Before he directed his first film, Dreyer spent five years in Nordisk Film’s script department, assessing submitted manuscripts and also doing some writing himself, mainly intertitles and programme notes, as he developed into a specialist at adapting novels into screenplays. This apprenticeship taught him the importance of the manuscript, as well as editing technique, and he reached the conclusion that good films should be based on works of literature.
Headhunted by the film industry
If one can trust Dreyer’s memoirs, he was hired for Nordisk Films Kompagni by the managing director Frede Skaarup, because Skaarup was unsatisfied with Nordisk Film’s intertitles. At the time, "Little Dreyer," as he was known among his fellow journalists, had already made a name for himself as an intrepid reporter specialising in aviation, first at the Berlingske Tidende and Riget newspapers and later, starting in July 1912, at cheeky Ekstra Bladet. Further qualifying him for a position in the script department, Dreyer by summer 1913 had already written four successful screenplays for a rival studio, Det skandinavisk-russiske Handelshus, later Filmfabrikken Danmark.
At nine o’clock, you, Sir Writer, will write. At three o’clock you will stop!
Among variety show writers and journalists
The story of how Dreyer came to Nordisk is far from unique in early film history. The first full-time screenwriters were almost exclusively recruited from the ranks of journalists and entertainment writers with experience in scriptwriting. They were professional text producers. But unlike "real poets," they were at the same time used to writing words to order and thought of their work as part of a collective production process. In Denmark in 1911, Nordisk Film had started up its own script department to manage the volume of submitted screenplays and the growing requirement for better manuscripts that came with multi-reel films. Thus, when Dreyer started working at Nordisk Film, on 1 April 1913, he found himself among colleagues who were used to working under the same conditions he was. In April 1913, Nordisk Film’s script department in Copenhagen (Nordisk also had a department in Berlin) employed two people: Alfred Kjerulf, hired in 1911, had already made a name for himself as a variety show writer and had also been writing for the afternoon papers; and Laurids Skands, another former journalist, had come to Nordisk Film in 1912. Skands left soon after, in July 1913, but the script department received several reinforcements in the next few years: Arnold V. Olsen, in 1914, another tabloid writer; Valdemar Andersen, in 1915; and, in 1916, Carl Gandrup, a "real" writer, though he quit soon after, in January 1917, bristling at the dictatorial style of managing director and head of studio Wilhelm Stæhr and his industrially inspired ideas about creative work that Dreyer had to bow to, too: "At nine o’clock, you, Sir Writer, will write. At three o’clock you will stop!"
While Dreyer was there, the script department at Nordisk Film thus employed three to five people. What was the distribution of tasks among them? Kjerulf had been hired in 1911 as a generalist and seems to have acted as a kind of unofficial department head. Arnold V. Olsen was hired in 1914 as a specialist in entertainment films – a genre that was not, apparently (and with some right), entrusted to Dreyer. Valdemar Andersen quickly specialised in censorship rules. And Dreyer? Dreyer’s first employment contract from 1913 makes only vague mention of his "assigned duties," which would indicate that he did not initially have any specifically defined job description. Moreover, the contract makes it plain that he was only hired part time at first. Meanwhile, he continued to write his irreverent articles, sometimes borderline perfidious, articles for Ekstra Bladet, notably about film-industry players. However, the recognition and respect Nordisk Film was increasingly showing him appears to have moved him to concentrate mainly on screenwriting. His annual salary at Nordisk Film quickly rose – from 1875 kroner in 1913 to 3500 kroner in 1914 and, in 1915, to the near-astronomical sum of 7900 kroner.
From intertitles to screenplays
Dreyer’s raise came after Nordisk Film made a new contract with him in May 1915. This contract throws open a window on Dreyer’s work as a scriptwriter, or "consultant," as he was called. His work consisted in "the work you have performed for us up to this point, writing titles, texts, descriptions and other jobs relating thereto." In other words, Dreyer’s daily assignments, like his colleagues’, consisted in writing title cards and programme notes, as well as reading and editing submitted scripts. In addition, as Dreyer’s contract states, were his special tasks, "treating and preparing film manuscripts based on novels, short stories, etc." If they were successful, he would be paid extra, which goes some way towards explaining his unusually high income after 1915. In Nordisk Film’s script department, an organised division of labour ruled. As documented by his employment contract and Nordisk Film’s records of acquired manuscripts, Dreyer, no later than 1915, was in charge of adapting literary works. This, it would appear, was where his special strength lay.
Dreyer as adapter and literary agent
What works of literature did Dreyer adapt in his years as a scriptwriter? Early on, he took on such classics of world literature as Emile Zola’s L’Argent (Money) and Bertha von Suttner’s Die Waffen nieder (Lay Down Your Arms). In 1914, however, after Nordisk Film terminated its "Autorenfilm" marketing effort – films made from original screenplays by well-known writers or adapted from well-known works of literature, with the intention of elevating film’s status from simple entertainment to high culture – the literary sources changed, too. In addition to works by "serious" Danish contemporary writers like Harald Tandrup and Einar Rousthøj, Dreyer now also adapted works by some of his former fellow journalists, such as Viggo Cavling and Carl Muusmann. But mainly he adapted crime novels by the Norwegian writer Sven Elvestad a.k.a. Stein Riverton. In several cases, it would appear that Dreyer acquired the adaptation rights himself first before selling them to Nordisk Film, making him literary agent and adapter at once.
Adaptations are the future!
It’s not hard to draw lines from Dreyer’s work as a writer before 1918 to his later work as a filmmaker. At Nordisk he learned the craft and importance of good screenwriting as what gives the film its basic form. In 1922, he published an article in the Politiken newspaper, stating his conviction "that the manuscript is the fundamental condition for a good film." In the same article, responding to his colleague and rival Benjamin Christensen, he states his reasons for preferring literary sources: poets happen to be "the source for every art of human representation." Film’s task, like theatre’s, is to interpret the poet’s thoughts. The director serves the poet’s cause. This does not, apparently, imply that all films should be adapted from novels. In 1916 Dreyer claimed that adapted novels were the future of film, but in 1922 he pointed out that adaptations are really a sign of a transitional stage before poets, in the future, start writing directly for film. For the time being, however, good films still needed literary sources – an opinion Dreyer evidently maintained his whole life, since all his films are based on literary sources.
Hard, but fruitful, years of learning
It’s impossible to say whether Dreyer’s practice as a scriptwriter at Nordisk Film, specialising in literary adaptations, was already an expression of this poetics or whether, conversely, it produced it. At any rate, Dreyer’s years at Nordisk were a good schooling for the future director. Dreyer later described his time there as "hard but wonderful years." In all, in the five years he was a writer before his directorial debut with The President, Dreyer wrote or co-wrote at least 31 screenplays. Eleven of these screenplays were bought by Nordisk Film but never realised, probably because of the steep reduction in film production after 1916. In addition to these 31 screenplays, Dreyer’s collected screenplays before 1918 should also include his four screenplays from 1912-1913 for Det skandinavisk-russiske Handelshus / Filmfabrikken Danmark, plus a screenplay Dreyer sold to Svenska biografteatern in 1914.
A director at last
The sharp decline in Nordisk Film’s towards the end of World War I was, ironically, a break for the ambitious Dreyer, in two ways. First, there were not enough writing assignments for him anymore, which he used as an opportunity to learn the craft and technique of film editing. Second, in 1918 he finally got his long-awaited chance to direct and made The President. Nordisk Film’s records of "Main Office Personnel" note: "resigned as a writer 1 May ’18, stays on as a director."