Editor’s Note: Below is an essay written by Film Blogger Christian Mietus, covering the themes of faith within Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 film, Ordet. Mietus originally wrote the piece for his Intro to Film Studies class with Jet Fuel Review‘s very own Dr. Simone Muench. Spoilers follow.
Ordet (or “The Word” in English) is a Danish film that was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1955. Dreyer is known for directing some of the world’s most praised arthouse films, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), and Day of Wrath (1943). Although he receives this praise today, his films were never financial successes until Ordet’s release, which could be attributed to a variety of reasons, specifically the film being an incredibly meticulous mastery of the craft by Dreyer and cinematographer Henning Bendtsen.
Dreyer’s body of work has many themes that are represented in many fashions. For example, in a Senses of Cinema article written by Thomas Beltzer, he writes, “In Dreyer’s films … It is always a faith well placed because the spiritual realm is as present and real as the material realm, and both are completely interwoven.” In Ordet, the themes of faith and the fantastical realm are interwoven into the mortal realm through the tragic death of Inger Borgen (Birgitte Federspiel), as well as through the actions of characters including Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), and Mikkel Borgen (Emil Hass Christensen) — all emphasized through dialogue, mise en scène, and precise cinematography.
In the film, Morten Borgen is the father and elder of the Borgen family, who established Borgen’s farm as a place of strong faith and devotion. Morten is a Lutheran, but narratively, he questions his faith, specifically with his discussion of God’s silence with Inger. The discussion begins when Morten asks, “Inger, I know, Inger, I know. But what have all my prayers done?” In response, she explains that Morten does not know what his prayers set in motion, and encourages him to continue praying. Morten’s question develops him as a character; it shows that he contemplates faith through questioning the method of prayer and its effectiveness.
Morten is a character that lives with problems, such as his rheumatism, his son Johannes’ mental instability, and the loss of his wife. These afflictions drain Morten, since his prayers always seem to go unheard. In contrast, Dreyer shows Inger as a faithful person — one who is completely devoted to God, and socially devoted unlike Johannes. This is because she is adamant that praying works through miracles.
And while this dialogue builds Inger as faithful, it is ironic that she later loses her child and “dies” during childbirth. It is during the childbirth sequence that Morten tells Anders Borgen that they will be busy praying tonight. This shows that Inger’s words have resonated with Morten, since he is using her method to try and save her life. Dreyer and Bendtsen do not simply illustrate Morten’s faith through the bits of dialogue. Instead, they heighten the theme through their use of filmic elements. In fact, their use of mise en scène and cinematography add more depth to Morten’s character.
During the funeral sequence, Morten is one of the characters that Dreyer and Bendtsen manipulate for the mise en scène. Throughout the scene, there is a shadow strategically placed over Morten’s face as he speaks to characters. This shadow is a part of the composition, and since the character carries this darkness upon his face, we are meant to believe that Morten’s faith no longer exists. This conclusion has a precedence of events, since the dialogue that made Inger faithful showed Morten teetering on faith and skeptical about his prayers effectiveness. Since Inger is dead, and her encouragement of prayer has failed to save her life, the darkness covering Morten are his internal feelings.
The staging of most of Morten’s actions are chosen through character blocking and shot/camera proxemics. In, Understanding Movies, writer Louis Giannetti explains, “Certain areas within the frame can suggest symbolic ideas. By placing an object or actor within a particular section of the frame, the filmmaker can radically alter his or her comment on that object or character.” This idea is encapsulated through Dreyer’s placement and the blocking of Morten in Johannes’ earlier preaching location after Johannes ran away. This scene has him framed in a full shot at a low angle, and with a clothesline running across his neck.
The meaning that could be interpreted through this composition is that his faith in God is backfiring, causing him incredible stress and worry. This is because of the setting’s previous use of preaching, and the separation of body and mind by the clothesline. The message is further emphasized because the character continuously moves further away from the camera, which supports that even though Johannes is lost, his father Morten is the one who is truly losing himself.
The middle son, Johannes, is insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ. This description captures the essence of Johannes, who has succumbed to the insanity in his studies of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In Addition, Johannes is adamant about the hypocrisy of faithfulness throughout his family, as well as the entire community. In his mind, he is an unrecognized messiah, and the people do not have the faith to truly understand and connect with the lord. In the film, Johannes’ dialogue lacks a filter and causes heartache within his family. For example, after the stillbirth, Johannes tells his father, “The man with the scythe — he has come back… to fetch Inger.” His father’s reaction is swift and is a rejection of this vision, immediately sending Johannes to his room.
This rejection adds depth, since the father discards the fantastical spirituality when Johannes is completely attuned to it and in a different realm. The only character to listen to Johannes is Inger’s daughter, Maren Borgen (Ann Elisabeth Rud), who believes that Johannes will bring her mother back from death. This is an interesting dynamic, since this child is the only one able to escape her present reality into the fantastical — the trait apparently being inherent in children. In the final sequence, Johannes tells Maren that her mother will rise when he says Jesus’s name. This is the portion of the film where reality is overtaken by the spiritual, because Inger actually rises from the grave.
