Whosoever Believeth in Him
It is altogether fitting and proper that MoMA’s open-ended “Auteurist History of Film” dedicate showings to several of the limited (by politics, finances and personality) features of the greatest Danish director-screenwriter, Carl Theodor Dreyer, “who must and shall leave his hallmark on the artistic film.” Done in 1954 to break an eleven-year hiatus and followed by another of nine, Ordet owns one of those revered titles usually left untranslated (as The Word) and rounds out his faith trilogy that commenced with silent The Passion of Joan of Arc and 1943’s Day of Wrath.
Faith and Word will discourage moderns from the two-hour-four minute masterpiece. That mover of mountains, the former, however, is less religious than spiritual, in deliberate contrast to his century’s reliance on the mind and its science. Sometimes rendered as Logos or creative force, Word evokes John 1:1-2 and interpretations of its being alongside the New Testament God or even equivalent to Him or, variously, His Son.
With arresting faces but not cluttered with close-ups, attention-getting camera abilities beyond judicious lighting, or mood music (whining wind and clock ticks serve), the film builds to a long emotional finale of biblical parallel that skeptics will scoff at and that implies that children and the simple are closest to belief and miracles. In subtitled Danish, it is wordy even while characters are Scandinavian strong-silent, and it is austere in only a hundred-fourteen set-piece shots, for action is relatively absent. Bergman, Reygadas, Haneke figure among those who learned technique and theme from this.
We see far northern Europe through Lake Wobegon and think of spare modern furnishings, Ikea and H&M, Legos, suicide-ridden welfare states, sex and nakedness among tall cool blondes, Nordic procedural novels and films, and xenophobic mass murderers. Its reality once was, and in respects still is, the melancholy of Hamlet, Munch’s The Scream, and the stern Lutheranism of Bergman’s unbending royal family pastor father.
How much more so in 1925, in the large farmhouse of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg, uncredited like everyone except clergyman Kaj Munk, whose same play Gustav Molander had brought to the Swedish screen during World War II). Under the ample roof also live the white-bearded widower’s three sons. Eldest is good-natured doubter Michel (Emil Haas Christensen), there with two daughters and cheerful believer wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), pregnant and promising her father-in-law his first grandson. Youngest son Anders (Cay Kristiansen) is dreamy, in love. At twenty-seven John/Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) is not dreamy but demented enough for the new vicar (Ove Rud) to suggested institutionalization.
That scruffy Bible-quoting madman sleepwalks around proclaiming himself Christ come again, bemoaning man’s renewed rejection of Him, and predicting dreadful consequences for scorners and mockers. Addressed indiscriminately as “Father” or “Grandfather,” Borgen Sr. believes that the cross he bears in this lost son is of his own making in having steered the scholarly lad towards the clergy, to be redeemer of disappearing true religion, and that overstudy taxed his mind to breaking.
All love the stimulant of coffee. Men of modern rationality do so with cigars -- the vicar and the doctor (Henry Skjær), who drives an automobile and finds miracles only in his scientific skills -- whereas patriarchal Morten and adversary Peter Petersen (Einer Federspiel) drink it while puffing traditional long-stem pipes.
Tailor Petersen, who raises hens to Morten’s pigs, refuses daughter Anne’s (Gerda Nielsen) hand to Anders, who is “not good enough” because the Borgens’ practices are too frivolously liberal for the fundamentalist beliefs he preaches to the “sour holy crowd” that congregates in his home. Encouraged and wheedled by his daughter-in-law, Morten gathers his lovelorn son and horse-buggies to the Petersens’.
The fathers’ heated disagreement is interrupted as Morten huffs off, by a phone call that Inger’s lying-in is proving difficult, and soon, foretelling doom and gloom, John disappears.
What follows, and especially the final long scene that follows that, will be unacceptable to some. But that is to miss the point of Dreyer’s vision throughout his interrupted career. What is not important is unconditional reliance on God’s active intervention in this world -- miracles -- or His retiring from participation into a Deistic Great Watchmaker, or even His non-existence. What does matter for whatever salvation man may find, is Hawthornesque humility and tolerance within any belief. Cinema itself, after all, also requires suspension of disbelief.
(Released by Criterion Collection; not rated by MPAA.)