The Passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer

May 1st, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Ordet   (1955)


Carl Theodor Dreyer is probably the greatest and most respected film director Denmark has ever produced.

Dreyer was the child of an illicit union between a Swedish maid, Josefina Nilsson, and a Danish landowner.   Born in secret in Copenhagen, he grew up the adopted son of a Danish couple.   He later went on to trace his biological Swedish family and learned about his mother’s death as a result of miscarriage while she was pregnant  by another man who had no intention to marry her, either. The reason that this is so important is that it might explain why Dreyer focused so much on the suffering of women in a man’s world.  He saw his life’s work as a kind of everlasting tribute to his mother, the woman he never knew.


At the end of his life Dreyer was working on a film about the suffering of a man called Jesus.  Strangely, the project never got off the ground but, of the films he did make, the suffering of women is the really the central theme. First, in THE PRESIDENT about young women who are seduced and abandoned with tragic results. Then, in LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK, Clara Wieth heroically kills herself. Later, there is the oppressed wife in MASTER IN THE HOUSE: the Jewish girl caught in a pogrom, in LOVE ONE ANOTHER, the suffering and death of JEANNE D’ARC, the young woman who falls victim to a vampire in VAMPYR, the abandoned young woman in the short GOOD MOTHERS, Anne and the old woman accused of witchcraft in DAY OF WRATH, to a lesser degree Inger who dies and comes back to life in THE WORD, and GERTRUD, whose total commitment to love makes her disappointed in men.

After the peripatetic activitity of his early life,  when he directed nine films in five different countries, Dreyer’s career suffered a series of setbacks and failed projects. Dreyer not only focused on martyrdom, he himself was one of the greatest artistic martyrs in the history of film. Over the last 35 years of his career, it was tremendously difficult for him to get to make the films he wanted to make. After the privately financed sound film VAMPYR (1932) flopped, he did not get to make another feature until DAY OF WRATH  in 1943. He renounced his Swedish production TWO PEOPLE (1945), and over the next 25 years or so he got to direct just two other features, ORDET and GETRUDE. His pet project, Jesus of Nazareth, never actually came into being.

Vampyr - Carl Dreyer 1932

VAMPYR (1932

83 mins  German

Deep, dark and undeniably disturbing Carl Dreyer’s 1932 experimental feature base on Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly was actually financed by the main actor, Baron Gunzberg.  As young traveller Allan Grey, he comes across an old castle in the village of Courtempierre and decides to stay there, entranced by a series of weird and inexplicable events that capture his imagination or is it his imagination?  A grim figure carrying a scythe, a ghastly landlady who appears at nightfall, shadowy figures flitting across walls, revolving sculls and a nightmare where he is buried alive. Events come to a head when the elderly squire of the village voices his fears for the safety of his young daughters and gives him a strange parcel to be opened after his impending death.  According to local folklore, souls of the unscrupulous haunt the village as vampires, preying on young people in their endless thirst for blood.


There’s an eerie and supernatural beauty to all this as the camera sweeps gracefully across luminously lit rooms and chiaroscuro passages in the ancient castle.  Curiously disembodied shadows counterbalanced by a soundtrack of strange voices, primal screams and periods of unsettling silence add to the feeling of otherwordliness. To create the curious half-light, filming took place during the early hours of misty dawn with a lens black cloth.

The acting is not bad either considering the only professional was a household servant.  Sybille Schmitz as daughter Leone, gives a bloodcurdling series of expressions when she realises her vampire fate ranging from abject fear and misery through to madness and finally menace (see clip).   Grey’s burial scene is also eerily evocative as he looks up through wild and staring eyes as the lid is screwed down on his coffin and a candle is lit on the small window above his face.  As he is carried through the streets the camera pans the drifting clouds and lacy treescapes on the way to his macabre interment.  This is a film that stays and haunts you a long time after the Gothic titles have rolled.

Meredith Taylor ©


ORDET (1955)

Cast: Henrik Malberg, Emil Hass Christensen, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Hanne Agesen

126mins PG ***** Danish with English subtitles


Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece on love, passion and faith.  With his unique film language Dreyer takes a simple story to an ethereal level.  The breathtaking brilliance of the lighting and camera shots, the stark clarity of the compositions, the hypnotic quality of the pacing and the intensity of the performances make this a perfect film.

Meredith Taylor ©


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