Dreyer and Bendtsen utilize mise en scène to further the essence of Johannes as a character. For instance, when Johannes first goes preaching, the camera has him as a dominant in frame. The director wants the audience to encounter Johannes as a person that is alone in his own faith, and they want full focus on him; he is in the center of attention, but only ours because the audience are the only ones listening. Johannes is also in a medium shot and a low angle, which shows the presentation of Johannes as a dominant figure. The audience looks at him from a lower point, which also presents him as a domineering figure.
The physical setting and framing of the area is another interesting addition to his character. The area splits into a juxtaposition of land and sky. Within this juxtaposition, Johannes proclaims that the people lack faith and they must believe that he is the risen Christ. This adds meaning to framing — the grass being extremely sharp and chaotic compared to the sky that is gentle billowing clouds. This frame has a direct intent to show that Johannes connects spiritually far beyond the normal realm; he connects to God on a fantastical level. This frame is open for the same purpose, allowing the audience to see the boundless faith of Johannes — a faith that wants others to change themselves.
In contrast, Johannes’ “leaving scene” is one that composed in closed form, and tries to demonstrate Johannes’ feelings. Giannetti explains, “The movie frame can function as a metaphor for other types of enclosures. Some directors use the frame voyeuristically.” This is true for Dreyer’s choice of framing with a window, which isolates and shows that Johannes feels trapped within the family’s poor faith. As the camera pans, the frame reveals Anders asleep and a rifle hanging on the wall. The rifle demonstrates more of Johannes’ psychological feelings, and Morten’s anger towards him because of the common association of violence with the image of a rifle.
Mikkel Borgen is the eldest son of the family, who is married to Inger, lacking any sort of faith. He is the only one of the family that does not have a direct acknowledgment of faith. Although, he does not subscribe to it, his wife still believes that he has the strongest faith — one that is within the heart. Mikkel’s faith is tested with the tragic stillbirth of his child and death of Inger. Towards the end of the film, to Mikkel’s surprise, his wife is miraculously resurrected from death through Johannes’ faith. His dialogue at this moment proves Inger’s previously stated beliefs as correct — “Yes, Inger I have found your faith,” she says. This dialogue is a conclusion in narrative, and is a direct display of faith within the character of Mikkel.
Mikkel remains uncertain for the entire duration of the film until his suffering ceases. Throughout the film, Beltzer says, “the story presented to us has been completely realistic, even — despite the piety of the characters — naturalistic, and in the end, what we see is the actual (as opposed to metaphorical or symbolic).” This idea is Dreyer and Bendtsen’s way of creating connection for the audience with each character, and not only hinting at the metaphorical. For example, we see the naturalistic suffering of Mikkel, with his lack of faith only emphasized with the mise en scène rather than shown to hint at his suffering in a symbolic fashion. We see his reactions, his conversations, and his actions without any filter of metaphor, which is the same for the other characters.
During the funeral sequence, Mikkel’s proximity to the characters further the essence of his suffering and faith. His character is staged on his knees, incredibly close to the casket and Inger’s body. This is telling of his current state and the worth he placed upon his spouse, which allows the audience to feel the closeness of character. Each of the characters dresses in black here, which is customary of the occasion. As Mikkel kneels, Johannes comes into the room wearing gray clothing, visually saying a lot about Johannes in contrast with Mikkel at this moment of time. Johannes knows that Inger’s resurrection is imminent, so his attire and his feelings are not of mourning.
In the childbirth sequence, Mikkel is at the beginning of his stress and suffering. He is in a state of panic, which heightens through the mise en scène. The items in the background are ones that bring intensified meaning to their current situation. For example, the chessboard on the left side of the frame is a loaded symbol. With the current situation, this causes the inference that Mikkel is dueling in a game with his own notion of his faith. This is likewise true for his father, who is also next to him near the framed item. The clock on the right side of the frame gives the audience a “countdown” to Inger’s death. It is an hourglass, which Anders substantiates when he stops the clock after Inger’s death out of solidarity.
The theme of faith in Ordet reveals itself through the characters, cinematography, and mise en scène, becoming more clear the further you dive into the subject. The specific choices that Dreyer and Bendtsen make for each of the characters heightens the meticulous nature of the overall film. Characters like Morten, Johannes, and Mikkel are all expertly built for narrative purposes, and are intensified with the filmic elements to solidify the messages that are most important. Dreyer uses symbolism and metaphor subtly within Ordet, presenting the film as in a naturalistic setting. Consequently, we do not expect the film to reach the fantastical, but it completely breaks the expectation with the resurrection of Inger. This refutes expectation, and Dreyer points out a flaw in the faith of the audience’s world. A theme of faith that transcends the film, and presents a critique of our ability to suspend ourselves into the spiritual realm.
— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger
- Dreyer, Carl Theodor, director. Ordet . AB Svea Film , 1955.
- Beltzer, Thomas. “The Incarnate Transcendence of Ordet.” Senses of Cinema, 4 June 2014, sensesofcinema.com/2003/cteq/ordet-2/#5.
- Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. Pearson Education, Inc., 2014