Called his first “real film” by historian Tom Milne, Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow announced the arrival of an artist. An uncompromising stickler for authenticity in settings and genuineness in performance, he spent weeks and months in libraries poring over research for his sets and costumes. He searched high and low for suitable landscapes and for types and expressive faces from outside the profession, using older actors for older parts and shunning makeup at a time when it was ubiquitous before all other cameras. Some say he tortured actors until he got just the right emotional tone. He wrote (or rewrote) all his scripts. Dreyer’s qualities befit an artist, but they are rarely prized by those in charge of movie studios. His quest for authenticity became his hallmark and propelled him on a perennial search for an artistic home.
The young Danish journalist got his first opportunity to direct by asking for it. A script writer, title writer, and literary consultant since 1912 at Nordisk, he laid it out for the Danish studio’s producer Harald Frost in a letter in 1917: “when a man has been in one post for five years, one must either advance him or get rid of him.” Dreyer had already purchased the rights to The President in his previous position at the studio and began adapting the novel himself. When the film was completed, the first-time director refused to attend a screening for producers. “My work is too dear to me,” he protested in another letter, “and too seriously meant for me to be bothered by listening to two different and unimportant opinions.”
After three months of preparation on his second feature, the episodic Leaves from Satan’s Book, Dreyer appealed to the studio manager for a budget increase: “Did you tell him that the black pigs, the guinea fowl, and the monkeys which I shall use sometime in July had already been reserved in January? Have you told the General Manager that I have searched all over town in order to find original Southern Europeans as extras in my Spanish story and that I have gotten everybody moving to find Finns for my Finnish story?” He eventually backed down but not before warning studio head Ole Olsen: “I solemnly deny any responsibility for the finished film.”
Dreyer turned to Svensk Filmindustri, where Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöstrom made films that Dreyer had reviewed as a journalist and admired. Nordisk still hadn’t recovered the market share it—and the rest of Europe—had ceded to American imports during World War I and was hemorrhaging most of its leading talent. The Swedish outfit had recently purchased Nordisk’s Hellerup studio and hired Dreyer and fellow Dane Benjamin Christensen away.
Only Dreyer’s third film, The Parson’s Widow is adapted from a 1879 short story by Kristofer Janson, a Norwegian writer equal in stature to Ibsen. The tale of a young theologian who is granted a parsonage but must marry the elderly widow still living there is based on the legend of a parson’s wife in the mid-1600s who survived three vicars. According to film historian Casper Tybjerg, the film followed the Swedish model: “It is set in the past, based on a literary source by a well-known writer and exploits a backdrop of majestic Nordic landscapes, while the characters are not just heroes or villains but people struggling with difficult moral or psychological quandaries.”
In the summer of 1920, director, cast, and crew retreated to Lillehammer, Norway, where Dreyer had discovered a ready-made set with props—an open-air museum that dentist Anders Sandvig had carefully assembled: “a stave church, parsonage, scattered farms, houses and buildings with furnishings and folk art,” all dating from the 17th century. Local writer Olav Aukrust, who also plays one of the young theologians competing for the parsonage, drove Dreyer around culling the neighboring peasantry for extras, including 80 or so men with full beards.
“Camera placement was complicated by the walls of the houses being immovable,” writes Tybjerg, “while the possibility of placing the camera anywhere, all around the characters, was an advantage.” Tybjerg goes on to say that Dreyer continued this practice in subsequent productions so he could “film his characters from all sides.” Extra cables had to be extended from the local power plant in order to light the tight, dark spaces, and the actors had to be treated for the intense exposure to their eyes.
Reviews of The Parson’s Widow were mixed. One Danish paper called it “quite thin and rather uninteresting; there is a lack of action: nothing h a p p e n s.” Berlingske Tidende, where Dreyer himself once worked as journalist, pointed out the humor: “Otherwise full of amusing moments, this film evokes both tears and laughter. With applause we greet Mathilde Nielsen and Emil Helsengreen as two ancient servants.” A Swedish critic called it the best Swedish film of the season: “There is life in the portrayals, the people appear more real, there is stronger dramatic cohesion.” Many singled out the understated performance of the 76-year-old Hildur Carlberg in the title role. The veteran stage actress had already appeared in films by Stiller and Sjöström and died shortly after the shoot, never seeing the final film.
In 1921, Svensk, like its Danish neighbor, also found it necessary to downsize, and both Christensen and Dreyer left next for Berlin. Dreyer made Love One Another (Die Gezeichneten, 1921), featuring a cast of Russian émigrés who brought in their own belongings, carried out on their Bolshevik-driven exodus, as set dressing. Italian-born critic Ricciotto Canudo saw the film in France, calling it: “one of those polyrhythmic frescoes that the artisans of the screen must soon create.” After returning to Denmark to direct Once Upon a Time for a small outfit, Dreyer went back to Berlin, this time to Ufa’s prestige production unit to adapt Hermann Bang’s novel Michael under producer Erich Pommer who had indulged the excesses of Murnau and Lang. When Pommer changed the ending without Dreyer’s consent, the director once again found himself in need of a studio.
In The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, David Bordwell describes how the Dane spent the bulk of the silent era, “on a whole isolated, hopscotching from country to country, working free-lance.” After the artistic triumph and financial failure of The Passion of Joan of Arc in France, Dreyer directed his first sound film, Vampyr, financed by a baron who wanted a part. Another box-office disappointment to his credit and he became, as Bordwell says, “marginal to world film production.” He managed, however, to make twice as many features in a single decade of the silent era than he was able to complete for the next four.
The details he worked so hard on endure. Joan of Arc stripped bare of all makeup and pretense, face tilted up in reverence and torment. The illicit lovers in Days of Wrath tucked into the bow of an oak-wood boat as it cuts through the river’s flora, reflective and real. The young parson considering the depression in the seat cushion of the widow’s well-worn parlor chair. Even amid all the plenty, it’s hard not to feel deprived of the images he could have created but was denied. The un-shot market scene from the lavish Danish fairy tale Once Upon a Time; his Somali film, Mudundu, finished by someone else; his unrealized British project, Mary Stuart. And perhaps most poignantly, a film he carried around with him for 18 years, hoping for his magnum opus, Jesus of Nazareth. It never made it out of preproduction, financing came through only a few days before his death in 1968.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Matti Bye