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.