Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer was born the illegitimate son of a Danish farmer father and a Swedish mother; when he was a young boy his mother died and he was adopted by a Danish family named Dreyer. He embarked upon several careers before becoming a journalist in 1909. In this position, he wrote a series of articles profiling Danish celebrities which put Dreyer in touch with the world of film and theater. In the tradition of other Scandinavian directors, he began his film career by writing scripts; he joined the Danish state studio, Nordisk Films, in 1913 and became a full time screenwriter two years later, scouting for and adapting literary material, writing intertitles and editing film.
With 23 scripts to his credit, Dreyer was given a film to direct in 1919, beginning a career that would virtually span the history of cinema. "The President", like each of Dreyer's subsequent films, was based on a literary work that Dreyer himself had selected. Adaptation was essential to his aesthetic, in which film was envisioned as an extension of literature and theater, and narrative and psychological truth were paramount. "The President" is memorable for its simple sets, carefully created to reflect each character's personality. Perhaps most significantly, Dreyer believed that it was a personal work of art, unlike the assembly-line product of the day.
"Leaves from Satan's Book/Blade at Satan's Bog" (1919) solidified Dreyer's reputation as a director with an uncompromising personal vision. This elaborate project, which Dreyer had been planning for years, faced numerous production difficulties and was altered without the director's permission when it was shown. Even so, "Leaves" was praised for its sophisticated composition and for the subtlety of its character portrayals; it also raised controversy for its treatment of socialism and its depiction of Christ.
Dreyer left Nordisk and made "The Parson's Widow" (1920) for the Swedish company, Svensk Filmindustri, before filming "Love One Another" in Berlin in 1921. The latter film employed Russian emigre actors from Stanislavsky's troupe as well as some of Max Reinhardt's performers. At this time Dreyer began his lifelong habit of collecting and studying prints and photographs to get ideas for sets. Although he returned to Denmark to make "Once Upon a Time" (1922), a beloved operetta filmed with theatrical actors, he would spend the rest of his career as a free-lance director, working for any film company that would offer him artistic freedom.
In Berlin, Dreyer made "Mikael" (1924) for UFA, a film known for its ambitious and scrupulously designed sets, which Dreyer helped to dress with items bought throughout the city. Unhappy that the film's ending was changed without his consent, Dreyer returned to Denmark to make "The Master of the House" (1925). For this film, which established Dreyer's reputation in France, a fully functioning two-room apartment was built in the studio to provide the actors with a realistic space in which to perform. "The Bride of Glomdal" (1925) was made in Norway with the mere outline of a script and much improvisation.
During the 1920s and 1930s, when many of Europe's great directors emigrated to Hollywood, Dreyer remained in Europe. Under contract to the French firm Societe Generale des Films, Dreyer was given a seven-million franc budget to make "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1927). He rejected the original script, based on Joseph Delteil's biography of the heroine, in favor of the actual trial records. Preparations for the eight-month production included the construction of a vast concrete recreation of Rouen castle, complete with sliding walls to facilitate shooting. The realism of the sets extended to every aspect of the production; actors were cast according to facial type; makeup was rejected; and the film was shot in exact sequence. On the unusually silent and intense set, the actors--ruled by Dreyer's belief that the face was the mirror of the soul--were left alone to find the essence of their character, which was then captured in closeup. The film remains one of the most closely examined, and highly acclaimed, in the history of cinema.
With the Danish film industry in financial ruins, Dreyer turned to private financing from Baron Nicholas de Gunzburg to make "Vampyr" (1932), an hypnotically photographed supernatural tale with an elliptical narrative which brilliantly blends fantasy and reality in a uniquely nightmarish manner. After abandoning "Mudundu," an African project that was completed by another director, Dreyer returned to Denmark to work as a journalist.
After the Nazi invasion of Denmark and the subsequent ban on film imports, Danish films were once again in demand. Dreyer worked on a number of documentary shorts for the government before embarking on "Day of Wrath" (1943), a somber, slowly-paced account of a woman who is wrongly burned as a witch.
Over the next decade Dreyer assumed the job of managing a film theater. He also wrote a script for a film about Mary, Queen of Scots, with his son and started research for a film about Christ which would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.
In 1954, Dreyer made the award-winning "Ordet/The Word", based on the Kaj Munk play. It is noteworthy for its unusually long takes, shot with the continual smooth camera movement that Dreyer believed to be characteristic of modern film technique, as opposed to the short scenes and quick cutting of silent cinema.
After a ten-year silence, the much-anticipated "Gertrud" (1964) appeared, only to face a disastrous reception. Dreyer used silence and softly-spoken dialogue to portray the failure of communication in this story of a middle-aged woman who leaves her home and husband to live alone in Paris. 25 years later, the film still divides critics. Dreyer's last years were spent researching "Jesus," as he scouted locations in Israel, learned Hebrew and collected crates of photographs and notes. Although financial backing finally came through in 1967, Dreyer died before he could start the film.
Dreyer's transcendental aesthetic, his search for a spiritual truth beyond the surface of everyday life, marks him as a quintessentially Romantic artist. Yet, as critics have pointed out, his later films are among the most modern ever made, conveying the tension between a conservative vision and an experimental style. The integrity of his vision, combined with his consummate grasp of the film medium, make him one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.