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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.




More balls than brains. © IFC FIlms

Last year’s Festival marked an inspirational return to its original purpose: showcasing the best films from around the world with no pandering and no worrying about what NY audiences might be ready for. The middle of the roading and compromised choices of previous years were gone. Last year was a brave, forward-thinking and comprehensive Festival. And this year follows…after nobody showed up last year for John Ford’s Iron Horse, the Festival contented itself with a revival only of Lola Montes, and its screenings were held in the best theater on earth, the Ziegfeld. The Festival ran into trouble when it reached out too eagerly to Hollywood, but otherwise presented a true omnibus, a comprehensive report from the world—the entire world—of movies.

Chouga Dir: Darezhan Omirbayev

A Kazahkstanian adaptation of Anna Karenina filmed at a cough-syrup pace and performed by zombies. The dialogue, delivered in muted tones, matches the actors’ blank faces and compressed movements. Is this is a stylistic choice made to metaphorasize the crushing existential weight of life in the new Kazakhstan or does the director simply prefer a super mega hella deadpan? Either way, time slows to a crawl and one’s attention turns to the other-worldly mise-en-scene.Omirbayev’s lingering, static camera, and embalmed narrative provide a detailed tour of the ghastly interior decorating choices of the Kazakh bourgeoisie. Again, is the director filling space or offering social commentary? I don’t know, but I do know this: the main problem with remaking Anna Karenina is the same problem with re-making the story of Jesus: we all know exactly how it turns out.

Summer Hours Dir: Olivier Assayas

Another tale of manners among the haute bourgeoisie, this time focusing on adult siblings dealing with the loss of their mother and her exquisite house, a place of memories for them all. This is a long way from Assayas’s Boarding Gate and its super-hot, super-tough jet-setting corporate babes writhing in liquid leather while being electrocuted on internet torture sites. Since I walked out of Gate at the 3/4 mark, I cannot tell you the point of that exercise. Summer Hours fomented a similar response. The familial moments are well-played (if hardly credible), the cinematography warm as home-baked croissants, and the house a marvel ofDwell-Magazine perfection. But why, at this point in history, does Assayas find the tiny emotional torments of the extremely well-off so fascinating? There’s no drama save gauging how constantly irritated Juliet Binoche appears, and how cumulatively irritating her performance becomes. When Michael Haneke makes mincemeat of tales like these with Caché, and builds his story on the lies that underlie Assayas’s every premise, you have to take Summer Hours as a case of willful blindness, straight-up nostalgia or misguided Truffaut imitation. Though, as in all of his films, Assayas does create a sense of long-time, fraught relationships among his characters.

 Night and Day Dir: Hong Sang-soo

Hong’s baffled, paralytic, passive-aggressive male hero sits in his Parisian hostel (run and peopled by other Koreans) killing time, smoking, talking to his wife on the phone, ignoring the fact that he’s in Paris and waiting for something to happen. He has no money, goals or ambition. The guy’s a dufus and fantastically repressed. His response to anger or affection is an affable smile. And yet, he falls in love and others fall for him and he somehow remains compelling. Hong’s the Korean Eric Rohmer; his simple frames, flummoxed men, willful women and Paris backgrounds are such Rohmer tropes. The familiarity of Hong’s form renders his content even more charming and recognizable. Like Rohmer’s, Hong’s films are perfect little jewel boxes of adult idiosyncrasies, vanities and follies. When Hong breaks his realist mode for an unannounced dream sequence, the power of his natural style is fully revealed.

Tokyo Sonata Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

After the slowly building supernatural worlds of Cure and Pulse, Kurosawa turns to the shomen geki of everyday Tokyo, with its redundant and abandoned salarymen, dutiful trapped wives and children whose parents know nothing about them. Working in the tradition of Ozu and Naruse, Kurosawa upends their every signifier, and offers a world so rich in alienation that silence becomes the primary form of communication. Where the supper tables of Ozu and Naruse were the one place their characters communed, Kurosawa modern family slurps together without a word, each standing when finished and gratefully returning to the universe inside their heads. There are moments of heartbreaking naturalist beauty (a Kurosawa specialty) and grotesque family violence, but this time, for the first time ever, Kurosawa’s loses his impeccable sense of pacing. The film has three endings and the first self-consciously arty shots in any of his pictures. Much is redeemed in the poetic, six-minute, one-shot finale. If Kurosawa had cut the fifteen that preceded it, the film would be perfect.

Gomorra Dir: Matteo Garrone

I don’t know how director Garrone found the precise film stock used for most Blaxsploitation or even if he did it on purpose. But the ugliness of his images, the luridness of his colors and the harsh, grating soundtrack provides the perfect visual counterpoint to his mind-blowing, underexplained, hyperrealist account of the Naples’ Mafia. As Garrone demonstrates in scene after bloody scene, the Neapolitans do not play. (The author of the book on which the film is based was so terrorized he gave up his 24 hour police protection and fled Italy altogether). Nobody lives very long in this film; its episodic nature and crude structure give it a vitality that no American crime movie has come near in years. It’s quite confusing—several of the characters look alike, it’s impossible to tell who’s allied with whom and Garrone offers few reasons for the all-lethal feuds. In this corrupt, hopeless world, the closest he comes to heroes are two moronic teenagers with far more balls than brains. In The Godfather and even Goodfellas (pictures to which Gomorrawill be inaccurately compared ad nauseum) death was a big deal, the ultimate, mostly avoided solution to an unsolvable problem. Here it’s the first and last option.

