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GERTRUD (director/writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer; screenwriter: play by Hjalmar Soderberg; cinematographers: Henning Bendtsen/Arne Abrahamsen; editor: Edith Schlüssel; music: Jorgen Jersild; cast: Nina Pens Rode (Gertrud Kanning), Ebbe Rode (Gabriel Lidman), Axel Gebuhr (Gustav Kanning), Baard Owe (Erland Jansson), Axel Strøbye (Axel Nygen), Anna Malberg (Kenning’s Mother); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jorgen Nielsen; Janus; 1964-Denmark-in Danish with English subtitles)
“Emotionally shattering as a masterful purely realistic cinema experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the greatest films ever made, if not the greatest of all the relationship films and ones that explore haunted memories. It dialectically probes into uncompromising love in an uncompromising way (reflecting both on the narrative’s heroine and the filmmaker). This is Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s (“Ordet”) last film in a career that started forty-six years ago, but where he was only able make a few films because he was unable to get funding for his projects. This one, like all his other sublime films, appeals mostly to aesthetes and not the general public. It’s adapted from the 1919 play by Hjalmar Soderberg, and though remaining theatrical in its static pacing, its long takes, few close-ups and exterior scenes (those shot in actual locations), it, nevertheless, remains emotionally shattering as a masterful purely realistic cinema experience. There are no hidden meanings in any symbols, as Dreyer just pours out what he means and according to him the film is “about a woman’s place in society.”

Former opera singer, the fortyish Gertrud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode), is locked into a loveless marriage with her devoted but passionless lawyer husband Gustav Kanning (Axel Gebuhr). They travel in the same aristocratic circles in the world of politics and the arts, and he is expected soon to be named as a cabinet minister. Immediately after his gossipy elderly mother exits from her regular house visit Gertrud breaks the news, in the late afternoon, that she’s leaving him for an unnamed musician who does not travel in the same upper-class circle. She further relates that she hasn’t slept with him but will in the future.

Telling her hubby that she will attend the opera Fidelio, instead Gertrud meets with her much younger pianist composer lover Erland Jansson (Baard Owe) in the park and tells him she’s now a free woman. They then go to his flat, where he plays his original piano composition and she strips in the bedroom where they soon make love (which takes place offscreen). Meanwhile Gustav returns from his business meeting by horse carriage and drops by the opera house and is told by the usher that his wife never showed up. Disappointed that she’s not there, the disturbed hubby still can’t comprehend why she’s leaving him since he always treated her with consideration.

In the evening they attend a banquet celebration honoring one of Denmark’s most gifted poets, the fifty-year-old, Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode), who was Gertrud’s lover before she dumped him to marry Gustav. She hasn’t seen him for three years, as he’s been living in Rome. Gustav is one of the featured speakers praising the poet. During his speech Gertrud becomes faint and is attended to in the adjacent waiting room by a Danish professor/writer friend Axel Nygen (Axel Strøbye), who is living in Paris studying free will. When the ceremony is over her husband and the poet come to comfort her, but the Vice-Chancellor calls Gustav into meet with him. This gives Gabriel a chance to tell how he met Erland at a prior reception given by a courtesan, a reception Erland promised Gertrud he would not attend, and the reckless drunken young man, with everyone present, bragged of his latest conquest, tastelessly dragging Gertrud’s name through the mud. Gabriel, in tears, then mentions that he only came home because he missed her love and wishes they could resume being lovers. But she rejects his offer. Gustav then returns from his meeting to announce he got the appointment and the Vice-Chancellor requests Gertrud sing an opera song with Erland accompanying her. But she faints in the middle of a song about anger. In the park the next day Gertrud then sees her young lover again and offers to support him if he lives with her, but he tells her he already has an older pregnant ladyfriend supporting him and asks her to continue their illicit affair instead–which she rejects. At home, her hubby invited the poet over and they drink a toast. When alone with Gertrud, Gabriel asks why she rejected him and she tells him that her love for him died when she was cleaning up his apartment and discovered a scrap of paper saying “A woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.” That gave away his true feelings about love, which exposed him as a poser of love even though he’s earned his rep as a sincere romantic poet. With that, the world-weary poet departs from her life for good. Then her inconsolable hubby can’t resist asking if she ever loved him, and all she can respond with is “that it was something resembling love.” Which prompts him to shout out that he “never wants to see her again.” The rejected Gertrud then goes to join Axel with his university friends doing psychological research in Paris. We next see her as a white-haired recluse some forty years later and an elderly Axel visiting in her sparse country house in Denmark, where he presents her with a book on Racine that he has written and commiserates that they were close friends but never lovers. She mentions that she has no regrets about her life, and gives him back his love letters–which he promptly burns in the fireplace.

The performance by Nina Pens Rode is amazing. She plays a woman who is both loving and despicable, fragile and steely-cold, and stronger in spirit than her men acquaintances but also more intolerant (Dreyer mentioned this in response to a critic’s question about Gertrud’s character). These contradictory traits make her, indeed, a complicated person to figure and one that is not entirely likable, as it seems that no one would be able to live up to her idealized concept of love. This ambiguous way of looking at Gertrud, as both an impossible bitchy woman and a martyr for love, is what gives the film its uncomfortable balance. Gertrud’s uncompromising view on life, a view held by either purists, fatalists or misfits, where to love means to experience suffering, makes her story both tragically affecting and hauntingly unforgettable–a film that ambivalently claims spiritual fulfillment is built on emotional pain and that “love is all.” It might be best to view it as an oneiric experience, where the dream unfolds and is then analyzed.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”