Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet
My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker
Publication Year: 2012
Regarded by many filmmakers and critics as one of the greatest directors in cinema history, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889--1968) achieved worldwide acclaim after the debut of his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was named the most influential film of all time at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. In 1955 Dreyer granted twenty-three-year-old American student Jan Wahl the extraordinary opportunity to spend a unique and unforgettable summer with him during the filming of Ordet (The Word ).
Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker is a captivating account of Wahl's time with the director, based on Wahl's daily journal accounts and transcriptions of his conversations with Dreyer. Offering a glimpse into the filmmaker's world, Wahl fashions a portrait of Dreyer as a man, mentor, friend, and director. Wahl's unique and charming account is supplemented by exquisite photos of the filming and by selections from Dreyer's papers, including his notes on film style, his introduction for the actors before the filming of Ordet, and a visionary lecture he delivered at Edinburgh. Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet details one student's remarkable experiences with a legendary director and the unlikely bond formed over a summer.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Series: Screen Classics
This is an impressionistic yet detailed account of what was
to be the most signifi cant season of my life—that faraway
summer of 1954. It took a half century to gain a true perspective
on that unique experience, for when you are very young,
you assume golden opportunities lie around every corner.
I was an American student on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Copenhagen when Carl Theodor Dreyer graciously invited me to partake of a particular Danish summer— the summer he was to direct his now classic film Ordet (The Word), which..
As a child, I was taken to a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s
feature The Gold Rush. It had no talking, although in this
version, Chaplin himself narrated. The bun dance enchanted
me; suddenly I was aware that a totally different kind of film
existed besides those with Betty Grable and Tyrone Power.
Therefore, I elected to dip into the history of movies.
The public library in Toledo, Ohio, had a first edition of Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now. The stills from Caligari were thrilling. Only a handful of older films were available...
Chapter 1. Pastries at Rungsted
When I arrived, the day was shining. The Dreyers were
staying at a modest painted house on a low hill surrounded by
a yellow-green, abundant, leafy garden. I went up the round
stone steps to ring the bell. Carl Theodor Dreyer opened the
door himself, remarking gently, “The sun has come to light
In the hallway he informed me that his wife, Ebba, was absent, buying cakes and cookies for us at the bakery, and would soon be back; perhaps we could wait...
Chapter 2. Small room with a view
Vedersø is located in a remote part of Jutland, which sticks up from Germany like a rather large thumb. To reach it, I took a series of trains with a boat in between—coming to the last part of the trip by bus. That is, I arrived as far as the village of Ulfborg, where there was a travelers’ inn. Carl Th. Dreyer and his company had used up every spare room in the vicinity of Vedersø. I’d left Copenhagen on the island of Sealand, crossing the tiny island of Fyn (going through Hans Christian Andersen’s...
Chapter 3. Sardines and cigars
Before lunch, we took a walk over the dunes to the North
Sea, which crashed upon the shore some hundred yards behind
the hotel. Walls of concrete helped keep the protective
dunes from blowing away. There were several large pillboxes
left as souvenirs from the Nazi occupation.
“Imagine,” said Dreyer, “a strong, loving father like old Borgen who is disappointed by his three sons. The oldest, Mikkel, though he has a fine wife, Inger, and two small...
Chapter 4. Lambs in the front yard
There was a tiny bluish, oval-shaped glass, a type of lens
Dreyer usually wore about his neck on a cord, made for him by
a famous Venetian glassblower. If you looked into it, you could
anticipate how objects might appear on-screen, since color
values were transmuted to tones of black and white and gray.
He’d gaze through it intently, standing in a fi eld. Sometimes he assumed the role of a camera—squaring his hands in front, holding an invisible camera box. He would...
Chapter 5. A feeling for atmosphere
Dreyer stood on a heath-covered dune facing the North
Sea. “The sun was to set at eight twenty-six tonight,” he said.
The horizon over the vast water instead had an opaque glow,
a ghostly haze brushed dimly with pink. From the southwest,
a procession of black clouds was heading toward Vedersø.
“It is difficult, very difficult, Herr Wahl, for me to sleep these nights,” he admitted. “I become so anxious—waiting for a morning with good light. We are caught in the middle of...
Chapter 6. The rain and the fiddle
The lip of Cay Kristiansen had healed. And Henrik Malberg
was well again. Scenes were to be shot of mad Johannes
leaving the house at night at the start of The Word.
Preben Lerdorff’s collar had to be turned up in a special way, as Christ’s cloak, to frame his face; the coat was fixed in place by Fru Jensen with thread and needle. Sheep were to follow Johannes over the dune as he ducked under the clothesline. Then...
Chapter 7. Magic of the lens
A specialty of the hotel cook was fried eel. I grew fond of it and never would have guessed it was so tasty. Always there were several kinds of potatoes. The small Jutland potatoes are most delicious boiled and without skins, then sautéed with a light coating of sugar. The local bakery tempted us each afternoon with wondrous delights, fl aky and devilishly tasty...
