TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 July 2017
Johannes Borgen is touched, soft in the head. He’s devout, righteous, pious, serious, an ardent student of Scripture. But Christianity and Kierkegaard have pushed him over the edge. Now as Christ incarnate he’s emphatically delusional, the Saviour and Redeemer returned to us to rid the world of sin.
It’s hopeless, his family feel — father, brothers, sister-in-law. He exists in trance-like isolation, his parables and admonitions mumbled monologues. Others hear them, but he doesn’t know they hear, his mind broken and transcendent.
The film is largely an examination of faith — what it is and what it does. In equal measure faith aids and comforts, deludes and distorts. Johannes may be mad, but it’s a holy madness that brings him closer to God, to a sense of peace and purpose. Dreyer, the director, does not judge. He shows Johannes’ state of mind, inviting our own judgement if we wish to make it.
Johannes is about 25. Thin, gaunt and bearded, he looks monkish, the second son of a farmer in Jutland, Denmark’s northern hinterland, a treeless land of reeds and grasses, sand dunes and bogs, ice-age drumlins and moraines, rough weather and few people. The sky and sea dominate, the land an afterthought between them. Life here is hard and poor, the cottages spartan and sparse, the land ploughed for food, the church the main social sanctuary. People gather there to sing and pray, to listen to sermons and chat afterwards.
But there is trouble born of old disagreements and grievances. Schisms have developed, differences in religious interpretation regarding the good life. The family of Johannes (the Borgens) think one way, other families another. Both can’t be right, so one or the other must be wrong. This feud of the spirit splinters the community socially.
The younger brother of Johannes is Anders, a lad of about 18 or 19. His eye is on nubile Anne, a local girl of similar age. He wishes to marry her. His father (Morten Borgen) forbids it. Her father (Peter Skraedder) does too. Thus in the rugged Jutland north do this young couple become a kind of Capulet and Montague, love dividing the land.
Mikkel Borgen is married to Inger. He is Morten’s eldest son. The couple have two young daughters, and now Inger is heavily pregnant with a third baby, a hoped-for boy. Morten, a widower, worships the memory of his deceased wife. Mikkel, taking after his father, loves and worships his own spouse, Inger.
Based on a 1932 stage play by Danish playwright Kaj Munk, the drama centres on four principal themes: Johannes’ state of mind and behaviour, Inger’s health and pregnancy, Anders and Anne’s wish to marry, and the religious/philosophical differences between Morten and Peter, patriarchs of their respective families. These themes will dovetail toward the end of the film.
‘Ordet’ is Danish for ‘the word’, a special, immaculate word that sparks the film. Does it have powers of magic and miracle in it? Can it heal the community and bring its citizens closer together?
The period is the 1920s or ‘30s. Telephones ring and motorcars run. But these are early versions of such inventions. The telephones are hand cranked. The cars run along rough, rutted roads. Horses pull haywains in the fields. The raiment of the people is simple and sombre. They are chaste, pious persons, never doubting the existence of God, even when puzzled by his mysterious, inscrutable ways. No accommodating alternative exists, so they go on believing, which after all is a form of hope and consolation. They rely on Him for their survival.
The finest exchange in the film, in my view, comes when Morten visits Peter with an aim toward reconciling in order to support Anders and Anne in their love. This comes after Morten has changed his mind regarding their courtship, overcoming his stubborn pride for the sake of his son’s happiness (and Anne’s).
At the family home of Peter.
“The Lord is the God of miracles. He can lead you from unbelief and error.”
“You say that about my faith? Do you know the difference between my faith and yours? You believe Christianity is being mournful and torturing yourself. I believe Christianity means the enhancement of life. My faith makes me rejoice in life. Your faith merely makes you long for death. My faith is the warmth of life, your faith the chill of death.”
It’s hard not to appreciate Morten’s words. His faith is that of the humanist, one who refuses to renounce the world in favour of one unseen and unknown beyond. He believes as devoutly as Peter does, but not through denial of life, including its sorrows and heartaches. And it will be Morten’s steadfast faith that has a profound effect on Johannes.
“Ordet” is a tale of suffering and loss. But also one of redemption. It’s a parable of faith and survival. It’s also one of the greatest Danish films ever made, the second to last Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) would make. It premiered in 1955 to acclaim and awards. The cinematography — crisp and pure in chaste black & white — is patient and intimate. Scenes and faces are shown in inordinately long takes. The film unfolds as a series of still lives might, though of course the actors move. Dreyer’s background was in theatre and it shows, no gesture, movement or word wasted.
The cinematographer is Henning Bendtsen (1925-2011), who also filmed Dreyer’s “Gertrud” in 1964, the director’s last feature film, as well as Lars Von Trier’s “Zentropa” in 1991, both artistically beautiful films.
One critic said “Ordet” is difficult to enter, yet becomes difficult to leave once one settles into it. I agree. I also think the film does not end at 119 minutes, its official running time, its images lingering long afterwards, as do the characters and their voices. One cares for the survival and happiness of these people. Mikkel’s love for Inger, for instance, is precisely exquisite because it’s so tenderly underplayed. The couple are married now some years but he still sweetly calls her his lass, and you see in his eyes he means it. He loves her. She knows it too and laughs when he kisses her, just as she did in the beginning all those years ago as a teenaged girl.
Deeply moving, sensitive, yet never sentimental. If true, how possible? The best word is genius. A simple, yet complex tale told with tremendous depth of feeling.