One of the challenges Friedrich Nietzsche presented to us was to reflect sincerely upon the nature of our emotional response to a miracle presented on stage. He predicts that hardly any of us will find ourselves attending sensitively to the mystery of the world, without at least seeking some “scholarly intermediary abstractions” by which to make the event credible to the critical-historical spirit of our culture (Nietzsche 1967: section 23). In the film Ordet (The Word) by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), the corpse of a young mother is returned to life through divine intervention. Audiences have variously responded with delight, confusion, mockery or annoyance to this resolution of the film’s narrative since its first screening in 1955. Most of us, as Nietzsche foretold, would like to make some sense of the miracle in Ordet, if only to accept that it was intended solely as an offence to “Socratic-critical” reason.
Ordet tells the story of a remote rural community divided by religious faith: conflict erupts between two opposed old men when their children seek permission to marry. The film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1955 and confirmed Dreyer’s reputation as one of the great artistic film directors in cinema history. But as a film with such a simple tale to tell, Ordet labours under a weighty title that translates into English directly and without remainder as “The Word”. How much of the profound resonance of that title should we attach to the simple and familiar story that the film narrates?
Since at least 1800 enlightened Christianity had struggled to make itself intellectually respectable to scientific, philological and historical inquiry. By the early 20th century, many theologians, inspired by earlier critics such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, were convinced that these attempts had failed, and had resulted in a compromised Christian faith in a corrupt and corrupting world (Barth 1959). A defiant form of theology emerged by the 1920s that declared the unquestioned centrality of “the word” as God’s address to his creation (cf., Karl Barth: 1957). Kaj Munk’s play was written in the mid-1920s, and although there is no link with the new “crisis theology” emerging in Germany, it is clear that Ordet’s miracle belongs to the European interwar years in which writers in philosophy, theology and political theory across a wide spectrum of views wrote with a sense of political urgency of the need for spiritual or messianic redemption in a world going to ruin.
The post-war world of Dreyer’s film, by contrast, had had its fill of messianic visitations. This was a world no longer characterised by melancholy longing for oceanic depths, but a traumatised world relieved to be back on shore. It would be unusual if Dreyer’s film did not reflect the changed historical circumstances, with a return to the quotidian.
Dreyer’s films return repeatedly to the investigation and interrogation of his female characters (cf. Drouzy 1982; Drum and Dale 2000) Ordet provides him the opportunity to focus on the young woman who dies and is resurrected at the end of the play. But the character of Inger represents a form of religious observance foreign to both of the views held by the quarrelling fathers. Inger embodies a form of simple faith in the domestic values of worldly love, care and decency. Bringing her character forward at the expense of the play’s holy fool Johannes, tends to undermine the play’s appeal to transcendence, and leaves Munk’s miracle untethered to the main narrative of the play which had centred on Johannes’ tortured spiritual journey.
Dreyer found in the untrained young girl who played Inger’s daughter Maren a naturally expressive face that could play the innocent child of faith alongside the unhinged Johannes. The scenes in which Maren appears stand out in a film otherwise given to long, slow takes and her final close-up helps to sell the miracle of her mother’s awakening.
But this miracle remains deeply problematic. For Inger’s return to life is not of this world. It is a mystery sent to assure us of a deeper reality beyond this world. Yet Dreyer’s film seems incapable of holding to this assurance of transcendent authority when there is wonder enough presented on screen in the earthly characters of Inger and Maren. Perhaps we need not imagine our world authored by God to find meaning, mystery, and wonder within it. Nietzsche’s challenge born of his own distinctive form of pietist sincerity becomes that of finding the spirit of mystery in our world, “a world that, as a condensation of phenomena, cannot dispense with miracles” (Nietzsche 1967: section 23).
Dreyer’s film is the second cinematic adaptation of the play written in 1925 by poet, playwright and Lutheran priest Kaj Munk (1898-1944) and first performed in 1932.1 Munk drew upon his experience as the priest in coastal Vedersø in Jutland to enliven the play with keenly observed details of village life. He evokes a world of livestock and coffee, of biscuits and pipe smoking, of promised meals of fried eel; and his play is centered, of course, on the perennial tragi-comedy of two cranky patriarchs standing in the way of the love of their children. The success of Ordet made Munk perhaps the most prominent playwright in Scandinavia in the 1930s and has apparently never been out of the performance repertoire in Denmark (Christensen: 2021). The most recent production of Ordet was performed in 2021 and streamed due to covid restrictions.
The story is simply told. The central characters live in the large independent farmhouse of Morten Borgen: his three sons, Mikkel, Johannes and Anders, his daughter-in-law and wife to Mikkel, Inger, and the couple’s two young daughters, Maren and little Inger. Johannes seems to be unhinged and like Nietzsche’s madman wanders the homestead lighting candles in daylight so as to overcome the spiritual darkness that has enveloped the world (Nietzsche 2001: Book 3, section 125). The adult Inger is the unifying figure in the family and is highly pregnant with a long-anticipated boy child. Anders is in love with Anne, the daughter of the village tailor, Peter Pedersen, and seeks Inger’s help to convince his father to accept the marriage. Morten and Peter, however, follow different forms of Lutheran devotion and are both opposed to the marriage; that is, until Morten hears of Peter’s opposition and is outraged that the village tailor could reject his son. During the following heated exchange between the two old men, Morten learns that Inger has collapsed and is in danger of losing her baby. Peter in anger declares his hope that God will “strike hard” to convince Morten of the vanity of his faith. Inger’s baby boy is aborted, and Inger subsequently dies. Johannes’ ravings now begin to make sense, for just as the family is celebrating the doctor’s achievement in saving Inger’s life, Johannes correctly foretells her death. The only character to take him seriously remains Inger’s child Maren. Yet ironically, it is her childlike faith that sends him into crisis, because her expectations are unambiguous and demanding. Of course, he cannot directly revive Inger as he had promised, and he vanishes from the story leaving a note at his bedroom window while funeral preparations for Inger are made. At the last moment before Inger’s coffin is closed Johannes returns clear-eyed and empathetically rational. At the renewed demands of Maren, Johannes successfully asks God to return Inger to life. The Word of God has demonstrably returned the community from its petty divisions to the one true faith in “the God of old – the God Elijah – eternal and the same”.
