Reading time: 33 MIN

The Instant Expert's Guide to Carl Theodor Dreyer

It's 60 years since Carl Theodor Dreyer released his final feature. In the latest Instant Expert's Guide, Cinema Paradiso commemorates the Danish auteur whose career spanned almost half a century.

Solely in numerical terms, 14 features and eight shorts seems a meagre return on five decades of endeavour. Even if we add in the 1910s titles to which Carl Theodor Dreyer contributed as a screenwriter and/or editor and the clutch of documentaries on which he worked after the Second World War, he could hardly be called prolific. But, so distinctive, varied, and enduring are the Dane's films that he is revered by cineastes for the blend of thematic rigour and formal ingenuity that was forged during an early life filled with heartache and derring-do.

A Tale of Two Mothers

On 3 February 1889, 33 year-old Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson gave birth to a son. As father Jens Christian Torp was a married Danish landowner, the Swedish housekeeper avoided a scandal by registering the child as Karl Nielsen and placing him in care. Over the next two years, the boy lived with a couple of foster families before he was formally adopted and newly named by typographer Carl Theodor Dreyer and his wife, Inger Marie. As part of the deal, Josefine agreed to pay towards Carl Theodor's upkeep. However, she died on 20 January 1891 after consuming the tips of a box and a half of matches in the mistaken belief that the phosphorous would induce a seven-month miscarriage.

Inger Marie, who already had a daughter named Valborg by a man who refused to acknowledge paternity, never forgave Josefine for leaving her to raise Carl without financial assistance. At every opportunity, she reminded the lad about the debt he owed her for taking him in. She also resorted to locking him in cupboards. As a consequence, he grew to detest her, although he appears to have had a decent relationship with his namesake.

A still from Fanny and Alexander (1982)
A still from Fanny and Alexander (1982)

It has long been believed that Carl, Sr. was a strict Lutheran along the lines of the stepfather in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982). In fact, he was a free-thinking socialist who spent less time inside churches than his son, and he only ventured into the local French reform church in order to learn the language. Carl also got on well with his maternal grandmother, who had a fascination with the occult and used to lend him books. The Dreyers also ensured that Carl was well educated, sending him to the prestigious private school, Frederiksberg Realskole.

In 1904, he was ordered to leave school and get a job to bring some money into the household. According to some accounts, he spent time as a café pianist. Shortly before he turned 19, however, Carl discovered the fate of his adored mother and he never returned to the family home after taking a trip to Sweden to learn about Josefine's kinfolk. When Inger Marie died at the age of 40, Carl refused to attend to funeral because he claimed she had long been dead to him.

Dreyer the Daredevil

Bored with the daily routine at the Copenhagen Utility Company, Dreyer left in September 1905 for a clerical post at the Great Northern Telegraph Company. Hoping he would get to travel the world, he was frustrated to be assigned to a sorting job in the main office and gave up all hope in 1908, when an elderly accountant showed him the basement full of ledgers that had been his life's work.

Now dating Ebba Larsen (whom he would marry on 19 November 1911), Dreyer decided to change profession and spent time at the oldest (Berlingske Tindende) and second oldest (Politiken) newspapers in Denmark. Although he covered everything from court cases to civic receptions, he quickly established a niche for himself by becoming an expert in aviation. On 4 July 1910, he sat without a safety harness behind pioneering pilot Robert Svendsen, as they made five 20m-high circuits of a Copenhagen airfield. Oblivious to the danger, Dreyer waved to the crowd, as he sat on the fuel tank and gripped on to the struts and wires within his reach. Suitably impressed, Svendsen gave Dreyer an exclusive tip-off when he became the first person to fly across the Sound between Denmark and Sweden on 17 July.

On 14 August 1910, Dreyer joined Count Frederik Moltke in a flight in a hot-air balloon before he signed up for flying lessons. Among the other students at Svendsen's Kløvermarken flying school was Einar Zangenberg, who would go on to become an action hero in Danish movies, twice playing Sherlock Holmes before his untimely death in 1918.

In the summer of 1911, Dreyer made a little aviation history of his own by becoming the first passenger to cross the Sound. The Danish authorities had refused to allow him to accompany French flier Gabriel Poulain, but Dreyer had taken the ferry to Malmö, so that he could make the return trip on a rickety seat slung between the aircraft's wheels. Anyone seeing a photograph of Dreyer in his later years would scarcely guess that the conservative gentleman in the stiff collar and three-piece suit had once been a young hothead who would risk his neck for a scoop.

The daredevil phase didn't last for long, however, as Dreyer was now a married man and needed a steady income. The 21 year-old still stuck his neck out in taking a job on the newly formed independent paper, Riget, however, as it sought to change the agenda in Denmark by espousing liberal views. But it proved to be a short-lived venture and Dreyer found himself on the staff at Politiken's tabloid sister title, Ekstra Bladet. Once again, it's difficult to see the respectable elder statesman of Danish cinema in the reporter who revelled in the publication's sensationalist and slightly irreverent approach.

