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A family in its turmoil

13 March 2012

by Stephen Brown

Courtesy of BFI

Courtesy of BFI

THE Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) ranks in my top ten cinematic greats. Although he is best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, this has overshadowed other wonderful achievements, including Ordet (The Word).

His penultimate film, made in 1955, this has now been re-released in a new print that shows off the trademark luminous beauty of Dreyer’s subjects, not least in facial close-up (Cert. 12A). It is, however, his persistent inquiry into the relationship between human emotions and religious belief which continues to haunt audiences today.

This adaptation of a play by Kaj Munk, a Lutheran pastor, concerns itself with the Borgen family’s tensions. The year is 1925. Old farmer Morten (Henrik Malberg) clings on to faith in the face of what he perceives is a receding God.

His three sons give him cause for anxiety. Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), married to the adorable Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is agnostic, in contrast with his incurably insane brother Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who thinks he is — and speaks almost entirely in the words of — Jesus. Anders (Cay Kristiansen) wants to marry the daughter of Peter (Ejner Federspiel), whose austere Christianity leaves little room for a God of mercy and joy.

The stage is set for many clashes of desire and belief. These are brought to a head when the preg­nant Inger goes into a life-threatening labour. The inter­ventions of the rationalist doctor (Henry Skjær) are interpreted by those of faith as miraculous, to which he replies: “Which helped most this evening: your prayers or my skill?” When both of these seem to fail, the characters are in a quandary about how they proceed.

Dreyer is far too subtle a craftsman to collude with a false dichotomy between medical science and Christian belief. Instead, his people continually search for “the word that will return people to life”. Ironically, it is through the passion­ate insistence of the supposedly mad Johannes that a tranquil unity is effected, one whereby the family’s emotional turmoil is converted into something transcendent.

Heroic performances matched by remarkable sound design, lighting, and camerawork bring about a spiritual tour de force that is unsur­passed in film history. Although Dreyer habitually depicts passion in the quietest of tones, he never loses the sense that this emotion, even at its most joyful, is embedded in redemptive suffering. That is the key to his genius.

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