Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), like Orson Welles, is generally considered one of the greatest of filmmakers in spite of a relatively small output spread over half a century. Gertrud, his final and perhaps most personal film, is unlike most of his earlier work.
Much of the director’s career was devoted to films on religious and supernatural subjects. His silent career culminated in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928), arguably the greatest film by anybody before the advent of sound. As in many of Dreyer’s best works, the main protagonist is a woman. For the next quarter-century, Dreyer’s films were intermittent explorations of what most people would not consider standard fare: vampirism, witchcraft, coming back from the dead. Although directors like James Whale and Tod Browning sometimes dealt with similar material, the former tended to be whimsical and the latter was mostly seeking to be entertaining. Dreyer confronted these subjects head-on and betrayed little humor. He only made five talking features (one of which he disowned) and a number of short documentaries, and it took him a whole decade to get support to make Gertrud, at the age of 75. (The great dream project of his career, a film about Jesus, was never realized.) Gertrud, like so many of his films, did not achieve a popular following. In fact it was hooted at when shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
One of things that make Gertrud somewhat different from his other films is the emphasis on personal emotions unrelated to questions of faith and God. Gertrud is essentially unapologetic for the course of her life, even when she has caused disappointment to others. As Edith Piaf sings, “No Regrets.” Dreyer himself led a life of some struggle. He was “illegitimate” and spent his first years in an orphanage. Although he was finally adopted, it appears that it was by an especially unloving, remote couple. This portended a life of struggle. I don’t know much about his married life, but it had become increasingly difficult for him to raise the necessary funds to make his films, and he supported himself and his wife by managing a movie theater in Copenhagen. One suspects that, although Gertrud is based on a play, the lead character expresses most of the director’s own frustrations and satisfactions.
My colleague Jytte Jensen wrote, “She is concerned only with arranging to live out her life according to her strict adherence to her unique—and in Dreyer’s world feminine—ideal. Love is all. The supremacy of emotions over power and fame finds its ultimate personification in Gertrud….” In his erudite and professorial monograph on the film, James Schamus argues that it is “a kind of remake of The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Dreyer’s other great depiction of an uncompromising woman resigned to her fate.
Stylistically, Gertrud is appropriately austere, containing only 89 shots and few close-ups, although as the great Danish scholar Ib Monty and others point out, the old director seems perfectly in synch with other (younger) major filmmakers of the 1960s. In fact, one could argue that Gertrud is experimental (taking a leaf from Alfred Hitchcock’s book). Filmmaking had historically been a contest between, on the one hand, montage directors like Sergei Eisenstein and the other Soviets reigning in the 1920s, and long-take/moving-camera directors, led by F. W. Murnau. Like the pioneer of pioneers, D. W. Griffith, Dreyer partook of both approaches. Joan of Arc is famous for its spectacular close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti. In Gertrud, however, the frame is more inclusive, and the camera lingers, seemingly to capture the emotional resonance of what has just transpired.
It is certainly not a film for all tastes, but it is hard to forgive the hostile disrespect shown to one of the cinema’s greatest artists. I once saw the film at the old “Secret Cinema,” which had three-sided and roofed enclosures for each spectator. The only other person present was an older film scholar of considerable reputation. I was very disturbed that he spent the whole screening snickering. Clearly, Gertrud’s conception of reality was not his, but as Dreyer said, “Gertrud is a film that I made with my heart.”