Film and Faith: The Stylistic System of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet

ordet dreyer
Last fall, I took my first ever film class, and it was taught by a somewhat eccentric and highly opinionated professor. He is the sort of person who firmly believes in the 100% truth of all of his opinions, and he never puts anything lightly. Late in the semester, we watched Ordet (1955), and he declared it the best movie ever (bar none, it’s the best). I don’t necessarily agree (or disagree), but after listening to 2 consecutive lectures in which the professor did little else but passionately and sincerely preach the greatness of Dreyer’s Ordet, I did come to fall in love with the film in my own way. It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s most certainly worth watching.

After my professor’s lectures on the film, I decided to watch it a second time. When I did, one thing in particular stuck out to me: the ways in which the style in which the film is shot and its subject matter work together so seamlessly that they merge into one. With that in mind, here’s we go:

The stylistic system of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is complex. One could even call it unusual (as I just did). For most of the film, Dreyer seems to deliberately avoid using many conventions of “Hollywood” film. “Typical” editing techniques like cross cutting, shot/counter shot and montage are largely absent from the film. The film also (quite remarkably) lacks close-ups, establishing shots, and non-diegetic music of any kind. Since Ordet’s style is so atypical (compared to more conventional Hollywood cinema), viewers of the film must allow themselves to be conditioned to its particular filmic language as they are viewing the film. That is, many viewers probably do not come to Ordet prepared to interpret its particular style; rather, they must be taught how to do so by the film itself.

In what follows, I discuss several of the most salient stylistic aspects of Ordet, and I pay particular attention to those which work to conflate religious faith with faith in the film-viewing experience, those which merge religious miracles and the achievements of cinema, those which compare godly omnipotence to the filmmaker’s role in shaping his final product and in controlling the experience of his viewers. In Ordet (a tale of faith, love, religious difference, and resurrection on the Borgen family farm) stylistic choices which may seem odd at first become considerably more comprehensible when considered in tandem with the story Dreyer uses them to tell.

Perhaps the most notable feature of Ordet‘s style (besides its lack of certain conventional techniques) is the extraordinary length of many of its shots. With its long shots, Ordet demands a certain amount of patience (read: faith) from its viewers

Many of the shots in Ordet are extraordinarily long, and most of these take place in the main room of the Borgen family home. On the wall in this room (we’ll call it the ‘parlor’) there hangs a loudly clicking clock. By making the clock’s ticking clearly audible in all of the shots in which is it is present and by placing it in the room where so much of the film and its long shots take place, Dreyer makes his viewers acutely aware of the passage of time, and thus, of the unusually long duration of certain shots. As the incessant ticking cannot be ignored, neither can that which it represents.

Furthermore, by extending the duration of so many shots as he does, Dreyer tests the patience/endurance of his viewers. Generally speaking, the longer the time between cuts, the longer viewers are forced to focus on the same characters, the same conversations, and the same spaces. Viewers of Ordet are made to wait longer than usual for a number of the film’s shots to reach their culmination and may often feel that the new shot they anticipate is being withheld from them. All the waiting that Ordet‘s long shots (and slow pace) force viewers to do is not unlike the patient faith that the film’s characters need if they are to endure long enough witness the film’s miraculous end.

Ordet‘s patience-demanding slowness results from the the structure of its plot as much as it does from the extended duration of its shots. Ordet‘s plot is winding and does not adhere to the conventional paradigm (that being, short exposition + introduction of conflict + rising action + sensation climax + resolution + swift denouement). Instead, Ordet‘s exposition and rising action are not clearly differentiated and, together, they take up most of the film. Then, quite suddenly, climax, resolution, and denouement seem to happen all at once.

Additionally, what seems to be the “primary” conflict in the film changes many times. With the film’s opening scenes, Dreyer gives the impression that the main problem in the film, the problem that most of the film’s action will be devoted to solving, is that of Johannes’s madness. As Inger and Borgen converse at the table, the only obvious problems in the Borgen household are Johannes himself and Borgen’s long-unanswered prayers for him. Then, with Johannes conveniently hidden away beyond his bedroom door, Anders confesses his affection for Anne which, along with the introduction of the differences of religious opinion between Borgen and Peter the tailor, allows the problem of Borgen’s failing hope that Johannes will ever “be himself again” to be easily forgotten.

From this point on, it seems that Ordet will be about bringing about a reconciliation of these two old men so that their children can live happily ever after. But then, Inger falls ill. Inger’s death does not occur until three quarters of the film is already spent, but when it does, it is so devastating as to make Ander’s frustrated desire to marry Anne seem trivial.

