The 2002 Restoration

This is an account of the 2002 restoration of Carl Th. Dreyer’s 1922 film Der var engang (Once upon a Time). It is a description of the various choices made in the course of the process, and also includes a few interesting findings about Dreyer’s film made in the course of restoration. The article was published in Journal of Film Preservation #67, June 2004.


The Film: Structure

In order to clarify the descriptions that follow, an outline of the film is listed below. The Swedish censorship title list is divided into seven
numbered sections, which probably corresponded to reels or acts; the sections certainly work well as large-scale dramaturgical units. The film is structured as follows:
Section 1 The royal palace of Illyria: the Princess and her suitors; she rejects all of them, including the Prince of Denmark.
Section 2 The Prince obtains a magic kettle; disguised as a tinker, he sits outside the gate of the Princess’s garden; she agrees to let him sleep in her chamber in return for the kettle; that evening, the Prince’s musicians serenade the Princess.
Section 3 The disguised Prince in the Princess’s bedchamber; discovered by the king, the Princess is thrown out and must become the companion of the tinker-prince.
Section 4 The Prince and Princess live together in a hut in the forest, bickering constantly.
Section 5 The Princess takes clay pots to market, but they get smashed; as they are penniless, the Prince turns to poaching, but when he is pursued by the royal foresters, she fears for his life and declares her love for him.
Section 6 She goes to the castle to beg for food in the kitchen, when it is proclaimed that the Prince is going to marry a foreign princess, but since she has been taken ill, someone who can fit the wedding dress must take her place. The dress fits the princess.
Section 7 The wedding takes place, and the Prince offers the Princess to become his queen, instead of his promised bride, but she rejects him for the beggar she lives with in the forest - and then it is revealed that the two are one and the same.

This structure also mirrors that of Drachmann’s play rather closely. Drachmann’s Der var engang has five acts, but a total of eight scenes,
Act I A hall in the royal palace of Illyria
Act II, scene 1 The gardens behind the palace
Act II, scene 2 The bed-chamber of the Princess
Act III In Denmark; outside the potter’s hut
Act IV, scene 1 The market square
Act IV, scene 2 Inside the hut
Act V, scene 1 The castle kitchen
Act V, scene 2 In Denmark; outside the potter’s hut

Each section of the film thus corresponds to an act or scene in Drachmann’s play, except that the two scenes of the play’s fourth act have been compressed to one section. In fact, Dreyer’s screenplay shows that he had planned to shoot a large medieval market scene, but this apparently had to be abandoned, and the smashing of the clay pots now occurs on the open road, involving only a handful of extras. (Strictly speaking, if the sections were to have matched the acts exactly, the serenade from Act II scene 2 of the play should have been at the beginning of section 3 rather than at the end of section 2, but this represents only a slight adjustment).

The Film: Surviving Material

Sections 1, 2, 4 and 5 survive relatively intact; in addition, two brief fragments of section 3 and one of section 6 still exist. Section 7 is
completely missing. This material derives from two different original elements: a fragment held by the Danish Film Museum prior to 1955 and an incomplete print discovered in a storeroom at the Palads cinema in Copenhagen in 1958. Both of these elements have since decomposed. The present restoration is based on a fine-grain master made in 1964 from a dupe negative which includes both the
original elements. It would appear that reels 1, 2 and 4 of the fine-grain correspond to the rediscovered print, whereas reel 3 is the
fragment: the assumption being that the relatively complete sections, 1, 2, 4 and 5, come from the rediscovered print, whereas the brief
bits from sections 3 and 6 come from the other source. [total length of the latter: 0:06:15 / 178 meters]

The section 1, 2, 4, 5 material contains intertitle markers, consisting of a frame with a handwritten number plus, in some cases, a German flash title in negative. The fragments of sections 3 and 6 have no such indications; the first fragment of section 3, showing the disguised Prince lying down to sleep next to the fireplace in the Princess’s bedroom, is cut in what seems to be a reasonable continuity, but the first frame of most of the shots contains hand-scratched numbers, suggesting that it does not come from a finished projection print. The other section 3 fragment shows the Prince’s companion Kasper Smokehat in the King’s chambers, demanding that he cooperate in the Prince’s plan to tame the Princess; this also has no intertitle indications, its continuity is somewhat odd, and an insert shot is missing from it. It is difficult to say whether this material is finished or not.

