#278. Ordet (1955)

In my senior year of college I knew a girl with a very similar name to the title of this movie. Too distinct to mention. She was the roommate of this woman I really liked and who, for a while, I thought was “the one that got away” – which, incidentally, has soured me on the idea of people having a soul mate, a one true love, because I’ve spent my entire life in the same 25 mile radius and in just fifteen years have been involved with three women who all struck me, at the time, as The One. If in the course of so many years, in such a small radius, I could’ve met three such people, the idea of there being a single perfect companion waiting for me somewhere out in the world seems outlandish. Cuz your mood changes, right? Day to day, maybe hour to hour. There’ll be times of the day or month or maybe whole seasons where your partner isn’t perfect for you. Then other times when they are. I think I’ve dated people who were the perfect drinking companion, or the perfect companion for discussing books or movies or life, or they made me laugh really hard or shared my values or ambitions or fears. But there were always moods where I wanted to be alone, or to share the company of somebody totally unlike them. And what if they’re the perfect spiritual or intellectual companion, but you’re not attracted to them at all. There’s just no spark.

            My understanding is that things change with time. I’ve got relatives who are pretty old and live now with companions who are essentially just that: companions. There’s no sex, and there never really was. The only intimacy is the occasional compliment and, I guess, the fact that they share a bed and most meals, they talk about their respective maladies, know each other’s bodies pretty well.

            Anyway. Ordet. It’s the third movie on the List from Carl Theodore Dreyer, who appeared be for this with The Passion of Joan of Arc (for which my friend Emma Wenzel contributed a wonderful piece) and Vampyr. I wasn’t a huge fan of either one, but they were both impressive: accomplished visuals with a distinct style that belong not just to the filmmaker but to the filmmaker’s interpretation of each particular story. (I have a feeling I’ll go back to Vampyr in a few years and like it a lot. It’s one of those movies that strikes me with a vibe like when I bite into a chicken that I haven’t cooked long enough. Vampyr seems to be waiting, like Whitman, up ahead of me.)

                        I was kinda dreading Ordet because I saw in the summary that it’s about a guy who thinks he’s Jesus and the troubled faith of two families that live in the country. Diary of a Country Priest came to mind. And I’m also still feeling fatigued from Lola Montes and Tokyo Story and Ugetsu, which I’ve watched in foolishly quick succession: long pensive movies with very little action. Ordet is Dreyer’s longest film on the List to date and, seeing as his last two movies took a lot outta me and the List has provided a succession of contemplative slowburns – I just wasn’t really up for it.

            I forced myself to sit and watch the first hour in the morning before work, though, and I liked it just fine. Wasn’t over the moon, wasn’t laughing or excited, but I noticed after a while that I wasn’t obsessively checking the time. It was holding my attention just fine. Then I had to stop, go to work, and I didn’t have the energy to finish it that night. This was a Monday. The next day, my day off from the college, turned into one of the most horribly stressful days I’ve ever spent working for the ghost writer. It was research stuff. I’d rather not get into it. Point is that it took up the whole day and, pausing an assignment at 11 PM so I could get into bed, I didn’t get to finish the movie. Then on Wednesday morning I went to Starbucks, finished up the ghost writer’s assignment, and, wanting to be productive but also feeling too zapped and upset to write or read or edit anything, I opened FilmStruck and watched the last hour or so.

            And I loved it.

            There’s a stocky bearded patriarch living here on Bergen Farm, a God-loving guy who lives with his three grown sons and his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. One of those two sons believes he’s Jesus Christ. Apparently he was perfectly fine until he went off to college, read some Kierkegaard, and then suddenly his voice dropped, he started walking at a shuffle instead of a normal stride, started blinking less often than a normal person and went around saying weird things. Religious things. Making folks uncomfortable by talking about impending misfortunes. It’s a brilliantly unsettling performance by Preben Lerdorff Rye that also makes him phenomenally punchable. He talks like a child. The way a little boy talks with a blend of wonder and pompous innocence about how other people are doing things they shouldn’t do.

            His brother is annoyed by this but his father, though disturbed, loves him anyway. Holds out faith that some day Johannes will regain his “wits.” There’s something tragic about it that, frankly, I see in my own dad. I’ll be angry about something my brother did – a flagrant lie that everybody knows is a lie but won’t confront, or he’s just outdone himself with something appallingly selfish – and he just shrugs. Says my brother will be my brother. Tells me I’ve gotta learn to live with it.

            Apoplectic, pulling at my hair and trying to make my point of how this sorta behavior shouldn’t be tolerated and we should all be so “rah rah” and righteous about it, I go on tangents and make gestures, enraging and then exhausting myself, while pop just sits there nodding, understanding, only to shrug one more time and remind me that my brother will be my brother. And that I need to learn to live with it.

            But anyway. That’s part of the dynamic in the Bergen house. Then there’s the sub-plot of Bergen’s youngest son, who’s in love with the daughter of a nearby landowner who’s super religious and doesn’t like the Borgen’s because he doesn’t think they’re religious enough. Or he thinks they’re on the wrong side of the religious fence. I’m not sure. Whenever there’s stuff about Christianity or Catholicism in one of these movies I feel completely outta my element, especially when they start touching casually on the distinctions between, say, Lutherans and Baptists. Stuff like that. Branches and sects. Whatever they’re called.

            What I understood is that religion is the basis of these two families’ clash (or, more specifically, the clash of their partriarchs) and it’s the reason why the love between Bergen’s youngest son and that other family’s daughter goes unrequited.

            There’s a lot going on, it’d be a labor to summarize and I don’t think I’d communicate the heart and soul of what’s happening anyway, so lemme just say that you, like me, are going to anticipate something about the movie’s ending as soon as you’re introduced to crazy brother Johannes, the one who thinks he’s Jesus. Something that’ll probably happen with him at the end. And you’re correct.

            What’s also stayed with me is that director C.T. Dreyer’s most distinct visual touch is the above-mentioned sparsity of his sets, their cleanliness and the potency of whitespace, and while he uses it to greater effect in Passion of Joan of Arc than in Vampyr, and thus gave me the impression that it was something he’d grow out of as his career progressed (in the way that Fritz Lang seemed to lose interest in the motif of symmetrical shots and parallel lines after Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis). But he hasn’t stopped. He’s gotten better at it, in fact, because while the sets of Joan of Arc were as sparse as the sets here, thirty years later, that movie is shot almost entirely in close-up. The sets are almost irrelevant because we’re constantly in our characters’ faces.

            The cast of Ordet is shot mostly in full, from across the room. There’s so much empty space for everybody to move around (including the cameraman) that it starts to feel like a stage play. And, as such, the drama fills that empty space.

            It’s hard to explain.

            Part of Erich Von Stroheim’s genius was said to be his attention to detail when it came to set design. He’d study a shot and get the background and foreground absolutely perfect and, from what I’ve read, people still delight in studying those designs. I’m inclined to think that a busy set is a credit to the film. Sets a more comprehensive and immersive scene.

            But Dreyer’s near-empty sets call that into question. Maybe a lot of décor and trinkets and drapery, furnishings, keeps the eye too busy to appreciate the drama.

            It was almost like reading a novel, the way that these characters just float around once the viewer’s immersed in their drama.

            When Inger Borgen, the patriarch’s daughter-in-law (played by Birgitte Federspiel), goes into a difficult labor that jeopardizes the safety of her baby and self, it suddenly became, to my surprise, one of the most immersive movies in the List’s recent slate.

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