‘Ordet’ – Carl Theodor Dreyer – A/S Palladium
“Ordet is a difficult film to enter.
But once you’re inside,
it is impossible to escape.”
~ Roger Ebert
There is a beautiful line in the film ‘Ordet’. This is when Inger answers her husband who is complaining about his lack of faith. “It will come. Just you see how warm you will feel then. And how happy. It’s nice to be happy, isn’t it?” How revealing that she equates here faith with happiness. For faith in God is usually meant to be a deeply ingrained certainty or belief, something artificial, made up, sustained. Serious spiritual seekers will tend to abandon the word, in favour of the search for — and ultimately abidance in — something that is our natural and inborn identity, always present in and as ourself, never at a distance. But there is indeed a kind of faith necessary for the discovery of this hidden identity. This is better called the love of truth, or a deeply ingrained eagerness to find the truth, an earnestness, a fervour that starts and fuels the journey towards the understanding of ourself.
Faith and the lack of faith are at the centre of the Danish film ‘Ordet’, meaning ‘The Word’. This is a film of iconic dimension, that has been celebrated the world over for its perfect craftsmanship and its deeply religious subject. It was made in 1955 by one of the greatest film director in history, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Watching Ordet, you are shown to what degree of elevation a film can be subject to in the hands of a true artist. Watching the film, you are slowly grabbed and lead to unforgettable artistic and spiritual heights. Dreyer, who thought deeply about his art, once said: “There is a certain resemblance between a work of art and a person. Just as one can talk about a person’s soul, one can also talk about the work of art’s soul, its personality. […] Style is not something that can be separated from the finished work of art. It saturates and penetrates it, and yet is invisible and undemonstrable.”
The issue of faith in the movie is raised amid characters to whom religion is the essential of life, and faith is a given. We meet the old patriarch Morten, who has a deep influence on the local religious community, owns a wealthy farm, and is the father of three sons. Mikkel, the oldest, is lacking faith but is a reliable man. He is married to Inger, who is the heart of the family, a solar, confident, loving soul whose presence is appreciated by all. She is pregnant and already the mother of two girls. We also meet Anders, who is the younger son, presently in love with a girl in the community. The last son, but not the least, is Johannes, who has a disturbed personality. He is said to have lost his mind while studying Søren Kierkegaard, and believes himself to be the Christ. Johannes is seen roaming about, coming and going, appearing and disappearing, crossing the rooms like a ghost, unreachable, locked in a world of his own, but sharing to whoever wants to hear, his or Jesus’ words. “I am the light of the world, but the darkness knoweth it not. I came unto my own, and my own received me not.”, he says while carrying candles from the table to the window sill.
Often his speaking strikes a chord of truth, although he is not heard among his family and people. There is this tendency in our lives to lack faith, or the willingness to find out. We remain in the usual and comfortable lows of our lives. But there is sadness in putting our faith in the low. Yet this is what we do, and this is why we suffer. We are believers and worshippers of our thoughts, of our limitations, of our desperation. This is a misplacement of faith. We should keep our faith high, raise up our willingness, upgrade our poor conditionings. We should place our faith in the only true realm there is, the raw life of our eternal being. We should stick to it no matter what, espouse it even in times of great sorrows and challenges. To live with this presence left in the hidden and make it lower than our everyday struggles to which we give prominence, is the sin, the true blasphemy which Johannes is pointing restlessly to whoever wants to hear.
”I am a mason. I build houses, but people refuse to live in them. […] The greatest number wander homeless. Are you one who needs a house?” Johannes asks the new pastor. To the family who is annoyed at his constant verbiage, the compassionate Inger opposes that “Johannes may be nearer to God than we are.” Life goes on in the little family and community. We are struck by the subtlety of the film’s photography. Some of the opening exterior shots are breathtakingly beautiful. The characters are placed and lit as if they had been carved for eternity. Dreyer is a master of light, which he sculpts like would a painter or a sculptor. He is an admirer of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. Dreyer was known to use up to twenty different sources of light for one single take. The electricians would turn them on and off according to the characters’ moves inside the room.
