Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Grethe Risbjerg Thomsen (poems); based on Gertrud by Hjalmar Söderberg
Cinematographer: Henning Bendtsen
Producer: Jørgen Nielsen
by Jon Cvack
The last two Dreyer films I’d watched were Vampyr (1932) and Day of Wrath (1943); both watched during Scary Movie Month in 2012, which I remember fondly though can’t recall a single detail. Before that it was The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929) the year before; serving as one of those classic art films I finally made it to and enjoyed, but kind of fell into the Not-So-Sure-When-I’ll-Revisit category of classic cinema.
Netflix DVD synopsis mentions that Gertrud is composed of only 89 shots, which at just shy of two hours, is pretty impressive. And yet Dreyer somehow makes it impressive by never making it seem like he’s shooting in a bunch of oners. The story starts with a moderate take in the beginning, introducing a middle aged woman as the title character played by Nina Pens Rode who’s married to the career obsessed and ambitious Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe). Gertrud explains that his work obsession has caused her to meet another man who she’s fallen in love with and plans to pursue; asking Gustav for a divorce.
In two behind the scenes interviews, actors Baard Owe as Getrud’s lover Erland Jansson and Axel Strøbye as Axel Nygren, Gertrud’s old friend who’s been in love with her for a lifetime, both mention how they received little to no direction. Dreyer would simply have them do it again and again until he eventually got what they wanted. Owe specifically mentioned how stilted and “archaic” he thought the dialogue was. Dreyer told him it’s a film about words.
It reminds me of David Mamet’s “invent nothing/deny nothing” mantra. Aside from Gertrud’s initial scene with Owe, rarely does Gertrud ever lose the somber look on her face; which per the Kuleshov Effect, makes her response to each scene all the more fascinating. Around her husband it shows indifference, around Axel it shows longing and fondness, and around Owe it shows heartbreak and disappointment.
We follow Gertrud as she pursues Owe, making love to him after visiting the park, to then head back home and to a banquet dedicated to honoring Dutch poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode) who offers his views on love, which I wish I wrote down as I can’t recall the details and seems significant; other than the crumbs of it being cold, dry, and painfully honest. We learn that Lidman was once involved with Gertrud, and most of his ruminations on love are all based on that relationship. He’s never let her go.
Later at the party, Lidman tells Gertrud that Jansson had told everyone at a party how he had sex with her; going so far as to call her a whore. Gertrud confronts Jansson the next day and demands he choose between being with her or not. Jansson then admits he’s gotten another woman pregnant. Lidman then pursues Gertrud, but as he too was focused on his career, Gertrud knows it couldn’t work. Her husband makes one last attempt, saying she could even keep her lover if she stayed with him; we’re unsure whether to preserve his image amongst his friends or colleagues, or because he actually realized how much he loved her.
Years later, Gertrud is now old and still single. She’s greeted by Axel who’s in town, and she admits that her greatest mistake was searching for the perfect love; with Axel holding his hands and expressing how he feels about her once again and still it goes unrequited.
Owe mentioned that few had high hopes for Gertrud, and once released, it was an extremely popular film amongst women. The film captures the alienation a woman could feel within a particular world. Divorce was entirely the man’s decision, leaving women to either risk adultery, or attempt honesty and hope for the best. To think divorce is only a recent right granted to women, and that they could be entirely trapped in a loveless - or worse - unfaithful or abusive marriage is an idea few consider; serving as a form of enslavement. It seems women flocked to the film because it portrayed such a taboo; showing what a strong and honest woman could do. An American version would have had her end up with one of the men; likely her lifelong friend Axel. Instead we see a woman with complex thoughts on love and purpose; believing the idealism of love and discovering the dangers of holding too firm for perfection. It’s a strong character not just for choosing to live her life, but for learning the tragic consequences of what absolute freedom can lead to.
The film seems very much about the hope of what freedom can provide versus the reality. Some will achieve great things - whether with love or career, others will discover disappointment, and Gertrud appreciates each and every moment.
BELOW: A taste of Dreyer's modest singles
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