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Rystetur means Rigor: The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

 "No matter where he directed – France, Germany, Norway, Sweden – he found himself in constant conflict with producers and backers. They regarded him as an obstinate artist, and a costly one, because of his fanatical attention to detail and atmosphere."

                        Ephraim Katz

                        The Film Encyclopedia

Elements of a Director’s Style: Carl Theodor Dreyer 

 1) Subject Matter

a) How our emotions serve as the doorway to spirituality.

b) How morality is reflected in physical character; body is spirit.

c) The endurance of injustice and self-delusion in the face of the Divine.

d) The cultural details of the era of his stories.

e) Life's persistent quality of transcendence.


"Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry." 

                                                                        Carl Theodor Dreyer

                                                                        Thoughts on My Craft

2) Script:

Dreyer began his working life as a barroom pianist. His most substantial money earning came from his work as a court reporter. Both jobs influenced him greatly: the role of art in sanctifying the profane, and the transcendence available through (deceptively) simple, rigorous re-creation of life. He made only fourteen films in fifty-three years. At issue was money, Nazi repression, audience & critical scorn, money…but Dreyer never took on a project half-assed. If he needed five years to sort out his visual sense of story, then five years it was. Few filmmakers have so married visual narrative to emotional narrative, and few have been able to so scrap 'story' narrative for the emotional. By depicting every quark of every feeling experienced by his characters, Dreyer lets the 'story' unfold through the expression of his characters' emotions. This is, obviously, backwards from almost every other filmmaker. Most let the events of the narrative serve as the engine of their characters' emotions. (For example, Keanu experiences distress because there's a bomb on the bus.) While that should make Dreyer's films opaque, they are instead, luminous. His characters’ emotions are never unclear, and neither is the sequence of narrative events.


" His greatness lies in making tranquil pictures of overwhelming feeling. The sanctity of emotions is his faith and the cinematic ability to make an aesthetic and ordered narrative is his aim."

                        David Thomson

                        The Biographical Dictionary of Film


3) Images - Composition and Lighting

Known, rightfully, as the master of the close-up, Dryer's images are simple, uncluttered, direct, packed with narrative information and somehow filled with space that contextualizes the people or events each shot contains. His style alters not from film to film, but from period to period; his earlier silent films (and Vampyr is on the cusp between his sound and silent work) harken visually to his idol, D. W. Griffith. But Dreyer relied less on the American style of hurly-burly, hyper-active frames and more on a European, painterly understanding of how each element within a composition could wield spiritual, emotional and narrative power. The stateliness of his framing, the intensity of his compositions and the transcendent effects of his images, have earned him a kind of Film Society-only rep, the great filmmaker whose films should be worshipped but are too boring to be enjoyed. If you've never seen a Dreyer film, Joan of Arc will dispel that notion in the first five minutes.

            Whether Dreyer utilizes close-ups or weird tracking wide shots, the weight of his purposefulness palpably fuels his camerawork and composition: you will know and understand the emotional valence of a shot instantly, and that knowledge (and the feeling it provokes) will grow as the shot is held. His direct, recognizable purposefulness does not obscure the transcendent quality of his images. That manifest directorial will only makes the sense of divinity and awe grow. When you figure out how he accomplishes this, please let me know.

"What interests me is reproducing the feelings of the characters in my films. The important thing is not only to catch hold of the words they say, but also the thoughts behind the words. These are the expressions of the depth of the soul."

            Carl Theodor Dreyer

            Thoughts on My Craft


4) Acting Performances

            Dreyer’s actors are usually amateurs, chosen for their faces. Director Eric Rohmer, who calls Dreyer one of his 'dream masters,' echoed Dreyer's casting technique: he found actors whose faces bore a key quality he wanted his characters to manifest. Or, if not amateurs, Dreyer's actors might be avatars in other realms, like the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, who plays a tormented priest in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer ran his actors through a million takes; he almost killed poor Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan. Dreyer's insistence on capturing the most minute emotional truth, his willingness to shoot and shoot and shoot, his imperious and often obscure direction over eighteen months of shooting…all this lead Falconetti to never act again. 


5) Pace, Cadence and Rhythm

Dreyer's films always seem – in the first couple minutes – like they're going to take a long time to get to the point. But, unlike fellow Transcendent Robert Bresson, Dreyer never makes a story longer than it needs to be; Joan of Arc is shockingly compact. The intensity of each shot might make the pace seem slower than it really is. When a Dreyer film ends you're left still wishing it would go on, if for no other reason than to give you time to digest all you've felt. Dreyer paces to his own rhythm, and he's not compelled by separate acts or theatrical structure. He gives each scene the weight he thinks it warrants for its precise place in the (emotional) narrative and then moves on. A crucial scene might last for one close-up or it might take ten minutes.


"Throughout Dreyer's films and his writings about films there runs a consistent thread of ambiguity: whether art should express The Transcendent or the person (fictional character or film-maker) who experiences The Transcendent: whether Transcendence is an inner or outer reality."