The fragment from section 6 is definitely not finished material; the shots are completely out of order, there are no title indications, and the fragment contains several takes of the same shot, including one where Svend Methling stops in the middle of a movement and shrugs his shoulders - obviously a failed take. Indeed, the whole fragment may consist of outtakes, but since no other material survives from the reel in question, as much as possible of the fragment was used for the restoration. A number of stills survive, especially the stills from the final wedding sequence were instrumental in the restoration, since they are the only image elements surviving from this section of the film.

The Intertitles: Text

The main purpose of the restoration has been to reestablish the film’s intertitles, supplemented with explanatory titles that would give the
spectator at least some idea of the structure and storyline of Dreyer’s film. The main source for the intertitles was a title list from the archives of Statens biografbyra, the Swedish film censorship office. The Swedish censors would keep complete title lists for all films they passed. The titles in the list are numbered from 2 to 147; further, there are six additional titles numbered 2a, 3a, 3b, 3c, etc. Quite a few of the title numbers (thirty-three in all) have no corresponding text, however, only the indication “(Omitted)”, giving a total of 119 titles. These have all been translated into Danish, and all but two of them have been used in the restoration (one of them credits the Swedish distributor of the film; the other, a dialogue title, will be discussed below). In a number of cases, however, the precise wording has been adjusted in accordance with other sources.

The other sources used for the intertitles are the German flash titles in the print, the program booklet for the Danish premiere, Dreyer’s
screenplay, and Drachmann’s play. The intertitles in the print that the Danish Film Museum, now the Danish Film Institute / Archive & Cinematheque, has distributed until now, have all been printed up from the German flash titles in the fine-grain. The wording of the German flash titles is in all cases very similar to that found in the Swedish title list, and where the German wording has seemed more felicitous, it has been preferred to the Swedish. However, only in about half the places where the master contains title markers does it also contain flash titles.

The Swedish list has thus supplied a large number of additional titles, which make the narrative much more comprehensible and the rhythm of the film more appreciable. For the exact wording of the Danish translation of some of the titles, the program booklet has been used. It is illustrated with stills; the captions for most (but not all) of the illustrations are given in quotation marks and clearly follow the wording of intertitles from the film. The title introducing the Prince, for instance, is given in the Swedish title list as: “Fran den fjarran Norden kom en kungason till Illyriens kust for att vinna den skonaste av prinsessor.” The program booklet, beneath a close-up of the Prince, has: “Hojt oppe fra det hoje Nord var en Kongeson stavnet mod Illyriens Kyster for at vinde den skonneste af alle - Prinsessen.” While these two texts are very similar, there are slight differences in emphasis. The wordings of these program booklet captions have been preferred to exact translations of the Swedish titles in the six cases where they have been available. Also, at the end of section 4, there is a scene in the hut where the Princess prays before a little religious image. For this scene, there are no titles in the Swedish list, but no less than seven titles are listed as “omitted” at the end of section 4, two of which are said to have been “omitted because of cuts.” Since there was a further caption in the program booklet supplying a much-needed explanation for this scene, it seemed reasonable to use the caption text at this point. The program booklet also contains a plot summary, and it contains several sentences that correspond closely to some of the Swedish titles. Where this is the case, the Danish translation is based on the wording of the booklet summary.

Finally, there are some of the Swedish titles (though fewer than one might perhaps expect) that appear to be based on lines from the play, and here, the new titles follow Drachmann’s words. A total of twentyeight titles are, wholly or in part, phrased identically to lines in the play. Dreyer’s personal copy of the screenplay, with many handwritten notes, survives in the collections of the Danish Film Institute. It does not, however, contain very many lines of dialogue, and the intertitles have not been written out, as they sometimes are in screenplays of the time. Furthermore, we cannot rely on the screenplay to tell us what the completed film looked like; there is at least one clear instance - the potsmashing scene, mentioned previously - where the finished film is completely different from the screenplay. It is not just the fact that a spectacular scene with lots of extras and a large set of a medieval town has been dropped; the change also affects our understanding of the two main characters. In the finished film, the foresters who accost the Princess on the road and smash the pots may have been ordered to do so by their master the Prince, but this is nowhere stated explicitly, and it is easy to interpret as misfortune. The point of the market-place scene, as conceived by Drachmann and described in Dreyer’s screenplay, is that it is the Prince himself, disguised (again) as a swaggering manat-arms, who smashes the pots as part of his shrew-taming scheme.

