Carl Theodor Dreyer's life and creativity
In order to start with the analysis of C. Th. Dreyer’s debut, it is necessary to introduce some significant facts of the director’s early biography. According to Dreyer’s biographical sources, the unfortunate childhood left a noticeable trace in his mature life as well as in his directing career.
Carl Theodor Dreyer (born as Karl Nielsen) was an illegitimate child of a Swedish housekeeper; the mother passed away soon after the boy's birth, and and the child had to grow up in several foster home, with last one being a strict Lutheran family where he was named after his foster father, Carl Theodor Dreyer. These misfortunes of childhood together with strict Lutheran education greated affected Dreyer's future life as well and reflected on his works.
Dreyer's first silent feature film "The President"
The President is the director's first silent film which Dreyer fully devoted to the problem of the illegitimate maternity. The narrative of The President depicts three generations within a noble family, where people suffer from the same mistakes to which reckless love affairs lead them. In the very beginning, the dying father of Karl Victor von Sendlingen reveals to his son the story of his “wretched life”, which brought him to forced marriage with Karl’s mother. Having heard the story, the son swears not to repeat the mistake of his father. Thereafter the narrative continues with description of the successful political career of Karl Victor von Sendlingen. The mature president is represented as a renowned and the most important figure in the society. However, he once receives a request to participate in the court, where the case of his illegitimate daughter is heard. The young woman is accused of infanticide, and the most obvious sentence is death penalty. Striken by the news about his daughter being accused of the most terrible crimes, the president reveals to the defense lawyer Georg Berger the story of his long forgotten romance with a young governess whom he later left behind to keep the oath he once swore before his father. The accused young lady Victorine Lippert was his daughter, who thereafter revealed her unfortunate destiny to Berger. Being lonely since childhood, Victorine easily fell in love with a frivolous young man, who soon thereafter left the unfortunate one expecting a child. The foster mother of Victorine instantly banished the lady from her house, and Victorine was found unconscious in the forest with a dead infant by her side. The father’s appeals for his daughter’s life proved to be in vain, and von Sendlingen decides to break the law by releasing Victorine and helping her to flee.
Analysis of the story and the characters
Generally speaking, there is a saying in the intertitles which perfectly describes the whole narrative of the film: "…never marry a commoner, for no good ever comes of it, naught but curses and remorse."
As we can now see from the summary of the plot, it is very much inspired by Dreyer’s reminiscences about his childhood. Considering the deeds of the president, one may come to conclusion that von Sendlingen’s character was a way for Dreyer to depict his own understanding of how a “wretched” father has to treat his illegitimate child in order to redeem his guilt (“A Sendlingen may be reckless but never a villain,” – this saying was mentioned twice in the film, as a proof for Dreyer’s belief about how a man must behave in the given situation). Besides this, obvious fact, there is also a supposition that the case of the woman being seduced by a wreckles young man is a pretty straightforward reference to Carl Theodor Dreyer's mother.
Another issue which Dreyer wanted to explore in The President is the eternal conflict between the social and individual morality. It is unknown whether this issue comes from Dreyer’s personal experiences, but it is one of the major ones. President von Hendlingen was chosen as the victim of this problem, and here Dreyer puts him into circumstances, when he has to break the law in order to save his daughter. Thus, the only opportunities he has are either to become a villain for his town, that respects him, or for his daughter, whose life is the only chance to redeem his sins.
Speaking about the structure of the narrative, it seems to be influenced by the works of D.W. Griffith, especially taking into consideration the fact that the latter was in the list of Dreyer’s favorites, as some sources state. The plot of The President is divided in three parts: the story of von Sendlingen’s father, the story of von Sendlingen himself, and the story of Victorine. Since all the three characters are closely connected to each other, all the three narratives are intermingled within one main storyline, where Karl Victor von Sendlingen is the main character, which might remind the audience of Griffith’s Intolerance, which was shot two years before Dreyer’s debut. As well as in Intolerance, the narrative in The President is not time-dependent; it finds its development in flashbacks, which describe the events preceding the ones of the main storyline.
Despite the fact that The President was influenced by a renowned American director, this movie still bears the most distinctive feature of European (especially Scandinavian) films: a slowly and moderately developing narrative. This kind of low-paced narrative can be found in Dreyer’s later works (e.g. The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Day of Wrath) as well as in films of Ingmar Bergman, or Lars von Trier. In this type of films, the close-ups and the strict composition in the shots bear more information then the actions of the characters.
