Ordet (1955)

Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Henrik Malberg, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Emil Hass Christensen

Mikkel (Christensen) can tell something’s wrong while he’s speaking with the new parson (Ove Rud). He’s met Johannes (Rye), one of Mikkel’s younger brothers, who speaks slowly, harshly, as if there were some sharp metal obstacle in his throat for the words to overcome. His actions are similarly mechanical, stepping heavily from place to place. Among the voices and strides of his brothers, his are absolutely singular, so curious that his appearance is almost like that of a spirit in the room. In a way, there is; he believes himself to be the second coming of Christ. Mikkel, who doesn’t believe in God, is annoyed by it but kept from wrath by his kindhearted wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), who has some pity for her mad brother-in-law. All the same, he is kind to the minister about his unexpected experience. What role do you have on the farm? the minister had asked Johannes. Johannes explains that he is no farmer, but a bricklayer, and that he builds houses that people don’t live in; they’d prefer to live in unfinished homes, or in the wind. How is it that one of God’s ministers, Johannes poses, can have the second coming of his Savior in front of him but be unmoved? It’s a fair question, one that’s always fascinated me: how far does faith go before it wanders into madness? The minister has found his line, and he is seated when he asks Mikkel what has made his brother mad.

Minister: Was it…a love affair?

Mikkel: No. It was Soren Kierkegaard.

Mikkel doesn’t make jokes, but it’s a funny line anyway. Earlier in the film, someone very nearly says “His great learning hath made him mad,” which was not an accusation for Jesus but for Paul. Alas. The point is much the same, though, and Johannes’ family blames his education for his melted brain. It’s all because you wanted a minister in the family, Mikkel tells his father, Morten (Malberg). The rest of the family are farmers, with reed beds to look after and pigs to raise. Johannes seems mostly to stay in his room, prizing his solitude until he comes out and declaims to whoever appears. In the film’s opening scenes, his younger brother Anders (Kristiansen) wakes up, sees Johannes’ bed is empty, and alerts his family; not long after, in a beautiful shot from below which cuts the frame between a hill with high stalks and the sky itself, Johannes cries out woe upon hypocrites and nonbelievers. Indeed, for Johannes just about everyone is a nonbeliever, or at least believes too little for his liking.

Much of the film’s first half centers of Anders’ love of a young girl named Anne (Gerda Nielsen), plain and kind, who is the daughter of town tailor Peter (Ejner Federspiel). Peter and Morten are old religious rivals, both of them Christians who deny that the other man (and his fellows) are likewise Christians. The two of them speak slowly and decisively, like Johannes, but with far more humanity. They have the ability to sit down next to one another and recognize the presence of a human requiring human speech over their pipes; Johannes is the thousand-yard stare come to life. And the slowness of their speech supports the length of the shot (the median one in this film lasts better than twenty seconds) and the deliberate meaning of their words. Morten calls Peter’s faith one full of “undertaker faces,” too obsessed with sin and darkness; Peter counters by saying he is glad, for he knows his salvation is assured. It goes on like that for a while, until Peter gets a phone call for Morten. Inger is giving birth and her life is in danger. Perhaps this, Peter says rapturously, will bring Morten to God. Morten is aghast, then wrathful, and one old man strikes another. The differences in them are never really brought out short of the tone of their faiths – and that could mean absolutely anything – but both are willing to reject their children’s happiness and come to blows over how they define Christianity. Yet in reference to Johannes’ faith, the performative aspects of Morten and Peter’s religions falter. Morten, for one, has trouble praying seriously for he fears his prayers won’t come to fruition. (Peter very nearly exploits that to his own ends when he accidentally uncovers some of Morten’s personal doubts.) Peter – in his individual faith and the small numbers who meet with him to worship, I am reminded of the redoubtable Danjel from The Emigrants who finds God in effects, not causes – is brought to grief when he recognizes that he did not really turn the other cheek with Morten but provoked him to anger. They both fall short. And both men are failed by their imaginations; they look at Inger’s corpse, certified dead by the coroner, and are ready to put the lid on top of her when Johannes, buoyed by the faith of Inger’s daughter, has a “Ye of little faith!” moment. Earlier in the film, Anders and Anne look at the picture of Jesus bringing a woman back from the dead; Johannes has the sequel

Praise Dreyer for the way his movies are shot until the end of time (or until climate change kills all of us in about fifty years), for sometimes they are literally flawless. Just as in Day of Wrath, which sometimes leans more toward spectacular shots than the more businesslike Ordet, there is not a single merely good shot in the film. Dreyer is still more in the mood of The Passion of Joan of Arc in Day of Wrath, from the subject material to the expressionist sets; Ordet could pass as a family drama if the focus were less on faith and more on Anders’ nuptials. In any event, I was amazed at what Dreyer and his DP, Henning Bendtsen, created throughout. Nothing is more sensational than the final scene of the movie, which takes place in a room in the Borgen farmhouse largely ignored throughout most of the film.

Lit from behind with a light which is white like only a black and white film can be, with the curtains behind her to diminish and soften the harshness of it, Inger is waxy in death. Her coffin is canted upward, so that she lies at an angle to the floor. She is absolutely dead-center in the room. Mikkel cries at her side; the minister stands behind her as he gives some short, trite remarks; Johannes and Inger’s daughter stand in front of her coffin, to look at her dead on in her quiet face. And when Johannes cries out the titular “word,” it appears for seconds that she will not wake. They are literal seconds that we wait, five, ten seconds that we feel must come because the film has already shown us the miracle of the woman brought back to life from the Bible but that we cannot imagine will come because, like the minister, we are sure that God does not perform miracles in our time. Then her fingers twitch. (I jumped.) It’s horrifying and unnatural and then for seconds more, her eyelids struggle to open. Dreyer is so patient, and that patience creates awe in the viewer. Johannes is not Jesus – he knows it when he walks into the room with Inger’s body – but he has not forgotten what Jesus had to say about even small amounts of faith. If you had faith even the size of a mustard seed, Jesus said, you could tell a mountain to move and it would do so. These are the most tantalizing words of Jesus’ sermons, and the most discouraging. (It is no wonder that they are often explained away, that this marvelous statement of Jesus’ often becomes a metaphor or a statement about the will of God.) To bring a person back from death is at least as easy as moving a mountain; it isn’t that Johannes and his niece have a greater quantity of faith than the rest of the living in the room, but that they are the only two who possess any faith at all. Miracles don’t happen anymore, the minister has said on a few occasions. He’s right. Miracles are unexpected; how can it be unexpected when the Bible has already set an example of such a glorious act, complete with pictures to commemorate it?

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