Chapter 8. Something about Jesus
The density of rain was not what plagued Dreyer most.
The rainfall often was easy, though it never seemed to cease
because it hovered over, threatening, even if the pattering
stopped—ready to begin anew.
Some shots demanded full overhead or noon light; others demanded softer early-morning or late-afternoon sun. Technicians and actors were ready; the...
Chapter 9. In the end is my beginning
Dreyer’s discourse invigorated both of us, and it was well
past bedtime. He was sharing; I was absorbing. His main intention
in The Life of Jesus would be to show with respect the
Jesus that may have been, historically—not a figure devoid
of breath, not an incantation hidden under gold and incense.
“Not a formula from Rheims or Augsburg,” Dreyer stated, “but the Jesus of Galilee. To fi nd him, it is essential to seek him out in his own place. To relive the Scriptures
Chapter 10. The word that crushes cliffs
The two or three days little Gerda Nielsen had envisioned
stretched out for weeks. We drank lots of Fru Kristensen’s
One morning during a downpour, “Vicar” Ove Rud and I took refuge in a shed at Borgensgaard. He mentioned the Stanislavsky method of directing, then turned to the Dreyer...
Chapter 11. Leaves from a journal
Herr Dreyer sent a car from Palladium Studios to pick me
up, after our return to Copenhagen. The interior sets were
being finished at Hellerup, so he begged me to “taste them.”
He was immensely pleased with the work of Erik Aaes, the
As I was taken through the constructed rooms of the farmhouse, Borgensgaard, I marveled at the...
Chapter 12. Did they catch the ferry?
Ebba Dreyer cooked a terrific meal the next Sunday before I left Denmark. Goose, actually. I hope not from Vedersø. Herr Dreyer made it clear that for all studio scenes he must work in isolation, and I recognized it was prudent for me to accept the scholarship at the University of Michigan. I was loath to take leave of the Dreyers—the end to the evening was poignant. I describe the finale in my book Through a Lens Darkly...
I received a fascinating postcard from Herr Dreyer once, yet
to my regret, I managed to lose it. It stated that while searching
out locations for The Life of Jesus, he had planted a tree
in Israel in my name. I was deeply moved by this gesture.
I recalled an evening at the Dreyer flat on Dalgas Boulevard in Frederiksberg when he revealed a possible theory as to the character of Jesus. He suggested that Jesus was an insane...
Appendix A: "Now the life will begin": Dreyer's introduction for actors in film
It is important in the film based on the play The Word that the minds of the audience right from the beginning are made receptive to the great miracle: the awakening of Inger out of the sleep. The abrupt switch-over from the natural to the supernatural must be prepared in a much more careful way in the film than in the play. This can only be done by letting the audience get acquainted with the family in Borgensgaard— before the actual p lot starts, that is to say, the...
Appendix B: Plot Summary of Ordet
Although The Word deals with a miracle, it is through and
through a realistic film—about those who are weak in faith.
The hoped-for miracle does not occur until one who has
faith, the True Faith, arrives.
The action takes place among country folk living in a small, outlying parish on Jutland’s west coast. It pictures the struggle between two different sides of Christian faith—a bright, happy Christianity and its contrast, a dark fanaticism, hostile to life...
Appendix C: Letters from Denmark
I thank you for your letter and for your sending me the first half of your book for my consideration. I appreciate very much this act of friendship.
According to your wish I have made some corrections and crossed out some sections particularly in the part treating your being at Vedersø. I do so partly because some scenes you describe do not appear in the final film, partly because you in this part give so many details interesting...
Appendix D: Dreyer on color film
Color films have now been on the screens of the world for
twenty years. How many of them do we remember for the
esthetic pleasure they gave us? Two—three—four—five?
Possibly five—but probably not more.
Romeo and Juliet just manages to be among them— after Olivier’s Henry V and Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell. Olivier got his ideas for his color schemes from...
Appendix E: Dreyer's lecture at Edinburgh: "New Impulses"
We can all probably agree that the fi lm of today is not perfect.
But we can only be grateful for this as there is a chance
of development in the imperfect. The imperfect is alive. The
perfect is dead, pushed aside, we do not see it. But a thousand
possibilities are open for the imperfect.
Film as an art stands in an era of struggle, and one is looking to see where the new impulses...
Appendix F: Dreyer on film style
A work of art, like a human being, has a personality, a soul.
It is revealed in the way the artist expresses his conception
of whatever subject he treats. If the artist’s inspiration is to
be embodied in an artistic form, style is necessary. Through
style the artist achieves unity, and through it he forces other
men to see with his eyes.
Invisible and intangible, style permeates a genuine work of art and cannot be separated from it...