The screenplay has been used for some of the descriptive titles in section 7. With only one exception, the very first title of the section, all
the titles on the list are dialogue titles. In order to clarify the action, some descriptive titles have been added. The four that follow the first, written in a rather grand, romantic style, have been taken directly from the plot summary in the program booklet. The rest of the descriptions (which follow after the stills of the wedding in the restored print) adhere closely to the screenplay.

The Intertitles: Placement and Design

The German title numbers follow the Swedish list closely, but not exactly; there are a couple of cases where there is a title marker, but no corresponding title in the list; and there are half-a-dozen cases where no markers can be found to correspond to a Swedish title. In most of these instances, it was very evident where the title was supposed to go in, and it was inserted at that point. The speech of the second suitor was more problematic. Finally, in section 2, when the Princess gets tired of playing with her maids of honour, the Swedish list contains a title reading “This is no fun any more. Let’s do something else.” It was not possible to find a point where this title could be
satisfactorily inserted and in the end it was decided to leave it out altogether.

Where sequences are missing, it has been necessary to explain what is happening to the extent that other sources allow us to establish it. Most of the intertitles in the list contain only dialogue. All lines of dialogue have been retained (except the one just mentioned). Where explanation and dialogue appear together in one title, the dialogue is original, but the explanation has been added by us. The German flash titles are printed in an elegant, flowing italic typeface. It proved difficult to find a typeface that was reasonably similar; furthermore, it was decided that the new print should have dual-language titles (in both Danish and English). Therefore, a clear and uncluttered roman typeface, Garamond,was preferred to choosing an italic typeface that would be less legible without being able to give a faithful impression of what the German titles looked like.

The Restoration: Editing

The duplicate positive was scanned in standard definition (720x576). This scan was imported in an AVID editing suite, where the intertitles, stills and framegrabs were inserted. Also, a number of individual frames that did not contain any images were removed. All title markers and flash titles were removed when the titles were inserted. In several places, the film was interrupted by short stretches of black leader with writing on it. This writing seemed to be shot numbers or leader information for reel identification. These scribbles were removed in all the places they occurred. Furthermore, in three or four places, the film must have been looped back during printing, resulting in the double duplication of brief bits of film. These were also taken out. Also, in a few places there were completely white frames. These we mostly took out as well. The first frame of most of the shots in the bedchamber sequence from section 3 had handwritten numbers on them; these numbers had been scratched directly on the image, not on blank frames preceding it. Cutting them out meant losing one frame of not-terribly defective image from each shot; leaving them in place, however, produced so much flicker that after some deliberation, we ended up deciding to remove them. Only in the fragment from section 6, where the shots were clearly out of order and several of them evidently retakes did we do any actual editing.

The final result is basically guesswork.We started from the title list, which gave some indication of the overall development of the
scene: first, Smokehat measures the scullery maids to see if any of them fit the wedding dress; then, the Prince enters; the Princess is
measured, is found to be the right size, and the Prince orders her to be led away; finally, Smokehat flirts with and proposes to Bolette, one of the maids. In a few places,where short sequences are missing, freeze-frames were made and inserted to clarify who is speaking.

The Duplication: Digital Intermediate

The duplication of the film was performed using a digital intermediate process. As mentioned above, the film elements were first transferred in standard definition in order to use an AVID editing suite. The resulting edit decision list (EDL) from the AVID editing suite was then imported into an Inferno effects workstation for the high definition film work. A high definition (2K, 1920x1440) scan of the film on a Spirit datacine was imported and conformed to the EDL and the film was assembled in reels prior to being re-recorded back to 35 mm black and white negative stock (2238) on an Arrilaser film recorder. From the new negative a few 35 mm prints (5302) were produced for cinema use. A digital betacam tape video master was produced from the down-scaled 2K data and a 17 fps videomaster created from this was used for the subsequent DVD release.

The choice of a digital intermediate duplication process was two-fold. Since the basis of the restoration was a duplicate positive, already two duplication stages away from the original prints it derived from, it was decided to minimize further analogue duplication stages. Also, the large number of edits required, some only omitting single or very few frames, required very good preview facilities, which the AVID editing station allowed, while a conventional negative edit would invariably have fallen short in precision and flexibility.

Der var engang is available on DVD through the Danish Film Institute,

Published in Journal of Film Preservation #67, June 2004.

Det Danske Filminstitut CARL TH. DREYER - THE MAN AND HIS WORK


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