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Carl Theodor Dreyer's Gertrud

The Moving Word

by James Schamus

Publication Year: 2008

Published by: University of Washington Press


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pp. vi-vii

List of illustrations

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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

The thanks I give for help with this little book are all out of proportion to its modesty and length, but not out of proportion to the enormous debts of gratitude I owe. On a separate page I dedicate this work to the memories of William Nestrick and Casey Finch, but their names bear repeating here. ...

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Why a book about Gertrud?

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pp. 3-7

The great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fourteenth and final film, Gertrud (Palladium, 1964), is easy to both praise and damn with the same breath; it is, after all, a perfect exemplar of that awful category, the “minor masterpiece.” Awful, because, like its brethren (Raul Ruiz’s Three Crowns of a Sailor, ...

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If Gertrud is such a great failure, how is it so great?

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pp. 8-11

Gertrud, like the performance by Gertrud that follows the moment we’ve chosen, was an abject failure. Its premiere at the Salle Médicis in Paris on December 18, 1964, was covered by the Danish press as a national humiliation (even the Danish ambassador to France posted an account in Kristeligt Dagblad ...

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What does the “Real” have to do with Gertrud's “talkiness”?

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pp. 12-17

Failure, then, is of the essence when speaking of Gertrud, itself the story of a failed marriage, a failed adulterous affair, and a failed attempt to redeem and perhaps rekindle an earlier love. Or at least that’s how the men in Gertrud’s life see it. Part of the enduring seduction of the play, written hastily by ...

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Why was Dreyer so fascinated with the “real” Gertrud?

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pp. 18-21

Dreyer’s quest for a real basis for his own characters was never-ending. With The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for example, Dreyer rejected the original, poetic script written for him by the French writer Joseph Delteil. Instead, he based his screenplay strictly on what he thought to be the actual records ...

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Why can’t images and words (and men and women) stay married in Gertrud?

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pp. 22-27

One of Söderberg’s most important predecessors, the great Swedish playwright August Strindberg, had solved the problem of his characters’ authorship in his own way, in his famous preface to Miss Julie (1888), by claiming that the human soul itself is nothing but a collection of texts: “My souls—or characters ...

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Why are Dreyer’s images, when they “quote,” so obscene?

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pp. 28-32

If I have for the moment focused on Dreyer’s iconoclastic hatred of the image in Gertrud, it is equally legitimate to focus, as does the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his perceptive essay “Gertrud: The Desire for the Image,” on Dreyer’s conflictual longing for the image. Rosenbaum, taking his cue ...

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So what, after all, is the tapestry quoting?

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pp. 33-37

Let us now turn to our chosen moment, and ask: what does the tapestry Gertrud regards have to do with the obscene presence of language in Dreyer’s films? Let us first make note that the tapestry is itself preeminently a quotation— a visual quotation, to be sure—but a quotation nonetheless. It figures, in some way, ...

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Is Gertrud an ekphrastic film?

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pp. 38-44

“Ekphrasis” is usually defined as the rhetorical performance by which a work of literature attempts to imitate a work of visual art. In its earliest uses, such as in Homer or later in the Rhetorica ad Herennium or in the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines, “ekphrasis” is a description of a work of art, but when done well, ...

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At last, here’s Dreyer’s probable source—but does it matter that we found it?

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pp. 45-47

So let us finally return to our search for that defining footnote, the source that Dreyer quotes with his tapestry. Here is one possibility: in the eighth story of the fifth day of the Decameron, Boccaccio tells the tale of Nastagio degli Onesti, a noble gentleman of Ravenna, who loves a girl from the even nobler family ...

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Is Dreyer quoting Botticelli?

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pp. 48-54

We find that Dreyer has as an iconographical precursor in his encounter with Nastagio no less an artist than Botticelli, who made in 1484 a series of paintings depicting Nastagio’s story and spectacle—a series of paintings made not as individual canvases, but, appropriately, as panels meant as wedding gifts ...

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What is Dreyer teaching us about the history of perspective, and how is Gertrud so interesting a contributor to this topic?

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pp. 55-60

We tend to think of Alberti’s On Painting as being exclusively concerned with the arrival and demonstration in the West of single-point perspective; and indeed, few works in the history of Western culture can be said to have had such an impact on pictorial practice as Alberti’s. But in fact the topic of perspective ...

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What does perspective have to do with free will?

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pp. 61-63

The brief exchange that Gertrud and Nygren have about “free will” is particularly significant, as Dreyer has Gertrud approve Nygren’s belief in free will in contradistinction to the grim fatalism of her father, who, she says, taught her that everything was predetermined. She makes her point by quoting words ...

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How is Gertrud a kind of remake of The Passion of Joan of Arc?

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pp. 64-68

To fully understand just how present Joan was to Dreyer in Gertrud, we must take an extended detour back to Dreyer’s classic film of 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film whose iconography is intimately linked to Nygren’s activities in Paris and his devotion to Gertrud. Because Gertrud’s struggle to ...

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How did the Virgin Mary really get pregnant (and is that why Gertrud is childless)?

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pp. 69-81

As a preliminary to such a history, I want to sketch out some visual echoes, perhaps even quotations, that resonate out of that scene with d’Estivet at Joan’s ear. As an image that graphically stages the violent encounter between woman and word, it partakes of a long recorded visual history of similar moments ...

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Why are Joan and Gertrud so “hysterical”?

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pp. 82-90

The phrase “the word made flesh,” was first applied to the study of Dreyer’s films by Mark Nash, in an essay on what he identified as the “hysterical” qualities of Dreyer’s film texts. For the word made flesh is, of course, also the formula for conversion hysteria, the construction of a paradigmatically female body whose ...

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How does the struggle between Dreyer’s words and images open us up to the Real?

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pp. 91-100

If in much of the theory and practice of Western textuality language functions in the service of a powerful symbolic order that relentlessly seeks to regenerate and extend its power over and through the material body of its subjects, the reading of the body as a symbol of resistance to the symbolic appears to beg the ...


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pp. 101-102


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pp. 103-104


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pp. 105-110


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pp. 111-117

E-ISBN-13: 9780295801483
E-ISBN-10: 0295801484
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295988542
Print-ISBN-10: 0295988541

Publication Year: 2008