is Dreyer's most rigorously extended experiment in cinematic abstraction
in an effort to induce an answering state of abstraction in the viewer.
Significant actions of an external sort are almost eliminated. Settings
are simplified and props reduced to a minimum. Events and scenes are paralleled
and formally compared to the extent that they become as ritualized as
Kabuki. The pace and rhythm of the actions and interactions are retarded
to the point that many of the conversations take on an almost incantatory
quality. The names of the characters are repeated so often that they cease
to be names at all, and instead become almost pure sound, marking time
and reverberating in the air like the ticking sounds of the clocks and
the ringing chimes the background of many scenes.
Though they are probably the
most criticized aspects of Gertrud, even the repetitiveness of
the film's events and language helps to contribute to this narrative goal.
The repetitions of a few simplified settings, of characters' blockings,
and even of the their words (as when Gertrud and Gabriel repeat each others'
names) empty the items of realistic, denotative meaning (as repetition
always does), the better to impart a kind of connotative richness of emotional
significance to the positions, settings, and names (as ritualized chanting
or ceremonial litany does). In this sense Gertrud is the supreme
example of the impulse that has been driving all of Dreyer's work. The
physical simplification of settings, the austerity of appearances, the
slowing of the pacing, the minimalization of superficial forms of expression
and eventfulness, and the paring away of superfluous props and costumes–all
of these worldly impoverishments–are all in the service of a supreme
imaginative enrichment. Gertrud renounces external eventfulness
in order to cultivate internal or imaginative eventfulness. It stops one
sort of action so that another sort can begin. It immobilizes the characters
the better to represent in them, and to sponsor in a viewer, the possibility
of meditative movement. Sitting still in silence (for Gertrud or a viewer)
becomes the occasion for emotional movements and flights of imagination.
The film and its title character renounce possibilities of expression
in the world in order to entertain possibilities of expression that the
world won't sustain. Moments of silence (for example: the absolute silence
of the characters in the final shot of the film) mark the point at which
the text begins to speak most imaginatively.
But the larger point is that
the most daring aspect of Gertrud is that Dreyer attempts to represent
a figure who lives this state of imaginative exaltation and worldly abstraction.
He attempts to find a way for the state of abstraction to leave the world
of the film's merely stylistic effects and be expressed practically, humanely,
humanly. But each viewer will have to decide for himself if he succeeds
or fails, and to decide if Gertrud herself is a success or or a failure.
Each viewer will have to decide if Gertrud finds a way to humanize the
film's stylistic effects, or if, on the contrary, she finally simply blends
into them and gives up her humanity in the process.
In the coda, Gertrud comes
emotionally closer to Axel and allows herself to speak more intimately
and personally with him than she allowed herself to get in any of the
earlier encounters with the men in her life (except for the brief and
doomed affair with Erland). This is not to argue for her frigidity earlier.
Thirty or forty years before, she was so vulnerable to emotion, so able
to be wounded, so passionately involved with her practical decisions that
she couldn't attain this serenity of vision, which comes only with the
disinterestedness of visionary disengagement. Dreyer is clearly arguing
in favor of this state of imagination and desire as a substitute for the
turmoil of actual worldly engagements. In our contemplation of it, we
have life more intensely and importantly than we do in the heat of words
and actions. In renouncing social expressions and the practical realization
of our dreams in the forms of ordinary experience, we attain the possibility
of attaining them in our imaginations.
It is a tragic recognition,
and is Dreyer's final word on the relation of imagination and realistic
representation. The enriched consciousness is finally alone, cut off from
expressing itself in verbal and social forms. That is why this film itself,
and never more so than in this final scene, has to renounce verbal forms
of expression and social forms of interaction between characters. We are
in the realm of reverie and dream and metaphor.
One might call attention to
one false note in this final scene that reveals almost as much about Dreyer's
complexity of feeling about his heroine as the truths of the scene do.
Dreyer goes to some lengths in the coda to point out that Gertrud subscribes
to a daily newspaper and listens to the radio, as an obvious attempt to
argue that to some degree she is not cut off from the practical world
of men and affairs. But it is a false step. The references to the newspaper
and the radio are completely unconvincing to a viewer, in a film that
tells us differently, if we trust the tale and not the intentions of the
teller. All of the rest of the coda, and indeed all of Gertrud,
tells us that it is only in leaving the world behind that one can hold
onto a soul. Even though Dreyer may want to tell us otherwise, Gertrud
is finally "free" (the word she uses to describe herself) only
when she leaves the compromises of society and social expression behind.
Only in dying to the world can one be born spiritually. Only in worldly
renunciation can there be imaginative gain.
But having said this, one should
recognize that the waffling on Dreyer's part is not artistically trivial,
but extremely revealing, because it takes us to the heart of an ambivalence
that energizes all of his work, It represents an uncertainty that we have
encountered in all of the earlier films, an ambivalence that is equally
present in this final film. Even as his film tells us otherwise, Dreyer
unconvincingly attempts to suggest that Gertrud's imagination doesn't
ultimately estrange her from the world. He could never quite resign himself
to that. Inger is only his most vigorous attempt to argue that imaginative
energy is directly translatable into practical, familial expression. Directly,
in Ordet, and indirectly in the other films, Dreyer, in effect,
fought to deny the insight about the aloneness of the imaginative individual
that his own work (and career) repeatedly forced upon him.
That is only to say that, in
the deepest view of the matter, Dreyer himself is Inger or Gertrud.
