Apologists for bad art almost always speak of ‘intent’, and, in a similar vein, bad critics always try to justify their ‘liking’ a bad film by praising it obliquely, often using words like ‘abstract’ in place of ‘dullness’, or calling a boring film an ‘etude’, even if it is trite. Such is what one will find if one reads the reviews for Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final film Gertrud, made in 1964. Well, my advice to such critics is to look past the bullshit and deal with what is really onscreen. Gertrud is a bad film, and is one in a long line of bad ‘last films’ made by great filmmakers. Recently, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s final film, Saraband, and it was a black mark on an otherwise sterling career. While this film is not as bad as that, it’s close, and Dreyer did not have nearly as many great films to his credit as Bergman has to offset his failure.
Like Saraband, Gertrud is a trite, ponderous film that recapitulates many of the themes and tropes that its maker dealt with far more successfully in earlier films. Like Saraband, Gertrud is a bad film primarily because of its atrocious screenplay. The thing that makes it a better film than Saraband is that it at least has sterling black and white cinematography by Henning Bendtsen, compared to the Sven Nykvist deprived work on Saraband. And, unlike Bergman, Dreyer can at least have his final film written off as failing due to the horrid play it was based upon, written by Swedish dramatist Hjalmar Söderberg in 1906, who can be considered a fifth rate Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg. To say that Gertrud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode), an ex-opera singer, is no Nora from A Doll’s House, nor Hedda Gabler, is to invoke a sharp ‘Duh!’ from your readership. This film is not some proto-feminist tract, for its heroine is a selfish, immature woman who emotionally uses and tosses away three men in the film. It is like an Oscar Wilde play, stripped of all vivacity and wit, so that one is left with only selfish, repugnant characters who are so devoid of real emotion that they rarely even look at each other when they speak to one another, and the acting is so wooden and ponderous that it defies all realism. And because Dreyer wanted it that way is no excuse. It’s still a poor job on his and their part. Yet, the bad acting would not be damning if the new world it sketched were somehow remotely interesting. Instead, it’s a hermetic coffin, and in his four major sound era films- Vampyr, Day Of Wrath, Ordet, and this- Dreyer’s stubborn refusal to change styles from the silent era was an increasing drag on his art- but nowhere is it so manifestly on display as here, for it dooms this film to be not only trite, but anachronistically so.
Made in 1964, it is a chamber drama that, compared to Bergman’s contemporaneous Spider Trilogy, is stale; and compared to the revolutionary style of the Alienation Trilogy of Michelangelo Antonioni- whose magnificent take on a failed marriage, La Notte, dwarfs this film’s take- in terms of realism, art, and writing, makes this film seem like another art form, and a lesser, more primitive one. La Notte was made two years earlier than this film, yet is still modern, while this film seems a time capsule from the 1930s, in terms of style and tone. What was so bold and innovative in Dreyer’s work, three decades earlier, in the great Vampyr, is now merely dull and repetitious. The vapid looks in the eyes of the lifeless protagonists of Vampyr, which is called in its subtitle a ‘dream’, are explicable. The affected and wooden acting in Day Of Wrath can be justified by its period setting, which restrains overt emotions. Even these features’ remanence in Ordet can be explained away as an allegory, as one demented character, Johannes, walks around throughout the whole film with delusions of Christhood. But, as a contemporary of Ibsen and Strindberg, Söderberg’s play, set at the turn of the Twentieth Century, is simply and inexcusably badly written.
Gertrud does nothing but utter vapid clichés about love being all, and using the tritest metaphors, as if she, a woman in her forties, were a fourteen year old girl writing in her diary. And all three of the men- her husband Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe)- a lawyer and budding politician, poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode, Pens’ real life husband)- who returns to Denmark for an honor, and young composer Erland Jansson (Baard Owe)- who inexplicably love this emotionless wretch, suffer because they cannot devote their lives to her girlish notions of love; yet they actually are well rounded human beings, while she seems a basket case who should be committed. She simply stares off into a void whenever anyone speaks to her, and reeks so strongly of artifice that one can only feel Dreyer was attempting something, but failed, and miserably so, for there is nothing going on underneath the surface of this film. All of the characters are like statues, or stilted marionettes with the slightest ranges possible of their miens. Yet, none has the excuse of mental illness that Johannes from Ordet does.
Dreyer was the complete antithesis of a later filmmaker like Werner Herzog, whose initial artistic impulses are driven by emotion and intuition. Yet, Herzog always tempers such with great intellect and a well thought out take on the art of his films. Dreyer always proceeded intellectually, and seemed almost averse to letting even a tinge of emotion into his work, and if this film is any indication of his ‘emotionalism,' I’m thankful for its lack in his earlier, better films, for, although the consummate intellectual filmmaker, Dreyer claimed he made Gertrud ‘with his heart’, no heart shows, as this is one of the most passionless films ever made. This film, like Saraband, consists mostly of scenes of two characters in dull dialogue, and like that later disaster, this leads to the characters drawing out their most banal and affected emotions. Clearly, were Gertrud a real person, and living today, she would likely be diagnosed as having suffered some great trauma in youth- perhaps sexual abuse or the loss of a parent, for despite her protestations of great emotion, she is utterly incapable of such. When she sings, as example, her voice is precise, pitch perfect, but utterly sterilized of any passion. In a scene where she tries to seduce her younger lover, the composer Erland, she goes into another room, and we see only her shadow undressing, in a trope stolen directly from Vampyr. When an artist starts stealing ideas from their own earlier, greater works, you know their careers as true creative forces are over. Similarly, scenes where candlelight and mirrors are involved, invoke scenes from Day Of Wrath and Ordet, as does a lakeside scene in this film echo directly to the scenes of illicit love between Anne and Martin in Day Of Wrath.