Adopting the byline 'Tommen' (which means 'The Inch'), Dreyer produced gossipy and often satirical columns that didn't always bother with niceties like facts. Particularly popular was 'Heroes of Our Time', which profiled renowned artists like Kaj Nielsen, Sigurd Swane, and J.F. Willumsen, as well as Carlsberg brewer Carl Jacobsen and such film industry bigwigs as Valdemar Psilander and A.W. Sandberg. In one article on silent screen diva, Asta Nielsen, he passed ungallant remarks about her physique when she appeared in male attire.

A still from The Phantom Carriage (1921)
A still from The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Two years later, Dreyer launched the 'Good People' column, in which he dissected such celebrities as Danish actors Carl Alstrup and Olaf Fønss and the great Swedish director, Victor Sjöström. Cinema Paradiso users can rent his 1921 classic, The Phantom Carriage, while also catching his exceptional performance as the ageing Isak Blok in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

The Tommen alias also proved useful when Dreyer started moonlighting as a screenwriter. He sang the praises of Rasmus Ottesen's The Leap to Death (1912) without once mentioning that it marked his own debut as a scenarist. Even more scurrilously, Dreyer withheld from both a 1913 interview and a pen portrait of Ole Olsen that the founder of Nordisk Film was now his boss. Indeed, the connection remained a secret until Martin Drouzy published his landmark biography of Dreyer in 1982.

The Moonlighting Apprentice

Shortly after publishing a piece on his screenwriting debut (in which he also took a cameo as a balloonist), Dreyer followed a set report from Rasmus Ottesen's Dagmar (1912) - which he had also scripted - with an interview with producer, Kay van der Aa Kühle. The item concludes with the following exchange recorded on the official Carl Theodor Dreyer website: 'Who wrote this last film?' 'A young journalist. His name is not worth mentioning.' 'So he should be kept down?' 'Sure, keep him down!'

The writer was, of course, Dreyer himself. But his scripts for Scandinavisk-Russiske Handelshus did not gone unnoticed, however. After the success of Kay van der Aa Kühle's The Hidden Message and Vilhelm Glückstadt's War Correspondents (both 1913), Dreyer was headhunted by Nordisk's Frede Skaarup, who set him to work on 1 April 1913 polishing the studio's intertitles. Impressed by Dreyer's turn of phrase, Skaarup put him in charge of reading submitted screenplays and he quit Ekstra Bladet after a final column on 11 December 1915.

Dreyer continued writing his own scripts and 20 of the 31 he churned out over the next six years would be filmed. We'll limit ourselves to mentioning those he wrote for major directors, as none of the films from this period is available on disc in the UK. His most notable collaboration was with Holger-Madsen, whose reputation extended well beyond the Danish border. Following Lay Down Your Arms! (1915), Dreyer also worked on The Devil's Protegé, The Temptation of Mrs Chestney (both 1916), Which Is Which?, Convict No. 113 (both 1917), and The Music-Hall Star (1918).

Another notable Danish director of the period was August Blom and Dreyer was assigned to The Spider's Prey (1916), The Mysterious Companion (1917), Gillekop, and Lace (both 1919). During this prolific period, he also wrote The Skeleton Hand (1915), A Criminal's Diary (1916), The Hands, and Misjudgement (both 1917) for Alexander Christian, as well as Money (1915) and The Mystery of the Crown Jewels (1916) for singer-director Karl Mantzius. But we've not just listed these titles for the sake of completism.

Often adapted from novels and short stories, they convey a breadth of topic across the mainstream that might surprise those familiar with Dreyer's rarefied oeuvre. Intriguingly, several were based on crime thrillers by Stein Riverton (the pen name of Norwegian journalist Sven Elvestad), which sort of makes Dreyer the godfather of Nordic noir!

Moreover, the Nordisk pictures provided him with the generic grounding from which his own style would emerge, as he was also involved in editing the pictures. In a 1922 article for Politiken, Dreyer wrote that 'the manuscript is the fundamental condition for a good film' and he would continue to set such store by the text that his films would follow his pre-shoot preparations so closely that they rarely required much editing.

Silence Is Golden

As Nordisk scaled back production towards the end of the Great War, fewer scripts were required and technical director Wilhelm Stæhr encouraged Dreyer to spend more time on the set. He was rewarded with his directorial debut, The President (1918). Clearly influenced by D.W. Griffith and Victor Sjöström, this story of an illicit love affair was adapted from a novel by Austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos and established a career-long habit of Dreyer basing his films on literary sources and placing the emphasis on both narrative and psychological realism. Indeed, he even insisted on shooting sequences on location in Gotland, as he used flashbacks to show how the ancestors of respected judge, Karl Victor von Sendlingen (Halvard Hoff), had mistreated a number of women of lower rank.