Many readings of the story favour the Borgen family’s celebration of life over the tailor’s more ascetic and resentful faith. Borgen’s faith aligns with one of the truly transformational figures in Danish cultural history, poet, norse mythologist, hymnist, theologian and priest N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). His portrait dominates the Borgen parlour. Grundtvig wagered that a happy and educated peasantry would joyfully embrace the faith. Peter’s notion of a divine miracle in contrast is terrible, calling for the death of the beloved Inger solely to convince her father-in-law of the error of his beliefs. The confessional bible readings in Peter’s home, while introducing the village poor to literate self-expression, centre on confessions of worthlessness before the word of God, and joy at the miraculous but wretched heeding of this call. A faith based upon accepting our personal worthlessness in the absence of Lord Jesus is likely to result simply in resentment and anger towards oneself and others. Peter’s parlour displays the portrait of Vilhelm Beck (1829-1901) who proved to be an effective leader of the more austere tendencies of Danish pietism which came together in the Indre Mission (The Home Mission) after 1860.
Nonetheless, Peter shows some self-awareness in his comic exchange with his wife about the material benefits of a marital link with the Borgen family. And what are the gatherings in Peter’s home of the village poor but rudimentary attempts to make sense of their situation by finding expression for this in the words of scripture? Contemporary readings perhaps assume an accommodation of Grundtvig’s church with modern social democratic Denmark, whereas Munk’s intention is surely to remind both sides of the dispute of overriding call of a loving God.
Morten, after all, despite his theology of affirmation, is a melancholic soul, seemingly defeated by life. When he accuses Peter of holding to a faith of ascetic constraint and misery, whereas his own is a “seven days a week thankful celebration of life”, Peter replies quite reasonably, then “why are you always so miserable?” For Morten’s conflict with Peter is matched by his estrangement from his own sons, and central to the drama is his son Johannes, a figure akin to the character of Brand in the Henrik Ibsen play of 1865. The mission of characters like Brand and Johannes was, in Brand’s words, “to uphold truths long forgotten by the world, eternal truths…” (Ibsen 2016: Act 1; Scene 1). With Johannes as the central character the play becomes a masculine struggle between the men of the family, and between Morten and Peter the tailor. Inger’s character seems little more than a foil, which allows Johannes to resolve the issue and unite the families with his demonstration of the majestic power of God.
At the age of 45 Kaj Munk became a martyr in the cause of Danish resistance to Nazi Occupation (Thompson 1944: 126). Despite repeated warnings, he had continued to sermonize that in the Nazi occupation of Denmark something had happened. Like his miracle on stage, an event had occurred which called for a serious response from all Danes rather than “business as usual”. Early one morning in January of 1944, his body was found dumped by the side of the road towards Aarhus. Munk had taken a pessimistic view of modern democracy, convinced that it could never provide the kind of moral leadership that he thought essential to modern life. He was not a political theorist, but he did admire, and even correspond with, the newly installed leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini. (Arestad 1954: 157). Democratic values of open discussion and its rejection of any authority outside the space of reasoned argument clashed with a traditional sense of speech as authoritative because it was ultimately of divine origin: the Word. Democratic politics seemed to be a principle in search of a grounding principle, endless discussion without ultimate consequence.
Munk’s doubts concerning modern democracy pose questions such as how we can be sure in our everyday lives that we have not been seduced by self-interest; that we are not blind to problems that we may in fact be party to; can we even be sure that we are not negligent in the face of radical evil? Munk was to realise that this problem was not confined to modern democracy, and he faced his situation with the great courage. Many in the Danish audience for the first screenings of Ordet would presumably have had living memories of Munk’s assassination.
Dreyer himself claimed to be most happy in filming Ordet when he felt close to Munk’s intentions (Dreyer 1969: 143). Yet Munk’s Ordet is fundamentally about the authority of the loving word of God. Everything else affecting the community follows from this. By contrast, Dreyer thought that Ordet was about intolerance (Ibid: 145). This can, of course, be reconciled with Munk’s view, but the film at least allows for a quite different emphasis.
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet
Robin Wood speaks for many with his summary response to Dreyer’s films as “admiration without affection”, and his final judgement even omits the admiration:
“In Dreyer free expression is progressively stifled and development in the true sense becomes impossible. One sees more clearly, perhaps, why the sustaining of religious faith was as essential for Dreyer as its casting off was for Bergman. Dreyer’s God is a god of ‘Thou shalt not’, and his cinema, for all its extraordinary distinction, is essentially death-oriented” (Wood 1974: 17).
