In my previous articles on Dreyer’s films I’ve been fascinated with how visually varied his output is, and the same is again true of his last film “Gertrud” as it also has its own visual identity. But despite these stylistic differences all his films also have similar thematic and conceptual interests. For example they’re not only psychological dramas but they also explore grand concepts like religion, faith, superstition and, in the case of “Gertrud”, love. Furthermore all the films of Dreyer’s that I’ve seen so far have been primarily chamber dramas - films set mostly in interiors.
But the unique thing about “Gertrud” is it’s emotional neutrality, which is very contrasted with the plot, dialogue and even the theme of the film because, as I said, the film deals primarily with love. The whole plot revolves around Gertrud and her relationships with men. There’s her separation from her distant husband, her affair with her young lover, the return of her famous ex and the only man that she is not romantically linked to, which at the end of the film is presented as her only standing relationship.
And in that sense Dreyer presents a very fatalistic aspect of love, and worst of all for Gertrud a finitude, because she is presented as a woman devoted only to love. And in the text of the film we also find out why love has an expiration date, because, amongst other things, a woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies. And the men around Gertrud who desire her with sincerity are refused by her because they do not meet her idealized needs which shows Gertrud as uncompromising, stubborn even. Her young lover is the only one who she desires but it turns out that he sees her as just a cheap conquest. And he is the only one who is critical of her and aptly points out her stubborn flaw to be a one of pride.
Actually people talk very frankly in this film and most of their observations about each other are correct, but it is also correct when Gertrud says that they do not talk the same language, which is true because they all want different things from one another. And this emotional bluntness and lack of sappy romance may be responsible for the film’s emotionally distanced nature but it also makes it a perfect examination of love as it shows a truthful side of it that one does not find in romantic melodrama or comedy. That as much as love is birds and butterflies and happy endings it is also dry unhappiness.
From a technical side the film is, as I’ve come to expect from Dreyer, exquisite in its meticulousness. One thing that I’ve noticed is the costume design in which Gertrud’s wardrobe is completely monochrome (apart from the epilogue scene) and the wardrobe of her men very contrasted, accentuating that even visually none of these guys match with her. As for the cinematography it is contrasted in lighting except in the two key flashback scenes that are over-lit with harsh highlights and monochrome lighting – both however portray Gertrude at ease with love, the concept that she is struggling with in real time of the film. So the lighting here fits her wardrobe and her disposition, which is not despaired but more upbeat. As for the camera it is probably the most static and stilted camera that Dreyer worked with so far. All shots are very long and any camera movement is there for a specific reason.
So it is of little wonder why many criticize this film as slow and boring, as its emotional neutrality and obsessively restrained presentation make it very alienating. But then again this is all purpose driven and the single mindedness of the film is what perseveres for me, although I would agree that “Gertrud” doesn’t quite reach the perfection of Dreyer’s masterpieces. However this is still clearly a work of an absolute master and maybe the ultimate cinematic examination of one of mankind’s most enduring mysteries. Love.
Nina Pens Rode - Gertrud
Bendt Rothe - Gustav Kanning
Ebbe Rode - Gabriel Lidman
Baard Owe - Erland Jansson
Axel Strobye - Axel Nygen
Original language: Danish