Although the action centres on the Von Sendlingen family, Dreyer draws on his mother's plight in having the judge's illegitimate daughter, governess Victorine Lippert (Olga Raphael-Linden), come before him on a charge of causing the death of her newborn child. So personally involved was Dreyer with every aspect of the production that he even worked on the sets and cast many of the minor roles according to 'typage', which meant that the performers (several of whom were non-professional) were physically suited to the roles they were playing.

A still from Intolerance (1916)
A still from Intolerance (1916)

The influence of Griffith was also evident on Dreyer's second feature, as its themes and structure recalled those of Intolerance (1916). Marie Corelli's novel, The Sorrows of Satan, served as the basis for Leaves From Satan's Book (1921), although Dreyer spent months conducting painstaking research to ensure that the episodes dealing with Christ's Crucifixion, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and the Russo-Finnish War were as authentic as possible. Indeed, much of the generous budget was spent on procuring niche items like guinea fowl, monkeys, and black pigs, as well as geographically specific extras.

Eschewing the stark symbolism of his debut in favour of more stylised compositions, Dreyer sought to denounce bourgeois attitudes by emphasising the flaws in human nature. But his depiction of Jesus caused controversy and Dreyer would spend the rest of his life working on a screenplay based on the gospels in order to share his interpretation. The project also led him to fall out with Ole Olsen after he accused the Nordisk front office of hampering his efforts and declared, 'I solemnly deny any responsibility for the finished film.'

Having burned his boats in Copenhagen, Dreyer accepted an offer to make The Parson's Widow (1920) for Svensk Filmindustri, the Swedish company that had recently purchased one of Nordisk's studios. Kristofer Janson's 1879 short story centred on a cleric named Söfren (Einar Rød), who is duped into abandoning fiancée Mari (Greta Almroth) in order to secure a parish by marrying the much older Margarete Pedersdotter (Hildur Carlberg). Ever the perfectionist when it came to period details, Dreyer rented an open-air museum of 17th-century life near Lillehammer in Norway and cast locals in the minor roles. However, Hildur Carlberg, a veteran actress who had worked with both Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, died shortly after the shoot and a shadow fell over the production.

Despite some positive reviews, the picture did such modest business that Svensk terminated Dreyer's contract. But, ending on an optimistic note as love and spirituality triumph, this remarkable satire of suffering, sexual frustration, and death really should be available on disc, especially as it remained one of Dreyer's favourites and set the tone for future projects.

Opting against a return to Denmark, Dreyer went to Berlin at the invitation of Primusfilm to adapt Aage Madelung's novel, Love One Another (1922). In order to capture the feel of 19th-century Russia, he had a small town with 25 buildings constructed on the outskirts of the city and cast numerous émigrés from the Bolshevik Revolution. Among them was Polina Piekowskaja, who plays Hanne-Liebe, a young Jewish woman who gets caught up in the political fervour that would result in the 1905 Revolution and a pogrom.

Once again tackling the issues of intolerance and the status of women, Dreyer was frustrated by the feature's lukewarm reception. For many years, it was considered lost. But a version with Russian intertitles was found in 2006 and a restoration was released on DVD. Considering the excellent job that the BFI and Criterion have done in collecting Dreyer's later works, it's surprising that nobody has thought to release these early works, as they are fascinating in their own right and offer so many pointers to the film-maker that Dreyer would become.

A still from Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
A still from Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Unable to find a follow-up assignment in Germany, Dreyer returned home to launch an impassioned defence on compatriot Benjamin Christensen, who had been heavily criticised for spending three years on Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). However, he was also describing himself when he wrote about 'the idealist who approaches his work with holy seriousness'.

It wasn't long, however, before Dreyer was approached by Sophus Madsen of the Paladsteatret company with a commission to make Once Upon a Time (1922), a variation on a musical Holger Drachmann play that was itself a meld of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Swineherd' and William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Revealing how the Prince of Denmark (Svend Methling) disguises himself as a peasant and uses a magic kettle to woo the haughty Princess of Illyria (Clara Pontoppidan), this acerbic fairytale was also thought to be lost. But, even though a print was unearthed in the 1960s, it lacked the denouement, which had to be reconstructed using stills and intertitles.

Although this was one of Dreyer's weakest offerings, it did little to tarnish his reputation, as he was invited back to Berlin by UFA chief, Erich Pommer. As Cinema Paradiso users will know from 100 Years of German Expressionism, the studio was on a roll in the mid-1920s and could offer European directors unrivalled facilities. Once again eager to demonstrate his versatility, Dreyer agreed to adapt Herman Bang's novel, Mikaël (aka Michael, 1924), and created one of the first features to present

gay desire in a graphic manner. Benjamin Christensen played painter Claude Zoret, who becomes fixated on his model (Walter Slezak), who is unable to resist the advances of an impecunious patron, Countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor).

