Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How to Depict a Miracle on Film: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet

*THERE ARE SO MANY SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.  If you haven’t yet seen Ordet, consider yourself warned.*

Before I start to talk about Carl Theodore Dreyer’s great religious film Ordet (1955), I should remind the reader that I have not been a religionist of any sort for many years.  Furthermore, my religious education as a child was indifferent, and all I’ve come to know about religion subsequently has been the result of auto-didacticism.  And so when I see profoundly religious people, like those who populate Ordet, I sometimes find myself perplexed.  Why are these people doing what they’re doing, I wonder?  But then imagination kicks in and I can figure it out.  As the great Catholic writer Graham Greene famously wrote, “Hatred was a failure of the imagination.” And he could have said that of all sorts of misunderstandings; hatred is merely the most extreme example.

Here’s the plot of Ordet in a nutshell: An old, deeply religious Danish farmer, Morten Borgen, living in 1925, has three sons:  The eldest, Mikkel, has a wife name of Inger and two daughters.  Inger is pregnant with their third child.  Mikkel has grown disillusioned with his father’s faith, and although he’d like to feel it again, he can’t bring himself to sustain it (and God help you when a Scandinavian struggles with his faith; Mikkel is like the eponymous hero of the Swede Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas, who has born witness to Christ but can’t bring himself to believe in Him).  The youngest son, Anders, is in love with Anne, Peter the tailor’s daughter, but the tailor subscribes to a different denomination of Danish Protestantism than the Borgens!  And he won’t let any daughter of his marry a heathen Borgen (interestingly, Dreyer lays out very little of the distinctions between the two sects, although Morten asserts that the tailor’s is gloomy and death-worshipping, whereas his is optimistic and life-embracing).  And then finally there’s the middle son, Johannes, who has gone insane after reading too much Kierkegaard (no, seriously) and is now convinced that he is Jesus Christ.

Most of the action takes place over the course of a single, really dramatic day and night.  As evening passes into night, Inger goes into a difficult labor, her baby dies, and she herself becomes dangerously ill.  The sickly Johannes intones to his troubled father, “Did you see him?” “Who?” Asks the father. “The man with the hourglass and sickle.  He came to take Inger’s baby away.” And then Johannes prophecies that Inger herself will die, and that he, Johannes, will resurrect her from the dead, if only his father and brothers believe in him.  Well, sure enough, Inger dies.  Johannes, not feeling the faith that he thinks a messiah like him deserves, flees the house.  Then, just as the family is about to bury Inger, Johannes returns, apparently restored to sanity (when he thought he was Jesus, he spoke in a sick, grating kind of voice; apparently he thought Jesus was an affectless invalid?  Well, now he speaks clearly).  So he may be sane, but he still thinks Inger can be resurrected, if only the so-called believers would actually believe.  And of course his father and brothers don’t believe in him, at least.  Following Inger’s death, old Morten can only repeat, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away.” But wait, what about Inger’s daughter?  Yes, surely the faith of a child can save the day! And she says to Johannes, “Hurry, before they put the lid on her.” And Johannes says, “If it is possible, she will be restored to life when I say the name of our Lord.”

Now, I want to stop right here and say that the whole episode of Johannes’s return at the funeral is deeply moving.  In many ways, Johannes’s flight and subsequent return parallel the death of Christ and His resurrection, for it is only by returning that each can complete H/h-is respective mission.  And, my atheism aside, my eyes glistened with tears and I said, “You can do it, Johannes!” I like to think that I’m not one of those sneering atheists; in my reaction to Dryer’s work, I am reminded of a line by the Romanian-French aphorist E. M. Cioran: “Were it not for Bach, God would be entirely second rate.” Cioran seems to have completely missed the profound dignity of individuals’ engagement with issues of faith; now, granted, there’s not much to be said for the faith of the American evangelical snake-handler or the Salafi misogynist, but think of figures like Simone Weil and Dostoevsky.  But perhaps I’m guilt of aestheticizing religion; my general take on the matter is that religion makes for great drama, as long as you don’t take it literally.  Now, that said, Dostovesky probably would have been happier if he hadn’t been hung up on religion.  And, as long as we’re discussing Russian writers, it was religion that seriously undermined the literary output of Lev Tolstoy and destroyed the work and eventually the life of Nikolai Gogol.  Oh, and it killed Simone Weil who, like Gogol, starved herself to death.  Jesus.

Ok, where were we? Ah yes, Johannes was going to say the name of our Lord.  It is a moment of great high drama.  I would even say it is sublime.  And he says his prayer, and he says the name of Christ, and Inger begins to stir within her coffin.  And then Hulu decided that it needed to stutter to a halt and take a few moments to buffer, and the spell of the sublime was broken, so bear that in mind when I say that the rest of the movie seemed painfully banal and emotionally dishonest to me.  Because once Inger comes to, she embraces her husband, Mikkel, and she asks, “Where’s the baby?” And Mikkel says, “At home.” And then he adds, “With God,” and tells her that he’s now regained his faith.  And that now they will continue with life.  And Inger seems ok with this.  Inger just found out that her son has died, but he’s with God, so it’s fine.  And what’s this “life” of theirs going to look like, anyway?  It certainly seems to me that Inger is just going to go on being a housewife and helping her husband’s family maintain their farm.  She has just been the subject of a miracle, she has returned from the land of the dead, and soon she’s going to go back to scrubbing the floors and feeding the pigs.

I don’t know, I feel like returning from the dead should lead to dramatic changes.  Not just for her, but for everyone.  Because now the Borgens have proof that miracles can still happen, even in the modern world, and that Christ is still working among us.  And maybe there will be some of that (there are numerous witnesses to the resurrection, including the Godless doctor who let her die to begin with).  Dryer never made an Ordet II; he basically ended his movie with the miracle which, from a dramatic perspective, was probably the reasonable thing to do.  But it’s unsatisfying.  The sublimity of the miracle (and what Johannes had to do to make it happen) is eclipsed by its own practical implications: the woman is no longer dead, so she can go back to her day-to-day business.  But as far as miracles go, this is probably the best cinematic representation of them that I’ve seen thus far (unless one considers the telekinesis in Tarkovsky’s Stalker to be a miracle; some critics do).  I guess I want to conclude by saying that even if the religiosity of Dryer’s Ordet is somewhat alien to many of us, it still has much to offer, even to the atheist, just as one need not be a Christian to enjoy Bach.

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