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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.135) Appendix F Dreyer on film style

(p.135) Appendix F Dreyer on film style

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet
University Press of Kentucky

A work of art, like a human being, has a personality, a soul. It is revealed in the way the artist expresses his conception of whatever subject he treats. If the artist's inspiration is to be embodied in an artistic form, style is necessary. Through style the artist achieves unity, and through it he forces other men to see with his eyes.

Invisible and intangible, style permeates a genuine work of art and cannot be separated from it.

A work of art is always the outcome of the labor of a single man. But a motion picture is created by the exertions of a collection of men, and a collective cannot produce art unless an artistic personality gives the collective its energy and direction.

(p.136) The first act in the creation of a motion picture is the author's, and his labor is the basis of the film. But thereafter all devolves upon the director, and it is he who forms the style of the film, who unites and brings to life the contributions of the individuals in the collective. The film becomes tinged with the director's feeling and sentiments. This must happen. Otherwise, in the hearts of the spectators, there will be alien moods, and merely personal reactions. It is the director's style that endows a film with a soul, that lifts it into the realm of art. The director alone can give a film a face—his own.

This is the director's great responsibility.

I would like to recount the things that determined the style of Day of Wrath.* I shall commence by discussing the photography and the rhythm.

In talking pictures the spoken word too easily displaces the visual, actors are too garrulous, and the eye is infrequently invited to rest upon some fine, or some telling, pictorial effect. In Day of Wrath I attempted to restore to the visual the priority which is its due. But I did not introduce scenes merely for their pictorial beauty, merely to delight the eye. I adhered to the rule that unless a sequence advances the action it is detrimental to the picture. No matter how beautiful it may be.

Because bright tones in a picture lighten the mood of (p.137) the spectator and dark tones subdue it, my cameraman and I agreed that the historical period, and the story, of Day of Wrath, would be suggested best by slightly veiled photography, with soft gray and black tones.

Now the human eye easily accepts horizontal lines and reacts against vertical lines. The eye is diffident toward stationary things but is attracted by objects in action. Which is why the eye follows smooth and rhythmic panoramic camera movements with pleasure, and why, as a general rule, one must try to keep a picture in a continually flowing, horizontally gliding motion.

By the sudden introduction of vertical lines an immediate dramatic effect can be produced. For instance, the scene in Day of Wrath in which the ladder is raised prior to being thrown into the fire.

I come now to the question of rhythm.

In recent years there has been a conscious striving for a new rhythm, a special talking picture rhythm. I am thinking of certain American and of almost all the good French psychological films. In them the scenes were worth seeing and the lines worth hearing. In them there was a stability in the rhythm that makes it possible for the spectator to repose in the picture, while listening to the spoken words.

In Day of Wrath I strove for this rhythm. In some of the dramatic sequences (e.g., the two young people at Absalom's bier) I used, instead of rapidly changing pictures, what I would characterize as long, panoramic close-ups which rhythmically followed the actors, sensing their way from one actor to the other, depending upon which action was to be stressed next. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its almost (p.138) wave-length rhythm, this sequence is one of the passages that affect the spectator most completely.

Day of Wrath has been aspersed as too ponderous and too slow.

Quick rhythms can be very effective, but I have seen films in which pictures were whipped by in an artificial rhythm for the sake of blatant rhythm. Such rhythm is a vestige of silent pictures, from which talking pictures are not yet free. It is a relic from the time of the printed title. Between the titles there was a void (the titles themselves were empty) and the actors rushed through the pictures and the pictures flew across the screen. There was rhythm in abundance.

I recall that when Victor Sjöström's The Sons of Ingmar was first shown in Copenhagen more than a quarter century ago, the Danish producers shook their heads. Heavens! Sjöström had the audacity to let his farmers walk as heavily and sluggishly as farmers actually walk. It took quite a lot of film to get them from one part of a room to another. The Danish film world, of course, was wrong. Those Swedish films, with their natural, lifelike rhythm, conquered the entire continent of Europe. From them, all Europe learned—among other things—that the rhythm of a film must derive from the story and the setting, and that while the dramatics dictate the rhythm, it is the rhythm that develops the mood in which the drama is apprehended, and by which the reactions of the spectator to the drama are influenced.

The complex story and the historical period of Day of Wrath dictated the broad, restful rhythm for which we strove.

Now let me turn to drama.

(p.139) In all of the fine arts we like to see representations of human beings, and to be shown their psychical reactions. This desire is intensified when we see people moving about on the screen. And though all of us are interested in action, and the overt acts of individuals, it is when we are taken into the realm of psychological conflict that we are really spellbound.

There is no lack of psychological conflict in Day of Wrath. It would be difficult to find a subject in which one could use so many superficial dramatics. But the actors, and myself (I dare add), chose not to be tempted. We battled against easy dramatic exaggeration, against dramatic clichés.

Is it not a fact that the greatest dramas occur in silence? Men hide their emotions, do not let their faces betray the storms raging in their souls. The tension beneath the surface is released only when a catastrophe occurs. The latent tension, the smouldering horror behind the everyday life of the vicarage, was what I tried to portray in Day of Wrath.

Some people thought I erred, and should have allowed a more violent development of the action. But if you observe your own friends, you will see how trivially, how undramatically, they experience the greatest tragedies. This, perhaps, is the most tragic part of tragedy.