 Waltz With Bashir Dir: Ari Folman

A singular, shocking animated documentary that makes no bones about conflating the personal/psychological with the political. Folman narrates his evolving acceptance of his suppressed memories of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon via discussing that campaign with his friends who were there. Foremost in his memories, but never revealed until the climax are his—and the entire Israeli army’s—passive complicity in the Christian Phalangist’s massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut. Folman does the film harm by opening with an extended sequence that showcases the limitations of his chosen form of animation. But after that initial alienation, the story—told in the words of his combat patrol buddies and lifelong friends—dominates the technology. Folman presents his guilt and confusion as his apology, and he is as unapologetic about the glamour and terror of war as was Michael Herr when he wrote Dispatches. Like Dispatches, Folman uses colloquial language to frame an atrocity, and makes war universal by never stepping outside the deeply subjective experience of his interviewees. Folman’s compassion for his buddies, his nation and its victims is manifest, along with his bafflement that any of his decent cadre could have been involved in such a thing. A great film.

 A Christmas Tale Dir: Arnaud Desplechin

For some, a garbled, lighthearted, semi-surreal romp through the rotting French upper-classes and all their little schemes and insanities, with a blank-faced Catherine Denueve cast to anchor the film in the tradition of the better movies it aspires to emulate. For others with less patience, an insufferable wank.

Changeling Dir: Clint Eastwood

The Festival’s bigger than what it presents, and only cheapens itself when it panders. While Changeling is nowhere near the nightmare of that Ralph Fienes disaster Strange Days, you gotta wonder who the Festival thought would be served by scheduling such a mediocre exercise in Oscar-bait. Granted, the lure of filling every one of the Zeigfeld’s however-many thousand seats must have been irresistible, and the director’s press conference was equally SRO. As for the film itself, I yield to the prescient words of Rail film critic Sarahjane Blum, who said of Eastwood’s Mystic River: “That’s way too much acting for any one movie.” To which I can only add: and ditto on the lipstick.

Che Dir: Steven Soderberg

See Che run; See Che shoot; See Che die

At 262 minutes, longer than Andre RublevHeaven’s GateLa Maman et La PutainLawrence of Arabiaand, inconceivably, last year’s Festival’s champion ass-deadener, the Peter Bogdonavich-directed Tom Petty documentary Running Down a Dream. Unlike Che, however, whenDream ended and feeling returned to the nether regions, I thought I’d gained some sense of its hero as a mythic figure and a man. The dominant impression of Che remains: how did Benecio del Toro get his beard to be so perfectly scraggly? Soderberg shot on a new, rare and astonishingly film-like digital camera. The light weight, low cost and easy portability apparently freed him from worrying about whether every idea that could be filmed should be. The first half—which presents in excruciating detail the Cuban revolution and its armed struggle—features a few killer action sequences (Soderberg channels Lawrence as a locomotive gets blown right off its tracks) and lots of strutting and posturing in green fatigues. Del Toro never gifts Che with much interior life; his character communicates in weighty silences, Zen pronouncements and revolutionary declamations. All three seem pretty rote by the third hour. The final two hours + follows Che’s confused, futile and really depressing attempt to galvanize a Bolivian populace unable to care less aboutliberacion. Betrayed by the local peasantry, abandoned by the Bolivian Communist Party, hunted like a dog by the army, Che, you know, dies. End of story. Two enormous components are missing, and their absence informs every moment. Soderberg presents Che as a man of action, and action is what we experience. But he never addresses what might have gone on between Castro and Che when the shooting stopped. Nor does he show what Che—who seems to believe in revolutionary liberation—thought of the Stalinist Cuba his revolution delivered. Soderberg offers a Che with no context, no sense of responsibility for his actions and no doubts. By the end of the film, Che is an action figure, running through an anachronistic world that Soderbeg cannot present in any way that resonates.

Michelle Williams as Wendy.


Wendy and Lucy Dir: Kelly Reichardt

"Good times are comin,’" Neil Young once sang, "but they’re sure coming slow." Here Reichardt dissects the all-at-once arrival of the worst possible times, chapter and verse. Her heroine, Wendy, lives with her dog Lucy on the working class’ razor’s edge, one tiny mishap from problems that cannot be solved. It’s a straightforward, unadorned portrayal, almost too spare, almost willfully ugly, but you could rightfully call it Americana. Reichardt’s quiet rigor fuels a credible, moving tragedy that features a burning, self-contained performance from Michelle Williams. Singer/songwriter Will Oldham perfectly cameos as the one guy you would never want to hop a freight beside.