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With: Joseph Koch
Written by: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Johannes V. Jensen
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Danish with English subtitles
Running Time: 10
Date: 05/12/1948

They Caught the Ferry (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Drives Me Crazy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Legendary director Carl Theodor Dreyer never made a hit movie in his life. Of course, he never made a bad movie either. But after several flops, including The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), and Day of Wrath (1945), he had real trouble getting financing. So, just after World War II he took a job making public service shorts financed by the government of Denmark, provided that he himself was able to write the scripts. The most famous of these shorts today is the 10-minute They Caught the Ferry (1948), a driver's safety film.

They Caught the Ferry played at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival as part of a series of silent shorts accompanied by live music by guitarist Tom Verlaine (who played with the seminal 1970's rock band Television). The other films were fine, but this one took my breath away. (See also my review of the 2007 Tom Verlaine DVD.)

It begins with a man and a woman riding a ferry about to dock. The man revs up his motorcycle, the woman climbs on back and they take off. The farther they get from the ferry, the more rural the roads become. They pass cars, motorcycles, and eventually cattle and horses. Dreyer does an amazing job of conveying speed, with quick cuts to the speedometer, and the movement and clarity of the road and the roadside. Of course, Verlaine's music helped tremendously with its adrenaline-pumping chords.

The twist comes when the man passes a black car with a strange looking skeletal pattern on the back. After maneuvering a fork in the road, the car passes them up and the man really pours on the steam to pass once again. But the car keeps speeding up. As he finally gets side-by-side with it, we can see that the driver is none other than Death, a pale, cadaverous looking fellow dressed in black. At that point, the man and the woman smash into a tree. And we in the audience have presumably learned our lesson.

Of course They Caught the Ferry lacks the supreme elegance and artistry of something like The Passion of Joan of Arc or Vampyr, plus I have no idea now what the film was originally supposed to sound like or what music went with it, but I was thrilled just the same. What a great way for newcomers to be exposed to a master filmmaker!

I was unable to find They Caught the Ferry on video anywhere. It's possible it may be available on some video collection of short films somewhere. I'd like to think that a print has turned up in some driver's training class somewhere in the midwest and a group of lucky young drivers are watching it right now. It's a sublime experience.

DVD Details: They Caught the Ferry was released on DVD in the fall of 2004 along with Dreyer's feature film The Parson's Widow (1920).

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