Friday, 26 September 2008


It seems only fitting than one of my first posts to this blog should be about one of my favourite films, made by one of the (if not the) greatest filmmakers of all time: Ordet by Carl Th. Dreyer. Based on a play by Kaj Munk, the film tells the story of three brothers, one of whom falls in love with a tailor’s daughter (only to have their parents disapprove of their interfaith relationship), one of whom declares himself agnostic, and one, Johannes, who declares himself to actually be Jesus Christ. Many people more skilled and schooled than me have written about this masterpiece of filmmaking, and I make no attempt here to dissect the text in full. Instead, I wish to focus my comments on one particular scene, which occurs near the beginning of the film, and show how it illustrates Dreyer’s genius and perhaps helps with a basic understanding of the film and its characters.

The two 'sane' brothers and their father sit around the living-room table, when Johannes enters. He strides over to some large candles which sit on top of a chest of drawers, and begins to light them. Once lit, he moves the candles over to the windowsill, so that his 'light may shine in the darkness'. Johannes then leaves the room, and Inger, the wife of Johannes' agnostic brother, walks straight up to the candles, blows them out, and returns them to the chest of drawers. The family then begin to discuss Johannes' madness.

Although ostensibly a minor action, Inger's behaviour in this scene is just one example of the sheer brilliance of Carl Th. Dreyer, and perhaps one of the great cinematic metaphors, perhaps also acting as a perfect microcosm of the film itself.

Ordet is, in every way, a complex and dense work, perhaps never truly unlocked and certainly as mystifying as it is captivating: as Chris Fujiwara states in his essay The Strangeness of Ordet, it is, by all means, a difficult film. And yet, taken at one level, it is a film – I would say perhaps even a simple film, but this would be misleading given its complexity – about faith.

By looking at the film through this lens (and examining it as a film about faith), Inger’s behaviour is a clear metaphor, the act of blowing out the candles representing a staunch defiance to believe. Although some of the characters claim to believe, their refusal to see Johannes' 'light', as it were, can be seen as representing their refusal to truly believe.

The film's ending, which is perhaps the most powerful ending in cinema, shows that anything is possible when people do have faith (excuse the digression, but at this point I feel I should mention that the ending is so powerful that Carlos Reygadas felt the need to rip it off almost shot-for-shot – but notably with none of the power – in his film Silent Light). However, even in the run up to the miracle with which the film ends, the family still do not have faith: they are still not ready to believe, to accept the light. It is only Inger's young daughter who believes wholeheartedly; a comment, perhaps, on the childlike worldview (dare I say purity?) that one needs in order to believe wholeheartedly.

Thus, the metaphor of the candles brilliantly shows that despite what some of the characters claim, none of them have faith or belief. This one, seemingly insignificant, piece of action tells us everything we need to know about the characters and, in the context of a reading of the film as a text about faith, even underscores and outlines a major theme of the film, while also foreshadowing its ending. To me, that is the genius of this metaphor, and the genius of Carl Th. Dreyer.

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