Dreyer’s film production can be divided into three phases. The first phase spans the period from his directorial debut in 1919 to Master of the House (1925). The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932) stand as the first stylistic experiments, while also marking the transition from his last silent film to his first experiment with sound. The third phase embraces his Danish sound films that in many ways can be seen as the culmination of his work.
The early films – a variety of genres and styles
The first phase is characterised especially by the films’ variety of genres and styles. Dreyer in his day was quite pleased with that characterisation. He sought, he said, to give each film its own unique style linked to the subject, action, story and environment on which that particular film turns. The early phase can also be seen as an apprenticeship in which genres and styles were tried out. While the styles vary, the thematic lines are clear and cohesive. From his first film on, Dreyer consistently focused on the fates of women, not fallen women, as in his first film, or suffering women, but suffering women as strong individuals in opposition, who choose their own destiny when the alternative is compromise and tepidness.
The latter aspect seems to become more dominant over the years – from Joan of Arc up to his last film, Gertrud. Against these female characters, men stand as representatives of power and the law – whether they are ecclesiastical inquisitors, stern individuals, who cling to their religious interpretations but are redeemed through woman and miracle, as in The Word; influential men of power, as in Gertrud; or a simple, petit-bourgeois domestic tyrant, as in Master of the House.
While exploring different genres and styles, each of the earliest films is still marked by Dreyer’s will to develop the cinematic language and test the limits. His ambition is evident already in his first films for Nordisk Film. The President keeps its rhythm, while a complicated flashback structure is employed to try out a narrative style, which he later dismissed as a failure. Leaves from Satan’s Book shows an inspiration from D.W. Griffith’s pioneering masterpiece Intolerance (US, 1916), and the young director clearly intended it to be a seminal work that would set the standard for future films. Both films depict suffering women who are victims of the patriarchal societal order.
As The Parson’s Widow, Master of the House and Once Upon a Time show, Dreyer was more than a man of great seriousness, he also had a unique sense of humour. Understanding and respect between the sexes is the theme and variation of all three films. The director’s two German productions, Love One Another and Michael, in a number of ways stand somewhat apart in his work. Love One Another is a rather bombastic tale of a Russian pogrom, politically instigated in part to divert attention away from revolutionary movements. Again, intolerance is at issue, as in Leaves from Satan’s Book, though here it originates in social prejudice and political ideologies. Michael depicts love and its ultimate demands, here in a variation with homoerotic undertones in the relationship between a master and his student.
Joan of Arc and Vampyr – visual experiments
Dreyer’s international breakthrough came with The Passion of Joan of Arc, in all respects a masterpiece by Dreyer as well as the culmination of silent film. In Joan of Arc, Dreyer experiments with editing and rhythm with a never-before-seen intensity, leading to an artistically overwhelming end result.
The pace of Vampyr is altogether different, dragging and hypnotic, with somnambulistic camera travellings. The film was shot through a lens covered in gauze, which gives it its distinctive, bleached-out look. Without leaning on the conventional horror-film vocabulary, Dreyer in Vampyr creates an extraordinarily ominous atmosphere of mystique and supernatural forces by photography and nearly somnambulistic camera movements matching the characters’ experiences. By pure visual magic, Vampyr seduces the viewer into an intangible, supernatural world.
The two films show different aspects of the magic of cinema. Both are highpoints in Dreyer’s art, and they are also his darkest films, their protagonists stretched between heaven and hell.
The final three films – simplicity and uncompromisingness
Dreyer’s third phase comprises his three Danish sound films that can be seen as the culmination of his work. In these films, he continually strives to pare down his style to the utmost simplicity, the minimum required for most clearly expression his thought and bringing out the generally abstract conceptual content. In them, he refines and simplifies the editing, rhythm and interior design, while tightening his themes. All three films are about women, love and the demand for faith and total devotion. Next to The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is his indisputable masterpiece. It contains one of the greatest moments in Dreyer’s art, when the young, innocent woman becomes conscious of herself as an erotic creature and, as such, in possession of a power that could be likened to witchcraft.
In its photography, rhythm of movement and emotional intensity, The Word with unparalleled conviction manipulates the viewer into hoping for, and believing in, the possibility of the Christian miracle, while also celebrating carnal love and life itself. It is not mad Johannes but earthy Inger who is at the centre of the film and its action. It is she who is necessary for the farm and the family’s daily life and future. She embodies the love that is the film’s subject, the same kind of love that slowly dawns on Anne in Day of Wrath. Inger’s last words, “Life, life,” should be considered in the context of her husband’s remark that he also loved her body. When, resurrected, Inger seeks her husband’s mouth in kisses, it is in carnal hunger. Love and the innocence of a child conquer death, leaving us convinced that this is possible.
The title character in Gertrud chooses a life of solitude rather than a life with tepid men or, at the least, men who fail to live up to her ultimate demand that they set everything aside for love. Thoroughly stylised, the film in statuary scenes and elaborate camera movements captures people who may be in the same room but are still apart. Gertrud is the ultimate story of uncompromisingness, the demand for ideal love. It is a peerless film that, in its unfailing consistency and originality, is every bit as uncompromising as its protagonist. Exactly like Dreyer, who, in the cause of cinema, throughout his life was uncompromising in his demands of himself and others.