Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)


The first time I saw Ordet, it was within a week of my father dying. Even though I was watching it on a small laptop screen on my bed in my parents’ house, I still found it a devastating experience, not because of any similarity to my own recent experiences but because of Dreyer’s uncanny ability to make death a vivid, living character, stalking and dancing around his actors as they cope with the hardest thing we humans have to go through. I may have been aware of it before, but watching Ordet snapped into focus the idea that what I was going through was something universal. I leapt at the opportunity to see it in a cinema when the BFI announced its season of Dreyer films, not just because it had had such an effect on me when I had seen it before, but also  to see how much of my impression of it was a product of my own grief.

To be honest though, I’m not sure it’s possible to look at Ordet entirely critically. It’s a film of such primal, heartrending emotion that to view it with a cool, detached eye would miss the point entirely. It’s a film that wants you to give into it, that demands for you to be moved for it to get its central thesis across. Death may be the way he explores it, but the subject of Ordet is faith, and you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the whole film works as an earnest exploration of Dreyer’s own particular brand of Christianity. During a crucial argument, the central family’s patriarch hisses at the head of a nearby, more puritanical church, “My faith is the warmth of life; your faith is the chill of death.”, and that, in a nutshell, is what Dreyer wants the audience to take home. Though the film is full of grief and despair, its central message is one of hope and joy, and, if the film’s ending left you in any doubt, the awesome power of a living God.

The most remarkable thing about Ordet is that it explores such grand themes in such a contained setting. The whole film is set in and around two small houses, and the large majority of it is set in just one room. This is due to the film’s roots as a play by Kaj Munk, but unlike many such play-to-films, it escapes feeling unnecessary due to Dreyer’s sense of on-screen composition. He doesn’t so much compose a shot as much as he composes the whole room, and then has his camera glide through it like a ghost.

Take the film’s final scene as an example: I don’t think we ever see all the characters in the same shot, but as the camera pans and tracks around the room, we can see how beautifully arranged it all is. If it weren’t for that steady camera movement and the extremely long shots, it wouldn’t be the same film: it lends everything an otherworldliness that allows Dreyer to make a divine presence felt without tampering with the realism of his characters and settings. In one of the film’s most pivotal moments, he needs nothing but light moving across a wall and a slow zoom to tell us what greater forces are at work.

Ordet may be a religious film through and through, but I see no reason why that would put off those who aren’t so inclined. For one, it’s an expression of faith told with honesty and passion, without a hint of the disingenuousness that defines so many religious films. More importantly, though, it’s first and foremost a film about people, fumbling through their lives and dealing with emotions they’re not sure how to handle.

My favourite shot in the whole film is one of the most brief: the Petersen family, realising they were wrong, walk up to the funeral to make amends and pay their respects, framed in an archway with a great expanse of sky at their backs. When the film’s final, climactic moment arrives, Dreyer cuts to a smiling child. God may be in the background, but the foreground is full of people, and it’s the universal human experience that Ordet wants to tap into. It ends with one character crying “Life!” I can’t think of a better word to describe what Ordet is about.

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