Ordet: An Unusal Film




Ordet (1955, 1957 in North America)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer A/S, 120 minutes, not rated.

In Danish with subtitles

★★★ ½


Carl Theodor Dreyer (1888-1968) is considered one of the greatest directors of all time. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in a theater. Likewise, Ordet has been cited by Britain’s Sight & Sound as among the top 20 films in cinema history, an assessment shared by those who awarded it a Golden Lion in Venice in 1955. I rate it lower because it takes a certain kind of viewer to appreciate it.


Ordet is based upon a 1932 play by Kaj Munk, a Lutheran pastor martyred during World War II. Religion is at the center of Ordet, which takes place in Denmark during 1925. The widower Morten Borgen is a prosperous farmer and the father of three sons. In his mind, though, his greatest achievement was bringing faith to what had hitherto been the darkness of Jutland. His brand of Lutheranism is stern, but joyful. His eldest son Mikkel has lost his faith, though he is married to the ebullient and very pregnant Inger. Part of Mikkel’s faith crisis is that Inger has given him two daughters, but no son.


To make that sound less outrageous, farm families depended upon male heirs to keep even rich farms going. The youngest son Anders is unmarried and, though he’d like to wed Anne Petersen, neither father will agree to the match. Her father,  Peter (Enjer Federspiel)* belongs to the Inner Mission sect, a very austere and sin-focused form of Lutheranism. He and Morten see each other as apostates.


To say that the middle son Johannes (is unlikely to produce an heir is an understatement. He was once a promising student, but studied Søren Kierkegaard so intensely that he underwent an unusual conversion; he believes that he is Jesus Christ, preaches atop empty hillsides, and drives other male Borgens crazy. Most of the villagers would attest he is crazy. A word: Kierkegaard is among the most difficult philosophers to study. He was an existentialist who believed in free will. Existentialism is sometimes called living like a saint without God, but Kierkegaard was a mystic who emphasized Christian love and believed that God could only be intuited. What, exactly, that means has baffled many. Morten blames Kierkegaard for Johannes’ troubled mind. Now you know why I said not every viewer will relate to Ordet.


Johannes–Latin for John­–plays another role. “Ordet” is Danish for “The Word.” The New Testament Gospel of John opens: “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There is a new pastor in the village who thinks Johannes is mentally ill, as does the local doctor. Though the first is a believer and the latter a man of science, each agrees that the age of miracles is over. I will say no more about what happens other than it will challenge whatever you think or believe.


Here's how I unpack the characters, though I know little of Kaj Munk mine might not have been his intention. I’m pretty sure that Morten and Peter symbolize that theological debates are dead ends when they depart from the essence of faith and when, in Kierkegaardian terms, they seek to “prove” the unknowable. The doctor, pastor, and Mikkel seem to represent materialists who doubt anything they cannot observe. Johannes is tougher, but I think Munk and Dreyer are playing off the age-old question of whether anyone would recognize a messiah if one appeared amidst them.


I’m on safer ground in saying that the black and white cinematography of Henning Bendtsen is stunning, especially his empty expanses, grey skies, and grasses blown by seaside breezes, though all of Bendtsen’s camera work enhances moments of moodiness, melancholia, and astonishment. Dreyer used long takes and Bendtsen made each look like a painting. I should note that the acting is more mannered, expressionistic, and poetic than realistic. Was this was deliberate, stylistic, or because Dreyer first made films in the gesticulating silent era?** Add it to the list of mysteries. Ordet is better contemplated than explained.


Rob Weir




* You will not know the actors. I mention Federspeil because he too was a Danish film director.

** Thanks to friends Chris, Ian, and Kiki for those thoughts.


On View at Mt. Holyoke and Amherst College


Lewis Hine


The Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts has numerous colleges and universities with art museums. As befits educational institutions, many of the exhibits change–for good or ill.


Mount Holyoke College Art Museum is celebrating its 150th anniversary through May 25 with an exhibit titled Relaunch Laboratory. It showcases work that challenges old conventions. As you’ve probably noticed, Eurocentrism and colonialism have come under critical scrutiny, as have elitist perspectives on “fine” art. This includes both creative people in the West who find beauty in street perspectives and those from non-Western cultures whose work collapses outmoded ideas that anything “functional” is, at best, craft. 


Berenice Abbott

Thomas Hart Benton


Mt. Holyoke was ahead of the curve in collecting photography and recognizing how it tells otherwise forgotten tales. One such shutterbug was Lewis Hine, who fancied himself a reformer with a camera. His shot of a shirtless worker inside Holyoke’s Paragon Rubber Company is dynamic, but gritty. You can almost feel the heat and smell the raw rubber and well-worn machines. You can also imagine how many generations of young men toiled just like the central figure. Likewise, there’s nothing intrinsically beautiful about a hardware story captured by the lens of Berenice Abbott in 1938. Yet somehow it’s hard to look away from this potpourri of plebeian utilitarianism. Work is celebrated on heroic scale by a 1930s work by muralist Thomas Hart Benton. You might notice that some are working and some are “supervising” or that figures on the right seem imperiled. 


