The President is set in an unspecified European country in the late 19th century. In the film’s prologue, Karl Victor von Sendlingen has to promise his dying father not to marry beneath his station. A flashback reveals that the father was forced into an unhappy marriage with a girl from a lower social class when he got her pregnant. Thirty years later, Karl Victor is a presiding judge ("president") in a small town. He is sentencing to death a young woman, Victorine, who has killed her own child born in secret, when he realises the young woman is his own daughter. A second flashback shows how his vow to his father made him break off with the young girl he loved because she was a commoner. She later died giving birth to their daughter. After much soul-searching, Karl Victor frees his daughter from her cell and together they flee the country. A few years later, when Victorine is happily married, death catches up with Karl Victor.
Dreyer’s impressive debut film shows his enormous ambition in its intricate flashback narrative structure and its refined images, in which Dreyer was deliberately striving to imitate such painters as Whistler and Hammershøi. Dreyer personally designed the interior sets. Moreover, he toured Swedish and Norwegian theatres to find the right actors. Most remarkable about the film is the psychological complexity with which the protagonist is portrayed. Very few films before 1920 demonstrate anything remotely like it.
The President premiered in Sweden in February 1919, but rather surprisingly a full year passed before Nordisk Film released the film in Denmark. Nordisk seems to have had a policy of holding back certain finished films to avoid saturating the market, though it is unclear whether that is sufficient explanation. The President was not zealously promoted, nor did the critics appear to have paid it much attention. Still, Nordisk’s management was satisfied enough with Dreyer’s initial effort to let him try his hand at a far bigger production.