The Parson’s Widow (1920)
There are some strange laws in the United States that involve churches. In Alabama, it's illegal to go to church wearing a fake mustache that makes people laugh. In Omaha, it is illegal to burp in a worship service. In the West Virginia county of Nicholas, clergy are not allowed to tell jokes in the pulpit. (Considering the jokes I have heard some preachers tell, I could get behind this ruling.) In today’s film, there is a bit of church polity that is even more bizarre than these strange laws, and this church regulation provides the basis for the film. In this small Norwegian village, the new pastor must marry the old pastor’s widow.
The Parson’s Widow (1920 - Prästänkan) is the second film directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer. It’s a silent film, of course, and is in some ways primitive to the modern eye. But it is also clever, funny, wise, and --after more than a century -- still a joy to watch. (And it's available free on Youtube. You may well want to view the film before we spoil the film for you here, so we'll wait right here until you come back.)
This film tells the story of Söfren (Einar Röd), a young pastor seeking his first parish. He faces an added pressure in that his fiance, Mari (Greta Almroth), has been forbidden by her father to marry him until he is hired by a church. Bells ring to call the congregation to hear the candidates for the role of pastor.
Söfren has two rivals for the post, both rich seminary servants from Copenhagen. The candidates make no effort to hide the resentment they have toward one another. But the first candidate is a bore and his sermon on the creation story from Genesis puts the congregation to sleep.
The second candidate is a buffoon, and Söfren makes things worse for the man by sticking feathers in the man’s collar so they stick out over his head as he preaches on "Balaam's ass and God's strange power by which He was able to open the jaws of a dumb animal so that it might speak like a man!" The congregation laughs at the man throughout the service.
When it is Söfren’s turn to preach, he goes straight after the two other candidates, “Now, two learned applicants have appeared here before me. One of them took us to Eden, and that is as far back as we can go. Let him stay there! The other chose the text: ‘Am I Not an Ass?’ But what has an ass to do on the pulpit? My friends, I will not take you to Eden -- you are too clever. But I will take you to the bowels of the earth, deep in the roaring jaws of Hell!” The congregation seems quite enthused by Söfren’s fire and brimstone preaching.
In the evening the townspeople and the three candidates attend a feast where the church pastoral committee announces that Söfren has been chosen as pastor. The committee spokesman also announces that Margarete Pedersdotter (Hildur Carlberg), the widow of the previous pastor, has exercised her right to demand that her husband’s successor marry her. Though all the candidates seem to be in their 20’s, the widow is quite obviously in her 70’s at the least. The relief on the faces of the two candidates not chosen is unmistakable.
Söfren is shaken but quickly covers his feelings. He agrees to go with the widow to her home for dinner. Margarete asks Söfren whether he is engaged to anyone, and he quickly assures her he is not. (Integrity is not a strong suit for Söfren.) She serves him herring which looks delicious to him (but not so tasty looking to the staff of Movie Churches). He feels odd after eating it and agrees to spend the night at the widow’s house rather than return to his room at the inn. He wakes in the morning to find a new suit laid out for him, which he puts on. He goes downstairs to find breakfast laid out for him, more herring, bread and butter and morning schnapps. Drinking so early in the morning gives Söfren a bad case of Schnapps goggles, and the widow appears to be a beautiful young woman, rather than the reality, a woman who could easily be his grandmother. That morning, he agrees to marry the widow.
When Söfren goes to see Mari, he has some explaining to do. At first, he tells her the widow may have cast a spell on him -- she's rumored to be a witch. He thinks an enchanted herring affected his judgment. He then rationalizes that he needs to marry the widow or he won’t have the job as a pastor. And if he doesn’t have the job, he can’t marry Mari. If he marries the widow, she’ll die soon enough, and he will still be pastor and they can then be married.
So Söfren does marry the widow and becomes the pastor of the church. He notices at the wedding ceremony that his bride has four wedding rings on her finger already. He learns that she has outlived four pastor husbands.
He tells Margarete that Mari is his sister and asks if she may live with them. (A lie as old as Abraham and Isaac.) She agrees but sends Mari to a dreary room in the basement and the lovers find little time to meet together.
Söfren finds that the servants of the house treat him and Mari quite rudely and he confronts Margarete about the matter, saying, "In the future, I suggest you and your companions be less high and mighty. For I am master of this house."
Margarete summons one of the servants, an imposing, bearish man. She commands the servant, "Master Söfren is too big for his boots. Give him a drubbing!" The servant easily throws Söfren against the wall. Margarete advises her husband: "I suggest you concentrate on prayer and sermons. Do not play master here. I am master of this house!"
Some time passes and Margarite doesn’t die, and Söfren longs for Mari, but can rarely have time alone with her. One day, Mari has an accident, breaking her thigh bone. Margarite tenderly cares for her in the weeks the young woman is kept in bed. The two women become friends. It is then that Margarite shares a secret: her first husband had been forced to wed the former parson’s widow, and Margarite had to wait years until she could marry the man she loved. And after he died, she “was passed along like furniture” from one parson to the next. Mari and Söfren admit to Margarite that they're in love and want to be married.