Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Dir. Carl Dreyer

In Carl Dreyer's Ordet a fleeting reference is made to Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish religious philosopher highly regarded as the father of existentialism. In perhaps his best known work, “Fear and Trembling”(1843), Kierkegaard grapples with the fundamental incongruity between rationality and faith. Similarly Dreyer's Ordet calls into question the relationship between the two, and whether or not a person can find satisfaction in either or in a amalgamation of the two. What he unearths is the desperate reluctance of the human soul towards the improbable (miracles) and a certain astonishing comfort in what is both rational yet extremely upsetting (death). It is a film about faith, family and love and how the the principles that bring one group of people together can drive others away. Dreyer expertly unveils how those who profess faith are often the first to lose it, and those who profess not to have it are in fact holding back an insatiable desire to believe.

I have a rather large soft spot in my heart for Scandinavian film making. The lushness of the content is harshly juxtaposed with the starkness of the physical landscape and the motif of silence. Ordet embodies these features and dives deep into the philosophy of life, death and piety towards God that made Ingmar Bergman, a contemporary of Dreyer, so greatly respected. Ordet, like Bergman's reknowned God-themed trilogy (those films, it should be noted, came out several years after Ordet) of the early sixties (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence), probes the uncomfortable landscape of faith in the modern world. Ordet features two sons: Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes himself to be the second coming of Christ, and another, Anders (Cay Kristiansen) who is initially forbidden to marry his love, Anne, by her father, Peter, because of religious differences between the two families. Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) is the family's patriarch and embodies the conflict of interest between the faithful (Johannes) and the rational like Morten's third son, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), who, despite assurances from his wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), that he is a good man, has no faith of his own. As it is in the world that exists outside the movie theater, in Ordet each person comes with their own philosophy on how life should be lived and feels crushed by the burden of trying to convince others that their way is best. Peter and Morten quarrel about whose version of Christianity is best. Morten accuses Peter of being obsessed with death while obstinately concluding that his Christianity, which focuses on the the greatness of life, is how God intended people to live. Peter's philosophy is that his humble piety here on Earth will be repaid to him in full when he rises to Heaven upon his death. It is not long before the countering faiths of the two families is put into praxis when Inger falls ill and dies after an agonizing miscarriage. In the film's final scene the two families come together, Anders is given permission to marry Anne, Peter and Morten agree that they both share an equally powerful faith, and Johannes, in one of the most memorable scenes in the history of film, commands, by the will of God, that Inger rise from the dead, which she does.

Truly believing, without any dubious skepticism, is not a terribly easy thing to do. Throughout Ordet references are made to how miracles “used to happen” but don't anymore; a reflection on the cynically logical nature of the modern age. Miracles used to occur because people could not dissociate divine intervention from scientific anomalies. In a rigorously intellectual moment in the film, the doctor that has just finished 'saving' Inger's life (she dies after he leaves) sits down to a conversation with the new local priest. The doctor poses a question to Morten about whether it was his prayers or the doctor's work that saved Inger's life. Morten responds that it was the will of God. The doctor and the priest converse about the nature of miracles versus the tangibility of hard work or as the priest calls it “ora et labora” (pray and labor). The priest, in an attempt to draw up a rational God (a natural contradiction according to the film's philosophy), finds himself in an uncomfortable contradiction stating how God can perform miracles but does not because he created the laws of nature which would be broken by the miracles most people ask for. When the doctor presses him about Jesus' miracles the priest mistakenly calls them “a special circumstance” for which the doctor mockingly lambastes him. The emphasis here is that both faith and the lack there of are painfully partial, and are a root of conflict sown amongst so many good natured people.

When Johannes resurrects the lifeless body of Inger he also resurrects the lost faith of those in the room. Before doing so he criticizes their faith calling it weak and susceptible to doubt. The joy that fills the room after the resurrection is not found often on Earth because faith as strong and true as the faith exhibited by Johannes is unfortunately deemed blasphemous by the Christian doctrine who, in order to appeal to the greatest common denominator while simultaneously repenting for its former sins (killings and injustices performed in the name of God. See: Dreyer's equally stunning The Passion of Joan of Arc), reserves the right to reject all forms of faith that are judged to be too disconnected from the scientific reasoning that the age of ready information has given birth to and which oppose the notion of a 'rational God'. A man who believes himself to be the son of God and who works miracles, or a woman convinced that she has been sent by God to cast oppressors out of her homeland, have been considered enemies of the church. The heart of Dreyer's message in Ordet is that the two: rationality and faith, are not incongruous but rely on a certain level of mutual understanding in order to exist in harmony. Ordet presents the brilliant, but simple idea that both faith and reason can both be tested but the unpredictability of life and that, in order to thrive, a person can not understand one in terms of the other (a rational God or a divine science) but hold a delicate, reciprocal respect for both.

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