Thursday, March 25, 2021

Carl Theodore Dreyer month concludes: Ordet


It's a surprise, considering its subject matter, that Ordet  (The Word) is the only one of Carl Theodore Dreyer's films that was both a financial and critical success. In Sight and Sound's 2012 poll of the greatest films of all time, this film was ranked 19th by film directors, and it's a film about the conflict between evangelical and mainline churches.

The film is based on a 1925 play written by Kaj Munk, a Danish Lutheran pastor who was martyred during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. It tells the story of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a rich farmer and patron of the local Lutheran church, and his three grown sons. (The set-up of a patriarch with three grown sons is classic, used in The Brothers Karamazov, Bonanza, and, of course, My Three Sons.)

Morton’s eldest son, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) has abandoned the faith of his father but his believing wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is convinced her husband will eventually find God. The second son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), believes he is Jesus Christ. He often wanders from the family farmhouse to preach to the animals in the fields. He is said to have gone mad from excessive amounts of Soren Kierkegaard (“It’s all that studying that turned his head,” says one member of the family.) The third son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen) whose father, Peter (Ejner Federspiel), is the pastor of the local free church. Neither father approves of the union because of the theological differences between the two families.

Morten goes to Peter to discuss the future of their children. When they enter, Peter’s house church (called "The Poor House") is meeting, and people are sharing stories of how their lives changed when they trusted Jesus as their Lord. When the service ends, Morten approaches Peter about getting down to business.

They send Anders and Anne (with Anne’s mother) to the kitchen for coffee while the men talk. (Sidenote - there is a lot of coffee drinking in the film. At one point, Morten says, “We must have coffee, coffee, from real coffee beans.” There is also a big focus on pipe smoking. Early in the film, Inger readies Morten’s pipe. He’s surprised at how well she performs the task, and Inger tells him, “There’s nothing I can’t do.” Morten then tactlessly responds, “Except have sons.”)

Morten and Peter argue theology. Peter asks Morten what bothers him about his church, and Morten says it’s the call for conversion. He also finds Peter’s church too grim, “Do you know what the difference is between your faith and mine? You think Christianity is sullenness and self-torment. I think Christianity is the fullness of life. My faith is for all day long and joy in life. Yours is the longing of death. My faith is the warmth of life. Yours is the coldness of death.” 

I found this little speech quite puzzling because I found Morten to be a joyless, petty man.

While he's at Peter’s house, the phone rings. The call is for Morten. He learns that the pregnant Inger has become very ill. Peter tells Morten he hopes Inger’s illness will lead Morten to trust Christ. 

Morten says, “Do you want Inger to die?” 

Peter says, “If that’s what it takes, yes.” 

Morton goes home to find that their doctor (Henry Skjaer) and the local pastor are already there.

The Lutheran pastor (Ove Rud) is new to the church. Inger had told Morton, “His sermons are good.” 

Morton had responded, “As long as it doesn’t take him too much time to get to Amen.” 

This pastor had a rather awkward encounter with Johannes. When Johannes told the Pastor he was Jesus, the pastor asked him to “prove it.” 

Johannes tells the pastor, “People believe in the dead Christ, not the living one.” 

The pastor tells Johannes, “Miracles no longer happen.”

As Inger struggles with illness with her husband, Mikkel at her side, their daughter waits with Johannes. Johannes tells the girl that her mother will die, but he will bring her back from the dead. The girl seems to take comfort from these words.

Inger loses the baby (a son), but the doctor thinks Inger will be okay. So Morten, the doctor, and the pastor relax at the dining table (with coffee and pipes, of course), and the doctor kids Morten, “Since Inger is out of the woods, I can tease you. What do you think did her more good; your prayers or my care?” 

The doctor worries he may have offended the pastor, but the pastor assures the doctor he doesn’t believe in miracles, “God won’t break the physical laws He established.” (In his book, Miracles, the apologist C.S. Lewis has a wonderful response to this argument: natural laws are His laws and He is free to amend them as He wishes.)

Just after the pastor and the doctor leave, Mikkel comes from her room to tell his father that Inger is not out of the woods. She has died. The doctor is humbled. Morten and Mikkel are crushed.

And then, three miracles take place. (Inger had once said, “I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly.” But these are not little miracles.)

First, Peter comes to the Borgen farm and asks for Morten’s forgiveness. “We should have not have let our theological differences come in the way of happiness for our children.” He offers Anders Anne’s hand, so she can take Inger’s place in the household.

Second, Johannes, who had been missing since Inger's death, returns. When Morten looks at him, he rejoices and says he can see that sanity has returned to his son’s eyes.

Third, Mikkel and Inger’s daughter comes to Johannes and asks if he will raise her mother from the dead (as he had previously said he would). After the funeral service led by the pastor, Johannes tells Inger to rise up. This greatly upsets the pastor who considers the call blasphemous. Morten and Mikkel are, in their grief, very upset. But the look on the young girl’s face conveys she just considers it right. And Inger comes to life again.

There are real problems with the moribund faith of Morten’s church and its pastor, as there are real problems with the judgmental nature of Peter’s house church. But the way they come together at the film’s conclusion earns them a collective Movie Churches 3 Steeple Rating.

NOTE: This film provides a nice transition to the topic of Movie Churches in April: Miracles.

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