Ordet (1955)


(director/writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer; screenwriter: from the play by Kaj Munk; cinematographer: Henning Bendtsen; editor: Edith Schlüssel; music: Poul Schierbeck; cast: Henrik Malberg (Morten Borgen), Emil Hass Christensen (Mikkel Borgen), Cay Kristiansen (Anders Borgen), Preben Leerdorff-Rye (Johannes Borgen), Ove Rud (Pastor), Henry Skjaer (Doctor), Gerda Nielsen (Anne Skraedder), Edith Trane (Mette Maren), Sylvia Eckhausen (Kirstine Skraedder), Hanne Aagesen (Karen), Ejner Federspiel (Peter Skraedder), Anne Elisabeth (Maren), Birgitte Federspiel (Inger, Mikkel’s Wife), Susanne Rud (Lilleinger Borgen); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Theodor Dreyer; Criterion Film Corp.; 1955-Denmark-in Danish with English subtitles)
“A moving work of great intelligence, compassion and sensitivity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s (“Gertrud”/”The Passion of Joan of Arc”/”Day of Wrath”) Ordet is one of the most unique and best films ever made; it’s another masterpiece from the great Danish director (‘the master of the austere’). The theatrical film (not meant as a slur, but as a fact) is based on the play by Danish pastor Kaj Munk who was slain by the Gestapo in 1944, during their occupation of Denmark, for choosing Christ over Hitler. It was previously filmed in 1943 in Sweden, as Dreyer couldn’t get financial backing at the time to buy the copyrights to a story he very much wanted to film. This was the only feature-length film made by him in the 1950s; his next masterpiece, his last film, Gertrud, came out in 1964–Dreyer died in 1968. Ordet covers the religious themes that concerned Dreyer his entire film career. He explores the clash between the fundamentalist churchgoers of orthodox religion and those with a personal uncompromising faith. He paints both the churchgoers and non-churchgoers in a sympathetic light, though not sparing either of them from their faults. Dreyer also questions the meaning of true love and its shadings, and how a forbidden love might actually be the real love. Filmed in a stunning black and white, it resounds with raw energy, an unusual emotional intensity and is strangely hypnotic in its strong feelings of faith overcoming the impossibility of its intellectual arguments. It’s a slow-moving, grueling and deliberate film whose concern for moral and metaphysical meanings get expressed in religious terms. Noted for its long takes, panning shots, carefully shot interior compositions and spareness, it results in a moving work of great intelligence, compassion and sensitivity.

It’s set in the mid-1920s in a small rural Danish village. Filmed almost entirely on the Borgen farm, where the close-knit family is concerned about the twentysomething Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a theology student who cracked up after studying too much of Soren Kierkegaard. He walks around the countryside saying he’s Jesus and repeating what the Bible records are Jesus’s words, while criticizing everyone around him for no longer believing in miracles and trusting fully in the words of the gospels. The elderly patriarch of the family is the pious widower Morten (Henrik Malberg), who smokes a long-stemmed pipe, pushes his religious beliefs onto his family and prays for his delusional son to regain his wits. Morten’s oldest son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is a non-believer but a good person who dearly loves his two young daughters, Maren and Lilleinger, and, especially, his levelheaded religious, kind-hearted, sweet and wise pregnant wife, the loving matriarch of the house, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel). Anders (Cay Kristiansen) is the youngest son, who timidly asks Mikkel and Inger to help him convince his stubborn father to approve his marriage to Anne (Gerda Nielsen). She’s the daughter of Peter (Ejnar Federspiel), a tailor and member of a fundamentalist church who is a sworn enemy of Morten. The rigid Christ worshiper rejects Anders as not worthy of his daughter.

Inger uses her charm to sweet talk the reluctant Morten to visit Peter, and their meeting starts off friendly but soon their different views of faith leads to an inevitable argument. Before Morten runs out of the house in a rage, Mikkel calls to say that Inger is having great difficulties from childbirth. A callous Peter wishes she won’t recover so that Morten will come to accept his belief in God. This leads Morten to become even more enraged, ensuring that only a miracle can bring these two warring families together.

The miracle is reserved for the concluding scene, as Inger is lying in the open casket in the funeral home and Johannes returns after disappearing–appearing more clear-eyed and less like a madman, apparently visited by the Holy Spirit. In a scene that is at the same time all of the following–unforgettable, ludicrous, and spellbinding– Johannes performs a miracle like in the days of the ancients, as he brings Inger back to life before the doubting two families. This act of faith unites the two families. It only works because Dreyer has established a realistic frame of reference throughout and the miracle of the Word, which Dreyer believes is found in the silence of one’s own heart, brings everyone together in the experience of the real resurrection–an act of true love.

This proves to be both a work of great religious tolerance and a great film experience.

Ordet won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival; it might be a miracle, but Ordet turned out to be Dreyer’s biggest commercial success.

Birgitte Federspiel was pregnant and Dreyer recorded her baby’s birth using those sounds in the film, giving those shots of Inger in labor the ultimate realistic feel.