Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet

2:00 AM PST 11/13/2012 by Todd McCarthy

How "The Passion of Joan of Arc" filmmaker anticipated Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" by 50 years.

Many lovers of cinema would place Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Life of Jesus among the top unmade films they most wish they could see. So Jan Wahl's Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer With the Danish Filmmaker -- with its fascinating descriptions of the director's intentions for his great dream project -- comes as one of the most welcome film books of the year. Above all, this memoir provides the special service of greatly humanizing one of the most imposing and singular of the old masters, a prolific figure during the silent era who made, among others, the startling The President in 1919 and the imperishable The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928. Wahl -- who would go on to write children's books -- was then a 21-year-old American student, invited after some correspondence to Denmark to observe production, in 1954, of the rural religious drama Ordet (which would win a Golden Globe and Venice's Golden Lion).

It was the wettest summer in memory, raining and storming nearly every day, which inordinately lengthened a shoot that was never going to be quick because of Dreyer's exacting standards and antiquated equipment. Dreyer is portrayed as charmingly, eternally imperturbable: "Time is our cross," he reflected upon yet another postponement.

The delays resulted in many genial afternoons spent over cigars and the famously strong local coffee. "There is something about coffee that soothes the Danes," observed Dreyer, "and puts them in touch with God. We become philosophical about it." Wahl benefited from these unexpected free hours with Dreyer by listening to him expound about local customs, his theories of cinema, opinions of art and artists, anecdotes about the making of his previous films and, above all, his hopes and plans for the Jesus film he so longed to make. Having already written the script and scouted locations in Israel, Dreyer, who had only ever shot in black-and-white, said he would make his Biblical film both in color and widescreen; because of the long dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, he would use very long uninterrupted takes using what he described as "the floating close-up with a constantly subjective camera." And it would be performed in Hebrew, with locals engaged to play the main roles and Italians brought in to play Romans. The notion of using Hebrew dialogue obviously anticipated Mel Gibson's strategy for The Passion of the Christ by a half-century, but it's surprising to learn one of the great Dane's other dream projects was the same as one of Gibson's, "a Technicolor Viking extravaganza that might, he hoped, sweep the world triumphantly." As for who would play Jesus: "Simple. I will recognize him when I am face-to-face with him."

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Odet
My Summer With the Danish Filmmaker
by Jan Wahl (University Press of Kentucky, 192 pages, $40)

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