            Paul Schrader

            Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer


6) Editing

Because Dreyer is famed for the power of his close-ups, you might think he structures his films primarily though cutting. He maintains that his editing is almost incidental, and that each shot so holds its own narrative purpose that it need not be juxtaposed against another to have its full effect (Kubrick and Tarkovsky operates similarly). I'm not so sure I believe it. Such a position is purposefully antagonistic to the classic Eisensteinian position that a shot’s meaning derives solely from its juxtaposition to other shots. Eisenstein held that an effective sequence of shots produces an effect greater than the sum of its parts. Dreyer cuts as if each shot was a film/painting/novel/universe unto itself. He has a knack of Eisensteinian reduction in action sequences – he eliminates every unnecessary visual moment to build sequences of great rhythm and narrative drive.


" Dreyer demonstrates triumphantly that the close-up was not just a means, but an end."

            David Thomson

            The Biographical Dictionary of Film


7) Use of supportive elements: design, costumes, music, etc.

Dreyer, like Rohmer after him, lets the costumes speak volumes about power, class, aspiration and social place. Each character is understood and known visually, and that knowledge comes from his or her dress. Yet, treading adroitly on the blurred line between reality/un, Dreyer places these almost realist figures in an almost purely expressionistic space. Deeply influenced (during this era of his career, at least) by German Expressionism, Dreyer's sets are never quite as real, as symmetrical, as naturalist as his costumes. He likes his wholly real figures to move in a world that is bent just enough to express not physical, but emotional reality. And the universe of soul and spirit lurking behind and occasionally expressed by that emotion.




Laurie Bird as The Girl, James Taylor as The Driver, Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, '55 Chevy as The Car. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

By David Wilentz

Is there anything left unsaid about the greatness of Two Lane Blacktop? Note to the uninitiated: Two Lane is the epitome of that modern American art form, the road movie. Easy Rider established the genre (For The Mainstream) with its counter-culture quest for the self unraveling along the American highway.

Two Lane took this concept to another level, breaking all the tropes down to a bare minimum until all that remains are characters named ‘Driver’ and ‘Mechanic.’ Even more telling is that the cars (a ’55 Chevy and a ’70 Pontiac GTO) are characters themselves, who rival the humans for prominence as they fly through our languid landscape. While Easy Rider overtly referenced that other great American genre, the Western (protagonists named Wyatt and Billy), Two Lane thematically and stylistically bears the trait that defines the greatest heroes of the West: restraint.Two Lane replaces both the horse and the gun with the cars; the drag races that move the narrative are metonymical gunfights. Curiously, the journey has been inverted—our protagonists travel west to east, and their path seems to have neither goal, nor an end in sight. The quest has been reduced to nothingness: these characters go just to go.

Director Monte Hellman’s vision leaves exposition by the wayside, allowing the visuals to elicit devastating emotions from the weight of simply being; framing often removes the audience from the usual role of spectator, putting us inside the existence-defining action (or non-action). In the film’s opening, a figure glows in the darkness as he switches the red-green light signal that starts a street race. The figure—isolated in that one tiny but momentous moment—is removed from any cultural assumptions as the illumination of Hellman’s mesmerizing frame grants him transcendence from any identifiable existence.

Hellman’s elliptical style recalls European auteurs such as that other non-actor-employing existentialist Bresson or that former painter Antonioni. But the American tradition is also strongly felt. Working for Roger Corman trained Hellman in the fast buck, no-budget school of filmmaking. Corman’s first film was The Fast and Furious, a racing picture. Car and highway culture are, after all, vital elements of Americana. Mesh that with counterculture fallout and youthful ennui and you arrive at the makings of a road movie.

Hellman’s mastery of efficient, minimal storytelling is evident in the power and beauty of Two Lane’s simple, stripped down visuals. Those seeking a story-driven plot and tangible character motivations will find Two Lane challenging. What makes Two Lane rewarding is the dream-like state it evokes from seemingly mundane moments. iftheymovekillem's very own film editor David N. Meyer is featured on one of the two commentary tracks on this deluxe edition, in which he had the honor of interviewing Two Lane screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. Meyer and Wurlitzer pose the question “What is a road movie?” On a basic level they posit a simple aspect of a multi-layered definition: it is so American to be able to use so called low-culture, such as that of gear heads and drag racing, as a lens through which to examine some seriously heavy metaphysical shit. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if anyone wins the race—the drive exists forever in a dreamscape.


Melville, Maggie & A Box of Classics

Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville, Criterion

The immovable object: Lino Ventura © Criterion 1966.

For Melville, physical courage exists to prove moral courage. Outlaw allegiance, upheld in blood and suffering, grants crooks their nobility —it renders their lives neither meaningless nor sordid. Conniving cops, with the law on their side, never pay for their lies, and are found wanting in honor by thieves and murderers. 

Deuxiéme embraces this contradiction directly. It’s what the story is about, never mind assassinated motorcycle cops, looted armored cars tumbling off thousand-foot cliffs or matter-of-fact bloodbaths in tiny rented rooms. That Melvilleian combination of casual, gutter beauty and meticulous order harkens to 1960’s Le Trou (Jacques Becker) and Classe tous risqué (Claude Sautet), and both are based on hard-boiled novels by former death-row inmate Jose Giovanni, who also wrote Deuxiéme.