His works are energized by the same quixotic and doomed attempt to live
ideals, to translate spirit into practical expressions as his heroines
are within the works. He is spiritually in league with his heroines, conspiring
with them, urging them on, half-believing that their translations can
be made, even as his films tell us and him, almost against his will and
in despite their aspirations, that their efforts must fail. His heroines'
states of uncertainty and need and hope–in the absence of practical achievement–is
their creator's as well.
A small gesture and sound effect
at the very end of the coda epitomize the complexity of feeling that Dreyer
creates about the worldly renunciations and imaginative substitutions
in Gertrud. In the final seconds of the movie, after Gertrud finishes
her conversation with Axel, as he departs, she waves goodbye to him from
her study. Dreyer photographs the gesture so as to remind us of an earlier
farewell wave that occurred at the end of one of the most passionate and
touching previous scenes–the scene, thirty or forty years before, in
which Erland Jansson and Gertrud first slept together, and specifically
the moment at the end of the scene, in which Erland waved goodbye to Gertrud
as she left his apartment. Dreyer dramatizes their parting from one another
on the morning after they have spent the night together by showing Gertrud
sharing a cigarette with Erland and then expressing her love for him with
the most complex, evocative, and expressive series of interwoven glances
and dramatic gestures in the entire film.
In evoking that sublime earlier
moment in its final seconds, Gertrud suspends us between a consciousness
of the present and the past. We remember both Gertrud's hope of true love
with Erland and her ultimate disappointment. We remember the earlier scene
as the single, evanescent moment in the previous film in which Gertrud
and her creator were beautifully able to express her dream of love in
the forms of a practical human relationship, in the dramatic structures
of nuanced verbal and social interaction between two characters. Dreyer's
delicate choreography of the exchange of the cigarette and the interchanged
glances between Gertrud and Erland in that earlier scene represented a
possibility of the actual, practical, shared expression of two persons'
feelings that was not present in any other scene in the entire film.
Gertrud's farewell to Axel
at the end of the coda thus suspends a viewer between a feeling of infinite
resignation and renunciation, on the one hand, and a memory of Gertrud's
grand, daring, joyous attempt actually to live her dream of love in the
form of a practical human relationship, on the other. Dreyer wants us
to respect and cherish both the sublime hope and the final tragic renunciation.
Simultaneous with the wave,
in those final seconds of the film, Dreyer inserts the sound of a bell
tolling on the sound track. One might understand it literally as marking
a specific time or event, or symbolically as tolling the passing of youth,
life, and pleasure (or even as tolling Gertrud's beckoning death). But
like most of the other effects in the coda, Dreyer invites us to understand
this sound neither literally nor symbolically, but formally in terms of
its vibratory resonance with the effects of the whole preceding movie.
In short, Dreyer does not want us to leave the film and import practical
facts about bells from outside of it in order to understand the chimes.
Nor does he want us to interpret the ringing sounds in terms of a set
of stock symbolic meanings (for example, to allude to Gertrud's death
or aging). Rather his goal is the opposite: to keep us in his film, to
keep their resonances reverberating in the echo chamber of our consciousnesses
in the light of everything we have seen and heard up to that point in
Bells have tolled previously
to mark crucial moments in the film, and this final knell brings all of
those earlier sounds of bells and chimes and clocks back to resonate in
a viewer's consciousness (which is clearly larger than even Gertrud's
consciousness at this moment). One recalls the ticking of the clock in
the initial scene of the film; one recalls the sounds of the clock as
Gustav went to the opera to look for Gertrud on the night she spent with
Erland; one recalls the chiming of the clock on the final evening of Gertrud's
flight from her home.
The point is that in this final
set of sounds all of these earlier uses of bells and chimes and ticking
sounds come back to enrich our consciousness in nonrealistic ways. They
exist not to remind us of real clocks and clock sounds, but of all of
the clocks and sounds that have come before them in the film. They function
stylistically to remind us of states of feeling that exist outside of
literal significances, and beyond practical forms of expression in works
In relying on these sounds
and this gesture to communicate meanings, Dreyer himself is turning away
from practical forms and structures of expression as surely as Gertrud
is. The sound of that bell echoes in a viewer's consciousness as the film
ends, and for a long time afterwards. But it is, after all, only an artistic
effect. The sound is good for nothing; it makes nothing happen. It represents
an enrichment of consciousness that will have to suffice as an end in
itself. For Dreyer as for Gertrud, enrichments of consciousness may have
no practical form of expression.
I would suspect that the disastrous
history of his own vexed expressive career as a filmmaker may have led
Carl Dreyer to feel much closer to Gertrud than we can guess. He was not
that far from being as much of an expressive failure as she–nor that
far from being as much of an imaginative success. We can not forget that
he was, as an artist at the end of his life, almost as neglected and alone
as she. She has nothing to show for all of her efforts but her poetry
and memories; he has nothing to show for it all but his films–certainly
nothing else according to the standards of society or worldly value.
Gertrud suggests that
for Dreyer as for Gertrud, the final brave recognition is that there may
be no possible or conceivable realization of our vaulting ideals of love,
freedom, and transcendence in the world. Like the wave and the bell, the
only consequence of the dream of love may be an enrichment of our consciousnesses,
like the enrichment that this whole film embodies. But, for Dreyer and
for Gertrud, however tragic that conclusion, it is no reason to abandon
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's Speaking
the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. To obtain the book
from which this discussion is excerpted, click