Ismael Randall Weeks


Dancing Ganesha


Peruvian artist Ishmael Randall Weeks challenges how we see in a work titled Código atemporal, which means “timeless code.” At first it’s little more than brick dust, cement, dirt, and black quartz placed upon a beige background. Yet it too invites you to look at its arrangement and imagine those whose hands touched the materials. Form meets function in a dance mask from Sierra Leone created in the 20th century to evoke older rituals. Speaking of which, how about the timelessness of Ganesha who is still revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism. This one dates from either the 9th or 10th century. If you carefully on the bottom right you’ll see a mouse under Ganesha’s foot. Mice represent the need to control ego. Maybe we should send a box of them to Congress! 


El Anasui

Vanesa German


I was enthralled by Bird from Ghana’s El Anasui because it is made of wood and he is an artist I associate with giant metal “curtains” made from discarded liquor bottle bands. I was also taken by a work from African American sculptor Vanesa German. Her The Father Shoe has nails and shimmery metal, each with wings. One for is for coming and other for going. 


Charmion von Wiegand

 Charmion von Wiegand asks a question we should always consider. Her 1957 work titled 42nd Street New York City is lines and color blocks. Do we need anything else to evoke a bird’s eye view of a city throughway?



I wish I felt as charitable about work currently on view at the Mead Art Gallery of Amherst College. The most interesting thing you can there at present are galleries being readied for an exhibit of global indigenous peoples.


Current exhibitions titled Trópico es Politico: Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime and Like a Slow Walk with Trees: Alicia Grullón evoke adjectives such as obvious, preachy, and boring. 


 The first has juxtapositions of how people live in places such as Panama and various Caribbean islands versus visitor pitches. Footage of tourist advertisements are of pristine playgrounds inhabited by rich jetsetters–casinos, white beaches, golf courses…. As you know, that’s not how it is on the ground. Key phrase: As you know. It’s the kind of thing used to drive home the built-in imbalances of colonialism and then move on to discussion. Instead of driving home, the exhibit takes backroads and ends up where it started.


This is even more blatant and dull in Like a Slow Walk with Trees. Thesis: Trees are good, people are bad. In case you don’t get that, cosplay figures hold up signs or pose with props that tell you what you are supposed to conclude.


Agitprop art delivers messages, but the most effective invites dialogue rather than delivering a sermon. Once dogma enters the scene, dialogue dies and we are left with just two options: acknowledge our sins or walk away. The latter is unfortunate but the first is a dead end. Forced conversions seldom work. Add unproductive to the list of adjectives for these exhibits.


Rob Weir



Try This Older Peter May Mystery




The Man With No Face (1981/2019)

By Peter May

Quercus, 406 pages



I quite enjoy the thrillers and mysteries from Scottish novelist Peter May. The Man With No Face was an early effort that was reprinted after May gained renown as a British television writer, took the dosh, and then returned to fulltime writing. His Lewis trilogy is a personal favorite. The Man With No Face isn’t up to that standard, but it’s still a good read.


The centerpiece of this murder mystery is Neil Bannerman, a journalist with the Edinburgh Post. Bannerman is a fine reporter, but he’s also jaded, tart of tongue, and all-round pain in the keister. Not surprisingly, he lives alone. He is especially cynical of Tait, an editor who is really a cost-cutting hatchet man. Tait would love to get rid of Bannerman, but he’s too good to dump without a really good reason.


Instead, Tait packs Bannerman off to Brussels to cover a big EEC (European Economic Community) conference which, for an investigative reporter like Bannerman, is akin being assigned to covering local school board meetings. He encounters a group of smug embedded reporters who turn in stories that differ little from press releases and are content to treat their gravy gig as if they are at Club Med on an expense account. It takes Bannerman less than a day to offend virtually every reporter in Brussels. That includes his contact Tim Slater in whose apartment he is staying.


Slater is in tight with British Cabinet minister Robert Gryffe. Bannerman doesn’t care for him much either, but things get much more interesting when both Slater and Gryffe are found dead in the latter’s townhouse. Local police investigate and conclude the two shot each other during a quarrel. You don’t have to be as dogged as Bannerman to doubt that conclusion. As it transpires, there was a hidden witness to the dual slayings, Gryffe’s severely autistic young daughter Tania. She doesn’t speak, but she’s a precocious artist who drew the incident. The problem with her sketch is that the man who isn’t one of the victims has no discernible face.


Bannerman’s investigations will take him down several unexpected paths, not the least of which is that Tania seems at ease with Neil, whereas she goes into a shell or screams when she is in the company of anyone of than her (now-dead) father and her nanny/caregiver Sally. About Sally, how is it that a confirmed misanthrope like Neil finds himself increasingly attracted to her or feeling protective of Tania? At least he can exercise his bile toward Platt, once a promising reporter but now a loser who holds his tongue to scrounge background assignments from other derisive reporters.


A lot happens, not the least of which is that an amoral assassin named Kale would like to plant both Neil and Tania. But for whom is he a contract killer? That involves following leads that might yield Bannerman a major scoop. Every crumb he follows yields another layer of complexity. He comes to expect that a reclusive but respected Swiss entrepreneur René Jansen is too good to be true. Eventually he will enter a world of deadly and dirty politics in which even the men in shadows have an overlord.


Okay, so maybe we too jaded these days to be shocked by the idea that power, politics, and crime might be linked, but by having a lot of threads in need of being tied together, May’s 1981 plot holds up well. I’ll leave it to you to decide how well the twists involving Kale and Tania ring true. Younger readers will just have to trust me when I say that once upon a time there really were crusading journalists who wrote for pulped products called newspapers. Oh wait, was that cynical?


Rob Weir