Techniques Of Terror: Carl Dreyer’s Danish Gothic Dissected

Currently the subject of a complete retrospective at BFI Southbank, early 20th century auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer was a pioneer of "horror in its purest form". Siobhan McKeown explains his technical mastery

The films of the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer conjure up a very special kind of dread. Glacial surfaces hide a horrific void in his final picture Gertrud (1964); a young woman is set to be tortured and burned at the stake in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928); a vampiric hag stalks the village of Courtempierre in Vampyr (1932). These works are cinematic cathedrals, gothic in their sensibility, constructions in which form intensifies content. The interior lives of the characters blend and meld with the worlds around them. To create the right kind of horror for each of his stories, Dreyer developed techniques whose influence can be found in such disparate films as those of Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Sergio Leone, Lars Von Trier, and the standard shock horror movies of today.

For Dreyer, composition is everything. The camera isn’t just a recording device: it narrates. It’s his tool, his paintbrush. In his silent film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, the cuts between faces replace dialogue. A harsh camera focuses close on the face of Joan, cutting to the faces of her persecutors. The space between them is evacuated, creating a sense of extreme persecution. Dreyer increases the sense of persecution through his choice of camera angles: close up, front and back, over her shoulder, diagonal. The camera is everywhere while the actor remains in one place, fixed. There is no escape for Joan, and as viewers we’re implicated in the camera’s omniscient gaze.

Compare the number of cuts in …Joan Of Arc with those in Ordet (1955). In Ordet, a film of 126 minutes, there are 114 shots; in …Joan Of Arc there are more than 1500 shots in 82 minutes. The pace of these shots creates pressure, a percussive back and forth that beats against Joan.  In Ordet, however, and other films such as Gertrud and Day Of Wrath (1943), the pacing of the film has slowed down with dialogue replacing the role of the camera in creating verbal interactions.

This does not, however, diminish the camera’s role. The camera invades the characters’ lives. As Herlof’s Marte (played by Anna Svierkier) is tortured on the rack in Day Of Wrath, the camera pans along the length of her interrogators. Staid old men, dressed in black with stiff white collars, ask her questions, faces blank, ignoring her off-camera screams. The camera creeps towards her, arriving finally as she is loosened from the rack. For Dreyer, this horizontal movement is easily absorbed by the eye. As the man himself wrote: "One can say that one shall try to keep a continuous, flowing, horizontally gliding motion in the film. If one then suddenly introduces vertical lines, one can reach an instantly dramatic effect – as, for instance, in the pictures of the vertical ladder just before it is thrown into the fire in Day of Wrath." This abrupt shift between horizontal and vertical causes the viewer to jump, then recoil in horror as the vertical ladder shifts diagonal, falling towards the fire with the witch strapped to the front of it. This shift in pacing and direction creates an explosive shock often mimicked in horror films today.

In Dreyer’s films shock horror is subservient to a growing sense of dread. In a scene similar to the witch’s interrogation in Day Of Wrath, Maria Falconetti’s titular heroine in …Joan Of Arc is taken to be tortured to extract a confession from her. An accelerating montage occurs which cuts between Joan’s face, a huge spiked wheel that spins faster and faster, and the faces of her tormentors. Horror builds. We know that Joan is going to be burned at the stake, but please don’t let her be tortured.  Thankfully, she faints and is taken from torture chamber. Nothing has happened, but everything has been felt.

In Gertrud too, the true horror occurs out of sight of the camera. This time not the horror of torture, but the horror of the void that lies underneath the blank surfaces of the characters. These people are vampiric upon one another: the men all vampiric upon Gertrud’s spirit, Gertrud’s idealised notion of love vampiric upon them. Upon its release, Gertrud was poorly received by critics but if you give yourself over to its slow pacing and the deadness of the characters, you’ll come away from it feeling uncomfortable, intruded upon, soiled. What seems like a staid, realist chamber drama, is actually an impressionistic expression of the coldness of the characters’ reality. It’s a world that we don’t want to be part of, but Dreyer ensnares us.

Part of what makes Gertrud so successful is the balance between the interior lives of the characters and the world they inhabit. The characters exist in cold rooms, stylish but soulless. Ornate baroque furniture within an empty room is the perfect allegory for Gertrud’s love. By the end of the film, she has shunned all the men in her life and placed herself in an exile of her own making: a stark white house, sparse in furniture, devoid of emotion, a suitable mausoleum. This marriage of setting and character, of inside and outside, means that the director doesn’t have to rely on the actor (Nina Pens Rode) to create the sense of horror – it is exuded from everything on screen.

The precision of Dreyer’s settings is complemented by his use of lighting. His sets are frequently overlit: flashback sequences in Gertrud are set in interiors with blown-out lighting in the windows, worlds without an outside. In Vampyr, the night scenes are shot under bright, white lights. Allan Gray (Julian West) and Giséle (Rena Mandel) come across the vampire hunched over Léone (Sybille Schmitz). This use of overlit night time adds to the sense of disorientation and confusion. Similarly, harsh lighting in …Joan Of Arc blows out the details in the background, exaggerating the emotions on Falconetti’s face and transforming all of the faces into craggy landscapes.

This combination of camera, set and lighting creates in each of Dreyer’s masterpieces a hermetic world that doesn’t attempt to be continuous with the outside. Everything within the film exists within the world of the film.  An impression of realism is subverted by supernatural elements that jar with our own sensibilities. Day Of Wrath is not a film intended to make us think, ‘Aren’t they silly with their belief in witches?’. Witches exist. The pastor’s wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin) has the power of life and death; she and those around her know that she must burn for it. In Ordet, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) really is raised from the dead by Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye). In Vampyr, the undead do exist in Courtempierre. However, these supernatural elements serve to deepen Dreyer’s main focus: human drama and experience.

This combination of the supernatural and realism in Dreyer’s films presents horror in its purest form. Nameless horror, creeping dread – it doesn’t just jump out and scare us, but fills the entire screen. This is a horror that lies beneath the surface, a world of abysses and passions that threaten to destroy the people that inhabit it. Through cinematic experimentation Dreyer created works of art that are capable of producing a spectrum of nuanced emotions, enormous cathedrals that each contain a whole universe. Individually, they show us the world in a different way. As a body of work, they’re a reminder of what cinema has been, what it is capable of, and of the vast possibilities for the medium today.

The Passion Of Carl Dreyer season runs at BFI Southbank until March 23, details here. Ordet is currently on nationwide release in cinemas around the UK.

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