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Carl Dreyer DIRECTOR


Filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer was born February 3, 1889 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was the illegitimate son of married Danish farmer Jens Christian Torp, who was living in Sweden, and his unwed Swedish maid, Josefine Nilsson. Dreyer was put up for adoption as soon as he was born, and spent the first year and a half of his life in orphanages. He was eventually adopted by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish Lutheran typographer, and his wife, Inger Marie. The child was consequently given the name of his adoptive father.
While he was generally unhappy at home, as his parents were strict and persistently reminded him that he should be happy they adopted him, he showed a keen intellect at school. He was so intelligent that he finished his studies early, graduating at sixteen. He subsequently left home, where he embarked on several jobs before becoming a journalist in 1910. Two years later he was writing scripts for the Nordisk Company. This led to other jobs as a screenwriter or editor of films. With a credit of twenty three scripts, Dreyer was given a picture to direct in 1919, titled “The President”. The melodrama, concerning the all-too-familiar issue of a biological parent’s moral responsibility for a child conceived out of wedlock, was not much of a success.
After filming the masterful dramedy “The Parson’s Widow” (1920), Dreyer moved on to creating a piece inspired by D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (1916). The result, “Leaves Out of the Book of Satan” (1921), was considered amazingly innovative and elaborate. It also, however, sparked controversy for its depiction of Christ and treatment of Socialism. Dreyer then made the more modest “Die Gezeichneten” (1922) (“Love One Another”), followed by “Der var engang” (1922) (“Once Upon a Time”), a fairytale type film. The director found himself subsequently working on “Michael” (1924), a picture about the complicated relationship between an aging artist and his younger muse. The film showed Dreyer’s ability to convey complex emotions through acting, lighting, and décor, and was distinguished for its evident homoeroticism. While the feature turned out to be a critical success, it suffered at the box office.  

The director’s breakthrough film shortly followed, “Master of the House” (1925). The amusing social comedy was received with much enthusiasm and lots of press coverage, turning it into a huge success. Soon after he released “The Passion of Joan of Arc ” (1928), a large budgeted, biographical drama of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial on charges of heresy. The feature, which effectively drew emotion from expressionism and realism, was hailed as a masterpiece, and still remains one of the film industry’s most closely examined and highly acclaimed pieces.     

Dreyer’s first sound picture, “Vampyr” (1932), was a horror film fusion of fantasy and reality. While an extraordinary piece of experimental cinema, many found it to be rather peculiar, thus causing it to become a total box office disaster. The failure of this picture, as well as personal problems, caused the director to suffer a nervous breakdown and then check himself into a clinic (ironically called the Clinique Jeanne d’Arc).    

For the next decade, Dreyer attempted to complete a number of projects, but they always seemed to fall through. He worked a number of writing jobs, then got a glimpse back into film with the twelve minute documentary about an institution that helps young, unmarried, pregnant women, titled “Mødrehjælpen” (1942) (“Good Mothers”). The director decided to further commit himself to the industry again, coming out with “Day of Wrath” (1943) less than six months later. The picture’s theme was that of paranoia, sparked by the witch hunts in the very theocratic sixteenth century. Although the movie is now regarded as a masterpiece, back when it was released it was held with less than favorable reviews.  

His next film, “Två människor” (1945) (“Two People”), also failed. Dreyer released a slew of short films before finally directing his first full length feature in over ten years: “Ordet” (1955) (“The Word”). The picture was a moving reflection of religion and belief, contemplating the existence of miracles. It received international acclaim, even earning the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival.
Nearly another decade passed before Dreyer released his next and final effort: “Gertrud” (1964). The director presented the film about a woman searching for unconditional love as such: “It is this strong and passionate woman’s tragedy that she demands the absolute – the man she loves can be hers only, or she must leave him. This demand for the absolute is her hubris, for which the gods punish her.” While it earned the FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival, it garnered mostly negative critical reviews. However, a number of people, especially women, claimed the picture was a powerful piece that left quite an impression.
Dreyer planned to make another movie, “Medea”, but he passed away from pneumonia on March 20, 1968, in Copenhagan, Denmark before the film was realized. He was survived by his wife and two children, as well as a long film career and body of work that both astonished and fascinated film goers and critics alike, and will for decades to come. His often slow paced movies will be remembered for their psychological studies of the human minds – particularly the minds of woman with tragic stories, or people experiencing extreme personal or religious crises. While he failed to earn much recognition for his films that delved into the human soul, today he is regarded as the most important Danish director in cinematic history.


1964       Gertrud
1955       Ordet
1955       Et slot i et slot: Krogen og Kronborg 
1950       Storstrømsbroen 
1949       Thorvaldsen  

1948       They Caught the Ferry 

1947       Landsbykirken
1947       Kampen mod kræften 

1946       Vandet på landet 
1945       Två människor
1943       Day of Wrath
1942       Mødrehjælpen 
1936       L'esclave blanc
1932       Vampyr
1928       The Passion of Joan of Arc 
1926       Glomdalsbruden

1925       Master of the House
1924       Michael
1922       Der var engang
1922       Die Gezeichneten
1921       Leaves Out of the Book of Satan
1920       The Parson's Widow

1919       The President 

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