Dreyer’s Film Festival at the BFI (1) – The President (1919), or Dreyer busting chains

March 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

The BFI has started on a Dreyer cycle that promises to show all of the oeuvre (and then some: the short Dreyer films on the program are also quite enticing) of the Danish filmmaker. A chance to see (for me, for the first time) all of his silent films in crisp, tinted, magnificently restored prints with, for their first item on the program, the wonderfully moody and glistening live accompaniment of Stephen Horne, who handles both the piano and the flute (and at the same time too — and no, the man does not have four hands, though it sounds like he’s working on that).

On The President (1919) — and all things Dreyer in general — the Danish Film Institute has an amazing web resource, carlthdreyer.dk, which I’ll be raiding for posters and stills of the films in the hope that you go and visit all they have to offer, which, in their words, include

roughly 35 original articles about Dreyer and his work, along with a number of previously published pieces, available as PDF-files. For convenience, we have organised the articles under six headings:

  • Biography (Dreyer’s life and work, plus an overview of the recipients of the Carl Th. Dreyer Award and an extensive  bibliography)
  • People (people Dreyer surrounded himself with – technicians, actors, et al.)
  • Places (companies and institutions Dreyer worked with throughout his career)
  • Method (personal accounts of Dreyer’s filmmaking, as well as analyses and discussions of his working methods)
  • Themes (discussions and analyses of the content of Dreyer’s films)
  • Visual style (Dreyer as a maker of images – camera work, production design, editing, etc.)

and loads of images, stunning posters, exhibition booklets and programs, manuscript scenarios, notes on the reception of the films, and so on. And, yes, they also have coverage of the 23 pre-1919 films Dreyer had shot before he worked on The President. In other words, ignore this resource at your own peril !

Not for me here to sum up the plot, but a few notes on this interesting little gem of a film. The point for Dreyer seems to have been to test the limit of melodramatic convention. There’s the triple flashback technique, sure — but Dreyer seemed to have felt the awkwardness of this and was dissatisfied with it, an experiment that he copied from the source (Karl Emil Franzos’s novel) but felt was rather “pretentious” and never reiterated later on (letter to Erik Ulrichsen, dated 11 March 1958). There’s the use of non-professional actors for secondary, background presence (the sleeve-scratching policeman is a great find!). But more than this is how those experiments are all worked in to run counter to melodramatic conventions. The film basically tells the same story of rich young man fooling around with lower-class maid, but with three distinct endings, working its way away from conventions and toward a more realistic, modern representation: the first one does “the noble thing” and marries the girl, the second one does not marry her but obeys his own vow to his dying father, and still writes a nice, weepy letter to his loved one — but the third one is just a cad who writes a letter also to break up his relationship, but the letter is to his own mother asking her to throw the poor girl out of the house ! Melodrama catches on in its wild fire way until the second “gentleman” is caught up with his past and asked to be the judge of his own (abandoned, illegitimate) daughter some 30 years later. So far, so melo. But then the mould starts breaking, the hero starts to think, and plans his own daughter’s escape, then exile, then marriage to some colonial trader — and the film at that point goes back to the naturalistic, nature-loving, outside staging that marks Dreyer’s wild belief in the possibility of happiness. And for the first time, the characters, the tragic, melodramatic characters that up to now seem so concerned, so worried by a code of conduct they need to enforce, the main characters, gasp, smile.

During the film, strong melodramatic moments are staged, indeed, but with visual reminders that nature is around, that there is another, less theatrical, but quite charming life — as in the few, awkward shots of the baby walking among the ruins of the family castle where the father, our hero #1, comes to die of shame. This strategy of providing a background (as in non-actors in the background, too) that’s also an alternative horizon to the drama comes full force in that last sequence of the film where the characters are about to break out from the mould. The alternative is about to come to the front. And then the film plunges back to the melo circle for a very satisfying ending that has a lot of punch, in its finality, to it — but not without a very awkward moment where our hero tries to go back, quite unconvincingly, to the grand tragic figure (the scene where he offers himself up to the judge), only to be made a fool of. We’ve seen his human side, his tragic mask now

[gives off] an unmistakably odour of beard and makeup (same letter quoted above)

Not surprisingly, reception at the time seems to have been mixed, with some Danish reviewers expressing shame that this was the state of Danish cinema in 1920, others not knowing quite what to do with the outdated class relations being portrayed here. There’s a form trying to break loose in this film, it does in glimpses, shots of nature, kids playing, cat and dogs eating, outdoor-living folks, and loving couples in canoes that will turn out to be quite influential in cinema’s quest to romanticize/celebrate the world human minds inhabit — Vidor’s dreamy, weeping-willow caressed boat sequence in Bardely’s The Magnificent (1926) comes to mind:

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