Politics is easy. So are history, biography, and formal technique. But transcendence is tough.
Based on Kaj Munk’s play of the same name, Ordet tells the story of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a prosperous farmer whose three sons have each laid a particular burden on their father’s shoulders. The eldest, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), has renounced the religious beliefs of his ancestors, claiming that he no longer has even “faith in faith”; the second, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), has gone mad from too much study and now claims to be Jesus of Nazareth; and the youngest, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), has disobeyed his father by pursuing the hand of a young woman whose religion puts her family at odds with the elder Borgen.
On the surface, Ordet is primarily concerned with the Romeo and Juliet-like Anders plot, along with a more dramatic sidebar involving Mikkel’s heavily pregnant wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel).
Ordet is really about faith, though. It’s about the mysteries and contradictions and beauty of belief. Unlike most other films, though, Ordet treats this subject with both measured skepticism and reverence, forcing us to distance ourselves, even if only temporarily, from our personal beliefs so that we might reexperience “true faith” (whatever that is) free of cultural baggage and biases.
Dreyer accomplishes this by way of something akin to the Verfremdungseffekt, Bertold Brecht’s “alienating” approach to theater. John Fuegi has described the purpose of the V-effekt as disrupting “the viewer's normal or run of the mill perception by introducing elements that will suddenly cause the viewer to see familiar objects in a strange way and to see strange objects in a familiar way.” Ordet does both, defamiliarizing the now-mundane words of Christ, while also making perfectly acceptable the probability of miracles.
For Brecht, the use of the V-effekt in a film or play like Ordet would be a political tool, a means by which audiences might be wakened to their slavish acceptance of hypocritical or oppressive religious dogma. And, in a sense, Dreyer does just that. But whereas Brecht would completely dismantle faith as a dangerous ideological construct, leaving it in ruins, Dreyer strips it to its foundations so that each viewer might potentially rebuild that faith, and rebuild more strongly.
Ordet is, quite simply, one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made. Dreyer's cinematographic trademarks are all on display: slow, elegant tracking shots and pans; stylized, almost expressionistic lighting; meticulously orchestrated movements and compositions.
—Darren Hughes, from his blog “Long Pauses”