CB 260: Carl Th. Dreyer’s “Ordet,” 1955.
Johannes: There he is again, the man with the hour-glass.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once observed, “I’ve long believed that the two summits of mise en scène in the history of cinema are Carl Dreyer’s ORDET and Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME.” It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of two near perfect films that couldn’t appear more different at first glance—the former claustrophobic and so starkly lit as to often prohibit even the slightest shade of grey, the latter an ambling urban lark bursting with color. Both however possess nary a wasted moment and represent finely honed visions of their respective directors.
Dreyer’s ORDET, released in 1955, follows the Borgens, a family of Christian farmers in the Danish countryside. With respect to faith, the Borgens run the religious gamut. Eldest son Mikkel is an avowed non-believer and middle son Johannes, driven mad by the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, believes himself to be Christ. (See Johannes’ scathing Goodreads review of FEAR AND TREMBLING: “Woe unto you, hypocrites! One star!”) The bulk of the screen time belongs to patriarch Morten Borgen, who with his perpetually furrowed brow and hunched shoulders conveys the weight of the moral universe wherever he goes. Dreyer sets up what appears to be the central dialectic of the film when Morten clashes with neighbor and theological foil, Peter Petersen, only to double back in the concluding act in what may be the most capable bit of rug pulling in cinema history.
Without divulging too much—even half a century later the final reveal in ORDET is a secret worth saving for the uninitiated—Dreyer manages this sleight of hand by intentionally complicating the Johannes character. His stilted manner of proselytizing and generally grating disposition do little to convince us of his divinity. He’s the Howard Beale of rural Denmark, his madness something to be endured rather than explored. Nothing prepares us then for the film’s final act. Mikkel Borgen ushers us out of the theatre with the line: “Now life begins for us.” Despite all the trauma at the heart of ORDET, that we leave more hopeful than we entered is Dreyer’s real miracle.