Arguably the most important director to be more or less neglected by video, Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer's films have long been difficult to track down, usually available in inferior, virtually unwatchable prints when they've been available at all. That started to change last year with the release of a restored version of Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, a trend that has now extended to Dreyer's later work. Day Of Wrath (1943), his best-known film after Passion, is often discussed in terms of its WWII origins. Set during the 17th-century witch hunts of northern Europe, its relevance to the Nazi occupation is hard to ignore, but seeing it only in those terms is a bit reductive. Like all his films, it's also an intense, psychologically complex drama dealing with issues close to the heart of human existence. Wrath opens with a chilling sequence detailing the arrest and execution of an old woman (Anna Svierkier) accused of sorcery, but then lets the subject of witchcraft drift to the background until late in the film. Its relationship to the story of a young wife (Lisbeth Movin) unable to resist the affections of her elderly pastor husband's handsome son, is readily apparent at all times, however, resurfacing in the film's finale with tragic inevitability. Starkly shot, almost relentlessly dour, and permeated by a sense of doom even when its characters smile, Wrath finds Dreyer addressing the hypocrisy of moral authority and the divided consciences it creates amongst those subjected to it. Its relevance to the time in which it was made is unmistakable, as is its relevance for all time. Having always had trouble securing financing for his vision, Dreyer made only one more feature, Two People, in the '40s. Only two more were completed prior to his death in 1968, but late in life he seemed incapable of making anything other than masterpieces. An adaptation of a play by Kaj Munk, 1955's Ordet (The Word) is a theatrical film in the best sense of the term. Using long takes and almost tangible interiors, Dreyer explores the trials of a handful of characters occupying distinct positions on the spectrum of faith, from a non-believer to an unforgiving fundamentalist to a man convinced he's Jesus. A possible marriage between two families puts into conflict two approaches to faith, but it takes a health crisis to truly test the characters' beliefs. A work of great spiritual generosity, Dreyer's film begins with a deceptive casualness, an approach that by degrees brings its isolated world to life. As a result, Ordet's ensuing tragedy and concluding miracle become moving in ways impossible to foresee or forget. Dreyer ended his film career almost a decade later with another theatrical adaptation. Seldom seen in the U.S., Gertrud (1964) stars Nina Pens Rode as a professional singer on the verge of middle age forced to confront her romantic past, present, and future. Unhappily married to a politician, she initiates an affair with a bohemian composer shortly before encountering a pining discarded lover from her youth. Gertrud's characters speak to each other directly and earnestly, but their eyes seldom meet as if they know too well what they'll see there. The film's underlying notion—love may be everything, but it's often not enough—proves a fitting finale to Dreyer's career, a tough truth humanely revealed by a director who never shied away from directly confronting the things that really matter.
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