Miracles of Restraint
Even though Carl Theodor Dreyer was interested in adapting Kaj Munk’s play “Ordet” since it’s premier in the early 30’s, he only got the chance to do so at the tail end of his career, some 20 years later. And it seems that the wait has very much paid off for him as “Ordet” was his only film to be a both commercial and critical success, and has reaped many prestigious awards including the Golden Lion at Venice.
“Ordet” takes place in the Danish countryside and follows the Borgen family. Morten is the patriarch and has three sons. Mikkel is his eldest son and is happily married to Inge, who is expecting their third child. Anders is his youngest son and is in love with Anne, the tailor’s daughter (a man of different religion). Johannes is the third son and he believes himself to be Jesus Christ, openly condemning the faithless age they live in. During the course of the film Morten’s religion is tested through his three sons, and they will face Morten with various challenges of faith.
Religion, faith and the very concept of miracles are examined in “Ordet” to great effect. The movie seems intent to hear out every side of the faith discussion, from common men like Morten and his son Mikkel, who has no faith, to pastors and men of science. And then it mercilessly pits poor Morten and his sons right in to the philosophical pitfalls of religion and faith, and with that the viewer as well. The effect is rather soul-tearing as seemingly divine forces are intent on testing Morten and his family. Or is it just mere chance spiced up by the words of his mad son and the men of different beliefs and ideals?
All these events are grounded in realism and the very illogical, but also very human, concepts that the film examines are channeled through a psychological prism. This realism is brought out by pretty much every aspect of this production. The actors are all remarkable and their performances are quite minimal as is the dialogue that they are given.
On the more technical side, the film is shot in long takes with very precise framing and blocking, and it has a very monochrome black and white lighting. The camera is very restrained, framing the actors mostly in wide or medium shots. Close-ups are actually quite rare in this film, and their use is extremely selective. Props, costumes and art design are also very deliberate as everything that is obsolete seems to be taken out of the scenes. All this gives the film a rather mundane quality, which is honestly perfect because it brings out the tribulations of the soul at the center of the film, and even the slightest strange events and tonal shifts stick out like bonfires. This is especially the case with the unforgettable ending of the film, which for me is a miracle of stylistic moderation that erupts in final spiritual catharsis.
It is hard for me not to compare “Ordet” in cinematic terms to “Vampyr” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, for one because they are the only three of Dreyer’s films that I’ve seen so far, but also because the cinematic presentation of these three films is so radically different. “Ordet” is by far the most visually restrained film of the three, but this restraint is just as deliberate as the visual dazzle of “Vampyr” or the emotional intent of “Joan”. And even though they do share commonalities, especially in performance style and the overall minimalism and the esoteric film design, I’ve never seen a director so intentionally diverse in his visual style. This is very much a compliment, because it is obvious that Dreyer picks the visual presentation that suits his film the best, but he still manages to make his films stylistically very striking and visually memorable.
“Ordet” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc” make it clear that faith played a great role in Dreyer’s life, so it is of little surprise that his never realized dream project was a film about Jesus. It’s a pity that it never happened because it is obvious that the man had a lot to say about the concepts of belief and faith. But still he left us (by my knowledge at least) two masterpieces on the very subject to ponder over, which is more than enough by any margin.
Henrik Malberg - Morten Borgen
Preben Lerdorff Rye - Johannes Borgen
Emil Haas Christensen - Mikkel Borgen
Brigitte Federspiel - Inge, Mikkel's wife
Cay Kristiansen - Anders Borgen
Original language: Danish
Ordet on IMDb