The characters in Carl Dreyer's film Gertrud move from one beautifully photographed pose to another discussing the meaning of their lives. "Life is a long chain of dreams," the middle-class heroine Gertrud tells her young lover. "The world is an illusion" her former lover echoes. But it is not what is said that is important. It is the tone of voice and the rhythm of phrasing that are essential; blending with the pictures on the screen they produce Dreyer's hauntingly unique style.
Gertrud, which will be shown tonight as the final film in a series of Dreyer's work, is the director's last film. It culminates the style Dreyer developed in a career that spanned nearly the whole development of film technique (1919-1964) yet produced only fourteen feature-length films. Until Dreyer was honored in 1952 with the Danish government's award to its important filmmakers--the lease of a Copenhagen cinema--he suffered from a chronic lack of financing. He was apparently never able to get sufficient funds for several projects that he dreamed of--such as a production in color. The films that he was able to direct range from rather crudely made silent films to technically sophisticated films like The Word. Some are abysmal and a few are great.
Perhaps the most conspicuously unusual aspect of Gertrud is its leisurely and deliberate pace. The film tells, in a series of protracted scenes flowing slowly from one to the next, the story of Gertrud who leaves her husband Gustav because his love for her is not, she says, complete enough. "The man who I love must belong to me completely. I must come first in his life," she insists. The musician Erland to whom Gertrud turns for the perfect love she seeks disappoints her too. When she proposes going away together, he tells her about another woman who is pregnant and whom he will not abandon. Rejecting the entreaties of a former lover. Gertrud leaves the men who love her to study in Paris and live the rest of her years in solitude. The slow pace of the action, and of the camera movement, could be deadly to the unprepared spectator. But if one accepts the pace and enters into the strangely modelled world of the film, one can enjoy an austere but beautiful series of images.
Dreyer's slow pace is just one aspect of an artistic process he calls "abstraction." Though his films are conventional narratives (except several sequences involving supernatural elements and his horror film Vampyr), Dreyers shuns a naturalistic reproduction of the world. He advises a director to replace "objective reality with his own subjective interpretation." Thus the characters in Gertrud move in a slow and stylized manner into positions within the frame that are composed and lighted like 17th century Dutch paintings. The actors rarely look at one another. They inhabit rooms simplified down to a minimum of objects that suggest the milieu of the action and represent the ideas of the film. When Gertrud explains to Gustav that she is leaving him, she is sitting in front of a bas-relief of a woman. Set behind Gustav is the portrait of a man, and the two art objects are separated by bare wall and an archway.
The symbolism of the film is, and is clearly meant to be, prominent. Though the many symbols are presented heavy-handedly, their unabashed obviousness is well in keeping with the abstract style. As far back as 1925 Dreyer used such symbols in Master of the House, a fairly naturalistic household drama in which the beating of a clock with a heart-shaped pendulum suggested a wife's return to life with her family. Gertrud tells her lover Erland that she suffers from a recurring dream in which she is pursued by two dogs. When she tells him good-bye after a visit to his apartment, she stands before a desk decorated with two harmless looking china dogs. But the next day at a banquet during which Gertrud discovers that Erland has heartlessly boasted of his latest conquest, she mentions the dream again to a friend as they talk in front of a tapestry depicting beauty besieged by the hounds (photo).
As in almost all his films. Dreyer pays loving attention to faces and to gestures in Gertrud. His famous The Passion of Joan of Arc is almost entirely a study of the faces of Joan and her tormentors. "What I want to do," Dreyer writes, "is to penetrate, by way of their most subtle expressions, to the deepest thoughts of my actors. For it is these expressions which reveal the personality of a character, his unconscious feelings, the secrets hidden deep within his soul." It's a technique Bergman often uses, as John Cassavetes does in Faces. Bathed in blinding white light and shaded in deep shadows, the face of Nina Pens Rode (Gertrud) is studied gracefully, though perhaps at too great length, in her quiet confrontations with the other characters. The camera dwells also on physical gestures. Dreyer seems to sense--correctly--that they, like facial expressions, well reveal their author's state of mind.
Dreyer creates an original and visually satisfying style, but to serve what purpose? As in all his films, the moods that are developed are all-important. Beneath the mood-evoking surface dialogue and action, the real emotions play themselves out, giving the film a kinship with Rohmer's My Night at Maud's. The ideas that pervade Gertrud number among Dreyer's characteristic preoccupations. What is the power of love? What part should love play in a person's life? In contrast to his other films, Gertrud does not raise these questions in a religious context. A brief scene at the close of the film shows Gertrud, a recluse near death, telling the old friend who once encouraged her to go to Paris that she has chosen for her epitaph the phrase Amor Omnia. "There is no other life than to love," she says. And he, it seems, has turned from writing on free will to publishing a book about Racine, the dramatist of "tragedy of passion." But Gertrud is left to die alone. The final shot is of a closed door. Is some kind of perfect love to be idealized but to remain always unobtainable? Dreyer is typically ambiguous. He is interested in creating moods in which ideas are suggested, rather than in resolving the questions those ideas pose.
Throughout most of his career Dreyer hoped to make a film on the life of Jesus Christ, and he was negotiating its financing the year he died. If he had lived to make the film, it might have resolved some of the problems he raised in his other films. But probably, like Gertrud, his version of the story would have raised as many questions as it answered.