A Timeless Director. Retrospective reveals `hymns to human possibility' at the heart of great Danish filmmaker's work. CARL THEODORE DREYER

CARL THEODORE DREYER (1889-1968) has been hailed by critics, scholars, and adventurous moviegoers as one of the greatest European filmmakers. Yet casual audiences may never even have heard his name. Now, 100 years after the Danish director's birth, that may be about to change. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) assembled the first complete retrospective of Dreyer's work, which has been seen here in New York and is now on view at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (through March 31). Eventually it will travel to several other American and Canadian cities [see box at left]. It was organized by Jytte Jensen, who also edited a catalog to accompany the show.

On another front, a thought-provoking new book on Dreyer's art is due from Cambridge University Press in a few weeks: ``Speaking the Language of Desire,'' by Raymond Carney, a wide-ranging cinephile whose previous books have dealt with such un-Dreyerish directors as Frank Capra and the late John Cassavetes. Mr. Carney also participated in a group discussion by Dreyer experts held last month at New York University in conjunction with the MOMA show.

Why is Dreyer gaining a higher profile at this time? According to Ms. Jensen, the answer may lie in the timelessness of the issues he explored.

``He made films about human resilience,'' Jensen told me recently, ``and that's as important today as it ever was. His heroines live in manipulative societies, where evil and suffering prevail. But he shows that, if you fight for what's right and what you believe in - which is love - it does make a difference.

``The difference may come after the person's death,'' Jensen continues, ``but it's still worth it. Even then, these are the people we root for, who we understand and who touch us.''

Asked why Dreyer's work has been neglected by many filmgoers, Jensen says the explanation may lie in writing by some critics ``who make him seem difficult, deep, and depressing.''

But when people see his films firsthand, Jensen continues, ``they see it can be appreciated on more immediate and spontaneous levels. It's sad that the study of his work has taken over from the experience of watching it, because many possibilities are in his films - to study it on a technical and philosophical level, but also to connect with it on a purely emotional level.''

Another explanation of Dreyer's ``popularity problem'' may lie in a facet of his work that he took pride in: his ability to adopt a seemingly different style with every new film.

His success at this has made him hard for moviegoers to pin down with easy labels and facile interpretations.

IRONICALLY, this versatility was something Dreyer worked hard to attain. He once told a French critic that something he ``really tried to do'' was to find a style ``that has value for only a single film.''

Hence the muted chamber-drama style of ``Gertrud'' in 1965, the creepy expressionism of ``Vampyr'' in 1932, and the ethereal quality that critic Paul Schrader called ``transcendental style,'' which marks at least three works: ``The Passion of Joan of Arc'' in 1928, ``Day of Wrath'' in 1943, and ``Ordet'' in 1955.

Behind the apparent variety of Dreyer's approach there lies a quiet consistency, however. In all his major films he sought to uncover the deepest wellsprings of human experience - deeper than psychology, perhaps deeper than consciousness itself - and make them manifest through camera work, editing, and spontaneous truths that emerged in the performances of skilled actors and actresses.

His best films, culminating in the glorious ``Gertrud,'' are hymns to human possibility etched in patterns of form, shade, and movement. Yet he was never an abstract or purely intellectual director.

His stories and characters are rooted in the real world, and his cinematic style always takes care to connect them with physical circumstances as well as spiritual aspirations. Although he is hailed as a brilliant artist today, Dreyer had tough going with the critics of his own time.

He managed to complete only 14 films during his career, and controversy dogged some of his best works.

`GERTRUD'' is the most poignant example. Trounced by many reviewers and booed by many spectators at its premi`ere, it was lauded by others and today enjoys a sublime reputation.

Its story of a woman who renounces romance is one highlight of the MOMA show, which included early and rarely seen films as well as such classics as ``Day of Wrath,'' a study of fear and transcendence in the context of a witchcraft investigation, and ``The Passion of Joan of Arc,'' a legendary historical film shot largely in expressive closeups. A documentary on Dreyer also had its premi`ere.

Dreyer never cared much about stylistic consistency, but scholars who explore his work don't necessarily share that inclination.

In his new book on Dreyer, as in his earlier Cassavetes and Capra studies, Carney shows himself to be an auteur in the cinematic sense - that is, a thinker whose preoccupations and concerns show a telling similarity even when different subjects are under investigation.

In each of his books, Carney examines formal and thematic ideas, as any thorough film explicator must. But he insists on the primacy of human values, and spends most of his energy showing how such values are expressed and illuminated by the filmmaker in question.

His study of Dreyer rejects the formalistic and symbolic approaches that other scholars have taken, suggesting that Dreyer's technical and metaphorical stategies are of limited importance if one separates them from the filmmaker's overriding interest: the struggle between individual freedom and spirituality, on one hand, and the repressions of social structures and psychological habits, on the other.

Carney makes a compelling case for Dreyer as a profound humanist whose works are misread if one treasures only their visual ingenuity or their more obvious thematic levels. Beyond the scholarly apparatus of his book, he shows a healthy appreciation for the immediacy, emotional depth, and respect for ``human resilience'' that underlie the great director's greatest work.

WHERE TO SEE DREYER'S FILMS

After leaving Boston's Museum of Fine Arts March 31, the exhibition ``Carl Th. Dreyer'' travels to:

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., in April.

The Cleveland Cinematheque in June.

The American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., in July.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles in July and August.

Houston's Museum of Fine Arts in August.

The ,Cin'emath'eque Qu'ebe,coise in Montreal in September.

Minneapolis's Film in the Cities in October.

Engagements are also planned in Chicago and Santa Fe.

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