Gertrud (1964), Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film, is based on a 1906 play by Hjalmar Soderberg (1869-1941) who is usually regarded as one of the great Swedish prose stylists of the twentieth century. Soderberg is perhaps best known for his short stories and the novels Martin Birck's Youth (1901) and Doctor Glas (1905), realistically detailed portraits of turn-of-the-century Swedish life shot through with philosophical observations on topics such as love and religion. While he remained largely faithful to the original play, Dreyer himself wrote the epilogue, which takes place some thirty years after the main action, with the approval of Soderberg's daughter.
Due to Dreyer's rigorous, deliberately mannered handling of the material, Gertrud is the most controversial of his mature films. The film's radical qualities tend to be obscured by the period costumes, the highly literate (some would say stilted) dialogue, and the highly theatrical acting and blocking. The film has only 89 shots in its 115-minute running time, with individual shots running several minutes in length. For example, the shot containing Gabriel Lidman's after-dinner conversation with Gertrud runs 9 1/2 minutes long. Declaring it to be "a film about words," Dreyer said of his basic approach to Gertrud: "What interests me--and this comes before technique--is reproducing the feelings of the characters in my feelings [...] The important thing [...] is not only to catch hold of the words they say, but also the thoughts behind the words. What I seek in my films, what I want to obtain, is a penetration to my actors' profound thoughts by means of their most subtle expressions. For these are the expressions [...] that lie in the depths of his soul. This is what interests me above all, not the technique of the cinema. Gertrud is a film that I made with my heart."
The film is also noteworthy for Henning Bendtsen's stunning black-and-white cinematography. Pools of light and shadow create atmosphere and define space within the frame; of particular note is the judicious use of overexposure in flashback scenes. Bendtsen, who had worked with Dreyer previously on Ordet (1955), is one of Denmark's leading cinematographers and has since worked with Lars von Trier on Epidemic (1988) and Zentropa (1991). In the 1995 documentary Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier, Bendtsen recalls: "The special mark of Gertrud was that the script was not divided into scene numbers. It is continuous. The tracking shots were not rigidly laid down by Dreyer in advance. We would turn up in the morning and the cast would come in with no make-up, nor in costume. We would slowly build up the sequence the way the actors and Dreyer found it natural and accordingly with the lighting options open to me. Dreyer became so enthusiastic about this technique, that several times I had to tell him we couldn't stuff any more film stock in the camera and would have to find somewhere to stop up." For his work on this film, Bendtsen was awarded a Bodil (the Danish Film Foundation award) for best cinematography.
During its Paris premiere, the film provoked boos and catcalls and was derided by critics for consisting of nothing but "sofa conversations." Its reception during its initial U.S. release was also marked by controversy. Stanley Kaufmann, in his review for the New York Times, savaged Dreyer for being "out of touch" for his choice of the Soderberg play, which he considered to be "dated subject matter" and complained that Dreyer's directorial technique was "the least fluently cinematic of any work of his that I know." Kaufmann writes: "His tempos have always been deliberate. But here his camera movement and his editing defy the minimal drama in the script. In dialogue the camera often travels back and forth from face to face, instead of cutting from one to the other. 'Direction' frequently consists of characters who rise from one sofa, move slowly to another, then sink. Nothing that can be done at length is ever suggested." The critic for Variety was more sympathetic, commenting that the film, "with echoes of Ibsen, in its social haranguing for female independence, and Strindberg, in its difficulty in male and female understanding, lends itself admirably to Dreyer's dry but penetrating style." At the same time, he warned that "it may skirt banality, tedium and repetition for average audiences." By the early Seventies, however, the critic Tom Milne would consider it one of Dreyer's finest works, writing: "Gertrud is the sort of majestic, necromantic masterpiece that few artists achieve if once in their lifetimes."
In the last few years of his life, Dreyer worked toward realizing a long-cherished project, a film about Jesus. However, Gertrud would remain his last cinematic testament, through its idiosyncratic style embodying at once the challenges and rewards of Dreyer's cinema.
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Producer: Jorgen Nielsen Screenplay: Dreyer, based on the play by Hjalmar Soderberg
Photography: Henning Bendtsen
Art Director: Kai Rasch
Music: Jorgen Jersild
Song lyrics: Grethe Risbjerg Thomsens
Editor: Edith Schlussel
Principal Cast: Nina Pens Rode (Gertrud Kanning); Bendt Rothe (Gustav Kanning); Ebbe Rode (Gabriel Lidman); Baard Owe (Erland Jansson); Axel Strobye (Axel Nygren); Anna Malberg (Gustav's mother); Edouard Mielche (the Vice-Chancellor); Vera Gebuhr (the maid); Karl Gustav Ahlefeldt, Lars Knutzon, William Knoblauch, Valso Holm.
by James Steffen