As the film ends, we see an epilogue of Gertrud and her old friend, Dr. Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye), a psychiatrist, years later in France, never having become lovers, and her returning his letters to be burned. She cloisters herself in an inert intellectual mausoleum where her lone bad poem, written as a teenager, and her masturbatory ideals and ideas of love have even left her, yet she is quick to scold an old manservant. The ending may or may not be ‘real’, for it is shot in a different light than the rest of the film, and after the prior scene, of her leaving her husband, one can easily believe this coda is all in the self-obsessed Gertrud’s mind, for, again, she and Axel speak tritely, and in the worst sentimental clichés, of love and life’s loneliness, love being pain and unhappiness, and it makes one wonder how anyone could think these are the ideas of a great artist? Gertrud, throughout, does nothing but selfishly whine, and proclaim her ‘tiredness’ with the world. But, she’s a cipher of a person, wholly void of humor, and one of the most narcoleptic forces in her world. The reason she left her first lover, the poet Gabriel Lidman? She finds a drawing of her, with the words, ‘A woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.’ For the sin of scribbling something offhand she leaves him. Yet, he still wants her back. Her husband’s crime? He values his work and is not passionate enough, although we see that he clearly adores her, and most women would love a faithful man who treats her well and affords her luxury. This plaint of his work might be a reasonable complaint were this a female character from a Bergman film, portrayed by an earth mother type like Liv Ullman, but Gertrud is even more emotionally nihil than her husband. And while her young lover is faithless, brags of his conquest of Gertrud to Gabriel, and knocks up another woman, we are at least thankful that, unlike the other two men, he’ll never have his life and heart wrecked by this stifling shrew of a prima donna. Similarly, we are glad, as an audience, that Axel is never allowed in to her inner life, and is the one to leave her, for of the four main characters he is the only one who consistently looks at the person he is talking to. He has yet to be emotionally castrated lie the older characters.
This film is apart of The Criterion Collection trilogy of Dreyer’s last three films, including Day Of Wrath and Gertrud, and the DVD features are rather spare, lacking a commentary track, with just some stills and some deleted footage from the documentary Carl Th. Dreyer- My Metier, which can be seen in full in the fourth DVD disk in this boxed set. The film is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. There are still photos, archival footage from Gertrud, and deleted scenes the Carl Th. Dreyer- My Metier documentary.
Yet, the lack on the DVD itself is the least of the concerns. Like Bergman’s last film, Saraband, Gertrud is a profound disappointment- self-indulgent, dull, and void of any cinematic pluses, save for a few well-framed shots. Bad critics try to defend this bad film by stating things like, ‘Those who decry the film’s alleged lack of cinematic action are ignoring Bendtsen’s persistently transitory approach to framing, or are unable to recognize his subtle angular perceptions.’ Sorry, no. One can see the artistry in the cinematography, but Dreyer’s direction consists wholly of moving his marionettes from one awkward position on a sofa or bench to another. And, despite film being a visual medium, especially in the sound era, a good screenplay is requisite. This film’s screenplay is horrible, and the film’s length, at an hour and fifty-six minutes, only heightens the agony of the well attuned ear. Some claim Dreyer is illuminating female suffering in this film, but the viewer knows no more of Gertrud, in a positive sense, by film’s end, and what we do know makes her a wholly detestable character, for hers is not a life devoted to things higher than the careerist choices of her three male paramours, rather a life of unabated egocentrism and puerile narcissism, and perhaps mental illness.
And, contrary to what many bad critics suggest, this film is in no way, shape, nor form ‘inscrutable’. It is, in fact, the exact opposite, so transparent in its dull depiction of a disturbed and repulsive mind that it seems to be stating that a warped mind is greater than the universe because it contains it, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. All the characters in this film succumb to the idiotic strictures that Gertrud imposes upon herself, strictures designed to limit any real love, and to cast herself in the role of martyr, occupied by other female characters in the Dreyer canon- Joan of Arc, Anne from Day Of Wrath, and Inger from Ordet. And, not only do all the characters in the film speak in dispassioned clichés- such as, when Gertrud declares to Erland that she is dew, white clouds, the moon, etc.; or when she declares that great men despise love; or that she needs ‘pure, warm blood’ in her love- to the point of inducing dry heaves, but from scene to scene the characters contradict each other and their prior claims. In short, they are banal and fickle!
This film, in many ways, has far more in common, albeit unintendedly, with the zombie films of George A. Romero and his imitators than with Dreyer’s earlier great films- call it zombie formalism, of the sort that makes Dreyer have Gertrud dream of running naked, then being attacked by dogs, only to see a painting like that in the chamber where Gabriel is being honored by Gustav and others. This bad use of symbolism, as well the indulgence of a cliché, and Dreyer’s inexplicable inability to see it as such, is what dooms Gertrud as a work of art, yet make a viewer thankful that the man lived only four more years, and never had a chance to make another film. One can only cringe with horror at the depths his silent era mannerisms would have wrought in the 1970s, when American filmmakers like Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, and company were pushing boundaries that Dreyer found insuperable. Fortunately, an artist is never judged by his last or least work alone, and Dreyer was wise enough, for his reputation’s sake, to have that dufecta hit in a single film. As for the film? Watch Vampyr instead, and marvel at an artist at the height of his powers and ahead of the game. Gertrud is a really bad film, and I always mean every word I say.