Aesthetic and Austerity

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1

In The Word the Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer deals with  the themes of faith and religion. The Borgen family lives on a farm and has a different institutionalised  religion than theirs neighbours and this creates conflicts between them, especially when Anders, the youngest son, reveals the desire to marry Anne, daughter of the tailor. Within the family there are different beliefs and approaches to the concept of deity: Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) is quite religious; her husband Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is an atheist (“has no faith on faith”); his father, Morten (Henrik Malberg), has a rather reserved faith and Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a mad man, believes that he is Jesus. Mikkel and Inger are married for eight years and she is pregnant. Much of the plot revolves around the wish they finally have a boy and his father pressure about the topic.

About movies with religious thematic, Cardullo  (in Tybjerg) said: “The fundamental requirement of an authentic spiritual style, or a religiously significant one, is that it be grounded in naturalistic simplicity, even abstraction”. Dreyer follows this interpretation and his movie is very minimalist, even austere. It’s easy to see how this minimalism influenced other posterior directors, like Michael Haneke. All characters stay inside a room (chamber), and the story builds itself around the dialogs. There’s no rush on the storytelling. The characters are presented and created with depth.The scenes are constructed with long takes and have a sense of reality and slow pace. It’s “Lean, quiet, deeply serious”, as Ebert  says.

Like many Scandinavian films, the landscape is an allegory, but here is little used, being replaced by interior scenes. Still it appears to emphasise the madness of Johannes, working as a reminder of his wild mental state. Interestingly, the sound of the clock working permeates all conversations that take place in the living room, and the silence that it settles after Mikkel stop it create context for it’s return to operation.

The final scene puts the viewer in a place of supernatural atmosphere. The symmetry of the coffin in front of the windows, in the middle of the room is artificial and  aesthetically pleasant. The litany of the religious people crowding outside helps  to build a sense of sadness. The ethereal light coming through the curtains helps to set this atmosphere. According to Bondebjerg : “This is the scene, where all narrative conflicts are solved, and, where a more dramatic use of both editing between shots and cinematographic elements inside the shot are used in a very precise way”. The absence of the insanity of Johannes is counterbalanced with the innocence of the girl wishing her mother to come back to life, which makes the viewer cheer for the fact. The final kiss is not a spiritual one: is a kiss full of passion and desire, in the urge of being alive again. All these details influence the perception of the miracle, turning it believable and creating great emotion on the viewer. The Word is a great and moving piece of art.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.” – John 13:33

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