The preference of post-war welfare state audiences for the more prolific investigation of Bergman’s anxieties over Dreyer’s merits further study, but Bergman had a more oppressive religious upbringing to cast off than did Dreyer. Moreover, Wood’s assessment of Dreyer’s films seems quite perverse in relation to the film Ordet. At the very least it signals a refusal to engage with a film whose closing words are “Yes, life - life, life….”
Nonetheless, from the early scenes of the unhinged Johannes passing under a clothes line of flapping white linen on his lonely walk over the dunes to preach to the winds, through to the final scene of the miraculously resurrected Inger, Ordet subjects its audience to long takes created by slowly paced horizontal gliding movements of the camera. These languid takes seem to mimic a theatre audience slowly absorbing the events on stage, except of course that the attention of the audience is tightly directed by Dreyer’s use of the camera. But they are punctuated by a handful of scenes in which Dreyer returns to conventional editing techniques, when in David Bordwell’s terms, narrative intelligibility returns to the film (Bordwell 1981: 170). These scenes, as shown below, are overwhelmingly those in which young Maren appears.
Wood’s view of Dreyer’s stifling religious faith can be set against other critics’ disappointment that Dreyer does not hold more consistently to a religious imaginary. Screen writer and director Paul Schrader has argued for the existence in cinema history of a transcultural “transcendental style”, evident in the films of the great directors Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. But Schrader reluctantly concludes that of the three, Dreyer fails to live up to the demands of this style, which Schrader claims are absolute: to pursue the transcendent the director must be willing to go all the way. Schrader sadly admits that “it is as if Dreyer carefully sets the viewer up for the Transcendent, then reveals the immanent” (Schrader 1972: 136). In agreement, but more positively, Gilles Deleuze notes that Dreyer is one of those artists with the ability to “enrich dialogue with a religious, metaphysical or scientific content, while still keeping it as the most everyday and trivial determination” (Deleuze 1989: 71).
In Ordet, the clearest evidence of Dreyer’s lack of commitment to Schrader’s sense of “Transcendence” can be traced to his elevation of Inger over the tormented Johannes. Dreyer diminishes the character of Johannes to such an extent that one reviewer declares that he has become a caricature, “in no way resembling the figure conceived by Munk” (Trolle 1955/6: 127). In place of an elaborate backstory which links Johannes’ in advance to the miracle, Dreyer explains Johannes’ insanity in an off-hand manner. Following the new priest’s comic perplexity at his encounter with Johannes, Mikkel explains that Johannes’ insanity was the result of reading too much Kierkegaard. And Dreyer, intentionally or not, accentuated Johannes’ marginality in the film by having his reluctant actor speak in a high-pitched and distracted manner. The performance was greeted very poorly by critics. Interviewed for the documentary on Dreyer, My Metier, Preben Lerdorff Rye indicated the difficulty of learning to speak in this way (Criterion: 1995).
Dreyer’s elevation of Inger provides an alternative view of the community divisions and the miracle which overcomes them. The real division is not between the old men Morten and Peter, Grundtvig and Beck, nor between Morten and his estranged sons. It is between Inger’s simple belief in the miracles of everyday life and the theology of the living death the men in the drama espouse. Life for the men in the Borgen household without Inger would be truly unliveable. This view is confirmed by a third portrait displayed in the film. The portrait of Morten’s deceased wife Maren also hangs in the Borgen parlour. Generally unnoticed by critics, this is the only portrait to which Dreyer draws our close attention. Inger and Morten discuss life and love with Grandmother Maren’s portrait between them. Inger over-reaches in trying to get Morten to appreciate the young lovers’ needs by declaring he knows nothing of love and describing his marriage as little more than a “farmer’s contract”. Morten calmly dismisses the claim with his reply that Inger could know nothing about his relationship with his deceased wife.
Prior to her ordeal, Inger gently mocks the foibles of the Borgen males with her comments such as “and they say miracles can’t happen anymore…” And she is on stronger ground with Morten when she follows him to the pig stall and declares her simple faith in the moments of grace that attend the family every day:
“Do you know what I think? I think that many small miracles are taking place in secret all around us….”
Immediately following this statement, Morten’s despondency is lifted when Inger suggests that together they collect little Maren and little Inger from school. Morten suddenly seems genuinely happy. His grandchildren are the miracles that populate Morten’s daily rounds while he vainly longs for transcendent confirmation.
Inger is not the subject of judicial or theological investigation, as are many of Dreyer’s female characters. She is absolutely the unifying, empathetic and loving character of Ordet (cf.Carney 1989). But in the medical intervention which initially saves her life we are to feel Christianity’s doctrine of redemption in suffering and sacrifice. We witness in the determined muscular movements of the doctor, in the facial expressions of Mikkel and the suffering face of Inger a scene memorably described by Sitney as “the most brutal scene I know in the history of art” (Sitney 1990: 56). The scene is devastating not for what is shown but in our realisation of what is happening: we see a lance; we see surgical scissors and we hear each crunch of the cuts being made. At the end of her ordeal her longed-for boy lies in four pieces in the laundry bucket, as Mikkel bitterly and crushingly informs his father. (Sitney notes that reference to the details of the operation were deleted from the English subtitles for the first American version of the film).
