Dreyer got an opportunity to try his hand as a director in 1918 when he made The President. A contract writer, in Nordisk Film’s script department since 1913, Dreyer pushed to rise up the ladder from screenwriter to director. On 31 October 1917, he wrote to the Nordisk Film managing director Harald Frost (1884-1942),
It is said that when a man has been in a position 5 years, one must either advance him or discard him. I wonder if my 5 years aren’t over now. (...) – I must ask you to consider this and give me your honest answer. (Dreyer's letter to Frost, 31/10-1917)
Dreyer picked a good time to make his career move. Nordisk Film’s well-oiled movie factory and its international network were beginning to crumble, and the company’s management was reorganising its film production, which opened up an opportunity for Dreyer.
1906: The founding of Nordisk Film
Nordisk Film was founded by cinema-owner Ole Olsen (1863-1943) in 1906. Olsen’s timing was fortuitous. The film industry was enjoying a gigantic upswing, as the new medium moved from marketplace entertainment and music halls to more permanent venues. Small cinemas, often set up in former storefronts, were coming on like gangbusters in most cities and there was enormous demand for motion pictures. Olsen wagered on international sales from the get-go and by 1908 Nordisk Film had set up branches in Berlin, London, Vienna and New York.
1910-1914: Long films and massive expansion
In the early 1910s, Nordisk Film was the first international movie company to retool its production to multi-reel films. The custom in the film industry had been to limit films to what would fit on a single reel, 5 to 12 minutes of film. Den hvide Slavehandel (The White Slave Trade) (1910) was Nordisk Film’s first long film, running 603 metres (approx. 35 minutes). As early as 1913 the company produced a film, Atlantis, with a running time of over two hours.
The changeover to long films entailed a re-organisation of the company’s film production. A script department was set up to supply the company’s directors with screenplays based on explicit guidelines for the content of the films and spelling out the censorship rules in different markets. Nordisk Film went from working with one production team to operating with a steady staff of directors, cameramen, actors, carpenters, etc., who were hired for the shooting season. Expanding its capacity, the company was now able to film on five stages at once. Nordisk Film’s output peaked in 1915, when it turned out 174 films, including 96 features, which means that the company finished shooting nearly two features a week. In many ways, Nordisk Film’s centrally managed film production with separate departments anticipated the famous Hollywood studio system. It is not without good reason that the studios in Valby, after the reorganisation, were known as the "film factory." As World War I wore on, more and more export markets closed to Nordisk Film. The foundation for keeping up such a huge output volume was crumbling, forcing Nordisk Film to change its strategy.
Feeling the crisis – fewer films, layoffs
In spring 1918, as the war raged on, Olsen instituted a new set of "Work Rules for Studios," that took into account the drastically changing sales conditions – output had to be reduced. The company had already started closing down its script department the year before. Now the studio’s directors either had to come up with their own scripts or choose among the unused scripts in the script department’s archives, though Olsen still had final approval. Moreover, financial responsibility now fell to the director, who had to work out a production plan and a budget and was held responsible for possible cost overruns. Because of the falling volume, the company’s management eliminated its staff of actors and asked the directors to hire actors on a production-to-production basis. Some scholars have noted that Dreyer, both in The President and Leaves from Satan’s Book, broke with Nordisk Film’s production policy by not picking his actors from among the studio’s regular staff, but that is actually, as we have seen, a result of the studio’s new work rules. It was on this background of change, which included several of Nordisk Film’s regular directors leaving the studio, that Dreyer asked for his chance to direct and got it.
Nordisk Film stakes on The President
Dreyer picked a screenplay from the script department’s files – an adaptation of Der Präsident, an 1883 novel by the Austrian-German writer Karl Emil Franzos. It was an obvious choice. Dreyer was a literary agent representing several writers, among them Franzos’ widow Otillie, and Dreyer had sold the rights to Franzos’ novel to Nordisk Film in 1916. The film was shot in the summer of 1918 at Nordisk Film’s studios in Valby and in Visby on the Baltic island of Gotland. A final cut was ready in August, though the film did not premiere in Denmark until February of the following year.
Dreyer’s first film was not an average Nordisk Film production. Among the things that set it apart was its use of simple, symbolically loaded decorations. The company’s distributors and international branch offices did not receive The President well. This is apparent from Nordisk Film’s distribution records. Fotorama, which oversaw sales in Scandinavia, reported to Nordisk Film’s management,
"We think this will not be an audience film. Would not have bought it from another company." Nordisk Film’s London branch noted, "Value Nil. From our point of view this is a miserable and improbable story (...) there is nothing whatever to recommend it to exhibitors."
