Director/Screenplay – Carl Theodore Dreyer, Based on the Play by Kaj Munk, Producers – Carl Theodore Dreyer, Erik Nielsen & Tage Nielsen, Photography (b&w) – Henning Bendtsen, Music – Poul Schierbeck, Production Design – Erik Aaes. Production Company – Palladium A.S.
Henrik Malberg (Morten Borgen), Emil Hass Christensen (Mikkel Borgen), Preben Lerdorff Rye (Johannes Borgen), Birgitte Federspiel (Inger Borgen), Cay Kristiansen (Anders Borgen), Ejner Federspiel (Peter Petersen), Ove Rud (Pastor), Henry Skjær (The Doctor), Gerda Nielsen (Ann Petersen), Sylvia Eckhausen (Kirstin Petersen), Ann Elizabeth Groth (Maren Borgen), Hanne Agesen (Karen)
1925 on Borgen’s Farm on Denmark’s remote Jutland peninsula. The aging patriarch Morten Borgen is a devout Christian. He has three sons – Mikkel who is married to Inger but has lost his faith; Johannes, a former theology student who is wandering in mind and believes himself to be Jesus Christ; and the youngest Anders. Unknown to Morten, Anders asks the tailor Peter Petersen for the hand in marriage of his daughter Anne. However, Peter rejects Anders as unworthy because the Borgens are of a different Christian faith than he is. Morten, who at first has refused the idea of the marriage, angrily goes off to confront Peter but this results in further refusal. They race back to the farm at the news that the pregnant Inger has fallen ill. Johannes makes the eerie pronouncement that she will die but that he will raise her from the dead. The doctor is called and saves Inger’s life, only for her to die after he departs. As the funeral comes, the grief and the events that then transpire have an effect on everybody there.
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) is one of the least well known great directors. Dreyer was adopted and raised by strict Lutheran parents (a religion that Ingmar Bergman also grew up in and railed against for much of his life). As a result, religious preoccupations and questions of faith run throughout almost all of his work. Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which many consider to be one of the finest films ever made, and Vampyr (1932), which is considered by some purveyors of Golden Age Horror to be one of the greatest horror films of the 1930s, if not one of the all-time classic horror films. Also in genre material, Dreyer made Day of Wrath (1943), a work about witchcraft accusations where the actuality of the witches’ powers sits in a place of fascinating ambiguity.
Ordet was Carl Dreyer’s second-to-last film. It is a great film but not an easy one to like. My viewing companion, who usually likes art and foreign movies, simply gave up part way through, turned off by the heavy religious element. Dreyer sets out to make a parable about religion and faith in the modern world. Many of the characters exist as not too much more than mouthpieces for viewpoints – the two staunch old men who represent vitality and belief in life vs closeted order; the son who has lost his faith; the other son who has been driven insane by his beliefs and stumbles about making haunted pronouncements; the pastor who cheerfully does social service but is equally certain that miracles do not happen in the modern age; the doctor who represents reductionist science. The statement that miracles don’t happen anymore in the modern day is repeated throughout – however, the film’s very thesis is that of course they do.
In look, Ordet resembles very much Ingmar Bergman’s films from around this era. Dreyer deliberately shoots sere, barren locations – the farm is set at a cliff of windswept reeds on a flat and desolate peninsula. The very emptiness of the landscapes seems to brood. The religious element is stifling and heavy-handed. Even when it comes to Henrik Malberg’s belief in a religion of life, I cannot say that this is a world I would be happy living in.
The most interesting character is that of Preben Lerdorff Rye’s Johannes. Even though Rye’s gaunt hollow voice become monotonous and repetitive, his prophecies and presentiments have an eerie effect that hangs over the film. The entire film builds up to the emotionally shattering last scene where [PLOT SPOILERS] we do indeed get a confirmation of a miracle as Preben Lerdorff Rye raises Birgitte Federspiel from the coffin. The scene is astonishing and Dreyer builds up to it superbly. Surely, if there is a film that is capable of convincing an agnostic such as oneself in the existence of miracles and the validity of faith, then this would be it. (Even if at the same time as you are doing a double-take at the stricture and severity of the world that it seems to imply).
The film is based on a play Ordet (which translates as The Word) by Kaj Munk, which was written in 1925 but not performed until 1932. Munk was a Lutheran pastor who was murdered in 1944 after preaching a sermon in defiance of a Nazi ban during their occupation of Denmark in World War II. An earlier Swedish version of the film was made with Ordet (1943) and there was a further tv version Ordet (1962) made in Finland. Fellow Dane Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) is a clear homage to Ordet in its concern with strict religion in a remote town and eventual arrival at a redeeming miracle.