Born in Austria, Gregor would wind up in French exile, where she played Christine de la Chesnaye in Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939), while Slezak would go on to have a prolific career in Hollywood, notably playing the rescued Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1943). But neither was a big enough star to draw large audiences in Germany, while Danish critics devoted more newsprint to the fact a film of a Danish book, boasting a Danish director and star, had to be made in Berlin.

Suitably chastened, Palladium hired Dreyer to adapt Svend Rindom's hit stage comedy, Fall of the Tyrant, as Master of the House (1925). Johannes Meyer stars as Viktor Frandsen, a domestic tyrant who makes life so miserable for his long-suffering wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), that his childhood nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), takes over the household and gives him a taste of his own medicine.

Comedy may not have been Dreyer's strong suit, but he makes a splendid job of this social satire, in which emotional truth (highlighted by the emblematic authenticity of the studio sets) rather than dramatic incident drives the action. For the first time in his career, Dreyer scored a box-office hit. But, rather than wait for a promising follow-up script, he impetuously decamped to Norway to adapt Jacob Breda Bull's bestseller, The Bride of Glomdal (1926). He was so unfamiliar with the Romeo and Juliet story that sees Berit Glomgaarden (Tove Tellback) refuse the proposal of wealthy farmer Gjermund Berger (Einar Tveito) in order to wed the homely Tore Braaten (Einar Sissener) that he only read the book on the train to Oslo. Moreover, he had little time to prepare, as the actors only had a couple of summer weeks to spare before they returned for the new theatre season. But, even though Dreyer worked without a script, the result was charmingly droll and now seems an unlikely forerunner to Dreyer's silent masterpiece.

In 1926, Dreyer was lured to Paris by the Société Générale des Films, which had just started collaborating with Abel Gance on Napoléon (1927). The Dane was offered the choice of a film about Joan of Arc, Catherine de' Medici, or Marie Antoinette. According to lore, the Maid of Orléans won out through the drawing straws and Dreyer would spend the next 18 months working on what he hoped would be his first talking picture. Indeed, he based his scenario for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) on the original transcripts of the trial (which had recently been published by Pierre Champion) to ensure that the dialogue would be as historically accurate as possible. However, a shortage of recording equipment forced him to rely on intertitles and he started to scour the city to find an actress whose face would be suitably expressive to play the lead.

Passing the Théâtre de Paris, Dreyer saw Renée Falconetti on a poster for Victor Marguerite's comedy, La Garçonne, and invited himself to her lodgings in a bid to persuade her to make her screen debut. Somewhat reluctantly, the Italian actress agreed and proceeded to give one of the finest performances of the entire silent era in what turned out to be her only film.

A still from Joan of Arc (2019)
A still from Joan of Arc (2019)

Compressing the action into a single day, Dreyer set out to show that the confusion and courage that Joan exhibited at the hands of her inquisitors owed less to divine inspiration or extraordinary heroism than to basic human nature. His Joan would be a vulnerable girl rather than a saint and this approach would be emulated in Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc (2019).

Basing his courtroom interiors on mediaeval sources, Dreyer put an abstract spin on the setting and used lighting effects and camera angles to enhance the close-ups of the faces of the accusers and their victim. In all, the film would be contain around 1500 cuts, which made it closer in structure to Soviet montage than the Impressionism that was being created in France during this period by the likes of Jean Epstein, Marcel L'Herbier, and Germaine Dulac.

Angered by an outsider's revisionist depiction of a national heroine and newly created saint, powerful political and ecclesiastical figures persuaded the censor to make numerous damaging cuts and the resulting film proved a commercial disappointment. Dreyer suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the Clinique Jeanne d'Arc in Paris. Disappointed with the outcome, the Société cancelled the second film stipulated in Dreyer's contract and it took three years for him to recoup compensation through the courts.

Despite some admiring reviews, The Passion of Joan of Arc was forgotten for many years. Several restoration attempts were made. But it took a workman clearing out a cupboard at Oslo's Kikemark Sykehus asylum to find a complete print in 1981 and Cinema Paradiso users can now enjoy Dreyer's original vision in its full glory.

The Wilderness Years

A still from Vampyr (1932)
A still from Vampyr (1932)

While Dreyer fought his breach of contract case, the silent era came to a close and talking pictures became the norm. Although sound had come to Denmark, Dreyer seems not to have been approached to join the pioneers. Instead, he formed his own company, Film-Production Carl Dreyer, with the backing of Baron Nicolas von Gunzburg, who was keen to become an actor. Assuming the name Julian West, he took the role of Allan Gray in Vampyr (1932), which Dreyer and Christen Jul had fashioned from the stories in J. Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly. Once again, seeking to demonstrate that he could handle any kind of picture, Dreyer strove 'to create daydreams on film and show that the uncanny does not lie in the things around us but in our own subconscious minds'.

