Gertrud (1964): Danish master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film

A chilly masterwork of cinema

A Potpourri of Vestiges Guest Review

By Martin Bradley

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

Gertrud (1964), Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark
Gertrud (1964) By Carl Theodor Dreyer
Summary: In the elegant world of artists and musicians, Gertrud ends her marriage to Gustav and takes a lover, the composer Erland Jansson

Even by Dreyer’s standards “Gertrud” displays a rigidity rare in cinema. When it first appeared critics hated it, (just as they hated “The Searchers” and “Vertigo). Now, of course, all three films are considered masterpieces but while “Vertigo” and “The Searchers” were commercial films aimed at a mass audience, “Gertrud” was strictly art-house, the kind of film critics were expected to like. It was also Dreyer’s last film and it was archetypal Dreyer but this was also the mid-sixties and movies had moved on. We had had a renaissance in France and Italy and Czechoslovakia and even in the UK while America’s ‘New Wave’ was just about to strike. It was a time for young film-makers and Dreyer was an old man. “Gertrud” looked and felt like it could have been made 30 years earlier.

Gertrud, Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, camera and lighting effects, candles, mirror reflection shot
Of course, hindsight is a great thing and today “Gertrud” seems more ‘modern’ than many of the fashionable ‘flash-in-the-pan’ movies that hit us in the sixties and which now seem like time-capsules from a by-gone age. “Gertrud’s” almost somnambulistic pace and Dreyer’s insistence on long takes, keeping his actors mostly static while allowing his camera to move, however slowly and deliberately, instead now seems almost revolutionary at a time when movies were chiefly about movement and movement in a pell-mell style.

Gertrud, Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Camera/Lighting Shot, The characters superimposeWhile taken from a 1906 play the theme of the film also seems peculiarly modern for the mid-sixties. It’s about a woman’s liberation from the constraints that men would seek to put upon her, even if that freedom means the sacrifice of romantic love in favour of higher, more intellectual pursuits. At the beginning of the film Gertrud leaves her stuffed-shirt of a husband because he’s not prepared to love her unconditionally and attaches herself to a younger man who showers with romantic affection. But his love, too, is a sham and Gertrud is just another of his many conquests, so Gertrud leaves both men, and the poet she truly loved but who put his work above her and has now returned to reclaim her, and settles instead for a solitary but more ‘intellectually’ satisfying existence.

Gertrud, Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Elegant Kissing Scene, Dreyer's masterful direction and camerawork
It is a cold movie, it moves at a snail’s pace and it is a film of ideas almost devoid of emotion if not feeling, (there is so little happening on screen it often seems like it could just as easily have been done on the radio). The acting is either intensely wooden or deeply cerebral depending on your point of view and since the characters are really only paradigms it is very difficult to engage with any of them. But it is also an incredibly beautiful film, displaying all of Dreyer’s visual mastery, (as a ‘stylist’ Dreyer has always seemed very under-valued), and it’s a film that challenges our preconceptions of what a romantic melodrama should be. Even by European art-house standards this is a much more rigorous dissection of the relations between men and women than we are used to. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but stick with it and you will be richly rewarded with a difficult and a bold film that strives to be a serious work of art and more than succeeds in its aims.

Martin Bradley, Guest Reviewer, A Potpourri of VestigesMartin Bradley is a film aficionado based out of Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Martin fell in love with cinema as a 5-year-old when he was first taken to see THE WIZARD OF OZ in one of its many re-runs. While the sight of flying monkeys got him a bit jumpy, the experience nevertheless served to be an everlasting one. And, needless to say, he never looked back. Even after joining the Civil Service at the age of 21 he never let the movie buff in him drift away and kept the passion alive. For about a decade he wrote articles and reviews for City Lights magazine (a local arts magazine which is now defunct) while simultaneously reviewing films on BBC Radio Foyle. During this semi-professional stint he also got the opportunity to interview a wide array of people connected with the arts. These days he mainly expresses his opinion on cinema through channels like facebook and IMDb. Martin plans to get all his reviews published in form of a book once he retires from the Civil Service. Meanwhile, his love of cinema grows from day to day. In fact, it would be safe to call Martin a walking talking film encyclopedia. On IMDb alone, Martin has written over 500 film reviews which can be read here

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