Carl Theodor Dreyer  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Carl Theodor Dreyer (February 3, 1889 - March 20, 1968) was a Danish film director. He is regarded as one of the greatest directors in cinema. Although his career spanned the 1910s through the 1960s, his meticulousness, dictatorial methods, idiosyncratic shooting style, and stubborn devotion to his art ensured that his output remained low. In spite of this, he produced some of the most enduring classics of international cinema.

Life and work

Dreyer was born illegitimate in Copenhagen, Denmark. His birth mother was an unmarried Swedish maid named Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, and he was put up for adoption by his birth father, Jens Christian Torp, a farmer who was his mother's employer. He spent the first two years of his life in orphanages until his adoption by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sr., and his wife, Inger Marie (nee Olsen). His adoptive parents were strict Lutherans and his childhood was largely unhappy. But he was a highly intelligent school student, who left home and formal education at the age of sixteen. He dissociated himself from his adoptive family, but their teachings were to influence the themes of many of his films.

As a young man, Dreyer worked as a journalist, but he eventually joined the film industry as a writer of title cards for silent films and subsequently of screenplays. His first attempts at film direction had limited success, and he left Denmark to work in the French film industry.

In 1928 he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Working from the transcripts of Joan's trial, he created a masterpiece of emotion that drew equally from realism and expressionism. Dreyer used private finance from Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg to make his next film as the Danish film industry was in financial ruin. Vampyr (1932) is a surreal meditation on fear. Logic gave way to mood and atmosphere in this story of a man protecting two sisters from a vampire. The movie contains many indelible images, such as the hero, played by de Gunzburg (under the screen name Julian West), dreaming of his own burial and the animal blood lust on the face of one of the sisters as she suffers under the vampire's spell. The film was shot as a silent but had dubbed dialogue added later.

Both films were box office failures, and Dreyer did not make another movie until 1943. Denmark was by now under Nazi occupation, and his Day of Wrath had as its theme the paranoia surrounding witch hunts in the sixteenth century in a strongly theocratic culture. With this work, Dreyer established the style that would mark his sound films: careful compositions, stark monochrome cinematography, and very long takes. In the more than a decade before his next full-length feature film, Dreyer made two documentaries.

In 1955, he made Ordet (The Word) based on the play of the same name by Kaj Munk. The film combines a love story with a conflict of faith.

Dreyer's last film was 1964's Gertrud. Although seen by some as a lesser film than its predecessors, it is a fitting close to Dreyer's career, as it deals with a woman who, through the tribulations of her life, never expresses regret for her choices.

The great, never finished project of Dreyer’s career was a film about Jesus. Though a manuscript was written (published 1968) the unstable economic conditions and Dreyer’s own demands of realism together with his switching engagement let it remain a dream. In return a manuscript about Medea (1965) was realised by Lars von Trier in 1988.

Dreyer died of pneumonia in Copenhagen at age 79. The documentary Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier contains reminiscences from those who knew him.

Filmography




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Carl Theodor Dreyer" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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