This is all to say that, Ordet is, quite decidedly, a film that takes its time. The film’s build is slow, plodding even. Just as Borgen in the beginning of the film is wrong to give up hope that Johannes will ever regain sanity, so too would viewers of the film do well to wait before deciding just what Ordet is about or, at least, what its main conflict will be. The slow pace and the less-than-straightforward trajectory of Ordet’s plot force viewers to wait longer than they might expect to “figure out” the film. Also, any conclusions that viewers draw about where the plot will end up early in the film are likely to be proven incorrect. Thus, Ordet’s slowness urges viewers to be patient, have faith, and wait for things to fall into place, while also indicating that using past experience to predict the future may not be the best course of action for them.

Ordet also repeatedly calls attention to the importance and the reality of the space beyond the edges of its frames. In fact, the unusually long duration of many of the film’s shots allows Dreyer to to reveal which characters are present in a given space more gradually and much more slowly than a viewer of Classical Hollywood cinema might expect. 

Throughout Ordet, Dreyer avoids shots showing an entire room and all the people in it (though nearly all of the film takes place in relatively small, indoor spaces). He also avoids arranging the film’s characters so that they all easily fit into a single frame. Instead, Dreyer often includes in the frame only those portions of space that the character(s) he is currently most focused on happen to occupy, and he scatters his characters naturalistically around the spaces they inhabit. At times, Dreyer allows characters to come and go from the frame as they will; at others, he moves the camera, so as to keep it focused on a certain character, even if that means removing other (still quite present) characters from the frame.

To clarify the techniques involving off-screen space that I am referring to, I will now describe a shot in which they are particularly apparent: When the doctor sends Mikkel from Inger’s room to fetch a pail, the film cuts to a shot of Karen at the table in the parlor. At first, she is the only figure visible in the frame and, while viewers may anticipate that Mikkel is about to enter the room, they have no reason to suspect that anyone else is in it. Mikkel enters the parlor from the left of the frame, and the camera turns to follow him (leaving Karen behind) as he walks across the room. Just as Mikkel is reaching the door on the other side of the room, it becomes apparent that Borgen has been standing there, presumably since the shot began. Mikkel stops next to Borgen and calls Karen over to him; she then joins Mikkel and Borgen in the frame before exiting the room through a door at the back of the frame; while she is gone, the camera remains fixed on Mikkel and Borgen who are relatively static. Karen returns with the pail and leaves the room once more. Mikkel carries the pail to the doctor, but the camera does not follow him as he goes beyond the boundaries of the frame. Then, Anders enters the room and joins his father, before exiting through another door. The camera then follows Borgen as he walks left toward the table at the other side of the parlor. By the time Borgen sits down, Johannes can be seen standing at the far left of the frame; how long he has been in the room is unclear. Shortly, Johannes walks past the table, and, as the camera remains trained on Borgen, out of the frame. Mikkel then reenters the frame from the left once more, and walks right to the other side of the room, out of the frame. Borgen stands and follows Mikkel, and the camera goes with him, at which point, it becomes apparent that Johannes is no longer in the parlor even though he was never shown exiting. Eventually, Mikkel walks back across the room and out of the frame yet again. The camera follows Borgen as he returns to the table once more, and the shot ends.

Dreyer’s engagement of off-screen space is complex, and it influences the film quite frequently. For instance, Ordet does not allow viewers to assume that a character is not present for a scene just because they do not see or hear that character. Sometimes, Dreyer does show a character’s exit from or entry into a room, but, quite often, he does not. Thus, viewers of the film cannot trust the evidence of their own eyes when determining who is and is not present at any given time. Instead, Ordet‘s viewers must wait out a scene or extraordinarily long shot before drawing such conclusions.

Also, because of the sheer frequency with which Dreyer unexpectedly reveals a character’s presence or fails to show the exit of a character who is beyond the frame, viewers have to trust that, by the time a given shot or scene ends, Dreyer will have shown them all of the characters occupying the space. Dreyer’s extensive use of off-screen space becomes one of the primary means by which he declares that, in the world of his film at least, one would do well to remember that what you get is not always what you see and that everything that is cannot always be seen.

Another stylistic feature of Ordet worth noting is its repeated use of sounds whose source is off-screen (but within the film); such sounds function similarly to the particular use of off-screen space discussed above. In many of the shots that take place inside the Borgen family home, noises made by their farm animals outside can be clearly heard. In addition to adding to the film’s overall sense of realism, such sounds also remind viewers of the existence of that which they cannot see, for nearly all of the animals are never shown.

