The Stunning, Faith-Testing Strangeness of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘The Word’

By  · Published on May 29th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they try to understand religion through the beautiful eyes of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Word (Ordet).

In the #24 (tied) movie on the list, a family in a rural spot in Denmark asks, “to believe or not to believe?” as they confront their own internal tensions and the friction that different faiths create.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Scott: So Dreyer’s Ordet is a bizarre movie that should be praised for a lot of reasons, but my personal favorite element was how it used everyday life in order to elevate something massive and profound. The God’s-in-the-details approach. Did you enjoy living the pastoral life in Denmark?

Landon: I’m not sure if “enjoy” would be the right word. It’s a dense and in some ways a surprisingly alienating film, but that’s not meant to be a negative criticism. I was pretty transfixed by it, especially by the end.

It’s a film about religion, which we’ve tackled before, and it was made by a filmmaker we discussed in the Top 10. Yet I was not quite prepared for the film’s strict approach to detailed minimalism, or its layered take on religion.

So in a way, it’s odd that Ordet is so odd.

Scott: It’s incredibly, wondrously odd. I like that you called it “dense” though, because it achieves something impressive by converting what could be boring time with an interesting group of people into an ultimate question about existence.

So let me ask it this way – which characters’ cult would you have joined?

Landon: The doctor’s.

Scott: That failure? He’s not very good at his job.

Landon: Ha, well, although I found Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) hard to take at first, I would definitely have joined his cult by the end. You?

Scott: I almost went insane studying Kierkegaard, so I can relate, but I’d rather take spiritual marching orders from Ingers (Birgitte Federspiel). She’s an excellent heart for the film, magnetizing in her subtle way, and she can’t be killed. I’m sticking with her.

Landon: That’s where the minimalism really pays off. The movement of the camera (when it’s there at all) is so conservatively used, and characters so often exchange dialogue while remaining perfectly still, that when Ingers unclasped her hands at her resurrection, I nearly gasped.

Scott: It feels like a Zen koan. Stay still, and the slightest movement will shock.

Of course, the moment is also aided by a natural skepticism crafted by 1) the confusion of all the competing religious ideas and 2) the assumption that Johannes is the mayor of crazy town.

Landon: Which is fitting. I prefer my mayors to have a wicked Eeyore impression when they exclaim The Word.

But I have a take on why Kierkegaard caused poor Johannes to go insane. I’m not sure how it plays into the ending, though.

Scott: Theorize away.

Landon: Kierkegaard separated the world of science as a world of objectivity (here represented by The Doctor) from the world of religion, a world of subjectivity. The Christianity is essentially a formation of the subject.

Much of Ordet concerns characters who engage in competing subjectivities – competing interpretations of what it means to be a Christian. All except Johannes, who doesn’t make eye contact, who speaks assuming he is Jesus Christ – but not to anyone in particular – and who seems to have no concept of his (objective for the sake of argument) surroundings.

Scott: A figure completely cut off? Truly living with one foot on earth and the rest of him in the beyond?

Landon: Yes, and fully integrated into his own subjectivity to the point where he gives up theology as a scholarly practice.

Scott: Theology is something you find at the bottom of a casket or in a young girl’s belief – not in a book.

Landon: Indeed.

So the bigger question: whose side is God on in this battle of wills?

Scott: That works nicely with my theory that we, the audience, are God.

Landon: I knew my sense of narcissism during this movie was somehow justified.

Scott: God is clearly rooting for Team Inger. Which might mean that wacky old Johannes has the right of it since he predicts her rise from the dead. Granted, it’s unclear whether Dreyer intended it this way or not, but once I got to the end, I was struck by how much I wanted Inger to live, and how I essentially got my wish.

Against the impossible, it was my hope and desire (if not faith) that she would come back to life, and then Dreyer delivered the most unHollywood Hollywood ending ever filmed.

Landon: That’s a good way to put it. There’s nothing that happened before that laid the groundwork for her to reasonably come back to life. Yet she does, and it’s a fantastic ending in every sense of the word, but it also makes sense. If not a faith in God, the film at least demonstrates incredible faith in cinema.

Scott: And in the audience.

Landon: Chris Fujiwara wrote an essay for the Criterion Collection that productively contrasts Johannes and Inger: “Johannes’s counterpart is Inger, who, in her corporeal saintliness, represents all that is good in Dreyer’s world. Inger has her faults…but Dreyer places her closer to the viewer than any other character. Her serenity is the force that unifies the film, the human face of the mysterious assurance of Dreyer’s camera.”

Johannes is the most alienating and abstract character, Inger is the most inviting, so it makes sense that she would be the one who invites and makes good on the audience’s long-shot wish for a miracle through the enigmatic device of the mad prophet.

Scott: And then he becomes a kind of magic being. Although, the movie’s dichotomy between the everyday and the eternal made it feel a bit encapsulated.

That might be my natural atheism shining through, but after everything, including that bold miracle, it all still felt like the isolated story of a few people in a rural village with bad healthcare.

Landon: Yeah, like see Balthazar’s Balthazar as a saint, this movie asks the audience to make quite a leap. And it might be my agnosticism shining through, but I see this as expressing faith in the power of drama (or cinema specifically) to “work miracles.” The film is so deliberately stage-y, stylized, and, yes, odd that it’s hard for me to accept the notion that it’s asking us to take a miracle at face value rather than a moment for contemplation.

Johannes may have rejected intellectualizing Christianity, but the movie doesn’t. Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc is a much more direct work of faith than Ordet.

Scott: Another example where he focuses so forcefully on the people in the story that the camera almost breaks.

Landon: Does it feel like theater to you? Like Ordet has maintained certain aspects of its source?

Scott: Absolutely. A hefty portion of its feels like stage-craft, and as you mentioned before, the camera is like a sentry in its stillness. Aaron Sorkin probably fidgets wildly while watching this.

Landon: Yes, but there’s something still really cinematic about it. Where Dreyer mastered the close-up in Joan of Arc, he seems to master the medium shot here.

Scott: Thanks in large part to the production design from Erik Aaes and actors giving us a lot of nuance to enjoy amidst the hurricane of internal struggles.

Landon: “Internal hurricane” is a good phrase. This movie is like The Impossible for the psyche.

Scott: Except this movie ends with its tsunami.

Landon: I could see Johannes stopping a tsunami. Then talking to it for 30 minutes straight.

Scott: And then converting it.

Next Time: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

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