Saturday, November 14, 2020


 Continuing the revision of the Cinema in Transit remaining translations.

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 

There was no better way of opening this Dreyer month than with the great Dane’s last film, Gertrud, shunned by the foolish in 1964 and now overwhelming on its re-release. 

Once, I saw a man weeping in a film. Only once, and I really mean weeping. It happened one Wednesday in December 1964, an hour after the start of the first public screening of Gertrud, a Danish (and quickly damned) film by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The weeper (Gabriel Lidman, a poet by profession) was sitting there on a sofa to the right of Gertrud (to our left) in a tailcoat and in good health and was making a speech about his unhappiness (at having been left by Gertrud in the past and at never having understood why). And then, there’s an odd silence, the words are halted, the naked face is convulsed, the mouth is puckered up in an ugly grimace, there’s a futile snuffling of the nose, the eyes mist over and the man whimpers in pain. The poet can no longer endure the upright position and turns his numbed body to have a good cry on the arm of the couch. The woman tells him kindly: “You’re taking it all too much to heart, Gabriel”. It is a great moment in cinema. 

So what happened? Gabriel Lidman, poet laureate and bard of love, lives in Rome. He has returned to celebrate his fiftieth birthday at home, in the best Copenhagen society, but with the only hope of seeing Gertrud again. “Gertrud, Gertrud, why did you leave me?” – this is his sole refrain. And when he actually sees her again and finally addresses her, on the tragic sofa, it is even worse than he thought. Gertrud had left him to marry Kanning, a politician with ministerial prospects, but (at the start of the film) she has just decided to leave him too. Gertrud is ready to go off with a fashionable young musician, but in the next minutes she will give him up too. She will go her way and Gabriel his, irremediably. There is indeed something to cry about. Dreyer is one of the few un-misogynistic directors (along with Mizoguchi and Renoir) who knows full well that at the decisive moment it is men who strain their eyes looking in the past, and who weep. From rage, impotence and longing. 

Dreyer was seventy-five when he was able to adapt this Swedish play by Hjalmar Söderberg. Because he was filming very little (despite an abundance of projects), he had long since entered cinema history before having ended his own (he would die in 1968). Twelve years come between Day of Wrath and Ordet and another ten before Gertrud. A difficult situation and a major injustice. The outcome is that the Paris “release” of Gertrud remains one of the great milestones in the history of critical blindness. The press, reckoning it to be a doddering film, savaged it and the audiences stayed away. The outcome was that it was very pleasant to be among those who “defended” Gertrud against the idiocy of the critical establishment. It was a time when great auteurs could still shock. Two years later it would be Ford’s turn (Seven Women) to be slated. 

What the film narrates and how the film narrates it is the same thing (when the film is good). Gertrud leads her life as Dreyer leads his film: calmly, but at breakneck speed. In love with what, in the world of men, allows her to love. Full of scathing affection for their pathetic inability to do anything else than love themselves. Always disappointed and finally proud of having finished with these male ghosts, growing old alone and surviving “when everything is over”. How to film the irremediable? How to film it all the time? This was always Dreyer’s question. How to film a world with no imaginable remedy but love for which there is no remedy? How not to engender desire (and when it comes to physical desire, Dreyer is one of the most precise directors) whose detumescence or sublimation could not be filmed face on, like Gabriel’s tears, Gertrud’s blind gaze, the cowardice of the young musician and the hoarse scream of the abandoned minister. 

Seeing again Gertrud today, or quite simply seeing it as if no one had ever seen it before, amounts to a shock. Dreyer is one of the giants of cinema. In 1964, this theatre play filmed in black and white, with its antiquated theme (Love with a capital L), its unknown, straight-laced Danish actors, looked like some quaintly old-fashioned and half-witted classic lost among the spruce new-wavery of modern cinema. Only his admirers perceived once more Dreyer’s terrifying modernity, the logical progression of forty years of cinema spent probing the bottomlessness of love, and the false bottoms of the scenographic cube, employing white as torture, and music (or else tears) as what arises when words are no longer enough. And today, at a point when this modernity is apparent to everyone, the film is still ahead of its time and fits the eighties like a glove. 

It is hard to talk about Dreyer because there is something blinding or disarming (like a Moebius strip that can’t be edited together) in his way of opening the cinema out onto an extra dimension, the dimension of thought, when time and space are reversible (read what Deleuze has to say about this in L’image-mouvement page 145*). You slide between the frame, the shot and the scene. The present is immediately the past (and Gertrud holds herself on the wave of the present, empty and ecstatic), but the past returns intact as if it had never been present; the dream is real but reality has no more weight than a reverie. The most beautiful grey-scale photography in the history of cinema lays out endless layers of light like clouds of time, and since everything is irremediable, nothing looms through them. 

A less brilliant director than Dreyer would be laborious in this layering of dimensions. In Gertrud everything is given in a single gesture. Speed and slowness, for example. Gertrud, slow? When a word, a melody, a clearing of the throat are enough to precipitate the fate of several. Gertrud, fast? When a sob, a look or a word can take an eternity to appear or alight. Are Gabriel Lidman’s tears over his fate speeded up, or are they slowed down? Both, and that’s what is beautiful. 

* Gilles Deleuze, L’image-mouvement, Editions de Minuit, 1983. [Translator's note: check page 107 of this English edition: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, 1986: “By suppressing ‘atmospheric’ perspective Dreyer produces the triumph of a properly temporal or even spiritual perspective. Flattening the third dimension, he puts two-dimensional space into an immediate relation with the affect, with a fourth and fifth dimension, Time and Spirit.”] 

First published in Libération on 12 October 1983. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.


  1. Thank you for sharing this translation! I just watched this fabulous film today!


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