The negative comments notwithstanding, 42 prints of the film were sold worldwide, about double the average sales for a Nordisk film that year.
Leaves from Satan’s Book – Dreyer goes all in
Despite its poor finances, Nordisk Film in late 1918 had Dreyer begin pre-production for another film, the ambitious Leaves from Satan’s Book. The American director D.W. Griffith’s monumental film Intolerance (1916) had opened in Denmark in 1918. Its form, parallel-cutting between four different stories set in four different historical periods, was Dreyer’s model. Again, Dreyer was familiar with the screenplay from his time in Nordisk Film’s script department. Several times since 1913 the film’s writer Edgar Høyer had tried to sell the screenplay to Nordisk Film, and Dreyer considered Høyer’s screenplay to be "the best script the Nordisk Films Kompagni ever held in its hands."(letter from Dreyer to W. Stæhr, 23/3-1919)
Leaves from Satan’s Book was a big production with a budget of 120,000 kroner, but Dreyer’s goal was to create a unique work that would set a new standard for Danish films. Before shooting began, Dreyer wrote Nordisk Film’s management, insisting that the film could not be made for anything less than 230,000 kroner. There would be no compromising, and Dreyer made this ultimatum: if Nordisk Film were unwilling to meet his financial demands, he had a Swedish company on hand that was willing to take over the film lock, stock and barrel, including the screenplay and the costumes, sets and props that had already been made, and do the shoot in Sweden. (according to Dreyer's letter to Stæhr mentioned above). Olsen, the studio head, personally replied to Dreyer, pointing out that Dreyer had agreed to make the film for 120,000 kroner. Under no circumstances would that amount be doubled, though Olsen was willing to raise the film’s budget to as much as 150,000 kroner. He warned Dreyer that if the director did not budge, the company would hold him responsible for the consequences. (letter from Ole Olsen to Dreyer, 24/3 -1919)
After conferring with his attorney, Dreyer conceded that he was obligated to direct the film, and he also did not want to face a liability of 70,000-100,000 kroner. In his reply to Olsen, Dreyer wrote,
Thus I bow to the director general’s will and consent to make the film in such a way as you desire, although I solemnly renounce any responsibility for the finished film. (Dreyer's letter to Ole Olsen, 25/3-1919)
Dreyer later took back his words about renouncing the finished film. (letter from Dreyer to Ole Olsen, 26/3-1919) Whether Dreyer really had a Swedish company on hand to take over the production is doubtful.
Dreyer leaves the 'dead town'
Leaves from Satan’s Book was the last film to shoot at Nordisk Film that season. In September 1919, Nordisk Film laid off its personnel. "Well, apart from a few men to hold things together out in Valby," Olsen told the press, which now referred to the "film factory" as the "dead town." A final cut of the film was ready in early October, but just as The President had been held back, a couple of years would pass before Leaves from Satan’s Book opened (it premiered in Norway November 15, 1920, a couple of months before the Danish premiere). Nordisk Film’s distribution records state that Leaves from Satan’s Book was sold to at least 15 countries.
Despite his attempts to increase the budget for Leaves from Satan’s Book, and his later polemical attack on Nordisk Film in his article Svensk Film (Swedish Film), Dreyer stayed on amicable terms with Nordisk managing director Harald Frost. Dreyer was among the directors that Nordisk Film considered hiring in the 1926 season.
Stranded negotiations and short films
In 1942 – after a 10-year hiatus from directing – Dreyer returned to Nordisk for a stint and directed a short film, Good Mothers. His idea was to push through a feature film project at Nordisk Film, and the short would prove that he was able to stay on budget and follow a production schedule. However, Dreyer never managed to get a feature film into production at Nordisk Film. Dreyer negotiated with the company’s management about Day of Wrath for most of a year, until Nordisk chief executive Holger Brøndum definitively rejected the project in September 1942:
"The reason for abandoning 'Day of Wrath' can mostly be found in the person of Dreyer; he is as singularly peculiar as in the silent film days, losing himself in trifling matters – none of us no longer believe he can do anything but an experimental film as odd and absurd as his last silent film."
In the following years, Dreyer – via his engagement at Dansk Kulturfilm – was involved in a few other shorts for Nordisk Film: They Caught the Ferry (1948 – writer and director), Radio’s Childhood (1949 – treatment) and The Rebuilding of Rønne and Nexø (1954 / shot in 1945 – screenplay).