In the play, the medical procedure occurs off-stage and is relayed to the audience conversationally. Dreyer insisted that his film had to include the scene, simply because of the nature of the cinematic medium. But this doesn’t seem to follow. Rather, it seems that Inger’s character needed to be linked in some way to the miracle. Perhaps with Johannes’ role diminished, Dreyer felt that Inger had to be purified, to be redeemed through suffering and sacrifice so as to carry the weight, or to become worthy of the miracle.
Dreyer’s filmmaking may be read as an anxious interrogation of the cinematic art form conducted in gendered terms through his female characters. The enduring images of his later films are intimate close-ups of the female face confronting eternity with resignation and acceptance: a woman accepting that she has been condemned to the flames (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928; Vredens Dag/Day of Wrath 1943), or that her soul has been lost to vampirism (Vampyr 1932), or that her life is to be lived out in loneliness (Gertrud 1964). Ordet, by contrast, closes with the all-too sensual embrace of the risen Inger with her husband Mikkel, and the close-up of Maren’s smile. Inger’s spirit prevails over the film, and this is in large part due to a “lighter element” in the film provided by her daughter Maren.
For David Bordwell, Dreyer’s concern for the artistic value of cinema meant that his films display a kind of avant garde reluctance to address his audience. Dreyer’s films tend to be “contradictory, illegible and unconsumable as film products” because his “stylistic forces are at such odds with narrative structure that the films are always hovering on the brink of unintelligibility or vacuity”. Dreyer’s film making “refuses to be cinema as normally conceived and consumed” (Bordwell 1981: 65) After a wonderfully detailed scene-by-scene examination of all of Dreyer’s films, Bordwell concludes that they are almost unintelligible. Framing a response to Dreyer’s films in terms of their intelligibility seems an extraordinary leap and invites further discussion of Bordwell’s formalist and cognitivist presuppositions. In any case, it seems to background how Dreyer’s distinctive form of filmmaking manages to work upon us. One way the films do this, of course, draws upon Dreyer’s obsession with the expressive nature of the human face.
For Dreyer, the significance of the natural expressiveness of the human face on film was its fulfilment of the pietist, romanticist aesthetic quest for sincerity, inwardness and spontaneity. The goal of Dreyer’s cinema would be the exploration of the inner psychological world of his actors. Cinema must aim to represent inner life rather than outer, to get away from naturalism to abstraction, to portray not just visual but spiritual experience.
For Dreyer, the wordless face reveals a person’s soul. Film could register the smallest change of facial expression (especially given his visceral disdain for make-up). He embraced the pietist and romanticist aim of acting without performing, being without pretending. Dividing actors into those who acted from within according to their own emotional constitution and those who regarded acting as a technique-driven form of mimicry, Dreyer preferred the former (Dreyer 1973: 65-66). And most significantly for Dreyer, amateurs often carried the most appropriate emotional charge for a role. Without technical training an amateur “can act with his own bare face and we will believe him, because facial expressions, features, posture, walk and gestures are determined from within” (Ibid: 1973: 70).
There is nothing in the world that can be compared to the human face. It is a land one never becomes tired of exploring, a land with a beauty of its own, whether rough or gentle. There is no greater experience than that of witnessing, in the studio, the expression in a sensitive face becoming animated from within and, under the mysterious power of inspiration, growing into poetry (Dreyer 1973: 186).
In Ordet Dreyer and his cinematographer Henning Bendtsen found this poetry in the face of the character of young Maren Borgen.
“Thank you, little Ann Elisabeth, for the light you shone in to the film Ordet. Thank you for giving young Maren your child’s soul, your warm smile, your bright eyes and the freckles on your nose.”
“Dearest little Maren, your smile gave us much joy. So, thank you from the three of us working behind the black cloth”.
Henning Bendtsen (cinematographer). 2
In 1954, a nine-year-old schoolgirl in Funen wrote in her neatest handwriting to the most celebrated film director in Denmark, to apply for a part in his upcoming film Ordet. This would be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first feature film since Day of Wrath which had been made under German occupation in 1943,3 and his new film was highly anticipated. Following her hopeful letter, Ann Elisabeth Groth would be selected by Dreyer for his film. She had no acting experience, no training and no Jutland accent, which Dreyer considered essential for the credibility of other cast members. Dreyer even called upon the family home to overcome the resistance of her father and grandmother to her participation in the film. Her inexperience is on open display on screen: her first appearance on camera begins with a quickly suppressed smile upon seeing her mother Edith watching from behind the camera. Yet Ann Elisabeth would become central to two of the most extraordinary scenes in the film. Dreyer discovered that he had selected a child with an irrepressible smile and he would take full advantage of the gift.
Although Maren’s role has eluded some critics and reviewers. (Mark Nash rashly declares “there are no children in a Dreyer film” (1977: 34)), the scenes in which she features have certainly attracted critical attention. Sitney describes the rotating camera scene of Maren and Johannes as so strange “it seems as if they are on the dolly with the camera”, and “there is no other shot like this in the film” (Sitney 1990: 68). Jonathan Rosenbaum declares the scene to be “the true miracle” of the film (Rosenbaum 2021). David Bordwell helps to demystify the technical aspect of the scene by explaining that the camera pans against the direction of movement of the crab dolly which is slowly arcing around the actors – “an unusual camera movement…[intended to]…unfold a complete chamber space” (Bordwell 1981: 63). Bordwell avoids the hyperbole of “miracle”, but still describes the “explosive” effect this scene has due to its abrupt change from the slow horizontal camera pans of the rest of the film (Ibid: 166) In this scene the film seems to breathe at last.
