GERTRUD (1964)

  • Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • Writers: Carl Theodor Dreyer, based on the stage play by Hjalmar Söderberg
  • Starring: Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe, and Axel Strøbye
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#44), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#52), shown at Cannes and Venice International Film Festivals
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

There are slow, talky movies, and then apparently there is the later output of the director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Having come up in silent cinema, famously creating La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (which, like much of his output, would not be appreciated for decades), he then made six sound movies in his native Danish over thirty years, best-known of which is probably 1955’s Ordet (The Word). Nine years later, his next and final film, Gertrud, was released. It would be booed off the screen at Cannes and win awards and get a standing ovation at Venice in the same year. I appreciate some bits of this movie, but I think I might be closer to the former than the latter.

While it was happening, I thought that Gertrud felt like someone had basically pointed a camera at an Ibsen play and pressed record. What I found out afterwards is that it is based on a play, not by Ibsen, but by one of his contemporaries, one Hjalmar Söderberg, from 1906. His Wikipedia page says that he was thought by some to be the equal of August Strindberg, then there’s a footnote added an editor that says, “By Whom?” Anyway, the story centers around the titular female character (Nina Pens Rode) in turn of the century Stockholm (though the movie’s in Danish). She decides to leave her husband (Berndt Rothe), who has just been appointed a government minister, for her dashing young pianist lover (Ebbe Rode), but eventually figures out that her new guy sucks, too. Refusing to compromise, and without a guy willing to run away with her, she leaves for Paris, alone.

Dreyer shoots all this with a resolute refusal to use cinematic techniques to keep the audience interest. He uses very few shots (at one point there’s just a two-shot of Gertrud and her husband having a conversation that clocks in at nine minutes without a cut), and many of his shots are static. One derisive contemporary reviewer called it “not a film, but a two hour study of pianos and sofas.” Another noted that, with Gertrud, Dreyer reached “beyond mannerism into cinematic poverty and straightforward tedium.” For his part, Dreyer said that he wanted to do a film driven entirely by dialogue, and that he was more interested in tiny variations in his actors’ faces than he was in cinematic techniques. I mean, sure, but you’re making a movie. It feels a bit like painting in black and white.

For all of that, there are plenty of interesting bits in this movie. There’s one all-timer of a shot where a guy is looking in a mirror, and then looks away, and we see Gertrud walking up in the mirror, but she never comes into frame. Then there’s a whole conversation where she’s in the mirror and the guy is talking to her. Honestly, with the opening doing this slow tracking in black and white into a study, I was pretty surprised when Gertrud went, “oh, by the way, I’m cheating on you and I want to leave, because I don’t love you bye” in like the first five minutes. And I also liked the choice that Gertrud does not need to end up with any of these lame dudes. To be clear, all of them are lame.

It has been suggested that Gertrud is a fitting capper to Dreyer’s career, because in the end it is a story about the nobility of the refusal to compromise. There is a reason that he made so few films, and it may have been that he absolutely refused to let anybody tell him what to do, even the people who were giving him the money. In the years since his last movie, he had made attempts to get a long series of projects off the ground (including at least one based on an Ibsen play), along with his long-gestating, never realized movie about the life of Jesus. There is also a theory that, in some ways, it let Dreyer get back in touch with his own birth mother. She was Swedish and had given him up for adoption (eventually by a Danish couple) when he was a baby, a fact that Dreyer reportedly only found out late in his life. Nearly all of the additions Dreyer makes to the original play here were taken from the real life of the woman the play was reportedly based on, one Maria Van Platen, and his extensive research into her life. He even took some of the dialogue directly from Van Platen’s writings. In this way, he’s taking the fictional portrayal back to the reality, so to speak.

I think the basic issue I have with Gertrud, and Dreyer’s later oeuvre as a whole, is that I have trouble thinking of refusal to compromise as a virtue. It’s a perfectly fine story, with interesting shots, philosophical discussions, and a basic feminism that one might not expect in a 1964 movie based on a 1906 play. Yet Dreyer’s inherent stylistic decisions create this weird barrier to entry that ends up being the film’s defining characteristic. The reason that Gertrud was both booed and praised is because those who love the movie and those who hate the movie see the same thing, but have very different reactions.

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