As he was aware that the film would be released in German, French, and English versions, Dreyer decided to limit the amount of dialogue to avoid costly retakes and use intertitles to convey information, as Allan Gray arrives in the village of Courtempierre and discovers that it is being terrorised by a vampire. By restricting the amount of speech, Dreyer was also able to shoot on location, which was rare in the early sound phase, as the microphones were so cumbersome and sensitive. Notwithstanding the excellent contributions of cinematographer Rudolph Maté, art director Hermann Warm, and the largely non-professional cast, contemporary audiences were far from impressed. Yet this atmospheric horror is now hailed as a classic of the genre, although its commercial failure made it difficult for Dreyer to find a follow-up project.

Having written treatments for a couple of stage adaptations, Nocturne and Monsieur Lamberthier ou Satan, he was seemingly considered for the 1934 adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary that was ultimately directed by Jean Renoir. The same year, Dreyer went to Italian Somaliland with journalist Ernesto Quadrone to work on the docudrama, Mudundu (aka L'Homme ensablé). However, having only shot a few feet of film, he succumbed to malaria and L'Esclave blanc (aka The White Slave, 1936) was eventually completed by Frenchman, Jean-Paul Paulin.

Still reluctant to return to Copenhagen, Dreyer submitted a screenplay to John Grierson. However, the founder of the British Documentary Movement was unimpressed and the project was reassigned. Cinema Paradiso users can see Harry Watt's North Sea (1938) on the BFI's GPO Film Unit Collection Vol. 2 - We Live in Two Worlds (2009). Even when he did finally return to Denmark, Dreyer failed to find funding for scenarios like A Father, which centred on a man's efforts to do right by his children, despite his marriage crumbling.

A still from Things to Come (1936)
A still from Things to Come (1936)

With no other avenues open to him, Dreyer returned to Berlingske Tindende, where he was charged with reviewing the latest film releases under his nom de plume, Tommen. So negative were his notices, however, that he was removed from the post after just four months, having reviewed 12 films. Cinema Paradiso members can form their own judgements on Raymond Bernard's Wooden Crosses (1932), Richard Boleslawski's Les Miserables, Clarence Brown's Anna Karenina (both 1935), Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood, William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come, Leo McCarey's Milky Way, and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (all 1936). However, it's not currently possible to bring you Fritz Wendhausen's Peer Gynt (1934), Carl Froelich's Traumulus, Aleksandr Ptushko's The New Gulliver, Dominique Bernard-Deschamps's La Marmaille, or Julien Duvivier's La Bandera (all 1935).

Recognising Dreyer's merits as a satirical writer, BT's editor tasked him with covering the Copenhagen judicial system and he produced around 1000 pieces under the 'Life in the City Court' banner over the next five years. By which time, of course, Denmark was under Nazi occupation and all film production was carefully monitored. In 1942, however, Mogens Skot-Hansen, head of the production of shorts for the Ministerial Film Committee, approached Dreyer with a project.

Running just 12 minutes, Good Mothers (1942) examined life at an institution for unmarried mothers. This was a topic that Dreyer knew all about and he not only covered it with tact and compassion, but he also proved that he could complete a niche project on time and to budget. As we shall see in the next section, this would lead to a return to feature directing. But Dreyer produced several shorts over the next few years, as both the Ministerial Film Committee and Dansk Kulturfilm recognised his expertise.

The BFI's blu-ray release, The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection, includes several of these titles: The Village Church, The Fight Against Cancer (both 1947), They Caught the Ferry (1948), Thorsvaldsen (1949), Storstrøm Bridge (1950), and A Castle Within a Castle (1954). A notable absentee, however, is Water From the Land (1946), which was banned by the authorities for purportedly damaging the reputation of Danish agriculture and it has hardly been seen since. Dreyer also worked on the scripts for

Theodor Christensen's Citizens of the Future (1946), Torben Anton Svendsen's The Seventh Age (1947), Otto Schray's Radio's Childhood (1949), Jørgen Roos and Erling Schroeder's Shakespeare and Kronborg

(1950), Poul Bang's The Rebuilding of Rønne and Nexø (1954), and Bent Barfod's Something About the North (1956).

The Dagmar Days

Despite being feted for Good Mothers, Dreyer failed to convince Nordisk to fund his comeback feature, Day of Wrath (1943), and he was relieved when Palladium stepped in. Although it was released during the Nazi occupation, Dreyer always denied there was a political subtext to this tale of twisted belief and spiteful treachery.

A still from Day of Wrath (1943)
A still from Day of Wrath (1943)

Inspired by Norwegian Hans Wiers-Jenssen's 1908 fact-based play, Anne Pedersdotter, the action is set in 1623 in the household of pastor Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), who has misused his position to marry the daughter of an accused witch. However, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) is considerably younger than her husband and becomes infatuated with his newly returned son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye). Moreover, she offers sanctuary to suspected sorceress, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier). So, when Absolon dies shortly after securing the old woman's conviction, mother-in-law Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) denounces Anne and convinces Martin to disown her.