The scene disrupts the rhythm of the film and could irresistibly be described as the pivotal moment in the drama. The outcome of the scene is that Maren’s unique and unquestioning belief precipitates Johannes’ final crisis. Her naïve but demanding faith places an unambiguous requirement upon him to fulfil his promise to return her mother to life. A mother in heaven is no consolation for a child. After failing to revive Inger, Johannes disappears from the film until he returns in the final scenes mercifully restored to empathetic sanity. The child actor’s extended verbal delivery and interaction with the character of Johannes richly repaid the intricate preparation that Dreyer and cinematographer Bendtsen had invested in the scene. In Maren’s company, Johannes becomes human.
In the final scenes Johannes returns to Inger’s funeral now quite clear-eyed and sensible of his family’s grief. Maren once again joins him to encourage the miracle he has promised. Taking heart from Maren, Johannes simply asks for God’s intervention. As Inger’s fingers begin to move indicating her return to life, the character of Maren mediates an audience response for Dreyer. The girl appears to be the first audience Dreyer needs to convince, and it is Maren’s faith that makes a claim on us. The child’s unmediated emotional response is the reality Dreyer is after, culminating in the close-up of Maren’s smile at the movement of Inger’s body. Dreyer’s child actor remembers that her smile at that moment was unscripted in that she was not explicitly instructed how to react, but she recalls that Johannes squeezed her hand to signal for her the exact moment to attend to Inger’s lifeless hands and body coming to life. There was surely a compact between director, cinematographer and actor to solicit some spontaneous reaction from Maren.
The complete resurrection scene from 'Ordet' (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1955). Clip: Danish Film Institute.
Here is the only instance in the film that “isolates a detail of the previous shot”, the only conventional close-up in the film. Sitney cites Maren’s scene as a demonstration of Dreyer’s abstractionism, and also enjoys himself referencing miracles and resurrections in his own appreciation of Dreyer’s direction:
…Dreyer has engineered a cinematic miracle of his own: he has succeeded in 1955 in making the most elementary of cinematic tropes, the close up, have the overwhelming emotional force it is said to have had in the work of G. W. Griffith…he somehow managed to ‘resurrect’ it…long after it had lost its vitality” (Sitney 1990: 71).
Vladimir Petric discusses Dreyer’s method of “abstraction” as designed to bring the audience into a ‘hypnotic’ state of mind; and notes that in “Maren’s smiling face…Dreyer interpolates this ‘light’ element within the dark atmosphere of the scene in a manner which ‘the spectator will believe in’” (Petric 1974-5: 110-11). In Bordwell’s terms, the film begins to make sense at the moment in which natural explanation seems to fall apart (Bordwell 1981: 167).
In extraordinary contrast with Dreyer’s masterful silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) which relates Joan of Arc’s trial entirely in facial close-ups, the only prominent close-up in Ordet is of Maren’s smile in responding to her mother’s return to life. The miracle of Ordet is given to us indirectly through the eyes of the child. Her face testifies to the resurrection. If we propose that the miracle is no longer tied to Johannes’ spiritual journey and resolution, it seems to reduce the miracle to a technical challenge in film-making, an opportunity for Dreyer to exercise his renowned ability “to make the uncanny palpable” on screen, in effect to “hypnotise” his audience into acceptance (White 1989: 24-26). But perhaps for Dreyer and for us the true miracle lies elsewhere than in the exceptional event of a corpse returning to life.
What has the miracle achieved? The marriage of Anders and Anne has already been accepted by Peter and Morten. Inger’s death has already shown Peter that he had behaved badly towards Morten. The miracle seems to float free of the story. Mikkel has returned to the faith, but it is Inger’s simple faith in life, not the faith of his father searching for a spark to light the world, nor the faith of renunciation of the village tailor.
Mikkel: Now life is beginning for us.
Inger: Yes, life – life, life.
The Miraculous Word
In Dreyer’s film Ordet the main characters of Johannes and Inger present us with a contrast between a view of the masculine “word” as the incomprehensible event displaying God’s power to intervene in the world, on the one hand, and the “word” as already infused in everyday domesticity and human relationships. For Kierkegaard this latter view was a return to paganism, and clearly displayed in the theology of Grundtvig (Kierkegaard 2009: 21-39). And the contrast is reflected in both biblical studies and in political thought.
Dreyer’s films operate at the intersection of Lutheran pietism and late modernity. In the rallying, militant letters of the apostle Paul we recognise the animating spirit of the theology of Ordet. To be justified in faith is to be set free of the (Judaic) past. But the title of “the word” and the name of the character Johannes bring immediately to mind the Gospel of John which declares the world to be in darkness and to be reveling in its wretchedness, in desperate need of salvation. “I am come that they may have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10: 10). And in the thunderclap of the Prologue’s opening passage, “In the beginning was the Word”, the miracle of language is deployed in the momentous association of the creation event of Genesis with the incarnation event of the New Testament.
The Prologue’s call upon Greek logos represented an enormous concession by Christian theology to Hellenic philosophy. This association set the western tradition the task of reconciling the Greek principle of order permeating the universe (logos), with the Judaic Word (dabhar) which carries rather the sense of an action of personal commitment and communal destiny. Boman speaks of the great gulf that separates these notions, hidden beneath the one “word” (Boman 1970: 17). This extraordinarily fecund ambiguity lies at the heart of centuries of scholarly debate: the “word” signifying at once the objective natural order of creation and the “word” as the exceptional event of God’s personal address and promise to the world.
