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Excerpts from "An Introduction to the Work of Carl Dreyer"
Learning from Joan of Arc
Reflections on the lessons his films teach


Dreyer shows us that the world of objects, places, and events is not the real world. The real world is inward. All there is is soul, soul, and more soul.

* * *

Our inner storms of feeling are the only important weather. The wars that matter are all within.

* * *

The problem that confronts every artist is how to get the inside of life into the work, when all that can be seen, all that can be shown, is the outside.

* * *

A poet or novelist can describe a character's thoughts and feelings. But painting and photography are limited to the realm of the visible. How do you photograph or paint the soul? How do you transform surfaces into depths? How do you represent the invisible in terms of the visible?

* * *

The eyes are a doorway. We plunge head first into Anne's flickering flames and Joan's limpid pools–so transparent, permeable, liquid, inviting.

* * *

Has anyone ever been more exposed on film than Joan? Has anyone ever been more vulnerably displayed to the rude gaze of strangers?

* * *

We have a superficial definition of nakedness. You remove your clothes and bare your flesh. Joan, Anne, Inger, or Gertrud show us more than skin. They peel back their bodies and bare their souls.

* * *

No one could be more naked than Joan. Her face is the most naked thing ever photographed.

* * *

We look at her, but more important, she looks at us. We must prove ourselves worthy of returning her gaze. We are the ones really on trial, not her.

* * *

Like a virgin lover, she tests our worthiness to receive her. By throwing herself on our mercy, she makes the greatest possible emotional demand. By asking nothing, she asks everything. By making no appeal, she makes the supreme appeal.

* * *

She is not embarrassed by our look; it is we who are embarrassed by hers. We feel ashamed because we know we can never deserve this degree of trust. She is innocent; we are the guilty ones.

* * *

As when a newborn baby looks up at us, we wonder how can we ever live up to the infinity of this faith in us? How can we ever reciprocate the absoluteness of the love she so totally gives?

* * *

If we would see her as she really is, we must look at her the same way she looks at us: Tenderly, purely, chastely. In awe and wonder. In humility. With love.

* * *

The men around Joan don't know how to look at her. The law of the universe is that you get what you are. They see only what they are capable of seeing. They see only their own polluted hearts.

* * *

In their gaze, her nakedness is pornography. In their hearts, her exposure is obscenity. Her actions are immorality.

* * *

But the answering law of the universe is that true purity can't be polluted. Joan is immune to their sneers, their leering depravity. Nothing about her will ever be made obscene or dirty or guilty.

* * *

To the pure all things are pure. To the eyes of the spirit, everything is spirit. Their looks only puzzle her. She stands forever beyond them, free of them, unreachable by them.

* * *

The voice is another way in: Inger's terrible birth-gasps in Ordet, Arne and Marianne's agitated pants in Two People, Anne's playful giggle and Herlofs Marte's anguished cries in Day of Wrath, Gabriel's discouraged sighs in Gertrud.

* * *

Truth is never spoken. Words are always evasions. We don't say what is really on our minds. Real speech is silent.

* * *

The sound of the breath speaks truer than the words uttered. It's not what we say, but how. Words are from the brain; the breath is the voice of the heart.

* * *

Gestures, glances, movements, pauses speak better than words ever can. The body speaks more than the mind can know.

* * *

At this level of purity and intensity, there is no need for artistic heightening or rhetoric. Dreyer pares away all of the extras because he knows that they only distract us. Simple situations, simple costumes, simple gestures, the most ordinary events say it all. The way old man Borgen walks and sits in Ordet speak more eloquently than fancy lighting or dialogue ever could.

* * *

As Dreyer once said: The great dramas are played quietly. We may be still as an ice mountain on the outside, but raging like a blast furnace within.

* * *

It is not accidental that women, mistresses of inner space, are at the center of these works, and men, manipulators of outer realms, are on the outside, in the dark. It takes a woman to teach them to look inward, so that they can see anything.

* * *

To reach the spiritual realm, each art must push against its natural tendencies. Film, the art of motion, must have its movements arrested. Painting, the art of stillness, must find a way to capture the movements of the soul.

* * *

Our art is too propulsive, too fast, too obsessed with getting somewhere. Most films, videos, and paintings are devoted to quick knowledge. They encourage us to take the world in with glances. You read meanings with a look. Dreyer goes in the other direction. He slows down events and actions almost to the point of cessation. He makes knowing gradual. Like Tarkovsky's, his time is slow and deep.

* * *

He knows that the soul is shy. It must be wooed. It shows itself only to the patient. It defies rapid knowing. It asks us to live with it, if we would know it.

* * *

Shallow works of art, like shallow people, yield up their meanings in a minute, but you must spend time with the deep ones. The characters and events in these works must be lived into. To know them, even a little, you must return to them over and over, exploring their secrets, giving yourself to them in time.

