Let me pick a fight with a friend, Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, the man whose moniker for me wound up in my Big Hollywood bio blurb (“the only hardline Catholic moralist you’ll meet who loved (or, for that matter, saw) Irreversible“)
Anyhoo … I was looking at the AV Club a little bit ago to see whether he and Noel Murray had any festival walkup pieces (press screenings just started this morning). And saw that Scott had another in his Gateways to Geekery series, a fun premise that actually does fill a very important role — “where do I begin?”
This one is about one of my very favorite directors — Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who, as Scott rightly notes makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen. And there’s a tradition of me writing impromptu posts about Dreyer over beer, so here goes…
Scott’s suggested gateway Dreyer drug is THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the medieval French saint’s trial and execution. There’s no way around the fact that Dreyer may well be the most forbidding and intimidating director in the canon, and so there are good arguments against any place a critic might wanna start. But I still think JOAN is the wrong film to recomment to the not-already-hardcore (the second-worst of his five major “late” films, ahead of only the snicker-inducing GERTRUD), and I will suggest two better alternatives as well.
I think JOAN would be a bad choice because of things Scott correctly notes in his piece. Because Dreyer is so intimidating, I think you want something accessible and as “comfortable” as possible, to ease the way in. For one thing, JOAN is silent, and that’s an immediate turnoff for (too, far far too) many. It shouldn’t be — silent films are their own aesthetic, they “lack” nothing. And the “Visions of Light” score on the DVD is an astonishing work and addition in its own right. But it is, and everything else equal, or even somewhat unequal, a sound film will always work better for a filmmaker with masterpieces on both sides of the 1930 breach. Second, JOAN is in many ways a baffling film even to wrap your head around — extremely spatially disorienting, filled with eccentric wtf-angles and pays no attention whatever to establishing shots or to the ABCs of continuity editing (indeed one would see it has a score of contradictory cues if he were to try to “figure them all out” as David Bordwell did). JOAN is, therefore an alienating experience if one isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of it (which is, of course, the ideal response).
So I’ll make two other suggestion for entry-points into Dreyer. The first is the one of his five films that I think comes closest to conventional viewing habits — DAY OF WRATH. I’m paraphrasing Bordwell from memory. But I think he was correct in noting that WRATH marks a transition point between (to use hostile critical vocabulary) the earlier alienating stylistic eccentricities and unclarity of JOAN and VAMPYR and the staginess and stasis of ORDET and GERTRUD. Thus you get both “sides” of Dreyer’s late work without the excesses of either. WRATH also, Bordwell correctly notes, has more melodramatic appeal and conventional character-conflict than any of the other four films.
The other entry point I’d pick may seem a bit counterintuitive, given what I just said about silents. But it tickled my mind when I realized Scott hadn’t mentioned it at all. That film is MICHAEL, which Dreyer made for UFA in 1924 at the height of expressionism with such important German collaborators as writer Thea von Harbou, actors Nora Gregor and Walter Slezak, and cinematographers Karl Freund and Rudolph Mate. If you can get past the silent part at all (and a somewhat hammy Benjamin Christiansen in the lead role), I think MICHAEL is Dreyer’s most accessible and melodramatically satisfying film, period. It’s a straight-up “Vie de Boheme” story about an artist, his male muse, his female love and the jealousies between and among them and the vicissitudes of his career. If you could imagine Oscar Wilde as a filmmaker, you’ll get MICHAEL. Like DAY OF WRATH, it also served as a Dreyer career bridge but, also like a lot of films made in 1924 and 1925, it too marks a turning point from the beginning to the end of the silent era. Dreyer’s early silents like THE PARSONS WIDOW and LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK are excellent films, but allowances have to be made for them because of the technical primitiveness of the 10s and early-20s. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s later silents, most radically JOAN, pose stylistic challenges that the improved state-of-the-art allowed. MICHAEL sits balanced on the scale of time.