According to theologian Elizabeth Johnson, however, the Prologue’s celebration of the Word was a relatively late amendment to the original Gospel. For the Prologue was originally a hymn to Wisdom (Sophia), a feminine principle of divinity. Jan Pelikan cites Proverbs 8:22-31 for passages which clearly align Wisdom with the creative power at the beginning of creation (Pelikan 1985: 62). Johnson depicts Wisdom as concerned with the mundane tasks of care, maintenance, generosity and hospitality. The Word, by contrast, bears a profound paradoxical charge, emphasizing a unique once-and-for-all event, the tangential touch of a divinity standing aloof from his creation. In the world of Wisdom literature, religious experience pertains to the non-heroic moments in our striving to be just and decent people. Johnson could well be describing here Dreyer’s character of Inger in Ordet (Johnson 1992: 86-100).
The contrast could be further pursued in the differing evental politics of such writers as Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt, both of whom consider the miracle a mark of political realism. Schmitt famously celebrated the notion of a miracle as the theological equivalent of the political exception, which he characterised as the power of “real life breaking through the crust of a mechanism become torpid by repetition” (Schmitt 1985: 15). Parliamentary torpor had to be energised and given direction by a-rational, vitalist, authoritarian decisionism. Schmitt’s view reminds us that notions such as “the word”, “miracle”, and the “exception”, are unifying exactly to the extent that they enforce exclusion and division. In Luther’s terms, the word is to set the world against itself. Schmitt’s sovereign decision acts to define an enemy while identifying one’s friends. At the very moment that the word provides identity and social bonding, it creates conflict, disharmony and intolerance.
By contrast, Hannah Arendt writes in the 1950s that the very suggestion of a supernatural miracle would be incomprehensible without our everyday experience of miraculous events. “It is not superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect ‘miracles’ in the political realm.” (Arendt 1977: 169). We must live in some way in expectation of the unexpected. Schmitt’s miracle was of the sovereign word forming the world and giving it order; Arendt celebrates the rather pagan notion of miracle as lodged in free human action directed towards preserving a world which would otherwise run to ruin (Arendt 1998: 247).
The resurrection of Christ demonstrated to his followers that death is not the end. Liberal theology attempted to divert our attention from an actual historical event to a more spiritual sense of rebirth. Yet, any production of the play Ordet which attempts to spiritualise or rationalise the miracle in this way is greeted with accusations of betrayal to Munk’s intentions. According to Christensen (Christensen 2021), a 2008 production of the play offended many by placing Inger’s return to life in a dreamlike state: as the family united in wonderment, Inger’s spectral figure wandered silently off stage. For many this was a betrayal of Munk’s intentions. Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig described such attempts to explain away miracle as a confession of embarrassment (Rosenzweig 1985: Introduction).
Of course, for secular thinkers the notion of a miracle is a sure sign of intellectual embarrassment, a surrender to magical thinking. Such a view is clearly expressed by Richard Dawkins, precisely confirming Nietzsche’s view of modern secular thought:
The more we can get away from miracles, major improbabilities, fantastic coincidences, large chance events, and the more thoroughly we can break large chance events up into a cumulative series of small chance events, the more satisfying to rational minds our explanations will be” (Dawkins 2006: 141).
Dawkins is admittedly here engaged in a polemical struggle against “letting God back in” after centuries of scientific endeavour to do away with magical causality. But it is not only cultural conservatives like Ludwig Wittgenstein who find such accounts of science “sending us to sleep” when we need to “awaken to wonder” (Wittgenstein 1980: 5). Science itself, seems to have left Dawkins’ view behind, having shown our world to be astoundingly more complex than his polemic suggests. This is no submission to magical thinking but a recognition that complex and emergent processes require level-specific rather than bottom-up explanations. Dawkins’ polemic against miracles in such a world suggests a residual and comforting providential view of the world, as evidenced by the fringe Australian politician who recently declared that there is no “empirical evidence” for climate change (Readfearn 2016). Dawkins would certainly object to being associated with such a willful blindness to reality, but his own view of the genetic blueprint for life has aroused scientific resistance in favour of explanations “more satisfying to rational minds”. His account of genetic determination is in one way perversely akin to the notion of the creative word, a view argued for instance by fellow biologist Denis Noble (Noble 2017: 131). The notion of the word betrays a deep-seated presumption that creation is an unfolding of a purpose set down at the beginning of time. For Dawkins who would vehemently reject such a teleology, the world is best understood at the lowest levels of explanation. In either case, however, the implicit suggestion is that the possibilities latent in our situation are structured by our beginnings, either in God’s plan for us or in our genetic code.
In this regard, Dreyer himself suggested a new interpretation of his film’s miracle, in remarks which Deleuze seized upon in scattered comments throughout his two-volume work on cinema (Deleuze 2002; 2005). When asked in an interview about the miracle, Dreyer responded by declaring that much had changed since the play’s first performance:
The new science that followed Einstein’s theory of relativity had presented evidence that, outside the three-dimensional world that we can sense with our senses, there is both a fourth dimension – the dimension of time – and a fifth dimension – the dimension of the psychical. It was demonstrated as possible to experience occurrences that have not yet taken place. New perspectives were opened that make us realise a deep connection between exact science and intuitive religion. The new science brings us closer to a deeper understanding of the divine and is well on its way to giving a natural explanation for supernatural things” (Dreyer 1973: 164).
