Ordet / Carl Theodor Dreyer / 1955 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Thematic provocation; Lighting and production design
Side Effects: Pace and theatricality can be challenging


[I owe a lot to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece for helping me unpack Ordet‘s mysteries.]

Ordet is a film of astounding grace, dignity and transcendence, cinematic attributes in service of a tender fable about grace, dignity and transcendence. Its impeccable construction and sophisticated style are beautifully tailored, even inextricably linked, to the religious themes of its story. To discuss one is to discuss the other, the cinematic and the spiritual exist in close dialogue. And yet the elegance, austerity and honesty of this filmmaking—often mistaken for mere simplicity—conceal a quiet storm of drama and incendiary ideas. As both cinema and thought, Ordet is deceptively potent and provocative. It’s a lion of a film masquerading as a lamb.

Filmed by Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) in 1955, reportedly after decades of contemplation, Ordet explores the tenor of belief in a faithless age. The action, such as there is, takes place in the rural farming region of Jutland in the 1920s where a weary patriarch and his three sons find themselves drifting from the Christian devotion of their community. The widowed old Morten Borgen still prays, but without ardor, while Mikkel is an atheist and his younger brother Anders wishes to marry the daughter of a religious zealot who considers the Borgens heathens. The middle son, Johannes, is mad and believes he is Jesus Christ. Preben Lerdorff-Rye gives a remarkable performance, delivering sermons in a slow, trance-like voice and exhorting his family to rediscover the faith they take for granted. The validity of Johannes’ prophesies—the extent to which he is either heretical or close to godliness—animates much of the film’s thematic material.

Despite discussions of God and the celestial, Ordet is also full of corporeal textures and human emotion. Anders’ yearning to follow his heart and become his own man is touching. But the most powerful drama comes from the tragedy of Mikkel’s wife Inger, a kind and gentle presence in the film who eventually dies in childbirth. Dreyer pulls no punches in dramatizing the agony and devastation of the moment; it leaves her family spiritually broken, and threatens to do the same for the audience.

Based on a play by Kaj Munk, the film details these various dramas of the Borgens patiently and carefully, respecting the measured language of its source material and the spaces that exist within words and between the characters and God. This gives Ordet a mysterious, incantatory rhythm that mirrors the eerie trances that possess Johannes. Dreyer’s confident camerawork and subtle and dynamic lighting add to the strange feeling of living inside Ordet. Dreyer films in long takes that slowly pan or track, ever striving for meaning just outside the frame. What’s striking about the tactic is the time it spends on voids, on the empty space between two characters in a room, for example.

Is Dreyer suggesting the Borgens are empty without belief, or that a kind of spiritual presence still exists among them? The miracle of Ordet, and the source of its confrontational power, is that it suggests both. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and, brilliantly, Ordet demands that we do just this. That’s because after sympathizing with the Borgens’ faithless rationalism, Dreyer performs a miracle: he raises Inger from the dead.

It’s a maddening, contradictory development. It seems to throw everything that has come before out of balance, and yet it creates the cognitive dissonance that makes the film itself immortal. Ordet, then, becomes not so much a film about religious belief but an act of shimmering transcendence itself, a cathartic letting-go in the face of wonder. It’s an unclosed circuit, an incomplete thought that may never be resolved, but which will always require the participation of the audience to create its sparks.