* * *

No shortcuts are allowed. These experiences accumulate meaning in time.

* * *

If you would plumb its spiritual depths, you must suffer though every second of Joan's trial. You must live through the ups and downs of Inger's hopes and dreams. You must live with Gertrud for a long time before you can even begin to understand her. These experiences do not open themselves to strangers. You must prove yourself ready to receive them.

* * *

And even then, after we have watched and prayed with them, after hours have gone by, how far away from us these figures still remain. The distance never disappears.

* * *

Has any artist made us more aware of the interstellar distances that separate even lovers? Or what an effort it takes to bridge the gaps between us even for a second?

* * *

The spirit is shrouded in solitude. Cosmic vacuums of inner space sheathe our souls. The nucleus of the atom is not more isolated than Gertrud, Joan, or Anne.

* * *

The close-ups draw us in, but also hold us outside. We can't quite penetrate the veil. We can't reach through the mask.

* * *

We can't see in these depths. We swim in darkness blacker than the bottom of the ocean. The deeper we dive, the deeper the mystery.

* * *

Dreyer's close-ups bring us close, closer, closest. He couldn't get too close. He would have taken the camera inside if it were possible.

* * *

In The Passion of Joan of Arc space is compressed by the closeness of the shots. The third dimension disappears. But what is lost as physical background is gained as emotional foreground. The more the space behind Joan is flattened, the more the space in front of her leaps out–but not as space but spirit.

* * *

When we get this close, faces no longer look like faces. Fragmented, broken, cut into pieces, seen from odd angles, bodies become abstract lines, shapes, forms. But, as in cubism, the less recognizable the form is, the more spiritual it becomes. The bits of skin become translucent. The soul shines though the seams and cracks.

* * *

The abstraction on screen moves us to an answering state of abstraction in our viewing. Where shape cannot be read as shape, it is felt as spirit.

* * *

The flesh is burned away. It peels, breaks, and cracks as the soul leaps free of it. Baptism by fire is the birth of the spirit. Pain, loss, and relinquishment are the paths to knowledge.

* * *

Only when we give ourselves away, can we discover what we really are. Only when we let go of all of our proud accomplishments, do we make ourselves infinite. Only when we die to the world are we born to the spirit.

* * *

We want comfort and rest, but Dreyer shows us that the soul is forever in flux and transformation. Objects, places, people stand still, but the spirit endlessly heaves and surges. The breath moves in and out. The spirit coruscates and flickers. The heart expands and contracts. Though we want calm, these pulsebeats are the essence of life. To stop moving and changing would be to die.

* * *

The products of the mind freeze, but the heart melts them. The soul eternally flows.

* * *

While spirit flowed from every pore of the world in the beginning, in our time it is forced to cower in dark corners. We shove it off into out of the way places: into the church, into cults, into death and funerals, into frenzies of horror and fear. Dreyer restores it to its place at the center of everyday life. The soul is in the farmhouse, the drawing room, the bedroom.

* * *

His spirituality is not otherworldly, not separate from ordinary life, but mixed into the everyday. Johannes thinks spirituality is to be with God in heaven; Inger and Maren know better. It is in milking the cows, scrubbing the floor, and doing the washing.

* * *

The blendings of the natural and supernatural in Dreyer's work are not to convince us of the existence of a special realm of the supernatural, but to show us that there is no difference between the two realms. What exorcism dealt with in the middle ages, and witchcraft expressed in the seventeenth century, the soul is to every time and place.

* * *

Soul threatens all established values because it obeys no worldly master and yields to no material bribes. All saints are heretics. All lovers are dangerous.

* * *

Society is the mortal enemy of soul, which it can neither control nor understand. It hates and fears spirit because spirit reveals the irrelevance of all of the things it values and esteems.

* * *

It is a fiction of our fallen time that the body and the soul are different. Dreyer shows us that it is only in a non-spiritual world that the spirit is separated from the flesh. As the final kiss in Ordet shows, true love is soul and saliva mixed to the point that they cannot be told apart.

* * *

Only when we despair do we feel there is a difference between spiritual and physical love. In our exalted moments, we realize that sex and spirituality are the same.

* * *

Many of these truths are hidden and unspoken and must remain so. They cannot be given; they must be found out by each individual for himself. We must earn them. Otherwise they are merely words. But as experiences, they are always within us, near at hand, instantly available to anyone in need.

* * *

God made the soul invisible for a reason. It is preserved from being handled by the unworthy. It is veiled in mystery to protect it. And to protect the unready from it. The truth would blind them.

* * *

In the end, Dreyer's work reminds us that although the world denies spirit, art can revive our faith in it. When we lose our spiritual way, art can map the path back. It wakes our souls from slumber. It exists to speak a language beyond any worldly one–the language of the soul.

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.