Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Thorkild Roose, Albert Høeberg, Preben Neergaard, Sigrid Neiiendam, Anna Svierkier, Olaf Ussing, Henrik Malberg, Emil Hass Christensen, Cay Kristiansen, Preben Leerdorff-Rye, Ove Rud, Henry Skjaer, Gerda Nielsen, Edith Trane, Sylvia Eckhausen, Hanne Aagesen, Ejner Federspiel, Anne Elisabeth, Birgitte Federspiel, Susanne Rud, Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe, Axel Strobye, Edouard Mielche
Written by: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen, Mogens Skot-Hansen
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Dutch with English subtitles
Running Time: 432
Date: 19/03/2013

Carl Th. Dreyer: My Métier (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

High and Dreyer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Carl Th. Dreyer: My Métier on DVD.

All year, I've sung the praises of 2001's choice DVD releases. But now I'm taking out the big guns. The year's best DVD release is not "The Simpsons" or The Godfather or even Citizen Kane (though they come close). It's a box set of work from a filmmaker you've probably never heard of -- but should have. It's the Carl Theodor Dreyer four-disc DVD box set from the Criterion Collection ($79.95).

Who the heck is Carl Theodor Dreyer? He may be among the top four or five finest filmmakers who ever lived, that's all. You may have heard of his 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was the best DVD release of 1999, and on my personal list of the ten greatest films ever made. And vampire fans may have seen his classic 1932 Vampyr, which is one of the best and most nightmarish horror films.

But like most great filmmakers, Dreyer's personal vision often clashed with that of investors, and he worked slowly and sporadically, completing only 22 films in his 79 years on this earth (he died in 1968), many of them lost silent films, jobs-for-hire, or disowned. The Danish filmmaker always dreamed of coming to Hollywood, but never made it. His feature films during the sound era came few and far between, whenever he could find investors willing to take a chance on a true artist instead of box-office guarantees. But three of the films he managed to make -- Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud -- stand among the world's greatest. The Criterion box set restores all three of these films to their original, beautiful, black-and-white luster.

The first, Day of Wrath (1943), follows the rather spectacular subject of witch hunts in the 17th century. But with Dreyer's artistry driving the film, it becomes far more than just a sideshow attraction. The luminous Lisbeth Movin stars as a preacher's young second wife who helps to harbor an accused witch, then falls illicitly in love with her husband's grown son (from his first marriage). When the husband finds out, she curses him, he dies, and she's accused of witchcraft. Dreyer's fluid, softly moving camera that takes in long, slow shots heightens the sensual nature of the film as well as its mystery. It's both a direct and indirect way of looking at the story -- and withholding its secrets -- that makes it resonate.

Ordet (1955) is far simpler, taking place mostly in a single set, but also more complex. Based on a play by Kaj Munk, the film follows the members of the Borgen family, the father, his three sons, and his pregnant daughter-in-law. One son thinks he's Jesus Christ, and another son has fallen in love with a neighbor girl of a different faith. When the daughter-in-law's baby comes due, problems ensue, and everyone's various degrees of faith comes into play. Dreyer's use of long shots and slow panning keep the entire room and everyone's physical whereabouts clear to us, and at the same time physically brings forth their emotional states.

Gertrud (1964) may be the most multifaceted of the three films, focusing on the middle-aged title character (Nina Pens Rode) who can't seem to find love. She's grown disinterested with her politician husband, spurns the love of a famous poet, chases after a flighty young composer, and loses all three. Once again, Dreyer's silky camera movements capture the very soul of this character on film.

When Gertrud was released, cinema had changed into a faster, hipper, younger medium, and the film was not welcomed. It was considered stuffy and slow. Only the French auteurists at Cahiers du Cinema and America's Andrew Sarris praised the film, and -- of course -- it turns out that they were right. Some priceless home-movie footage included on the DVD shows Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and actress Anna Karina fawning over the 70-something Dreyer at the movie's Paris premiere.

I wasn't sure how easy it would be to watch these three movies, as I had such a difficult slog through Criterion's recent Sergei Eisenstein box set, and I've heard reviewers complain about suffering through the films on lousy 16mm prints. But let me assure you that in the digital format these films play like a glide on a smooth stream. The Dreyer box is sincerely a dream come true.

The box also contains an essay by Dreyer himself, as well as new essays on the three films by three of today's top film writers; Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chris Fujiwara and Phillip Lopate.

The only drawback is the documentary included on the fourth disc, Carl Th. Dreyer: My Métier. Directed by Torben Skjødt Jensen in 1995, the film includes interviews with many surviving Dreyer cast and crew members and a few film clips, but it's done in an annoyingly self-consciously arty, overlit way. Still, the information is all there, and it's better than nothing. And even if this box set had included a bonus DVD of Showgirls, it still would not diminish the power of the other three films.

See also: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr and They Caught the Ferry.

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