As it is also typical of Dreyer, the whole mood of the film is suppressed, and the only moments which seem to bear a bit of humor are the ones that depict the behavior of journalists in the court sequence: one of them appeared in the frame in quite a clumsy way, awkwardly greeting his counterpart, while another was shown making notes on a paper which seemed to be placed on somebody’s back. Since Dreyer’s biographies state that he started his career as a journalist, it can lead us to conclusion that the humorous representation of journalists is also a reminder of the director’s involvement in newspaper business. The true causes of such a satiric view of journalism remain unknown to me, but it is most obvious that it was the result of certain conflicts Dreyer faced before quitting it.
The acting in The President deserves some compliment, especially considering the fact that this was the first Dreyer’s attempt. Probably the only character whose behavior at times may be regarded by some viewers as a bit naïve is Karl Victor von Sendlingen. My subjective opinion is that his emotions are depicted in a bit elaborate way, but it does not spoil the whole atmosphere of the film; moreover, it adds another tint of tragedy into it. The acting that appealed to me personally was the one of Jacoba Jessen, who played Maika, the porter’s daughter. This character is represented as an innocent but at the same time impudent peasant girl, and is well performed as well. The servants in von Sendlingen’s house are also perfectly depicted with their simple, quiet life. The sequence, where the president received the list of prisoners to be trialed, with the name of his daughter in it, is probably the one where Dreyer probably wanted to show how peaceful the life of simple people with their simple routine is, in comparison to the chaotic and sometimes even cruel life of the noble ones. The scene, where the president was reading the list of prisoners, is quite unexpectedly intercut with a shot of a servant having a meal and feeding dogs. Such a decision in editing was probably made in order to show that for the president trialing prisoners is the same routine as for the servant it is to feed pets (or, as it was shown in another scene, to embroider images of dead pet friends on pillows).
Finishing the analysis of acting, it is worth mentioning that Dreyer, trying to make the film look like a real life event, chose actors by their appearance and character, rather than professional skills, which made him invite both amateur and professional actors to participate in the film. Well, considering this fact, we can conclude that the bit of naivety in the acting was a part of the director’s intentions; furthermore, it is known that Dreyer had written 23 scripts before he directed The President, which does not leave us a doubt that he knew enough about casting to make the right choice in choosing his characters.
Probably the overall viewers’ impression of directing would be quite positive in most cases, since the script was executed perfectly, with all the coherence of the plot development. As it was also mentioned above, the actors, despite some of them being non-professionals, played their parts well, having managed to achieve the mood relevant for the story. Everything in the movie looks simple, clear and beautiful; at least the directing effort in The President is not as sloppy as the one of Kubrick in his first movies. Actually, further explorations of Dreyer’s films could help us understand that the young director knew what he wanted to achieve, since the before mentioned beautiful picturesque simplicity of every shot would later become the distinctive feature of Dreyer’s style.
The only mistake of the director (who is also the scriptwriter here) which catches the eye is that Victorine gave birth to her child too soon after she realized her condition.. Such ‘holes’ in the narrative, may remain unnoticed by devoted viewers, but in case of critical approach to a movie, they add a bit of comic feeling to some moments which were meant to be dramatic.
Another particular aspect to be mentioned is the cinematographic work. Dreyer was very strict in creating the right composition for the shots, which can be seen from the simplicity of all images, which sometimes may remind one of classical paintings. There is also some duality present in the way the story is told through the images: on the one hand, Dreyer does not use close-ups very often, which can result in the lack of emotional relationship between the actors and the audience, but on the other hand, the numerous long-shots and middle-shots, which are in most cases devoid of artificial visual elements (e.g. background development), may help the viewers concentrate precisely on the characters and their major emotional experiences. In this sense Dreyer’s style can be opposed to the one of Eisenstein or Welles. Dreyer does not shoot close-ups of particular people in a crowd in order to deliver specific information about their emotional state; he chooses the characters in the beginning, trying to keep the viewer’s attention on them throughout the film.
The lighting seems to be also very basic and, most obviously, natural. In some shots the images of the actors are rather hidden from the audience than artificially exposed. This naturalness of the lighting is noticeable, for example, in the ship sequence when Berger meets the plantation owner. The faces of the two men talking are barely visible. Taking into consideration the fact that the narrative of The President represents real and even banal problems of the society and its individuals, we can conclude that this simplicity not only a result of amateur production, but the goal of the director, who wanted to deliver as much naturalness to the audience as possible.