Everything in Ordet’s society is stiff and heavy with codes and behaviours dictated by their religious beliefs. The tailor Peter is at the head of the local, radical Inner Mission sect and refuses to marry his daughter to Morten’s son Anders. Morten had also himself refused to accept the union when Inger interceded in favour of Anders, but got furious when learning of the tailor turning his son away. He decides to pay a visit to Peter to make him change his mind and let his daughter marry Anders. Unfortunately to no avail. They only end up in bitter bickering, protecting their own sectarian views and faith. “Do you know the difference between my faith and yours?” Morten says angrily to Peter, “You believe Christianity is being mournful and torturing yourself. I believe Christianity means the enhancement of life. My faith makes me rejoice in life. Your faith merely makes you long for death. My faith is the warmth of life. Your faith is the chill of death.”
This is the time when the film chooses to take a dramatic, unexpected turn. At home, pregnant Inger is forced to abort the baby, and her life is in danger. Morten and his son rush back home. Everybody is here, including the doctor and the new pastor. A night is coming forth where life will take its toll on the characters. This is the furnace of the film, when everything and everyone is suspended between life and death, between chaos and resolution. This is the time for the utmost revelations, when death comes as a messenger, and Inger’s little daughter as an angel of truth and acceptation. This is the time when the slow and unspeakable majesty of the film sends you in a place of utter peace and contemplation. This is the pivotal point of the movie, that is shown with a breathtaking circular panning of the camera around Johannes and Inger’s little daughter, who is standing by his side. She literally finds in him the unmoving center and pivot, the ground to which she naturally gives her trust and faith. We can hear the tick of the clock, and the constant sound of the wind as the hum of truth.
We have despised the real, the eternal, the unbreakable, as a negligible feature of life, in favour of the fleeting and the uncertain. For this reality is a given that needs not being sustained or attended to. It needs only our surrender. Consciousness is the obvious presence that we have veiled and forgotten, although it should be the glorious reality that we praise and glorify. For this is the only thing there truly is. It is the cradle in which all beings and things find their existence. It is the face of god, that is staring at us and that we keep turning our back to. Everything else, the struggles of fear and resentment, the jealousies, birth, death, all are secondary to this glorious reality. This is the true miracle of life: to recognise it as our innermost presence and reality.
Johannes can now bear on the situation with all his weight, and keeps voicing his truth. “They seek to gather grapes of thorns. The vine they pass by.” The last scene comes with its unexpected resolution and power. Johannes can bring miracles for he is the one that stares at this presence unfailingly. He is the sane one, unafraid, that only the pure child — Inger’s daughter — can see and have faith in. It is no accident that at the time of the ultimate place of understanding comes simply, naturally, a moment of intense resolution. This is where miracles abound, like ripples of this intimate mariage with truth. Lovers unite, ennemies befriend, sceptics believe, sicks heal, and the dead unite with the living. Life is proclaimed. “Yes. Life. Life.”, as Inger heartily claims as the very last words of the film. This is the word. Among others. For the word is a silent reality. This is the kiss of God.
Film by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968)
Text by Alain Joly
‘Ordet’, 1955 – Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Based on the play ‘Ordet’ by Kaj Munk (1932)
Cinematography by Henning Bendtsen
(With actors Henrik Malberg, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Birgitte Federspiel…)
Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) was a Danish film director whose unique cinema mastery has been recognised the world over. He directed many shorts and 14 feature films, among which silent films like ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ and ‘Vampyr’ and sound classics such as ‘Day of Wrath’, or ‘Gertrud’. He won the Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival for ‘Ordet’ in 1955. Author Tag Gallagher wrote: “What interested him most about making movies, said Carl Th. Dreyer a few years before his death, was to ‘reproduce the feelings of the characters in my films […], to seize […] the thoughts that are behind the words […], the secrets that lie in the depths of their soul’.”
A trailer of the film ‘Ordet’ is available here on YouTube…
Read this beautiful page by Paula Marvelly ‘Carl Theodor Dreyer: Ordet’ on her blog ‘The Culturium’…
– ‘Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer With the Danish Filmmaker’ – by Jan Wahl – (The University Press of Kentucky)
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