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Barnes & Noble -Widely acknowledged as Denmark's greatest director, Carl Dreyer was a filmmaker whose intermittent output reflected his perfectionist's fervor. His masterpieces, The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928 and Vampyr 1932, established his command of the medium: He could wring tremendous power from pools of light and swaths of shadow. Beyond this stylistic stamp, Dreyer's unconventional way with actors came to the fore in Joan, particularly in his use of nonprofessionals including Antonin Artaud and his disregard for makeup. The breathtaking Maria Falconetti's chapped, stark transfiguration in Joan is one of the primal images of the movies.
Criterion Collection's Carl Theodor Dreyer Special Edition Box Set covers the master's less-noted but still significant sound period with three of his features -- Day of Wrath 1943, Ordet The Word 1955, and Gertrud 1964 -- and a biographical documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer: My Métier 1995 that mimics Dreyer's crisp black-and-white visuals. "I'm not interesting, it's my films that are interesting," says Dreyer, a point which Métier refutes time and again through interviews with technicians, actors, and friends of the director. Taken with the three features, it is nothing less than an elegant portrait of a great artist's soul.
Day of Wrath 1943, Dreyer's second sound film, is set in the 17th century and traces two intersecting stories of repression and fear. One details the harrowing hunt for an old woman accused of being a witch and her subsequent torture and execution. The other follows Anna, the pretty, youthful second wife of an older pastor who seduces her stepson when he returns to their village. Dreyer's unhurried tracking shots, his feel for the period, and his blurring of good and evil result in one of the best and most subtle studies of belief ever filmed. Shot during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Day is also a film with unmistakable political overtones. So, too, is Ordet 1955, whose events actually take place during the occupation years. This austere, dazzlingly strange movie chronicles the spiritual upheavals of farm family. Based on the life of a Danish pastor who famously refused to put Hitler before Jesus Christ, the son Johannes eventually descends into madness before meeting a genuinely miraculous end. The set and Dreyer's feature career closes with one of the most unstinting melodramas ever made, Gertrud 1965, which tends to shock even the most committed Dreyerites, although that's more a matter of style than content. The brisk plot ventures into familiar lost-soul territory: A woman a slow-burning Nina Pens Rode, scrimmaging for love outside of her stagnant marriage, takes up with two men -- one a previous lover, the other a younger man. What's shocking, for Dreyer at least, is the absence of camera movement, replaced by a muted, fixed theatrical style that plays up the movie's stage origins. While Gertrud remains an acquired taste, those willing to stick with its limpid rhythms, intense visuals, and finely carved performances will find more than a rewarding movie. Like John Cassavetes' vast, wrenching swan song, Love Streams, it could change your life.