Gertrud was received in two rounds. The world premiere took place in Paris on 18 December 1964. Critics from the Danish papers were in the audience to write first-hand reviews and report on what was a major event: a new film by Dreyer after a 10-year hiatus. Edvin Kau sums up the premiere in his 1989 Dreyer monograph:
"The world premiere of 'Gertrud' on 18 December 1964 in Paris was a scandal. Many members of the French press and other audience at the matinee press screening behaved rudely. The technology in the new cinema, which, as it were, had hardly been decorated in time for the show, failed. The film stopped several times, the subtitles were illegible – and the reels were projected out of order. Irritation at the mishaps was transferred to the film. People laughed and sighed and hissed at a narrative style they were completely unprepared for, did not understand and found too pathetic. The initial reactions and notices were accordingly negative. Self-aggrandising Parisian journalists denigrated the film and, most perfidiously, ridiculed Dreyer as being senile. The Danish critics on the scene wasted no time filing reports on the disaster and the downcast atmosphere at the evening’s gala premiere and about how awfully heavy and almost unbearably pathetic the film was."
The opening in Paris
The reviews appeared in the Danish papers the next day under such headlines as "Dreyer makes Wrong Choice" (Anders Bodelsen, Information), "Disaster in Paris – Too Late and in Vain" (Jens Kruse, Jyllands-Posten), "Nobody Wants Your Love" (Harald Engberg, Politiken) and “Sadly a Complete Failure" (BRIS = E. Chr. R. Bernhardsen, B.T.). In general, the film was criticised for its stiff acting, dragging pace, "old-fashioned" theatrical dialogue and its epilogue, which seemed comical to most. Even the Danish ambassador to France, Eyvind Bartels, had an acidic comment published in Kristeligt Dagblad, describing the film as "revealing a weakness of mind and will, it is not tragic but laughable. The film is a sequence of 19th-century photogravures. Over it lies a fog of self-pity."
In contrast to the prevailing doomsday mood, Bent Grasten’s review in Ekstrabladet unconditionally lauds the film’s cinematic qualities, calling it "excellent" and "entertaining" and defending the film’s slowness as follows, “It [the slowness] is not realistic because it shows what we see; it is realistic because it shows what is in the mind, the soul, the senses and the emotions. For that reason, 'Gertrud' is an insatiably thrilling film, too, if you immediately pursue its inner realism."
While many, particularly the younger, French critics were strongly dissatisfied with the film, prominent critics and filmmakers voiced their enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, they were quoted in the Danish papers. Henri Chapier of the Combat morning paper calls Gertrud "an intellectual event," describing the film as "an elegy of joy alternating with sorrow." He writes that Dreyer has managed to give the film a kind of Japanese symbolism and that "it is so widely different from an ordinary film as a Mozart mass is from a village mass" (quoted in various papers, including Berlingske Tidende, 23 Dec. 1964). Jean de Baroncelli of Le Monde pointed out that, although the film might seem banal at first glance, it ought to be seen twice. He called the film "the most secretive, the most mysterious" of Dreyer’s films, highlighting the film’s "mysterious aura that penetrates to the innermost regions of our minds" (Aktuelt, 24 Dec. 1964). Roughly a year later, in February 1966, the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma reported that 26 out of 48 French filmmakers had named Gertrud one of the 10 best films of the last decade.
The Danish premiere
Two weeks after its world premiere, Gertrud opened in Denmark, on New Year’s Day 1965. The Parisian premier and the vehement reviews it engendered had obviously taken some of the sting out of the "disaster" and, even though people were not exactly lining up to wash their hands of the film, the reception, that is, the criticism, of the film, was, if not actually more muted, at least more nuanced. The audience was divided, but some – especially women – found it gripping, as is apparent from the enormous debate that the film generated in the press.
A statement by the Italian master-director Michelangelo Antonioni, after he saw Gertrud during a visit to Stockholm, in many ways encapsulates the prevailing reaction to the film: " 'Gertrud' is for me an enigma. It is a film, ridiculous or sublime. I cannot judge it at all. One cannot for half an hour witness a conversation between Italian filmmakers without hearing Carl Dreyer’s name mentioned in one connection or another. His film is enormously important to people who make films here, take part in making films or write about film” (Politiken, 25 June 1965).
Like several of Dreyer’s past works, Gertrud and its mixed reception triggered wide debate in newspapers and magazines. For several weeks, the papers reverberated with articles, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, replies and counter-replies – collectively known as the "Gertrud-debate." Prominent Danish writers and intellectuals wrote about it, including Bettina Heltberg, Elsa Gress, Eske Holm, Elisabeth Amdisen, Hanne Kaufmann, Jørgen-Richard Lund, Chr. Braad Thomsen, Werner Thierry, Eva Bendix, Lennart Toft, Clifford Wright, Erik Ulrichsen and many, many others. One writer was apparently unable to get the papers to print his piece, which he self-published in the form of a personal letter to "Mrs Gertrud": Carl Th. Dreyers film "Gertrud" En kommentar ("Carl Th. Dreyer’s Film 'Gertrud.' A Comment). Private press, autumn 1965.