What I particularly admire in the Dreyer films that I’ve been able to see or see again over the past few years is their ferocity in respect to the bourgeois world: its notion of justice (THE PRESIDENT, which is one of the most astonishing narrative constructions I’ve known, and one of the most Griffith-like of films, hence one of the most beautiful), its vanity (the feelings and decors of MICHAEL), its intolerance (DAY OF WRATH, stupefying through its violence, and through its dialectic), its angelic hypocrisy (“She’s dead... she’s no longer here... she’s in heaven,” says the father in ORDET, and the son replies: “Yes, but I loved her body, too...”), and its puritanism (GERTRUD, so well-received for that by the Parisians on the Champs-Elysees).
In other respects, VAMPYR (“There are no children here and no dogs”) remains, ever since the day I saw it thirteen years ago on rue d’Ulm, for me the most resonant of all films. And in 1933, Dreyer was sending out that call that, apart from Amico and Bertolucci, the present-day Italian filmmakers would do well to finally understand:
“If one is striving to create a realistic space, the same thing must be done with sound. While I am writing these lines, I can hear church bells ring in the distance; now I perceive the buzzing of the elevator; the distant, very-far away clang of a streetcar, the clock of city hall, a door slamming. All these sounds would exist, too, if the walls of my room, instead of seeing a man working, were witnessing a moving, dramatic scene as background to which these sounds might even take on symbolic value -- is it right then to leave them out? ... In the real sound film, the real diction, corresponding to the unpainted face in an actually lived-in room, means common everyday speech as it is spoken by ordinary people.”
And at present, when so many young authors dream only of imposing their ideas and their petty reflections in their films, seducing or raping (patronizing Brechtianism, or the utilization of advertising techniques and the propaganda of capitalist society) or even disappearing (collages, etc.), let us listen to Dreyer:
“The Danish author, Johannes V. Jensen, describes ‘art’ as ‘soulfully composed form.’ That is a definition which is simple and very much to the point. The same goes for the definition the English philosopher Chesterfield gives to the concept of ‘style.’ He says ‘Style is the dress of thoughts.’ That is right, provided that ‘the dress’ is not too conspicuous, for a characteristic of good style must be that it enters into such an intimate bond with matter that it is absorbed into a higher unity with it. If it imposes and strikes the eye, it is no longer ‘style’ but ‘mannerism.’
“Style in an artistic film is the product of many different components, such as the play of rhythm and composition, the mutual tension of color surfaces, the interaction of light and shadow, the measured gliding of the camera. All these things, in association with the conception that a director has of his material, determines his style...
“I don’t underestimate the teamwork performed by cinematographers, color technicians, set decorators, etc., but within the collectivity, the director must remain the driving force, the man behind the work who makes the writer’s words resound and the feelings and passions spring forth, so that we are moved and touched... So this is my understanding of a director’s importance -- and his responsibility...
“To show that there is a world outside the dullness and boredom of naturalism, the world of the imagination. Of course, this conversion must take place without the director and his collaborators losing their grasp of the world of reality. His remodeled reality must always remain something that the public can recognize and believe in. It is important that the first steps towards abstraction be taken with tact and discretion. One should not shock people, but guide them gently onto new paths.
“Each subject implies a certain voice (route).* And that must be heeded. It is necessary to find the possibility for expressing as many voices (routes) as one can, It is very dangerous to limit oneself to a certain form, a certain style.... That is something I really tried to do: to find a style that has value for only a single film, for this milieu, this action, this character, this subject.
“In the cinema, you cannot play the roll of a Jew, you have to be one.”
The fact that Dreyer was never able to produce a film in color (he had thought about it for more than twenty years) nor his film on Christ (a profound revolt against the state and the origins of anti-Semitism) reminds us that we live in a society that is not worth a frog’s fart.
*Straub’s quotations from Dreyer are drawn from four sources: “The Real Talking Film” 1933, “Imagination and Color” (1955) a 1965 interview with Michel Delahaye and an unknown text, respectively. The versions of the first two here are adapted from Donald Skoller’s Dreyer in Double Reflection (New York, Dutton, 1973); the third is adapted from the English translation for the Delahaye interview in Andrew Sarris’s Interviews with Film Directors (New York, Avon, 1967). In the original French version (in Cahiers du Cinéma nº 170, September 1965), it isn’t clear whether Dreyer is saying “voix” (voice), or “voie” (route). (trans).
(from the FILM AT THE PUBLIC program, The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, November 2-14 1982. Originally published at Cahiers du Cinéma nº 207, December 1968, pp. 34-35. Translation by Jonathan Rosenbaum)
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