‘Powerful’ doesn’t do justice to this 1955 exploration of life, death and faith from Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose films are celebrated at BFI Southbank throughout the month. Based on Kaj Munk’s 1932 play, ‘Ordet’ is an austere, realist work on one level as it joins a farming family in their Jutland home over a short but devastating period of time.
Most of the drama unfolds in their living room, with Dreyer’s camera curiously following elderly Morten (Henrik Malberg) as his three grown-up sons, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), Anders (Cay Kristiansen) and Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) struggle respectively with atheism and the illness of a pregnant wife; a desire to marry a girl from a family of a more stringent branch of Christianity; and a madness that brings on a Christ complex. But, on another level, this is a deeply spiritual, mysterious and wonderfully odd and bold work as Dreyer reaches to the heavens and beyond for answers. It’s what Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ might have been if filmed by Ingmar Bergman.
‘Ordet’ looks and sounds momentous: the extremes of Dreyer’s photography suggest that the dark and light of life are inhabiting this very house, while for most of the film we hear storms howling outdoors and a clock ticking indoors, both of which focus the mind on the enormity of the drama without distracting from its quiet detail and calm pace. Munk’s play raises many debates. The conflict between Morten and his son Anders’s potential father-in-law, Peter (Ejner Federspiel), highlights the absurdity of doctrinal divisions, while varying levels of faith and reason come into conflict with the presence of both a pastor and a doctor as Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), Mikkel’s wife, enters a difficult labour which threatens to take her life.
It’s impossible to write about ‘Ordet’ without mentioning the extraordinary coup de cinema that graces the film’s final ten minutes. Yet it’s also unfair to reveal it to newcomers. Suffice to say that if you felt you were getting a grip on what ‘Ordet’ is ‘about’ and what Munk or Dreyer wish to ‘say’, then this moment throws everything into relief. It’s not a film that can be easily dissected. It’s chaos dressed as reason.However great our wisdom, however reassuring our faith (or lack of it), ‘Ordet’ reminds us how in the end we know little about the mysteries of life. Dreyer manages to say all this within the framework of a strange, wondrous and shocking work. Once seen, it’s unlikely to leave you.