Film Studies: Ready for your close-up? Well, sure, as long as it's a Carl Dreyer

David Thomson
Sunday 01 June 2003 00:00
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When you begin to think about film, everyone tells you that the whole medium hinges on the close-up. Someone once said that there is nothing more spectacular than watching a face as the mind behind it alters. Excellent. Write 50,000 words on that for your doctorate.

But photograph a face long enough and the close-up intensity begins to crack or peel. It is replaced by a kind of vanity - the camera becomes just a mirror for some daft self-love, or for the glamorisation of empty attitudes. You want to throw things at that vacant face, pretending that we are not there, denying that watching is going on - that the whole damn thing is just photography.

So how do you make a close-up - or a film based on the close-up - without being trapped in the lies inherent in the stylistic device? For many of us, the crucial answer to that damning question is a film that the world has heard of, vaguely, but which can reduce anyone to tears if they really submit to its extraordinary pressure. It's a great film, yet its greatness is of a kind that leaves you ready to give up anything as trivial as the movies. You see, what transcends glamour, or self-regard, or solipsism in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is the certainty that its actress, Rene Falconetti, is not looking at the camera recording her. She is seeing God. She is not really an actress, but a soul hovering between torment and ecstasy. To watch is to share her belief.

It may seem distinctly uncool in 2003 to say that Carl Dreyer, who made Joan of Arc, and who is now the subject of a season at the National Film Theatre, takes us back to a time and place where film had natural roots in religious faith. Carl Theodor Dreyer, born in Copenhagen in 1889, was an illegitimate child, adopted by and raised in a strict Lutheran household. It's no accident, therefore, that most of his movies deal with the conflict between the discipline of faith and the human urge for liberty. But it's something unique to Dreyer that he photographs people as souls effectively imprisoned by the film frame, and looking towards some light that remains an ambivalent mixture of redemption and escape from God.

Dreyer is not fashionable nowadays: for decades The Passion of Joan of Arc held a place in Sight & Sound's Top 10. Yet in 2002, it lost that place. There are not too many Dreyer films - his last three feature films were Day of Wrath (1943), shot in Sweden to escape Nazi control (and re-released this Friday); The Word (1955), made in Denmark; and Gertrud (1964), which opened at Cannes (four years before Dreyer's death) to one of the most scandalously stupid receptions of even that festival. Most of the other films are silent - his first film, The President, is from 1919.

Moderation would suggest that the novice should go gently - see The Passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud and notice how in their radically different ways they are about the debate and the struggle inside a woman's mind between obedience and, let's say, passion. But Dreyer is not moderate, or sensible - and as the history of the British Film Institute unwinds, it's hard to know when you may have another chance, on a large screen, with fresh prints, to study the works of this authentic master.

Dreyer is all the more vital in that our age has departed so far from films about the inner life. Historically, he and the Swede, Victor Sjostrom, are the father-figures of a kind of movie-making that includes Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. The moderate and sensible action therefore is to see all the Dreyer films, preferably in the order in which they were made - as opposed to stealing them all for yourself.

I could offer this "modern" inducement: that many of these films shimmer with intimations of sensuality, the inescapable complicity and denial that yokes body and spirit, and ghostliness. One film, Vampyr (1932), is exactly what it sounds like, and a signal reminder that true horror is next to ecstasy.

But the real reason for stressing Dreyer now is because he was personally overwhelmed by the cinematic potential in the face, the figure, nature and light. He filmed the real world (something nearly forgotten by many of today's film-makers) in a way that prompts us to identify with living itself. For in the beginnings of film, there was an excitement (a passion) all over the world that believed it was possible to photograph reality so that it felt like a parable. If, on the other hand, you believe that the medium's way of seeing now is not just new and modern, but as good as it gets, go nowhere near Carl Theodor Dreyer.

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d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Passion of Carl Dreyer': NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 29 June. For details of screenings, visit www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/dreyer

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