucks with orders to bring back all the gravestones they could lay hands on. Ralf Holm, who had had supervisory charge of the torture instruments in "Joan of Arc," was given the job of rounding up most of the actors; he combed Paris for them at all hours, in the Metro, in the streets, in the cheap cafe's round the Place Maubert where the clochards of the quarter were allowed to sleep on the floor after closing time. Only one professional actor appeared in the film.
Dreyer's methods of casting "Vampire" had something in common with Freud's contention that the criminal potential exists more or less equally in every one, however much its exercise may be prevented by education and more constructive impulses. Dreyer's vampire was played by a kind old lady who answered the door one day when Ralf Holm was calling on a friend who lived in the same house; under Dreyer's direction, she gave a performance of repulsive, unmitigated evil. Her equally revolting accomplice in the film, a doctor who sold his soul to the devil, was portrayed with frightful conviction by a Polish diplomatic official who after shooting hours fondly dandled young Erik Dreyer on his avuncular knee. Conversely, the picture's dewy-eyed heroine Gisèle was played by a young lady, widely known for her sang-froid, who supplemented her income by modeling in the nude.
"Vampire" had the same reception as "Joan of Arc": critical encomiums and public apathy. The film's diffusion photography, which Dreyer and Maté had painstakingly achieved by placing back-lighted black chiffon before the lens, has since had its effect on both cinema and still photographers, but at the time it aroused insensitive speculation as to Dreyer's knowledge of proper exposure and processing. Several of the grislier sequences have inspired Hollywood horror experts, to reproduce them with carbon copy fidelity. Most of the extant prints of "Vampire" lack a dream sequence which Dreyer worked on with loving care. The horrified German distributor cut it out of the version generally released. In this episode, the hero of the story dreams he has died; lying in his coffin, looking straight up, he watches every detail of the procession as his corpse is carried through the churchyard and lowered into the grave. The audience saw through the corpse's unblinking eyes by means of a camera installed in the coffin, and the result was much too realistic for the distributor's peace of mind.
"Vampire" was first shown in Berlin in May of 1932. It concretely affirmed the conviction of French and German producers that the name Dreyer was synonymous with artistic triumph and fiscal bankruptcy, and before long Dreyer moved his family back to Copenhagen. The Danish capital has been Dreyer's home for most of the years since he was born there in 1889, but his early associations there were far from gemütlich. Shortly after his birth, his Swedish mother died and he was adopted by a Danish family; his foster parents lost no opportunity to remind him that his mother's failure to provide for him had caused them great inconvenience, but through their grudging generosity he had been spared consignment to a foundling home. A relative of the family was a musician, and Carl was given piano lessons along with steady admonitions that as soon as possible he must get a job playing in a café in order to reimburse his foster family for all their manifold kindness to him. He spent as much time as possible in an attic room which he papered and painted as a sort of sanctuary; here he read, dreamed of travel and adventure, conducted imaginary orchestras and received imaginary ovations. Fairly understandably, he never developed into much of a pianist, and upon his dismissal from his first café job he was banished from his foster home. His first writing job was as Aeronautics Editor for the Copenhagen newspaper Berlingske Tidende; during this time his appetite for adventure was gratified by several balloon ascensions, but this fever never gripped him strongly. Dreyer has never, at any point, worked in the legitimate theatre. He has, however, since the age of twenty-three, when he wrote his first film titles for Nordisk, been deep in film and its artistic potential.
When Ebbe Neergaard's book on Dreyer, "En Filminstruktors Arbejde," appeared in 1940, he concluded it by writing: "Now, eight years after the premiere of 'Vampire,' Carl Dreyer works as a journalist, his pseudonym 'Tommen' [Inch] can be found daily in a Copenhagen newspaper. Only a few men know that behind this modest measure is hidden an artistic genius that can stand with the greatest names in the short history of films."
But once more Dreyer was given the chance to make a picture on his own terms. During the German occupation of Denmark, with British, American, and French films banned, Danish production suddenly boomed and in the course of it an independent firm, Palladium, decided to level off its taxes by engaging Dreyer to do a film about witchcraft in 17th-century Denmark. This was in 1942, but it was Dreyer's first opportunity to make a talking picture. ("Vampire," shot silently, had sound and dialogue dubbed in later.) The picture, "Day of Wrath," combined two of Dreyer's favorite themes-religion and occultism-and featured deeply affecting performances by a brilliantly gifted Danish cast. Dreyer plunged into the film with all the passion which ten years' absence from directing had dammed up in him. At times Dreyer's eyes would roll wildly and his hands tremble uncontrollably; but what to an outsider might have looked ludicrous had an almost hypnotic effect on the actors. Most of them agree that Dreyer wrested from them the best performances of their careers - and also state flatly that they would never again, under any circumstances, submit to the rigors of working under his direction. But they admit as well, after a moment's reflection, that Dreyer's charm can be such that after fifteen minutes of sweet persuasion they would probably agree to do anything he asked.
The charge of sadism has been made against Dreyer's films as well as against his own personality. It seems hardly coincidental that of his three most important films, two contain brutally realistic torture scenes and the third has several episodes bordering closely upon torture. Most of his entire eleven films deal with the lonely, awful helplessness of one person, usually a woman, trapped unwittingly in a position beyond possible salvation. Any love-theme almost invariably leads to disaster. Dreyer sees to it that his characters suffer, and then scrutinizes and dissects that suffering with the disinterested precision of a laboratory technician.
Dreyer's finished scenario of the film of Christ's life runs close to four hundred typewritten pages. It will deal with its story primarily from a historical rather than a sectarian point of view. Dreyer has no psychoanalytic or dialectical points to make, and, in fact, has based his narrative almost entirely on the Gospels. Having lived in Denmark under the Nazi occupation, he can hardly keep from drawing up some personal associations between that time and the Roman occupation of the Holy Land during Christ's day. Dreyer spent some time last year in Israel, where he plans to shoot the film, and while there he found most of the company he will require. His actors, most of whom will not be professionals, will speak his dialogue in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and nothing else; occasional narration will be in more accessible tongues.
Dreyer returned to his family in Denmark this past June, taking with him two treasured pasteboard boxes containing his Christus scenario. His wife and their two children (a journalist and an actress) spent the summer with him near the beach at Hornbaek, which is near Elsinore in northern Zealand, while Dreyer continued to work on small details in his script throughout his holiday. By the time the film goes into production, he will be able to proceed with the same maniacal certitude he has always shown before. The film will cost nearly $5,000,000; hearing Dreyer mention this is like hearing a writer say he needs a ream of paper or a new typewriter ribbon in order to get on with his work.
One thing is sure: if any strings are attached to proffered contributions towards that five million, Carl Dreyer will not hesitate to turn them down, no matter how much longer it may mean waiting. From the day the film goes into production till the final print is cut, Dreyer will maintain despotic control of every aspect. And, on the basis of his past work, we can look forward to a masterpiece, probably the chef d'oeuvre of one of film's few authentic geniuses.