There are also people who thought some sequences should have been more realistic. But realism, in and of itself, is not art. Only psychological realism is art—only the verity of life, liberated from all the irrelevance by the dedicated labor of a sincere artist. What takes place on the screen is not reality. Nor should it be, for then it would not be art.

Before continuing—I wish to define the difference between (p.140) theatrical and filmic. As far as I am concerned, the word theatrical carries no derogatory connotation. I merely wish to point to the fact that an actor, of necessity, must act differently on a stage than in a film studio. On the stage he must be concerned that his words reach all the way up to the gallery. This requires not only a certain kind of diction and voice modulation, but also exaggerated mimicry. Film, however, requires ordinary speech, and natural mimicry.

In Day of Wrath we took pains to act with absolute verisimilitude. We warned each other against the gesture, the false emphasis. We revived natural mimicry.

When sound first came to film the importance of mimicry was forgotten, and for a time words poured out of empty faces.

Mimicry is vital to the motion picture, for mimicry acts upon our emotions directly, without any intervening intellectualization. It is mimicry that gives the soul a face, and one may read a man's whole character in a single piece of mimicry. Mimicry is the primary form of expression—prior to speech. Dogs are capable of a most expressive mimicry.

While discussing mimicry, I should like to mention makeup. Oddly enough, film actors usually make up for the photographer, who thereupon lights them in such a way that you do not see the makeup. Sophisticated audiences, however, have learned to appreciate the beauty of the natural face—with all its wrinkles and furrows. The wrinkles—small as well as large—are often clues to significant aspects of character. The face of a kind, smiling, hearty man develops minute wrinkles about the eyes and mouth. A sulky, dour, or malicious man gets frowns and vertical wrinkles. If these (p.141) wrinkles are painted away, the characteristic features of the face also disappear, and I need not point out how this affects close-ups.

In order not to hide the least inflection of the mimicry in Day of Wrath, I used unpainted faces. It was a matter of course. It was in the very nature of Day of Wrath that the actors be unpainted.

It was also in the nature of this film that the actors should speak familiar language in an ordinary way.

A famous Danish actor, Carl Alstrup, was once asked if he would not like to play at the Royal Theater—the largest in Copenhagen. “No,” he replied, “I can't shout my lines and still remain human.”

Alstrup thereby revealed the difficulties an actor encounters on the stage, and the meaning of the word filmic. The film actor can keep his voice on its natural level—he may even whisper if the part calls for it. The microphone will certainly catch it and transport every word and pause.

For this reason, superfluous words must not be used in film. Speech must never be independent. It is an ingredient of a film—nothing more.

In choosing his actors, a director must pay great attention to their voices. It is important that they be attuned to each other and harmonize. In this connection, I would like to allude to something not generally known: there is an accord between the gait of a person and his speech.

I now come to the film director's most decisive task, that is, his collaboration with the actors.

The director is a kind of midwife. I think Stanislavski uses this metaphor in his An Actor Prepares. No metaphor (p.142) could be more apposite. The actor is to bear a child, and it is the director's function to make things comfortable for the patient and to facilitate the delivery. The child, in every sense of the word, is the actor's—conceived, after a meeting with the author's words, from his own emotions and his innermost psychical life. It is always his own emotions that an actor gives to a part.

For this reason, a director gains if he does not force an actor to accept his interpretation. An actor cannot create true feelings by command. Emotions cannot be forced out of an actor. They must issue by their own force. The director and the actor should labor jointly to awaken them. When they succeed, the right expression will spontaneously arise.

For the sincere actor, the prime maxim is that he must never begin from the outside of his expression, but from the inside, from his emotions. But because emotion and expression are inseparably connected, are, in a way, a unity, it is sometimes possible to awaken the inner feeling by forcing an expression. Imagine an angry, sulking little boy amiably told by his mother: “Oh, smile a bit!” At first a stiff, awkward smile appears, then a more generous, open one, and finally he runs merrily about in high spirits. The first smile released feelings which influenced the subsequent expressions.

This interplay can sometimes be utilized by a director. If an actor is easily moved to tears (some are), it is wholly justifiable to allow him to melt into tears without awaiting the emotion that he is ultimately to feel and project. Ah, there is no satisfaction so delightful for director and actor as when the actor achieves the expression which he and the director know is right.

(p.143) I cannot conclude this little essay on film style without mentioning music. It was Heinrich Heine who said that music carries on where words fail. Rightly employed, music both supports and deepens a mood engendered by picture and dialogue. If the music has real meaning and artistic intent, it will be an asset to the film. But we may hope—and strive to realize the hope—that the future will bring more and more films that have no need of music, more and more films in which the picture and the word do not fail.

I have now mentioned the technical and psychical processes which determine the style of a film. I admit that I have spoken much about technique. But I am not ashamed of having taken great pains to study my profession. Every artist knows that the prerequisite for true achievement is a thorough knowledge of his craft. Yet technique is the means, not the end.

The end is to enrich one's fellow human beings by engrossing them in emotional experience they would not otherwise encounter. (p.144)


(*) Day of Wrath tells two stories simultaneously: the personal one of a young wife who falls in love with her stepson, and the social one of witchcraft and the suppression of the demonic forces called by that name.