Monday, April 7, 2014

Ordet (1955) - Review

Ordet – The Word

I’m not inclined towards hyperbole, but I seriously think this little-known Danish drama has had an effect on me that is completely unique in my entire history of film-going. It’s a mixture of the dark, bizarre, confusing, inspirational, and sublime. I’ve never seen anything like it.

So now we’re clear on that, I’ll describe the plot itself. Carl Theodor Dreyer adapted the screenplay from a (much wordier) play, and the influence can be felt in the few locations and small cast, but it is the stronger for the narrow scope.

Picture a bleak, windblown farm in 1920s Germany. Here live the Borgen family, ruled by a pious, disillusioned patriarch. Most of his disappointment stems from the fact that his second son, Johannes, whom he was grooming to be a spiritual revolutionary (presumably the next Martin Luther), went mad. Now Johannes wanders the moors, wailing ancient prophecies into the wind.

As for the other two, Mikkel is an agnostic, unsure of anything but his graceful wife Inger’s affection. Young Anders is romancing the local tailor’s daughter, and is worried that his father will not give his approval to the match. 

The plot unwinds through these characters’ desires and lives, outlined by religious pondering among long, lingering shots of the black-and-white landscape. It’s ruthlessly realistic in its portrayal of dryly sensible, modern Christian mindsets contrasted with Johannes’s weird, spiritual ramblings. The characters are well-drawn and memorable—they’re going to stick with me for a long time.

In some ways, it’s amazing that the movie works—very little happens, and what does is…well, if explained with no context, there’s no way you’d find it plausible as a story. And yet it is. Summaries can only convey a shadow of the experience itself. Much of its success lies in a carefully cultivated mood and tone (similar to the last third of A Tale of Two Cities, which has yet to be successfully adapted on-screen), and the memories called up in the audience’s own past. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie’s effect depends much on the person of the viewer (as I suspect it did with me), but I’ll soon test that theory with a friend.

If I say one thing, it is this: watch the second half in one go. At least that, if not the whole thing. It’s a slow film, but once it’s got its claws into you, it’s not going to let go.

For (respectively), a good review and a good discussion on the film, see these links:

Roger Ebert's mostly spoiler-free review.
A discussion on the film, interestingly by an atheist and an agnostic grappling with its faith, not spoiler-free.

5/5 stars.

Hannah Long


  1. Thank you for showing me this movie! You know, there are movies that are good, but then there are movies where an image sticks with me for the rest of my life as an irreplaceable metaphor that I rely on. "That moment", the way they shot great.

    1. I know...films rely on visual language to a different extent. If you have something that has a narrator, chances are it's going to be a highly talky film. Very few directors *really* embrace film completely as a visual medium, and I think Dreyer may be one of those (for instance: his 80-minute long silent film relies almost entirely on facial expressions.)

    2. Good point. I love it when a work of art does something that only that medium could accomplish.


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