Danish farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) is a deeply religious man, yet recently his prayers seem to have gone unanswered. His son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), once an aspiring parson, was driven mad by the doubts and uncertainties to which his studies gave rise, and now he goes around proclaiming himself to be Jesus Christ and lamenting the fact that his family doesn’t believe in him. Although Morten has pleaded with God to restore the young man’s sanity, the situation hasn’t improved, so he’s given up hoping for a miracle. Still, his daughter-in-law, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), remains optimistic. She urges him not to stop praying. “How do you know what your prayers may have set in motion?” she asks.
Johannes’s condition isn’t the only difficulty in Morten’s life. For one thing, his son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) — Inger’s husband — has given up on religion altogether. It’s a longstanding point of contention between the two men, though Inger declares that Mikkel’s goodness outweighs his lack of faith. A third son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), creates another problem when he decides that he wants to marry Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the local tailor’s daughter. Anne’s father, Peter (Ejner Federspiel), is a fundamentalist, and Morten detests his grim religious beliefs, so different from his own conception of Christianity as “the fullness of life”; Peter, meanwhile, thinks that Morten is condemned to an eternity in hell unless he converts. Neither man is in favor of a union between their children, but when Morten hears that Anders isn’t considered good enough for Anne, he becomes determined to bring about the marriage — for the sake of his pride as much as anything else. A heated confrontation ensues, only to be interrupted by news of an even graver crisis that might push Morten’s family and his faith to their breaking points.
Ordet, released in 1955 and based on a play by Kaj Munk, is the third film I’ve seen from director Carl Theodor Dreyer, following The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932). The former is silent; the latter, in spite of its use of sound, has such sparse dialogue and strong imagery that it often seems like a silent. It was interesting to meet Dreyer again (so to speak) twenty-three years on from Vampyr, to see how his style had evolved decades into the sound era. Naturally enough, considering its source material, Ordet is dialogue-heavy, which is one major change from the earlier films; another is that the visuals are less intense than the close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc, less conspicuously artistic and striking than much of Vampyr. There’s a restraint to Ordet, though it’s not without its own memorable images, and the black and white cinematography certainly has an austere beauty to it.
Due to the look of the film, its Scandinavian setting and, above all, its themes — faith, doubt, death and other existential issues among them — I was constantly reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s work, especially The Seventh Seal (1957) and Winter Light (1963). Like many of Bergman’s characters, Morten struggles to make sense of his life, especially when God seems so remote and unresponsive. He’s a man of ideals and a strong desire to connect with the divine, but he’s also decidedly human, full of frailties, seen most clearly in his clash with Peter. Despite the fact that each man is defending his own cherished religious principles, the dispute merely serves to bring out the worst in them. In the end, it takes an act of pure, uncomplicated faith to show them what they’ve both been missing. I don’t want to say too much about the final scene, but it’s strange and surprising and beautiful and powerful and haunting, and it made me want to rewatch and reevaluate Ordet in light of what I had just seen.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.