Carl Theodor Dreyer
Sweden / Denmark, 1920
Review by Andrew Schenker
Posted on 16 May 2008
Source Image Entertainment DVD
The satisfactions of early Dreyer - say pre-Joan of Arc - are available to the viewer in a somewhat limited quantity. Those looking for embryonic signs of the director’s signature style, augmented by the occasionally spectacular sequence - Michael’s painting of the Princess, for example, or the climax of the Inquisition episode in Leaves from Satan’s Book - will find what they’re looking for; those expecting fully formed masterpieces or even any kind of consistently sustained brilliance, alas, will not. Still, if there’s one early work that satisfies most completely on its own terms, it’s probably the filmmaker’s 1920 feature The Parson’s Widow and that’s largely because, until a sudden late shift in the narrative, it’s played pretty much as comedy, an approach that seemed more amenable to the young Dreyer than the epic solemnity he would undertake in Leaves or the heavily educed melodrama of Michael, and allowed him to narrow (as well as deepen) his focus by shifting his attention to the smaller scale lifestyle of a tiny Norwegian village.
The film establishes its comic territory from the start, beginning its narrative with an audition sequence that’s played strictly for laughs. Söfren, a young student whose cheerful confidence is colored by an off-putting tinge of arrogance, arrives in the village to interview for the vacant parson’s position and finds himself up against a pair of big city candidates. As each candidate delivers a sermon, Dreyer intercuts close-ups of the parishioners registering their reactions - boredom for the first candidate, amusement for the second (Söfren has surreptitiously pinned a feather to the back of his head), and grave attention for Söfren’s own fire-and-brimstone presentation. If one of the signature strategies in Dreyer’s early career is a reliance on acutely sensitive close-ups (most famously in Joan of Arc, a film which consists of little else), here we see the technique already well in place, but used primarily for comic effect. The faces of the parishioners dictate our responses to the sermons and instruct us how to react to the dull solemnity and comic fatuousness of the two other candidates. If the delivery from the pulpit is the set-up to the joke, then the exaggerated facial response is the punchline. The strategy alters somewhat when Söfren delivers his own sermon, with Dreyer filming him from a notably low angle, giving him an authority denied the other two candidates - a gesture especially notable since it’s the last time in the film Söfren will enjoy an authority of any kind - and the reactions of the parishioners suggesting an essentially non-comic response.
At the beginning of the film, Söfren is engaged to his sweetheart Mari, but finds when he’s offered the parsonhood that the job is contingent on his marrying the widow Margarete, wife to his three predecessors and, not only a sexless old crone but probably a witch to boot. Over a cursed piece of herring and a bottle of Schnapps (accompanied by a round of Méliès style trickery with Söfren’s shot glass continually eluding his grasp), Margarete wins his hand, but he succeeds in setting up Mari in the household, claiming her as his sister. The wedding itself provides a brief narrative break as Dreyer uses the ceremonial gathering as an occasion to linger over the unique customs of the village. Chief among these customs is a sort of ritual dance enacted on the church lawn, with the women moving playfully around two stationary rows of men, the men in each row crossing swords with their counterparts in the other. Dreyer also takes us inside for the post-wedding ceremony, staging a lateral tracking shot across the banquet table as a bowl of wine is passed along and a greedy peasant takes more than his allotted sip. (The lateral tracking shot is Dreyer’s principal mode of camera movement in the film - a precursor to the more sophisticated track-one-way pan-the-other technique of his mature cinema - used both to lead the viewer through long horizontal stagings and to set up certain visual gags. In general, though, he prefers to cut rather than track.) Amid the generous representations of the life of the village, Söfren and Margarete finally get down to business with the presentation of the rings, effected in an astonishing close-up, at once comic and grotesque, of Margarete’s wilted hand, the rings of her three previous husbands neatly stacked on a single finger. Unable to fit the fourth ring atop the others, the priest has no choice but to set it down on her empty middle finger.
As they begin their married life, Söfren attempts to establish dominance over Margerete, but his desperately asserted claims (“I’m the man of the house”) are shut down with comic abruptness when he’s quickly given a drubbing by his wife’s slack-jawed servant. The central part of the film focuses on Söfren’s efforts to meet up with Mari on the sly, a series of comic set-ups that always end in disappointment and spousal reprimand for the unmanned pastor. In three near consecutive gags, Dreyer trades on the humorous possibility of mistaken identity. Thus, Söfren ends up serenading one of Margarete’s servants while rushing off to the bed of another, all the while thinking he’s paying court to Mari. The underlying conceit behind the gags and the basis of much of the sequence’s humor is the idea of the emasculated man who is unable to establish dominance in his own household. Forced to sneak around his house, continually wary of the potential retribution of his shrewish wife, Söfren cuts a comically absurd figure. The boldness and arrogance of youth give way to a kind of terrified adulthood that, despite ever more ridiculous attempts at deceiving the old woman (most outrageously, dressing up as a very odd-looking devil) is marked by the inability to achieve manhood’s anticipated satisfactions—defined here both as sexual consummation and acknowledged status as head-of-household.
No, these satisfactions are only achieved through compassion and, specifically, compassion rung from near tragedy. When one of Söfren’s pranks accidentally results in a serious injury to Mari, Margarete takes it upon herself to nurse her back to health and, awakened by a sudden identification with the younger woman, is moved to recount her own personal history, a history, it turns out, that’s nearly identical with Mari’s. The change in Margarete’s character (accompanied by a shift in the film’s tone from the comedic to the melancholy) is indicated, yes, by intertitles, but more significantly through Hildur Carlberg’s remarkable facial contortions. The actress’ withered visage, the eyes heavy with great bags, goes from sternly inexpressive to actively sad, with an odd hint of compassion for the young couple mixed in. Carlberg’s face, an extraordinary instrument of expression and one whose range of emotion was limited to the registering of an occasional smug pleasure throughout most of the film is here released from its prior restraint and, as Margarete relinquishes control over Söfren, pensively surveys her property, visits her first husband’s grave and resigns herself to death, the actress brings a genuine sadness to what was basically a comic undertaking and what could have easily degenerated into soggy melodrama. It is this unexpected, and deftly balanced, combination of the two dramatic modes that finally marks The Parson’s Widow as unique not only among Dreyer’s early work but within the entire scope of the filmmaker’s extraordinary output.