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Carl Theodor Dreyer and OrdetMy Summer with the Danish Filmmaker$

Jan Wahl

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813136189

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813136189.001.0001

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(p.125) Appendix E Dreyer's lecture at Edinburgh: “New Impulses”

(p.125) Appendix E Dreyer's lecture at Edinburgh: “New Impulses”

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet
University Press of Kentucky

We can all probably agree that the film of today is not perfect. But we can only be grateful for this as there is a chance of development in the imperfect. The imperfect is alive. The perfect is dead, pushed aside, we do not see it. But a thousand possibilities are open for the imperfect.

Film as an art stands in an era of struggle, and one is looking to see where the new impulses will be coming from. Because I actually used the term new impulses you naturally now expect a long, profound lecture with learned analyses and all that, but I will have to disappoint you. I am not a film theorist, unfortunately not—I do not have the brains for that. I am only a film director, and proud of my craft. But a (p.126) craftsman too will get his own ideas during his work, and I would like to share these simple thoughts with you.

I do not have anything revolutionary to say. I do not believe in revolutions. They push development backwards. I am more inclined to believe in evolution, in the small steps forward. So I only intend to point out that film has possibilities of giving an artistic renewal from inside.

Human beings follow the principle of inertia, and are opposed to be taken away from the beaten track. They have by now got used to the correct photographic reproduction of reality and sure feel a certain happiness in recognizing what they already know. When the camera appeared, it won a quick victory because it in a mechanical way and objectively could register the impressions which the human eye sees.

This capacity has so far been the strength of the film, but as regards artistic films it is becoming a weakness we have to fight. We have got stuck with photography and now are confronted with the necessity of freeing ourselves from it. We must use the camera to drive away the camera.

We must work so that we are no longer slaves of the photography, but make ourselves masters of it. From being a purely reporting media photography should be turned into a tool for artistic inspiration, and direct observation be left to the sightseeing of film news.

Photography as a means of reporting has compelled the film to stand with its feet on the ground, and so it became addicted to naturalism. But not until the film has cut off its earth connection will it be able to fly into the sphere of imagination. So we have to wrench the film out of the embrace of (p.127) naturalism. We have to define to ourselves that it is a waste of time to copy reality. By means of the camera we must give the film a new language of style and create a new artistic form.

But first of all we have to understand what we mean by the terms art and style. The Danish author Johannes V. Jensen characterizes art as a “spiritually interpreted form,” and this can probably not be said any better. The British philosopher Chesterfield thinks that style is “the dress of thoughts.” This definition is also simple and precise, presuming “the dress” is not too conspicuous, as the characteristic of a good style must be that it enters into such an intimate contact with the material that it forms a synthesis.

If it is pushing, so as to attract all attention, it is no longer style but mannerism. I myself would define style as “the form in which artistic inspiration expresses itself,” because we recognize the style of an artist in certain features which are characteristic for him, and which reflect his mentality and personality in his work.

The style of an artistic film is a result of many different components, such as the playing of rhythms and lines, the mutual tension of the colour surfaces, the interaction of light and shadow, the gliding rhythm of the camera—all this, which combined with the director's conception of the material as a picture-creative factor, will decide his artistic form of expression—his style. If he confines himself to give a soulless, impersonal photography of what his eyes can perceive, he has no style. But if he uses his own mind to transform what his eyes saw, into a vision, and if he builds up his film in accordance with his vision, disregarding the reality which (p.128) inspired him, then his work will bear the sacred stamp of inspiration, and then the film has a style, because style is the stamp of a personality put on a work.

When I entered the rostrum I might have given you the impression of being a humble and modest man. It may therefore be embarrassing for you to hear from my own mouth that I am not. On the contrary. I am very arrogant, so self-conceited, indeed, that I dare say for myself and on behalf of my colleagues that the director must be the man who must and shall leave his hallmark on the artistic film.

This does not mean an under-evaluation of the poet's share, but even if the poet is a Shakespeare, the literary idea in itself will not make the film a piece of art. This can only happen if the director, inspired by the poet's material, in a convincing manner gives it life in artistic pictures. I do not underestimate the team-work made by photographers, colour technicians, and architects and so on, but inside his collective the director will be, has to, and shall remain the prime and inspiring power. The man behind the work. The one who makes the poet's work sound so that we listen, the one who makes feelings and passions flare so that we are moved and touched. He is the one who puts his stamp on the film with this inexplicable something, called style.

This is my conception of the director's importance—and responsibility. We now know what film style is. But we would also like to know what an artistic film is. Let us formulate the question this way. What other art form is most closely related to films? In my opinion it must be architecture, which is the (p.129) most perfect art form, as it is not an imitation of nature, but has sprung out direct from human imagination.

The characteristic of noble architecture is that all details are so finely harmonized as to fit in with the whole so that no small detail, however small it may be, can be changed without giving the impression of a flaw in the harmony—contrary to the non-architectural house, where all measures and proportions are haphazard. Something similar applies to the films. Only when artistic elements of a film have been welded together to form such a firm composition that none of its units can be left out or changed without damaging the whole, only then can the film be compared to an architectural piece of art, and all those films which do not satisfy these strict demands are but boring and conventional houses, which we will pass by without even noticing them.

In the architectural film the director will take over the role of the architect. He is the one who, from his artistic outlook on life, coordinates the many different rhythms and tensions with the dramatic curves of the poem, together with the psychological modulations in the actors' expressions and gestures, tonality of the dialogues, and thereby imprints his style on the film.

And now we are coming to the crucial point. Where is the possibility for an artistic renewal of the film? I can only answer for myself and see but one way: the abstraction. And in order not to be misunderstood, I shall hurry up and give you a definition of the word abstraction as the expression of an art conception which demands that the artist shall abstract himself from reality, so as to strengthen the spiritual (p.130) contents, where those are of a psychological or purely esthetic nature.