Like those characters whose presence in a room is not immediately revealed, the animals are no less real just because the camera does not show them. The sounds of the animals outside also remind viewers that, at any given moment, there is more to life than whatever is happening inside among the Borgens. With this in mind, Ordet’s use of animal sounds may be meant to convey that the characters on screen when the sounds are heard (most often, some assortment of Borgens) do not have the full picture, that they do not see (or know) everything. As the film’s characters learn in its miraculous ending, Ordet is a film that values faith, and faith requires not only patience, but also belief in the unseen.  

Perhaps more important than the fact that Ordet’s style encourages viewers to have patience and faith, is that it makes a point to reward them for doing so. Also, if the film demands and rewards patience and faith on behalf of its viewers, so too does it demand and reward such values on behalf of its characters. This is particularly apparent in the film’s final scene. With Johannes lost, with Borgen and Peter seemingly determined to remain at odds with one another, and with Inger dead in a coffin, the funeral scene that ends the film begins without much hope for either an uplifting ending or for one in which all the conflicts introduced throughout the film—the madness of Johannes, Ander’s love for Anne, Mikkel’s lack of faith, and Inger’s death—will be neatly tied together and resolved. Yet, that is exactly the sort of ending the film has.

Until Peter shows up at Inger’s funeral to give Anne to Anders, it would not be unreasonable for viewers of Ordet to conclude that the nearly two hours of film they have just watched will culminate as a story of death, sorrow, and loss. As Inger lies in her coffin, Anders, Mikkel, and Borgen each appear hopelessly grief-stricken, but, given the visible reality of their situation, they can hardly be blamed for doing so. When the doctor arrives at the funeral, he asks Anders if there has been “Any news of Johannes,” and then, when Anders informs him that there has not, says solemnly to a clearly distraught Borgen, “Then we must be prepared for the worst.” This statement comes as challenge to any at the funeral (or in the theater) still holding out hope for some sort of happy conclusion.

But the doctor is not a man of faith. With Peter’s sudden change of heart and with the sudden reappearance of Johannes (which occurs with less than ten minutes of the film remaining), the apparent trajectory of the film begins to shift; Inger is still dead, but perhaps some good will come to the Borgens after all, and perhaps viewers will be allowed to leave Ordet with hope still intact. When Johannes returns, he claims to “have found [his] wits again,” but his return alone is not enough to promise Inger’s resurrection. While Johannes did promise little Maren he would bring her mother back to life, he was in a very different state of mind when he did so, one which had him believing that he was Jesus of Nazareth. Not until Inger’s fingers begin to flutter with only about four minutes left in the film does it at last become clear that it will not end with her in the ground. Johannes performs a miracle, not as the messiah himself, but as a man of faith; importantly, in resurrecting Inger, he resurrects the most patiently faithful member of the Borgen household. Consequently, Inger’s resurrection can be read as a return of such faith to the Borgen family.

This time around, however, Inger’s faith combines with that inspired by the miracle which returns her to life; as such, it is strong enough to influence not only the believing Anders and Borgen, but the previously unbelieving Mikkel as well. Embracing his wife as she sits in her coffin, Mikkel declares that he has “found [her] faith.” Thus, Inger’s (and Borgen’s) desire to see Mikkel come to God is fulfilled. With the last of its conflicts resolved, the film takes less than a minute to close. If the characters in Ordet want their prayer’s answered—if Borgen wants Johannes to find his wits, if Anders wants to marry Anne, if Inger wants her husband to have faith, if Mikkel wants his wife restored to him, if Johannes wants to perform a miracle, and if little Maren wants her mother resurrected—they all need only have enough faith in God; if viewers of Ordet want the film’s loose ends brought together and all of its seemingly disparate conflicts resolved, they need only wait.

A change of pace and a sudden positive turn are not all that separates Ordet’s ending from majority of the film. For all of Dreyer’s unorthodox stylistic choices, the film is not entirely without conventional elements like close-ups and shot/ counter shot; importantly, such conventional elements are used most heavily in the film’s final moments. It is as if, for enduring the film’s less than conventional style, Dreyer chooses to reward viewers with a return to a more typical style of camerawork and editing in his film’s conclusion.

The average shot length decreases substantially at the end of the film. The end of the film also features one of the film’s few instances of cross-cutting. Together, decreased shot length and cross-cutting (along with a sudden increase in action) serve to quicken the film’s pace considerably. Moreover, not until Inger lies in her coffin does the film make any systematic use of shot/ counter shot, and not until Johannes is in the middle of his resurrecting Inger does the film feature its first close-up. By withholding certain more conventional filmic elements for most of Ordet, Dreyer heightens their potential for impact when they finally do appear, thereby rendering his ending more impactful.

