Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Gertrud (1964)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Pierrot le Fou, Playtime, and Close-Up)

In the first edition of this feature, the French New Wave of the 1960s and Robert Bresson's theory of "pure cinematography" were briefly discussed in relation to Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. The French New Wave, with auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut leading the way, had, by the mid-1960s, found itself the favor of film critics around the world. It became popular to turn a nose up to anything that whiffed of "Hollywood" or "theatrical," instead hailing the praises of the "gritty" "realism" of films where characters often postured as Hollywood stars in films that had little regard for convention. It was a revolutionary period in film history, and the influence of those films echoed throughout the rest of the 20th century.

The French New Wave did have its downsides, though. Chief among them was a cooler-than-thou attitude towards films that dared to be conventional or experimental without the realm of New-Wave approved styles. One of the victims of this was Gertrud, the final film of Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. Upon its release, it was booed at multiple festival screenings, and many critics immediately torn it apart with vicious reviews. The criticisms were all the same: it was too stagey, too lugubrious, too slow. Unlike the New Wave films that were bursting with devil-may-care attitude, Gertrud was measured and mannered. It was doomed to fail.

As is often the case with the misunderstood, history has salvaged the film's reputation, as evidenced by it's inclusion in this series. But the question this piece is asking is: did it ever deserve to be chastised to begin with? In its unique way, is Gertrud actually an exemplar of "pure cinematography," a response to New Wave filmmaking, or both?

Based on the play of the same name by Hjalmar Söderberg, the film concerns itself with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode), the wife of Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who's being appointed to a cabinet position, and her pursuit of love with him and two other men, pianist Elrand (Baard Owe) and poet Gabriel (Ebbe Rode). Gertrud's major character trait - and possible flaw - is that she regards love as the only reason to live life, and refuses to be with anyone who can't fully commit to that philosophy. It's easy to see Dreyer presenting this as a light critique of New Wave filmmaking. Gertrud stands by her principles, even though it brings her pain, but she defiantly states that she has no regrets(as was normal for the time, it's an mixed feminist message: Gertrud is the hero for daring to be independent and seek her own love, yet she's still defined by her relationships to men). It's likely that Dreyer never meant this as such, but it can't help but feel like a gentle jab at the popular movement of the time.

More interestingly, though, is how Dreyer stages all of the film's "action." The majority of the film is just conversation between two characters, with little in the way of physical actions happening on-screen. More often than not, these characters don't even face each other during conversation, instead looking off-screen. It's the opposite of the New Wave's emphasis on realism. Dreyer's staging is almost hyper-stylized, to the point where it often feels like a film school experiment. And yet, by doing so, it feels even more cinematic. By creating such a stage-bound approach, the focus is placed on the text, rather than the action onscreen. It becomes, in its own way, an expressionist film; Dreyer forces the audience to find themselves within these characters, rather than just watch them. It's a film told in still life; each long take (and there are many) becomes a mini-movie about the relationship between two people.

As for Dreyer, he himself has called the film one "that I made with all my heart." Gertrud remains remarkable not only because it's an unexpected final work from a visionary director, but also because it stands in stark contrast to the films of the time. If anything, it may be more experimental and cinematic than many New Wave films.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

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