Ordet (1955)

ordet-in fields

Ordet is an adaptation of a 1932 play of the same name by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (most well known for The Passion of Joan of Arc). Set in the small religious farming community in West Jutland, Denmark, the film explores this religious conflict within the community, specifically the one involving the Borgen Farm.

The head of the farm is Morten (Henrik Malberg), a stiff old man about as stoic and religious as they come. The eldest son, Mikkell (Emil Hass Christensen), no longer shares the faith of his father and is married to Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), who believes Mikkell will one day regain his faith. The middle son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), believes he is Jesus Christ after experiencing a breakdown. The last son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), has fallen for the tailor’s daughter, Anne (Gerda Nielsen), despite knowing it is unlikely their fathers will allow them to marry. Most of the film involves watching this family’s interaction both with each other and a few of the surrounding community.

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This is a film of few actions, maybe ten, if even that many. Yet this isn’t to say that not much happens. By the end of the film’s two hour runtime these characters have had their world turned on in. Each major point of action is seriously life altering event for one or more of the characters. To say they have weight is too light; they are the weight of the character, the reality of their fear. Most dramas use action to gradually build up the tension and conflict. Every action in this film takes a big step up, making the film excruciatingly suspenseful and involving.

Ordet is shaped as a theological essay. This is an adaptation play, so it has a very distinct act-like structure of events that serve as kind of points to his argument.  Playwright Kaj Munk deliberately marries the narrative with his argument, intertwining the action with his arguing points. Like any good story it gradually unfolds and some of it doesn’t make sense until the end.

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Beyond this main thesis, Munk explores the idiosyncrasies of Christians. The ill suited potential union between Anders and Anne is only deemed so because both fathers insists that the other family is not saved, at least not with their religion. They both believe their child should marry within their faith, hence the match is unsuitable. Yet the two quote from the same Bible and speak praises and prayers to God, so what’s the real difference? What is it really that makes these two enemies instead of brothers. Christianity has had the same theological argument these two men have that make them enemies.

Yet for all the passions of faith instilled in these characters what appears most on their faces is a look of exhaustion. These casts of characters are weary of this world it seems, it shows on their faces and in their tone. Conversations that should be heated and lively are drone and somber. And religion seems to only have distanced them from each other. There are few, if any conversations where the two parties look eye to eye for more than the briefest of moments, often facing slightly off from each other.

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I imagine for some this film sounds incredibly dull, the kind of film you might watch in a philosophy or theology class. Yet it’s through exploring these beliefs that we understand the drama. If people didn’t believe in anything what would they fight about? By exploring the ideas and beliefs that make up these people we become able to understand the drama and it involves us more in that drama. I have a feeling few people would bother trying to understand Ordet. It’s a shame as they’ll miss out on a beautifully involving drama that is only richer for its theological indulgence.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Carl Theodor Dreyer Box Set (Includes Ordet) – Criterion Collection