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 here.

Excerpts from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire
"There is a World Elsewhere"
a discussion of Gertrud

Click here for best printing of Gertrud text

Gertrud 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 Gertrud.

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 of art.

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 the dream....

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 here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.