This explanation reads immediately as an admission of embarrassment. Surely, we cannot accept that quantum physics has justified “intuitive religion”. But Dreyer’s acknowledgement of the new science (led in very large part of course by his compatriot Niels Bohr) can be shown to run deeper. Physics since Einstein, Dreyer may be read as suggesting, has given us new conceptions of matter in terms of forces and energies rather than substances in need of an animating spiritual word; of complex and random processes rather than predictable states; of a natural world characterised by volatility and complexity rather than dead immobility. At the quantum level the world is far more interesting and mysterious than any medieval mystic or Lutheran scholar could have imagined. In Dreyer’s lifetime modern evolutionary and physical sciences were depicting a world of purely natural processes consisting of deep regularities and random chance events, which acted to produce complex and multifarious variety, including astoundingly, our own human intelligence, imagination and creativity. This view was at the very least challenging for a traditional view that only a teleological world is worthy of enchantment, that value resides only within a world following a pre-ordained script authored by a transcendent being.
For Denis Noble, spirituality registers in this world as no more and no less than human purposive creativity and imagination (Noble 2017: 247). Perhaps Dreyer in his film making practice would have agreed. The history of Dreyer’s filmmaking indicates an artist in life-long struggle with his personal demons, with his culture and with the new artistic medium of cinema. Ultimately, he was concerned with what cinema could achieve in the future: for there is a world reachable by cinema in the realm of the imagination, far beyond the greyness and tedium of photographic naturalism (Dreyer 1973: 186). Deleuze, paraphrasing Dreyer’s assertion about the dimensions of time and the psychical, comments that the film maker in effect “puts two-dimensional space into immediate relation with the affect, with a fourth and fifth dimension, Time and Spirit” (Deleuze 1986: 107).
By minimising extraneous elements in a scene by a process of “abstraction” and by use of close-ups of an actor’s face, Dreyer thought that cinema could move from the dull realm of outer reality to the spiritually rich world of inner psychological reality, the realm of human imagination, a realm traditionally associated with the spiritual range and depth of the literary word.
Film as it is today is not perfect. For this, we should be grateful, because in the imperfect there is continuing development. The imperfect is alive. The perfect is dead, set aside, we give it little attention. But in the imperfect a thousand possibilities break through” (Dreyer 1973: 176).
Cinema, it is often said, is an art form born of the machine age, the only art form that did not evolve from religious ritual. The visual and audio reproduction technologies of the 19th century, which directly preceded cinema, had confirmed that human sensory organs were not sacred mediators of divine truth, but were themselves complex machines with their own limitations and ranges of competence (Hankins and Silverman 1995: 159ff).4 Dreyer opposed the boring naturalism of early photographic capture to the human world of the imagination. His cinema was an exploration of the possibility that cinema itself could open new dimensions of thought. His appeal to science reminds us that this old-fashioned director was a thoroughly modern man: he could insist against his critics that “one has to be cautious in talking about old-fashioned and modern rhythm, for the old fashioned one can under certain circumstances be the most modern” (Dreyer 1973: 167).
Authority and Intolerance
“When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope?” Mann (1999: 534).
Munk and Dreyer could agree that the play was a celebration of the victory of a humane and open Christianity over the hypocritical and divisive Christianity of Peter the tailor. Dreyer in interview referred to a nationally scandalous case of a fishing village in Jutland grieving at the funeral of thirty of their men drowned in a storm at sea. The local Indre Mission priest declared that their men would have been saved if they had genuinely believed in the grace of God (Dreyer 1969: 144). But isn’t there a problem for both Munk and Dreyer here? Isn’t this message of faith and strong belief the overt message of the miracle in Ordet itself? The play concludes that there is a transcultural sense of transcendence that is to override finite community forms of identity and worldly attachments.
Traditionally the source of meaning and value in our lives has relied upon the persistent view that someone or something is talking to us from beyond our everyday concerns. We have a duty to attend to the call, to heed its promise, to attune ourselves to this transcendent reality. We remain vulnerable to an intellectual tendency to regard the real world as illusory, confused and superficial, as deriving any value it may have from a transcendent realm of objective, eternal and pure forms. From Plato to Dawkins, we have tried to decipher the nature of the story we are acting out, as if our narrative has been set down for us in advance. Victims of intolerance and oppression struggle to be heard, but the word that is required to fully express their situation is itself struggling to be born; it is neither written in our stars, nor in our genes. To deny this in the cause of a realm of eternal truths is to turn away from an injustice.
The notion of a miracle confronts us with the question of what we can hope for in this world; how is it that something new enters the world; is a miracle signalled in a purely subjective reorientation to the world, a question of the strength of faith and belief; what value can we place in our everyday commitments, attachments and relationships – are these reliant upon external sanction and approval to keep them from collapsing into self-serving satisfaction with our lot in life? These were certainly very real issues in the 1920s when Munk wrote the play and his miracle seems to provide an unequivocal answer: the word of God is eternal, as constant as the old religion upon which the old men can now agree.