Echoing theories espoused in Benjamin Christensen's Häxan, Dreyer explores such perennial themes as social intolerance, innocence and guilt, religious faith and the supernatural, and the status of women within a patriarchal hierarchy. Yet, for all the intensity of its ideas and incidents, this is also a work of sublime artistry. In conjunction with production designer Erik Aaes and cinematographer Karl Andersson, Dreyer makes telling contrasts between light and shade, interiors and exteriors, dreams and reality, change and stasis, and life and death, as he exposes the fissures in a society whose moral integrity has been debased by prejudice, cowardice, and fear.

Wartime curfews and damning reviews meant that the film was little seen in 1943, with some cinemas only showing it to keep German imports off their screens. Yet it would prove a significant influence on Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which was filmed by Nicholas Hytner in 1996, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Released at a time when Denmark had starting rounding up Jews for deportation, however, Day of Wrath became increasingly contentious and Dreyer decided to cross to neutral Sweden for his family's safety.

Shortly after arriving in Stockholm, Dreyer was contracted by Svensk Filmindustri. Once again, he considered Louis Verneuil's 1928 play, Monsieur Lamberthier ou Satan (aka, Jealousy), before deciding that German playwright Willy Oscar Somin's Close Quarters would better suit his ambition to make a chamber drama. Besides an opening montage and a flashback, the action of Two People (1944) takes place exclusively in a bijou apartment over the course of a single night. It centres on scientist Arne Lundell (Georg Rydeberg), who has been accused of plagiarising the work of his mentor, Professor Sander (Gabriel Alw). When news breaks of the older man's death, Arne discovers that his wife, Marianne (Wanda Rothgardt), had once been his mistress.

Photographed by Gunnar Fischer, who would go on to shoot such Ingmar Bergman classics as Summer With Monika (1953) and The Seventh Seal (1957), this kammerspielfilm has largely been forgotten. Dreyer was so disappointed by the casting of the Lundells that he felt the project was hopeless from the outset and he virtually disowned it. Yet, the assignment enabled him to experiment with camera placement and movement and make innovative use of off-screen space in spicing up the melodramatic storyline. Maybe somebody might want to mark the film's 80th anniversary by giving it a long overdue release on disc?

The negative response to the picture meant that Dreyer's career stalled again. Luxfilm offered to bankroll an adaptation of Mancunian author Max Catto's They Walk Alone, a thriller about a widowed clergyman who comes to suspect that his children's nanny is a serial killer. However, the project folded when Dreyer opted to return to Copenhagen at the end of the war, along with an account of pioneering Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andrée's 1897 bid to reach the North Pole. Jan Troell would eventually recreate this ill-fated expedition in Flight of the Eagle (1982).

As with most film-makers, Dreyer's archive contain notes and sketches for numerous unrealised projects. Among those to receive serious attention were The First Discovery of America, which drew on the Icelandic sagas of Erik the Red; The Crown, in which a woman is abandoned by her shiftless husband; Barbara, a reworking of a Jørgen Frantz-Jacobsen novel about a pastor's widow who turns the heads of the menfolk on the Faroe Islands; and a US-set neo-realist amalgamation of the first two parts of Marcel Pagnol's Marseille trilogy, which were eventually remade as Marius and Fanny (both 2013) by Daniel Auteuil.

While these projects were developed with no specific deal in the offing, Dreyer devoted six months to researching and writing Maria Stuart, after he was contacted by the British independent company, Film Traders Limited. He travelled to Edinburgh and visited key locations in order to plan the visuals, while Birgita Lindvad set about translating the screenplay that Dreyer had written with his journalist son, Erik. However, Film Traders were so underwhelmed by the 250-page text and the proposed three-hour running time that Mary, Queen of Scots was abandoned (although Dreyer did try to revive it a decade later when the Hollywood studio, Columbia, briefly expressed an interest).

In the early 1950s, Dreyer dabbled with the idea of making a biopic of Paul Gauguin during his stay in Tahiti. However, this also fell by the wayside and it wasn't until 2017 that Vincent Cassel took the lead in Édouard Deluc's Gauguin. However, the most fabled of all Dreyer's unmade films was his life of Jesus Christ. He first had the idea to focus on the man and the miracles after completing The Passion of Joan of Arc. But it wasn't until 1949 that he approached American millionaire Blevins Davis with a proposal. So convinced that the pair had a connection, Dreyer proceeded to teach himself Hebrew prior to a research trip to Israel. He also spent months at the British Museum studying sources, despite Davis keeping evading a commitment to fund the project.

A still from The Passion of the Christ (2003) With Jim Caviezel
A still from The Passion of the Christ (2003) With Jim Caviezel

Dreyer's intention was to challenge the wisdom that the Jews had conspired with the Romans to eliminate Jesus. Thus, he had the various religious and revolutionary leaders court the Nazarene and try to prevent Pontius Pilate from sentencing Him to death. He also hoped to film in authentic locations with a largely non-professional cast speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew. Mel Gibson would follow this lead in The Passion of the Christ (2003). But, even though Dreyer would confide in a friend, 'every scene appears in my consciousness as a finished piece of sculpture', he could never find a backer who shared his vision. Ironically, Dreyer passed away within a few months of Minister of Culture Bodil Koch offering a tenth of the proposed budget in 1967.

