Carl Theodor Dreyer

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer, Carl Theodor, 1889-1968, Danish motion picture director. He began making films in Denmark in 1919. His Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), widely regarded as a classic of silent filmmaking, made extensive use of close-ups and stark lighting to increase the film's dramatic effect. He experimented with innovative techniques in Vampyr (1931), his first movie with sound, which explored the power of evil and the horror of human suffering. His later works, usually adaptations of plays that employed a slow pace to build great cumulative power, include Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).

See studies by T. Milne (1971) and D. Bordwell (1973).

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jr. (February 3, 1889 - March 20, 1968) was a Danish film director. He is regarded by many critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest directors in cinema.

Although his career spanned from the 1910s to the 1960s, his meticulousness, dictatorial methods, idiosyncratic shooting style, and stubborn devotion to his art ensured that his output remained low. In spite of this, he produced some of the most enduring classics of international cinema.

Life and work

Dreyer was born illegitimate in Copenhagen, Denmark. His birth mother was an unmarried Swedish maid named Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, and he was put up for adoption by his birth father, Jens Christian Torp, a farmer who was his mother's employer. He spent the first two years of his life in orphanages until his adoption by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sr., and his wife, Inger Marie. His adoptive parents were strict Lutherans and his childhood was largely unhappy, but he was a highly intelligent school student, who left home and formal education at the age of sixteen. He dissociated himself from his adoptive family, but their teachings were to influence the themes of many of his films.

As a young man, Dreyer worked as a journalist, but he eventually joined the film industry as a writer of title cards for silent films and subsequently of screenplays. His first attempts at film direction had limited success, and he left Denmark to work in the French film industry.

In 1928 he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Working from the transcripts of Joan's trial, he created a masterpiece of emotion that drew equally from realism and expressionism. Dreyer used private finance from Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg to make his next film as the Danish film industry was in financial ruin. Vampyr (1932) is a surreal meditation on fear. Logic gave way to mood and atmosphere in this story of a man protecting two sisters from a vampire. The movie contains many indelible images, such as the hero, played by de Gunzburg (under the screen name Julian West), dreaming of his own burial and the animal blood lust on the face of one of the sisters as she suffers under the vampire's spell. The film was shot as a silent but had dubbed dialogue added later.

Both films were box office failures, and Dreyer did not make another movie until 1943. Denmark was by now under Nazi occupation and his Day of Wrath had as its theme the hypocrisy of people who engaged in witch hunts. With this work, Dreyer established the style that would mark his sound films: careful compositions, stark monochrome cinematography, and very long takes. In the more than a decade before his next full-length feature film, Dreyer made two documentaries

In 1955, he shot Ordet (The Word) based on the play of the same name by Kaj Munk. The film combines a Romeo and Juliet-style love story with an examination of faith.

Dreyer's last film was 1964's Gertrud. Although seen by some as a lesser film than its predecessors, it is a fitting close to Dreyer's career, as it deals with a woman who, through the tribulations of her life, never expresses regret for her choices.

The great, never finished project of Dreyer’s career was a film about Jesus. Though a manuscript was written (published 1968) the unstable economic conditions and Dreyer’s own demands of realism together with his switching engagement let it remain a dream. In return a manuscript about Medea (1965) was realised by Lars von Trier in 1988.

Dreyer died of pneumonia in Copenhagen at age 79. The documentary Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier contains reminiscences from those who knew him.


Feature films

Year English title Original title Production country Notes
1919 The President Præsidenten Denmark Based on the novel by Karl Emil Franzos.
1920 The Parson's Widow Prästänkan Sweden/Denmark Based on the story "Prestekonen" by Kristofer Janson.
1921 Leaves from Satan's Book Blade af Satans bog Denmark Loosely based on the The Sorrows of Satan.
1922 Love One Another Die Gezeichneten Germany Based on the novel by Aage Madelung, this film is extremely rare (only 4 prints survive in archives).
1922 Once Upon a Time Der var engang Denmark Based on the play by Holger Drachmann.
1924 Michael Michael Germany Based on the novel Mikaël (1904) by Herman Bang.
1925 Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife (aka Master of the House) Du skal ære din hustru Denmark Based on the play by Svend Rindom.
1926 Bride of Glomdal Glomdalsbruden Norway/Sweden Based on the novel by Jacob Breda Bull.
1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc France Co-written with Joseph Delteil, author of the novel Jeanne d'Arc (1925, Prix Femina).
1932 The Vampire Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey France/Germany Based on the novella Carmilla (1872) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.
1943 Day of Wrath Vredens dag Denmark Based on the play "Anne Pedersdotter" by Hans Wiers-Jenssen, hymns by Paul La Cour.
1945 Two People Två människor Sweden Based on the play "Attentat" by W.O. Somin. Made in Nazi-related exile to Sweden, the film was disowned by Dreyer and withdrawn from distribution.
1955 The Word Ordet Denmark Based on the play by Kaj Munk.
1964 Gertrud Gertrud Denmark Based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg.

Short films

  • Good Mothers (Mødrehjælpen, 12 min, 1942)
  • Water from the Land (Vandet på landet, 1946)
  • The Struggle Against Cancer (Kampen mod kræften, 15 min, 1947)
  • The Danish Village Church (Landsbykirken, 14 min, 1947)
  • They Caught the Ferry (De nåede færgen, 11 min, 1948)
  • Thorvaldsen (10 min, 1949)
  • The Storstrom Bridge (Storstrømsbroen, 7 min, 1950)
  • The Castle Within the Castle (Et Slot i et slot, 1955)


External links

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