Got To Have All Your Lovin'
As usual scripted (from an earlier stage play) for his own direction, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud was greeted in 1964 with hostility and closed out the great Dane’s one-a-decade film career. Still today many veteran cinephiles find it ponderous, and it is a rare young viewer who will sit through its five minutes less than two hours in the Museum of Modern Art’s open-ended auteurist cycle “of several key directorial figures.”
The director’s trademarks are present: symmetrical compositions in stripped black and white -- rumor has it that he considered color this time around -- and long unmoving-camera takes with characters moving in and out or else essentially motionless; abrupt cuts without dissolves or fades among relatively few separate scenes. What has changed, and likely led to the faultfinding, involves the condition of the hero, often (as here) a heroine.
Set at least in northern Europe and in a past reflecting the present, commenting on the Continent in his own time, Dreyer’s concerns were religious, societal and emotional oppression and intolerance. His figures are trapped within forces more powerful than they and to all appearances lose the struggle. But their triumph lies inward, in refusal to renounce or acknowledge; bowed but not broken in spirit. Technique and theme resemble those of slightly earlier fellow Scandinavian writers Ibsen and Strindberg.
From among the reduced choices open, especially to women, Nina Pens Rode’s Gertrud Kanning chooses her isolation, her loneliness, her in effect exile. Though she has “suffered much and made mistakes, I have loved,” she welcomes Platonic professor friend Axel Nygen (Axel Strøbye) to her severe apartment forty years after she fled to his intellectual study group in Paris. Previously in light colors (which render subtitles illegible), now in darker hues, she has since returned home and secluded herself. Seated with him on a couch, as with all the men in the story of her woman’s trajectory, she remarks that what remains here at the end are memories, no more than one of which she herself will soon be. She gives back his letters, which he chooses to burn.
With only a handyman around, her last years’ contact with the world has been primarily through the radio, for she will not contact that world, friends or not, on a mechanical typewriter. Framed in a doorway as much of the film has been framed, she closes her door and her uncompromising life. Amor omnis, not that love conquers all, she affirms, but that it is all.
The story opens with, and proceeds from, her decision to walk out on a lifeless, loveless, relatively brief marriage. About to be named a cabinet minister for the opposition, husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe) is incredulous, for he has not, and still cannot, get into his head that this woman will accept nothing less that being paramount in a partner’s life, not simply a “plaything” adjunct to his work.
Although similarly disappointed in a past relationship with touted poet of erotic love Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode), she thinks to find fulfillment and commitment in the arms of celebrated but poor Erland Jansson (Baard Owe). The pianist-composer turns out a drinking partier and womanizer whose all-in-all is the gratification of self-centered desires.
In dark clothing, the three men she has left wanted her on their own terms: as beautiful ex-opera singer trophy wife, as passionate cigarette-smoking mistress, as housekeeper-lover. In extended, stiff, medium-distance filmed talks among these characters that never establish eye contact with one another, they mutually gaze towards the camera (and the viewer).
Decisively, with a telephone call, Gertrud asserts herself as an independent person. Intentionally or not, flat acting reflects a flat world of appearances rather than emotions. Love cannot be all, so it will be nothing in the life of this strong woman whose debasing moments with her musician come across all the more debasing for that.
(Released by Criterion Collection; not rated by MPAA.)