Money would always be an issue for Dreyer, who occupied modest lodgings on Dalgas Boulevard. Wife Ebba multi-tasked on several of her spouse's films, most often handling script continuity. Born in 1932, son Erik developed a drinking problem and remained reliant on his father even while living abroad, as did his 19-year older sister, Gunni, who suffered from recurring ill health and bouts of depression. Mother and son died in 1977, while Gunni lived for another 13 years, supervising her father's estate.

However, Dreyer's financial problems were eased in 1952, when the government awarded him the licence to run the Dagmar Cinema on Jernbanegade. Built as a theatre in the late 19th century, the premises had been wired for sound in 1939, although they were largely occupied by the Gestapo during the war. Despite not being a regular cinemagoer, Dreyer's brief was to offer a diverse programme of films and nothing was ever screened without his approval. Records show, however, that over 150 of the 240 titles he sanctioned during his tenure were made in Hollywood, which hardly boosted local production.

He was assisted by Mrs Inga Jørgensen, who revealed in an interview in 2010 that 'Dreyer was two people. One Dreyer was very reserved, polite and modest (but always got his way!). The other could be violently temperamental and unreasonably perfectionistic.' A case in point saw him lose his temper during a 1958 visit by Sophia Loren, when he ordered his staff to 'Get that mad woman out of here!'

Three years before this encounter, Palladium had enabled Dreyer to resume his directorial career with Ordet (aka The Word, 1955). He had hoped to adapt Kaj Munk's stage play after seeing it in 1932. However, the wait proved worthwhile, as Dreyer won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for this compelling treatise on parapsychology, the difference between religion and faith, and the indivisibility of human and divine love. Filmed in Vedersoe in West Jutland - where Munk had been a pastor before he was murdered by the Nazis - the story centres on the feud between farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), who adheres to the branch of Lutheranism advocated by Bishop N.F.S. Grundtvig, and tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel), who belongs to the fundamentalist Inner Mission sect. When Borgen's son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), declares his intention to marry Petersen's daughter, Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the tailor fatally curses the farmer's pregnant daughter-in-law, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), only for his younger son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who is afflicted with a messianic complex, to perform an unexpected miracle.

Dismayed by the way in which belief so often lapses into intolerance and zealotry, Dreyer sought to restore some simple humanism to spirituality by imposing a brand of mannered naturalism on his cast to complement the sedate rhythms and stark reality he achieved by shooting in long takes filled with measured pans, travelling shots, and lingering close-ups. Henning Bendtsen's fluent camerawork and Erik Aaes's austere mise-en-scène are mesmerising and, while the acting style takes some getting used to, this triumph of trusting love over bleak fanaticism is deceptively satirical and deeply moving.

This potent saga also marks a shift in Dreyer's approach to editing, as there are only 114 shots in the entire film. Critic Christopher Long has identified the shot lengths in each of Dreyer's major features, with the average duration of 3.3 seconds in The Passion of Joan of Arc rising to nine seconds in Vampyr, 14.8 seconds in Day of Wrath, and 65 seconds in Ordet. In his final outing in 1964, the shot length had increased to 82 seconds. This use of the mise-en-scène technique required considerable planning, as some of the camera choreography could be quite complicated. But it gave Dreyer such control over his material that he only required five days to edit the 126-minute film.

Despite the festival success and the positivity of the press, Dreyer found it no easier to attract funding. Attempts to film William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra were thwarted. Even the prospect of casting opera diva Maria Callas in Euripides's Medea failed to entice investors, although Pier Paolo Pasolini succeeded where Dreyer had failed in Medea (1970), which is available from Cinema Paradiso, as is the same director's take on the Greek tragedian's Oedipus Rex (1967), which stars Silvana Mangano, Franco Citti, and Alida Valli. Frustratingly, we currently can't get hold of Lars von Trier's Medea (1987), even though it was made for Danish television using Dreyer's script.

Finally, having pondered works by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Dreyer settled upon Gertrud (1964), which was inspired by a 1906 chamber play by Hjalmar Söderberg. Seeking to achieve a unique harmony between image and speech, Dreyer filmed the action in languid takes that eschewed close-ups in eavesdropping upon conversations between retired opera singer Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) and the men hoping to live up to her impossibly high expectations of romantic love - politician husband Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe); poet and old flame Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode); composer and current paramour Erland Jansson (Baard Owe); and smitten psychologist, Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye).

