Review: ‘Carl Th. Dreyer, My Metier’

This solid, rather stodgy docu about the life and work of Denmark's great filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer has a hole in the center, which is Dreyer himself. Conscientiously considering his films and collecting eyewitness anecdotes about the director, this study never quite pins down its subject, a tormented perfectionist who was able to shoot only 14 feature films in a 50-year career. Main audience outside Scandinavia will be found at fests, though a video could find a place on many shelves as a reference work.

This solid, rather stodgy docu about the life and work of Denmark’s great filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer has a hole in the center, which is Dreyer himself. Conscientiously considering his films and collecting eyewitness anecdotes about the director, this study never quite pins down its subject, a tormented perfectionist who was able to shoot only 14 feature films in a 50-year career. Main audience outside Scandinavia will be found at fests, though a video could find a place on many shelves as a reference work.

Torben Skjodt Jensen, the director of “Flaneur” (a much-admired two-part biopic on Charles Baudelaire) approaches his subject with something of the same aesthete’s sensibility. It is a cerebral perspective that, rather than peel off the protective layers around Dreyer, enwraps him in fancy handwriting and scattered thoughts about filmmaking.

Besides film clips and accounts by actors and technicians who worked with the master, docu makes extensive use of Dreyer’s own words about his profession. A flurry of stills, sketches, scripts, newspaper clippings and letters appear onscreen as documents. There is even a visit to the spooky chateau where “Vampyr” was shot.

An adopted child, Dreyer put in stints as a bookkeeper and sports-writer before he eased his way into the Nordisk studios, where his early films were mostly melodramas. In 1928 in France he shot “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” starring the legendary Renee Falconetti. In an interview her daughter, Helene, dispels the myth that Dreyer mistreated the actress on the set.

The film does bring out Dreyer’s obstionism perfectionism and costly attention to atmosphere, which made producers shun him. After “Joan,” it was five years before he could make “Vampyr,” a critical and commercial flop. Ten years of inactivity followed.

In a long interview, Lisbeth Movin tells how Dreyer shaped her into an actress on the set of “Day of Wrath” (1943). Actor Preben Lerdorff-Rye (who died just after the docu was finished) recalls Dreyer’s complete concentration on his work, to the point of forgetting the time and calling his cast in the middle of the night. Other testimonials come from cinematographer Hennig Bendtsen, who shot Dreyer’s last film, “Gertrud,” in 1964, and thesps Birgitte Federspiel, Axel Strobye and Baard Owe.

The film’s stylized black-and-white lighting by Harald Paalgard is typical of its own attention to detail and rigorous production values.

Carl Th. Dreyer, My Metier

(DANISH-NORWEGIAN)

Production

A Steen Herdel & Co.(Copenhagen)/Unni Straume Filmproduksjons (Oslo) production in association with the National Film Board of Denmark, the Danish Film Institute, the Norwegian Film Institute, Nordic Film & TV Foundation, DR/Danish Television 1, the Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Documentary Media Desk Denmark, MAP TV. (International sales: Steen Herdel.) Produced by Michael Brask. Co-produced by Marianne Slot. Directed by Torben Skjodt Jensen, Screenplay, Skjodt Jensen, Prami Larsen, Camera (B&W), Harald Paalgard: video photography, Skjodt Jensen, Larsen; editor, Ghita Beckendorff; music, Anders Koppel; sound, Jens Bangsholt. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Window on Images), Sept.9, 1995. Running time: 96 MIN. Voice of Dreyer: Henning Jensen.

With

With: Carl Th. Dreyer, Baard Owe, Jorgen Roos, Henning Bendtsen, Birgitte Federspiel, Aksel Stroby, Lisbeth Movin, Helene Falconetti, Preben Lerdorff-Rye.
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