Early into Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet (which translates to The Word), family patriarch Morten Borgen dolefully asserts that “miracles no longer happen”. That Borgen happens to be the village’s religious authority speaks to the enveloping mood of despair making up the existential landscape of Ordet. Based on the play by Lutheran pastor Kaj Munk, who was murdered by the Nazis during their occupation of Denmark, Dreyer’s adaptation took the director two decades to realise and was one of only four sound films he completed. A work of deep moral seriousness, Ordet reckons with the existential anxieties of a post-Holocaust Europe. When authority itself has no faith in the prospect of divine intervention, what does belief look like? Without a shepherd, what happens to the flock?

Ordet tells the story of Morten Borgen, the devout albeit liberal religious leader and his three sons. The eldest Mikkel is happily married to Inger, who is pregnant with their third child. The middle child Johannes, driven mad by his theology studies and insisting he is Jesus Christ, eerily wanders the village reciting parables to those who will listen. The youngest, the furtive Anders, pines to marry Anne, the daughter of the strict Orthodox minister (and Morten’s adversary) Peter, whose refusal of the coupling results challenges the coexistence of faiths within the village. It is only upon Inger’s death and miraculous revival that the community are able to compromise, their faith restored.

Containing some of the most meticulous mise-en-scene ever committed to film, each of Ordet’s 114 shots has a shimmering, mercurial gravity, as if a Victorian daguerreotype has sprung to life. Where many of Dreyer’s contemporaries would use three light sources for filming, Dreyer would use up to 17, the resulting shots echoing Velasquez in their suggestion of spatial depth. In the absence of a higher power within the narrative, Dreyer’s camera is a kind of God, softly gliding across the frame in preordained, dazzlingly complex movements, often viewing the same character from multiple perspectives as if mapping the contours of thought itself. If Walter Benjamin famously argued that cinematic aesthetics both replicate and destabilise those of religion, Dreyer is one of the few filmmakers to literalise this relationship. As viewers of Ordet, we become gods, gazing upon the characters and rooting for their salvation as we are subject to the divine authority of Dreyer’s direction. 

Dreyer had a difficult, albeit not particularly religious childhood. He was adopted from an orphanage after his birth mother Josefine died of sulphur poisoning, biting the heads off matches in an attempt to terminate what would have been her second illegitimate pregnancy. Dreyer hated his adoptive parents and would later refuse to attend his stepmother’s funeral. Perhaps this accounts for the psychosexual itch which runs through the director’s filmography, in which women are both paragons of virtue and inescapably corporeal, figures whose martyrdom sanctifies an immoral world. In Ordet, Inger is the only figure whose faith synthesises both the material and numinous, who understands that waiting for a singular grand gesture disregards the miracle of the everyday. Yet this understanding of Inger as a figure of hypostatic union has other troubling implications: her screams in childbirth may have been the real contractions of actress Birgitte Federspiel, but their oddly coital ring brushing alongside both childbirth and death is startling.

Indeed, unlike his transcendental peers Tarkovsky and Bergman, Dreyer is cognisant of the space for strangeness and disjunction within his profoundly serious subject matter. This is most evident in Johannes, whose adenoidal performance by ​​Preben Lerdorff Rye was critically savaged upon release. The faintly ridiculous reveal of why Johannes has been driven mad – “Was it love?” “No. Søren Kierkegaard” – may be the only outward punchline in all of Dreyer’s films. The animus between Peter and Morten is similarly disjunctive, at its climax containing the faintest echo of Tom and Jerry. Yet these bizarre flourishes serve to heighten the tightly-wound atmosphere of dread, the sense that rationality has exited the village alongside God.

Whilst the shadow of Lutheran doctrine hangs heavily over Ordet, the film is less about religion than how religion illuminates the contradictions of the human character: how faith presents itself as virtue yet calcifies as dogmatism, how praying for someone can be an act of profound condescension and whether religious coexistence is possible when each sect insists on its own supremacy. Yet the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note: after two hours of spiritual suffering, the miracle which ends the film is pummeling in its power, yet remains unexplained. Against our better rational judgment, it is our faith in something greater, something beyond our limited comprehension, that makes us more human. 

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