Over the course of the film—when it comes to cinematic style at least—the strange becomes familiar, and the familiar (when it finally arrives) becomes strange. Thus, Dreyer’s choice to make a dramatic shift in editing styles at the end of his film is also a proclamation of the filmmaker’s power to condition his audience and to powerfully alter their viewing experience through stylistic elements alone.

If Dreyer encourages viewers of Ordet to have a certain kind of faith as much as he does his characters, he also uses the film’s stylistic system to declare that he is a filmmaker worthy of such faith. 

The length of Dreyer’s shots and his use of off-screen space in those shots work together to declare the world-shaping power of the filmmaker, and (given the film’s plot) to remind viewers that such power, within the world of a given film, is comparable to God’s. Dreyer makes sure that, though their faces never appear on screen, those behind the cameras are virtually as present in Ordet as those in front of it. Longer shots means less cuts, less editing together of adjacent shots. The de-emphasis of montage in the film and the general lack of conspicuous editing gives the impression that the film did not come together on the cutting-room floor, but is unfolding in front of the viewer just as the filmmaker(s) captured it; this, in turn, adds to the impression that whoever is behind Ordet is in total control.

Also, Dreyer’s particular use of off-screen space forces viewers to acknowledge that the film frame does not show all; rather, it shows precisely (and only) what the filmmaker wants it to show. By making explicit the fact that characters present in certain scenes are often deliberately excluded from the frame, Dreyer directs his audience to acknowledge the degree to which he controls the reality they see portrayed on-screen. Upon realizing that there is some presence controlling each of the frames, viewers can either begin to doubt the reality of all they see in the film, or they can choose to trust that that presence is showing them exactly what they need to see at a given moment; given the plot of the film as well as my discussion above, it seems clear that Ordet favors the latter. Through the stylistic system he establishes in Ordet, Dreyer encourages viewers to give up their reliance on a more conventional film style and to put their faith in him.
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Complex and unusual as they may be, Ordet’s stylistic elements do not exist independently of its plot; rather, over the course of the film, the stylistic system of Ordet and the story it tells become so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable.The stylistic system of Ordet is designed to encourage in viewers those very same characteristics that it values in its characters. As Inger tells Borgen to keep praying for Johannes, so too does Dreyer teach viewers to keep waiting for things like the end of certain shots and a revelation of the film’s primary conflicts. As Inger hopes that her husband will one day have faith in the unseen, so too does Dreyer force viewers to acknowledge the limits of the frame boundary and the reality of that which is not immediately visible. When Inger and Borgen talk alone for the first time in the film, Borgen laments, “Miracles don’t happen anymore,” and when the new minister first comes to visit Borgen’s farm, he says to Johannes that “Miracles no longer happen.” As the film’s final scene makes clear, Ordet—in form and content alike—is an exercise in disproving these statements.

 Until next time! 

5 thoughts on “Film and Faith: The Stylistic System of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet

  1. Soraya says:

    For me, it was the character of Johannes that we never get to know, even though his madness at the beginning of the film, was introduced as the main topic of the film, but it was other people’s struggles such as faith, unanswered prayers, death and love that carried the narrative of the film. I find a parallel line between Johannes character and Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis by Kafka.
    These two young men went through extreme mental and physical transformation which result in their isolated life among their family members but it reality they seems fine with what happened to them, specially Gregor. But it was their family member who where challenged and during the course of film and the book, we witness how they are dealing with their son and brother.

    I enjoyed your review a lot
    Thanks

    • Thanks so much for the comment. I have not actually read Metamorphosis, but I do know a bit about the story you reference. Next time I watch Ordet, I will try to pay more attention to Johannes and how he interacts with others, because there is certainly a lot going on there. It’s also interesting to think about how the family cares about and worries about Johannes, but also seems a little ashamed of him and may even see him as a burden.

      Again, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts 😀

  2. Luc says:

    Thanks for your analysis!
    One other thing that striked me in the final scene is the moment right after the miracle has happened and the child has been led away. (The child by the way of which Jesus said that it is our task in life te become as them as they are the only ones that are unprejudiced and maybe therefore the only ‘true believers’. And the ‘solution’ to Johannes’ question why believers find it so hard to believe).
    Okay, so the moment the daugther is taken away from the bed we see Johannes move towards the head of the bed. In the next shot we expect HIM to lean over Inger. However, we see Mikkel, the husband, do that (and don’t see Johannes again at all). Is Dreyer telling us that Johannes has ‘gotten into’ Mikkel who then tells his wife that he has found (her) faith? And therefore also can find comfort in the thought that his deadborn son is now living with God?

    • I don’t have an answer for you at the moment, as it’s been a few years since I last saw the film. That said, thank you for your comment and for giving me something to ponder the next time I see Ordet!

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