Apparently Melville’s way of dealing with the nouvelle vague that threatened to make him irrelevant was to ignore it. His old-school visual grammar, which somehow co-exists with pyrotechnic capers and shoot-outs, becomes neoclassicism, and shows all les whippersnappers where they got their transgressive moral—and subversive visual—ideas in the first place. The moral rigor Melville finds more compelling than any heist or love story manifests in his throwback composition and cutting. His opening shots pay homage to Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1957), and Deuxiéme exudes an incongruous Bressonian air of penitential suffering and saint-like patience. Stone-faced Lino Ventura awaits his fate in a series of grubby hide-outs, and is undone only when he expresses the tiniest shred of human emotion. Give him men to kill and he does not blink; fool his murdering friends into regarding him as a snitch and he goes berserk. And, for all the blood on Lino’s hands, the way the cops trick him feels like an ethical outrage.

If Melville were just a hair less deliberate, the crime story would dominate. For any other director, the mind-blowing caper in the middle of the picture would be the climax—of the film and of a life’s work. Melville presents it all in a weirdly gripping monotone. Crime exists to pay the rent; the true struggle takes place inside a man’s soul. Melville’s rigorous Zen reductivism would find its true expression one year later in his masterpiece, Le SamouraiDeuxiéme remains his most sincere, least ironic noir, the one most vested in narrative. Of course it’s a classic.

The DVD extras feature a remarkably eloquent and illuminating interview with director Bernard Tavenier.


 Man in a sewer, "Do The Madison" and hot donkey love. © Rialto Pictures


10 Years of Rialto Pictures, Criterion

A godsend, a crucial library, an extraordinarily rich, efficient introduction to a range of cinema touchstones. The set includes (best film ever made?) The Third Man;Touchez pas au grisbi, an early, brutal, debonair French noir and a key influence on Melville, Becker, and Dassin; Rififi, Dassin’s existential, misanthropic caper-noir, featuring a history-making wordless twenty-minute heist; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the most concise and accessible of Bunuel’s comedies of manners; Band of Outsiders, which features Godard’s sweetest set-pieces: the six-minute Louvre and Do The Madison; and Bresson’s heartbreaking Au Hasard Balthazar.Balthazar functions for Bresson as this set partially functions for a particular period: as a profound gateway to more complex films and ideas. Given that the set contains six top-20-ever-made pictures, the remaining four suffer a bit by comparison. Army of Shadows might be the only accurate drama of the French Underground made by a member of the French Underground, but Melville’s narrative is too lugubrious for me. Billy Liar’s Angry Young Men concerns leave it dated, though Tom Courtenay still commands the screen. Murderous Maids—as a 2000 release the most current film by almost 30 years – tries to merge Chabrol-style working-class-vs.-ruling-class true-life violence with red-hot lesbo action. That’s a tough combo to pull off and it succeeds intermittently. Mafioso suffers from simply being an unfunny farce.

It’s almost a joke—a legend—how difficult it was to find these films before the DVDrevolution. How scratchy, miserable 16mm prints were projected on bedsheets hung in dormitory basements, and how seminal the Film Forum (Rialto partner Bruce Goldstein has programmed at the Film Forum for over 20 years) and other repertory houses were in providing the only glimpse possible of these pictures. And now here they are together, reasonably priced, a fingertip reservoir of history, influences and cross-currents, packed up smaller than a Tom Clancy novel: Cinema 101 in a box.


Maggie rules Paris © Zeitgeist Films (1996).


Irma Vep (1996), Dir. Olivier Assayas, Zeitgeist Films

It looked for a while there like Assayas was going to prove a significant, groundbreaking director. Instead he ended up making the same picture over and over, even if he always found new subject matter.Irma Vep appeared as an aberration, a backstage movie-about-a-movie, a comedy of manners and romance with more meta than most romances could bear. Twelve years later, this apparent confection is clearly Assayas’s best picture, his most heartfelt, and a genuine valentine to the nouvelle vague, to the jovial insanity of film-making and to the (at that time anyway) love of his life, Hong Kong action goddess Maggie Cheung. The most engaging meta (because it seems to be unconscious) is Assayas falling in love with his leading lady through the lens of his camera. Cheung glows with an inner light and perfect lighting as no one has glowed since Godard fell for Anna Karina. Cheung’s director is way smitten, and Assayas’s infatuation renders his pretensions more sweet than galling—most of the time. Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud metas up a storm as a director who’s past his prime and crazy as a shit-house rat. Any laughter is undercut with unease, because Leaud does seem a total loon. And, speaking of goddesses, Bulle Ogier—Jacque Rivette’s muse and leading lady ­—here gleefully loses herself in a cameo as a meddlesome best friend. As in all of Assayas’s pictures, everyone is gorgeous, chic like mad and froggily verbose. Despite Vep’s excess of charm, watching involves a constant struggle between irritation (at its unnecessarily mannered and self-congratulatory style) and appreciation (at so many riotous self-referential performances). In the end, however, we are as powerless as Assayas before the astonishing beauty and grace of Maggie Cheung