Ordet (1955)

Dir. by Carl Th. Dreyer

Images: Ordet is, quite simply, one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made. Dreyer’s cinematographic trademarks are all on display: slow, elegant tracking shots and pans; stylized, almost expressionistic lighting; meticulously orchestrated movements and compositions. Favorite images: those clothes blowing in the wind, Morten Borgen isolated (as in his life) in the lower right corner of the frame, Peter the Tailor’s family arriving at the funeral a la The Searchers (also one of my all-time favorite music cues), and, of course, any number of shots from the final sequence.

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Politics is easy. So are history, biography, and formal technique. But transcendence is tough. That sudden, strange, and fleeting encounter with something beyond ourselves, something almost otherworldly, transcendence is both the aspect of the arts to which I’m most drawn and about which I feel least capable of writing. Which is why it is only now, two years after I first saw Dreyer’s Ordet and instantly declared it one of my favorite films, that I’m making an attempt to explain its peculiar power. If you haven’t seen Ordet, please stop reading. This response will likely touch upon the film’s closing sequence, which really should be experienced for the first time free of prejudice. It’s one of film’s truly remarkable moments. Don’t let me spoil it for you.

Based on Kaj Munk’s play of the same name, Ordet tells the simple story of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a prosperous farmer whose three sons have each laid a particular burden on their father’s shoulders. The eldest, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), has renounced the religious beliefs of his ancestors, claiming that he no longer has even “faith in faith”; the second, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), has gone mad from too much study and now claims to be Jesus of Nazareth; and the youngest, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), has disobeyed his father by pursuing the hand of a young woman whose religion puts her family at odds with the elder Borgen. On the surface, Ordet is primarily concerned with the Romeo and Juliet-like Anders plot, along with a more dramatic sidebar involving Mikkel’s wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), who dies with her infant son in childbirth.

Ordet is really about faith, though. It’s about the mysteries and contradictions and beauty of such irrational belief. Unlike any other film I can name, though, Ordet treats this subject with both measured skepticism and reverence, forcing us to distance ourselves, even if only temporarily, from our personal beliefs so that we might reexperience “true faith” (whatever that is) free of cultural baggage and biases. Dreyer accomplishes this by way of something akin to the Verfremdungseffekt, Bertold Brecht’s “alienating” approach to theater. John Fuegi has described the purpose of the V-effekt as disrupting “the viewer’s normal or run of the mill perception by introducing elements that will suddenly cause the viewer to see familiar objects in a strange way and to see strange objects in a familiar way.” Ordet does both, defamiliarizing the now-mundane words of Christ, while also making perfectly acceptable the probability of miracles.

We first see Johannes in a low-angle long shot, his right arm outstretched over a knoll of tall grass. He announces his mission in slow, measured tones: “God has summoned me to prophesy before His face,” he says. “For only those who have faith shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” His words are familiar, as he echoes or recites-in-whole passages from the Gospels, but his delivery and his movements are stylized, strange, disconcerting. A typical audience’s response to Lerdorff Rye’s performance is mirrored onscreen by all who encounter Johannes. My favorite exchange is with the town’s new parson:

Johannes: “You don’t know me. . . . My name is Jesus of Nazareth.”

Parson: “Jesus? But how can you prove that?”

Johannes: “Thou man of faith, whose own self lacks faith! People believe in the dead Christ, but not in the living. They believe in my miracles from 2000 years ago, but they don’t believe in me now. I have come again to bear witness to my Father who is in Heaven, and to work miracles.”

Parson: “Miracles no longer happen.”

Johannes: “Thus speaks my church on earth, that church which has failed me, that has murdered me in my own name. Here I stand, and again you cast me out. But woe unto you, if you nail me to the cross again.”

Parson: “That’s absolutely appalling.”

Again, capturing in words such a purely cinematic and transcendent moment is difficult and perhaps even counter-intuitive. I can only describe how these moments, which honestly seem to be particular to Ordet, make me feel. I grew up in the church, so the parables and teachings of Christ are barely distinguishable in my social/cultural memory from any number of myths, parables, fairy tales, and stories. They all seem to occupy the same part of my brain, formed some time during childhood, where they continue to shape the ethics and morals (and something like faith) that determine my behavior. Christ isn’t really real to me, or my life would be radically different. I imagine that is probably true of many Christians.

But something happens to me during the last twenty minutes of Ordet. Johannes walks into Inger’s funeral chamber, emerging from the shadows of the doorway, and I experience an overwhelming gratitude, a peculiar emotion that I don’t recall ever feeling in any traditionally religious context. I mean real gratitude, mixed with shame and joy and awe and any number of other emotions and desires that I so seldom feel for things not of this world. I guess, in a word, that is transcendence, and I’m so grateful for this film for giving me that. It’s like a gift. Inger’s restoration to life suddenly feels not only possible here, but inevitable. And I’m left to wonder why, in the “real” world, I actually identify most with the obnoxious Parson, for surely miracles don’t really happen anymore.

For Brecht, the use of the V-effekt in a film or play like Ordet would be a political tool, a means by which audiences might be wakened to their slavish acceptance of hypocritical or oppressive religious dogma. And, in a sense, Dreyer does just that. But, if I might slip into a hackneyed analogy, whereas Brecht would completely dismantle faith as a dangerous ideological construct, leaving it in ruins, Dreyer strips it to its foundations so that each viewer might potentially rebuild that faith, and rebuild more strongly.