By contrast, the turn towards immanence is a choice for the world, a choice to live in a different way in this world and a belief in the possibilities of life. But questions remain: how can we be sure we are not accommodating ourselves to an unjust stabilisation of worldly interests and forces: Lyotard suggests that naïve secular “believers” place too much faith in the “smile” drawn upon bare matter and energy in our remote corner of the universe (Lyotard 1991: 10-11). In a broad sense this is Munk’s challenge to contemporary democracy. We need Munk’s courage; not, however, to stand up for an eternal truth against a wavering and unreliable world, but simply to live justly and without resentment in a world of uncertainty, complexity, fragility and risk.
Our situation requires both that we become sensitive listeners to new voices, while recognising that our problems are real, urgent and in need of decisive attention. The notion of original sin is regarded by Carl Schmitt as the necessary starting point for any realistic political philosophy. His pessimism is an authoritarian indulgence that we cannot afford. But nor can we afford magical thinking, for there will be no messianic miracle, nor any miraculous conversion in which human nature is realigned with divine purpose or the aim of social solidarity. Whatever our religious beliefs, God will not save us. Even Arendt’s notion of free human action operates in the realm of magical thinking unless it can be supplemented with consideration of the nature of the kinds of decision-making structures and mechanisms that will enable and channel such actions. Her post-war writings, however, at least alert us to the need to take responsibility for this world and to the idea that the world can be a better place through our agency. Some of our problems have lately become existential for our species; confidence with Arendt in our “capacity for building, preserving and caring for a world that can survive us” (Arendt 1977: 95) is beginning to waver. Just as a hundred years ago, empty words, manipulation and self-interest cruel our public attempts to address the urgency of these problems. But we must at least strive to own these problems, to acknowledge our responsibility to the world, to “believe in this world” (Deleuze 1989: 171).
We know that human communities historically have been overwhelmed by the problems that beset them. Such communities have in Arendt’s terms naturally gone to ruin; have shown themselves incapable of addressing their real problems imaginatively and effectively. But there are occasions in which human beings act together in ways which are surprising, ennobling, and inspiring: moments in which day-to-day concerns are set aside for a common purpose; or acts of resistance, experimentation or kindness that require moral courage in the face of social convention and complacency. The recognition and celebration of such moments does not require our subjection to inert paradoxes such as Derrida’s celebration of the messianic justice that never arrives, nor the obscure “politics of the impossible”. Our hope resides not in transcendent moments of grace and deliverance, but in “the seed which splits open the paving-stones, […] which bears witness to life, in this world as it is” (Deleuze 1989: 173).
“…and after the fire, a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12)
The biblical origins of the Judaic spiritualisation of divinity lie in the triumph of the word over violence in the words of the prophet Elijah, who witnessed a hidden God no longer revealing himself in the violent forces of nature, but speaking directly and personally in a still small voice, like that of a child. The majesty of the invisible God is evident to his creation only in the soft whisper of the word. The word gave the prophets assurance that something new was possible in the world. But the figure of the child represents simply a promise, with care and nurturing, of what may be. The film Ordet became for Dreyer an expression of hope in the future. It was, he tells us, his most harmonious creation. Maren’s scenes indicate the film has moved us forward from the political vision which prompted a longing for transcendent truth, to a more hopeful world emerging from the apocalypse of genocidal war. For a moment it seemed the world could look forward to a brighter future. For that moment Dreyer found that future in Maren’s smile.
Postscript: Ordet at the Workers’ Educational Association in Sydney
In central Sydney on a chilly autumn evening in the early 1980s a mother with her two young children attended a screening of Ordet. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Sydney at the time held regular screenings of cinema classics for the voluntary entrance of a silver coin donation. The audience for these screenings included students and cinephiles, but also a number of the city’s homeless who could at least sit out of the cold with a hot cup of tea and biscuits and a nap for the duration of the film.
As the film projection progressed and the two children quietly slept within the close smell and warmth of human bodies, Ann Elisabeth Groth’s young son Sune sleepily opened his eyes to find the image of his mother as a child looming over him on the screen: “Mama mama mama – that’s you!” he proudly proclaimed to the astounded audience.
Ann Elisabeth Groth carries fond and vivid memories of having worked with a shy but determined man, who turned out to be one of the truly legendary figures of twentieth-century cinema. She now lives in the coastal suburb of Clovelly in Sydney Australia, and travels to Copenhagen annually to visit friends and family. She has three miraculous grandchildren: Giselle, Jasper and Banjo. Hun er min bedste ven.5
1. A Swedish film adaptation entitled Ordet, directed by Gustaf Molander, dates from 1943 (see https://www.svenskfilmdatabas.se/en/item/?type=film&itemid=4047)
2. Both quotes from the director and the cinematographer for Ordet are from Ann Elisabeth Groth’s Autograph Book at the completion of her role in October 1954.
3. Excluding the film Dreyer subsequently disowned (Two People, 1945), and a number of government-commissioned short films made during the 1940s.
3. Hankins and Silverman note that prior to this acceptance early camera designs included binary apertures of ⅛” spaced at 2½” to approach the perfection of the divinely designed human eye. Mechanical reproduction was considered a distortion of reality.
5. Many thanks to my friend David Kelly who persevered through a number of early drafts and tried to save me from myself. Thanks also to Ann Elisabeth’s friend Anne Marie Berg who sang Grundtvig hymns at a schnapps lunch she had prepared for us, and who identified for me Vilhelm Beck as the Indre Mission leader whose portrait hangs in Peter the tailor’s home. Still photographs from Ordet are from the collection of Ann Elisabeth Groth.
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