Comprising just 89 camera set-ups, the film has struggled to escape the negative criticism it received from 1960s cineastes obsessed with the jump-cutting subversion of the various new waves. But, by muting his visual style and having his cast declaim their lines in an unemotive manner, Dreyer ensures that this Slow Cinema prototype exerts a powerful dramatic spell and an austere aesthetic fascination. He is ably abetted by cinematographer Henning Bendtsen and production designer Kai Rasch in creating the evocative monochrome milieu in which the achingly civilised exchanges take place before a largely static camera on a Nordisk soundstage.

Yet, even though the story is set at the turn of the century, its heroine is not a typical Dreyer victim of patriarchal arrogance. She is an intelligent, independent woman who makes her own rules and accepts the consequences when they drive her into a Parisian exile that continues into a coda staged some three decades after she rejects the suitors who fail her. Dreyer devised this ending himself and it reveals the extent to which the 75 year-old understood the seismic societal and cinematic changes of his time.

This coolly stylised study of the impossible pursuit of passion proved to be Dreyer's last word on the human condition that he had explored in its various facets since 1918. He was now 75 and so revered that a special festschrift of essays on his career was published to mark the occasion. But the critics were baffled by Gertrud and what Dreyer was trying to achieve with its pared back aesthetic. He wouldn't get the chance to direct again, even though he continued to work on his Jesus film right up to his death from pneumonia at the age of 79 on 20 March 1968.

A still from Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (1995)
A still from Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (1995)

Combining artistic integrity with a dedication to revealing the spiritual dimension of everyday life, Dreyer ranks among the few genuine geniuses of world cinema. His achievement has been ably assessed in Torben Skjødt Jensen's documentary, Carl Theodor Dreyer: My Métier 1995), which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. Let's hope it's not long before it's joined by the long-neglected silents, which reveal a wit and diversity to match the dramatic intensity and stylistic precision that characterise the masterpieces of Dreyer's later career.

Uncover landmark films on demand
Browse our collection at Cinema Paradiso
Subscription starts from £15.99 a month.
  • Michael (1924) aka: Mikaël

    1h 30min
    1h 30min

    Defying convention, artist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) lives contentedly with his younger model, Michael (Walter Slezak). However, when he is lured away by the gold-digging Countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor), Zoret rediscovers the steadfast friendship of journalist Charles Switt (Robert Garrison).

  • Master of the House (1925) aka: Du skal ære din hustru

    1h 32min
    1h 32min

    Domestic tyrant Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer) makes life so miserable for his long-suffering wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), that his childhood nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), takes over the household to teach him a few harsh lessons.

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) aka: La passion de Jeanne d'Arc

    1h 37min
    1h 37min

    On 30 May 1431, abandoned by the French crown for which she has been fighting against an Anglo-Burgundian alliance in the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc (Renée Falconetti) is tried for heresy by a clerical court led by Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) and Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen (Antonin Artaud).

  • Vampyr (1932) aka: Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray / Castle of Doom / The Vampire

    1h 12min
    1h 12min

    Allan Gray (Julien West) arrives in the village of Courtempierre and discovers that sisters Giséle (Rena Mandel) and Léone (Sybille Schmitz) have been targeted by elderly vampire Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) and her minion (Jan Hieronimko), who is the local doctor.

  • Day of Wrath (1943) aka: Vredens dag

    1h 35min
    1h 35min

    When pastor Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose) dies suddenly in 1623, mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) accuses young wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin) of having used her powers to kill him and bedazzle his handsome son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), because she's the daughter of a witch.

  • Ordet (1955) aka: The Word

    1h 59min
    1h 59min

    Farmer farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) and tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel) are involved in a religious feud that becomes exacerbated when the former's son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), proposes to the latter's daughter, Anne (Gerda Nielsen). A murderous tragedy occurs, but Borgen's younger son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), possesses miraculous powers.

  • Gertrud (1964)

    1h 52min
    1h 52min

    Retired opera singer Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) demands unconventional love from the four men in her life: politician husband Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe); smitten pyschologist, Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye); poet and old flame Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode); and composer and current paramour Erland Jansson (Baard Owe). Her demands, however, come at a price.

  • Babette's Feast (1987) aka: Babettes gæstebud

    Play trailer
    1h 44min
    Play trailer
    1h 44min

    We're cheating a bit by including Gabriel Axel's wonderful adaptation of Karen Blixen's story about a French cook (Stéphane Audran) who thanks the remote Danish community that had accepted her by making a magnificent meal. However, the Dreyer influence is evident in every frame, as well as in the casting of Lisbeth Movin and Preben Lerdorff Rye from Day of Wrath and the Ordet duo of Birgitte Federspiel and Cay Kristiansen.

  • Carl Theodor Dreyer: My Metier (1995) aka: Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier / Carl Th. Dreyer: Min metier

    1h 33min
    1h 33min

    Containing clips from the auteur's long and varied career, Torben Skjødt Jensen's documentary draws on his writings to provide an informed and intimate insight into the preoccupations and working methods of Denmark's finest film-maker.