Or to put it even more concise: the art must describe inner and not outer life. We have to get away from naturalism and find ways and means to introduce the abstract in our pictures. The capability to abstract is the presumption for all artistic creation. The abstraction gives the director a chance of getting outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded the film.

I want to point out some of the roads open to the director who wants to introduce the abstract element in his pictures. The closest at hand is called simplification. Every creative artist is confronted with the same task: to be inspired by reality and then move away from it in order to give his work the form the inspiration provoked.

The director must therefore be free to transform reality so that it becomes consistent with the inspired simplified picture left in his mind, because the director's esthetic sense must not give way to reality. On the contrary: reality must obey his esthetic sense. Art is not a reproduction but subjective choice, and the director will therefore only pick out what he deems necessary to get a clear and spontaneous general effect.

The simplification may also aim at making the idea of the picture more evident, and striking. The simplification must then aim at cleansing the motif of all the elements which do not support the idea. But with this simplification, the motif is transformed into a symbol, and with symbolism, we are well on our way towards abstraction, as the idea of symbolism is to work through suggestions.

(p.131) The filmic reproduction of reality must be true but cleansed of unimportant details. It must also be realistic, but transformed in the director's mind so as to become poetry. The director shall not be interested in the things in reality but in the spirit in and behind the things. Realism as such is not an art. Realities must be forced into a form of simplification and abbreviation and in purified form emerge in a kind of timeless, psychological realism.

This abstraction through simplification and inspiration of the subject matter can be practiced by the director under modest forms in the rooms of the films. How many rooms without souls have we seen on the screen? The director may give his rooms a soul through simplification by removing all superfluous matters for the benefit of a few articles, which in one way or other are valuable as psychological witness of the personality of the inmate, or as a characteristic feature showing his relation to the idea of the film.

Colours, of course, are so much, much more important means to obtain abstraction. Everything is possible with them, however, not until it has been possible to break the chain which still binds the colour film to the photographic naturalism of the black-and-white film. In the same way, as the French Impressionists were inspired by the classical Japanese woodcut artists, there is every reason for Western film directors to learn from the Japanese film Gate of Hell, where colours actually fulfill their purpose. I am inclined to believe that the Japanese themselves consider this film as a naturalistic film, true enough, with historical costumes, but still naturalistic.

(p.132) Seen with our eyes, it seems like a style-film with a tendency toward the abstract. Only in a single scene does pure naturalism break through altogether, namely, in the scene with the tournament in the open, green plain. The style is broken for a few minutes, but the feeling of uneasiness is quickly forgotten over the beauties which the rest of the film gives us. The colours have undoubtedly been chosen according to a well-prepared plan.

The film tells us at least a lot, not only as regards colour composition and the rhythm which is so well known from the classical Japanese woodcuts but also about a constellation of warm and cold colours, and about the use of deep-going simplification, which is the more striking here because it is supported by the colour. Gate of Hell should encourage Western directors to use the colours more deliberately and with greater boldness and imagination. So far, the colours in most Western films have been used much too casually, and according to a naturalistic recipe.

We are at present moving on cats' paws. When getting real wild, we will throw about pastel colours, pink and light-blue, in order to prove that we at least have some taste. But as far as the abstract film goes, it will not be enough to have taste. Artistic intuition and courage are needed to select and compose contrast colours, which will back up the dramatic and psychological contents of the film.

The colours offer the great, nay, the greatest possibility of renewing the artistic resources of the film, and it is a pity that colour films have existed for twenty years and during this period of twenty years we can remember three to five films only whose colours gave us an esthetic experience. And (p.133) the best one came from Japan. Let us learn from the Japanese. Others have done so, for instance, your famous countryman James Whistler.

While speaking about colours, which in themselves hold unlimited possibilities for abstraction, there is one more factor worth mentioning, because it may inspire to abstraction of a very special character. Photography presumes, as you know, an atmospheric perspective, and this means that light and shadow fade toward the background. There may be an idea there to obtain an interesting abstraction by deliberately eliminating the atmospheric perspective—or, in other words, give up the so much desired depth and distance effect. One should instead work towards an entirely new picture structure of colour surfaces all in the same plane so that they form one big, many-coloured surface in one, so as to eliminate the conception of foreground, middle distance, and background. In other words, get away from the picture with a perspective and adopt a pure surface effect. It is possible that very remarkable esthetic effects could be obtained in this way, probably well suited for films.

I hope I did not make you feel worried because I talked so much about “abstraction.” It may sound like a naughty word in the ears of film people. What I wanted to say today was merely to point out that there is a world outside the gray and boring naturalism, namely, the world of imagination. This transformation must, of course, be made without the director or his helpers losing their hold on the world of realities.

Even if the director must remodel the world of reality to his artistic form, this changed reality must be presented (p.134) in such a way that the audience will recognize it and believe in it. It is very important that the first attempts to introduce abstraction in the film are made with tact and discretion so that they do not shock people. It would be wise slowly to lead the audience into new roads. But should the attempts prove successful, then enormous prospects open up for the film. No task would be too high. The film may never become truly three-dimensional, but by means of abstraction, it may, on the other hand, be possible to introduce both a fourth and a fifth dimension in the film.

Now at last, I have talked so much about picture and form, and not a word about acting. But anyone who has seen my films—the good ones of them—will know how much importance I attach to the actor's performance. Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. A land which one can never tire of exploring. A land with a beauty of its own, be it rough or wild. In fact, there is no greater experience than in a studio to witness how the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration is animated from inside and turns into poetry.