We Need to Talk About CARL THEODOR DREYER (Books on Dreyer by Dale & Jean Drum and Jan Wahl)

The history of cinema has certainly great directors, great minds and geniuses in almost every decade. But some of them, even among this “happy few”, create their own halo of greatness and come even forward as a force of nature. Master of The House, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Ordet or Day of Wrath… Any artist who would direct only one of these masterpieces would be among the great. Needless to say, all of these films belong to Dreyer’s impressive filmography. I can keep going about how The Passion of Joan of Arc defines the art of cinema in every aspect, or how Vampyr creates perfectly Tzvetan Todorov’s notion of “fantastic” with its every single mesmerizing shot, but I’ll stop right here. I would rather let Jean & Dale D. Drum and Jan Wahl do the rest of the “talking”, since they’re extremely more qualified than I am on the life and work of Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968).

MY ONLY GREAT PASSION by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum (Scarecrow Press, 2000)

Written by two film enthusiasts, academician Dale D. Drum who had a long history of correspondence with Dreyer, and scholar Jean Drum who taught English as a second language; My Only Great Passion focuses on the life and films of the Danish director. The book’s title comes from a response Dreyer gave at 1950 to the question “what is film for you?” asked by a journalist. He said: “It is my only great passion”.

This all-in-one book summarizes the life and movies of Dreyer perfectly and it is extremely well organized, keeping the line between a cold documentary and an intimate novel very well balanced. For example, it is very entertaining (and shocking) to learn that two coincidences played major roles in Dreyer’s life: Dreyer’s Swedish mother Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, traveled to Copenhagen in January 1889 and gave birth to Dreyer there on February 3rd of the same year, hence the nationality of the director. And secondly, the “choice” of his beloved wife is quite interesting, resulting to a 59-year marriage. But I’ll stop before giving away any more spoilers.

The fact that Dreyer is raised by foster parents, the suicide of Dreyer’s birth mother, a problematic childhood, Dreyer’s education and him being a perfect student almost in every topic, his interest on cinema, every bit of information is there about the youth of the Danish director. And then the chapters that focus on Dreyer’s films take the lead and these pages are just as, if not more, thrilling and interesting as the biographical part of this gorgeous book. As I’ve mentioned before, the book may be described as a novel written with academic point of view; very well documented and a definitive page turner. It is easily one of the best books on Dreyer.

CARL THEODOR DREYER and ORDET by Jan Wahl (University Press of Kentucky, 2012)

Jan Wahl (1931-2019) was a renowned children’s author but aside from this occupation that spawned nearly 120 books, he was also a very “lucky” film historian. He exchanged letters (and friendship) with a cinematic goddess (Louise Brooks), took lessons from “the” Vladimir Nabokov in 1953 and last but not least, he spent a whole summer of 1954 with Carl Theodor Dreyer, while he was shooting another one of his masterpieces, Ordet (The Word). The book in question is of course the result of this encounter.

This is indeed a very peculiar book, it’s composed of memories of a 21-year-old Jan Wahl spending time with the great Dreyer, but it is written by Wahl in 2012, when he was 81 years old. “It took a half century to gain a true perspective on that unique experience, for when you are very young, you assume golden opportunities lie around every corner” says Wahl about his summer of 1954, his “most significant season of [his] life”.

What adds even more value to this lovely book is that Dreyer himself did, at the time, some corrections to the notes taken by Wahl. So every quote from Dreyer is as accurate as it gets and the way Wahl narrates his time with the director is, needless to say, fascinating. The narration is accompanied by various facts about Dreyer, his art and of course, Ordet. We witness this amazing journey Wahl took and at the same time, we learn so much about Dreyer’s take on cinema and art in general. This is, to say the least, pure gold. We strongly recommend these two books to every cinephile and we sincerely think that we should watch, talk and read more Dreyer that we already are.

H. Necmi Öztürk

Copyright notice: All three photographs depicting Carl Theodor Dreyer are copyrighted material under the website www.carlthdreyer.dk , a beautiful site dedicated to the works and life of Carl Theodor Dreyer.

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