From Balloon Pilot to Grave Gentleman

DREYER. It’s fascinating that, while the general image of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is that of a grave, elderly gentleman, his youthful years tell an entirely different story. His life raises many questions, but above all it has produced a handful of films that still command attention and remain in demand the world over.

Over ten years, from his debut in 1918 to his masterwork "La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc" in 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer directed nine films for eight different production companies in five countries. This productive, itinerant first decade stands in stark contrast to the remainder of his film career. From 1928 to his death in 1968, Dreyer made just one feature film per decade (not including his Swedish film, "Två människor", which he didn’t much care for himself). On the other hand, each of those films is a masterpiece, not just in his own career but in all of film history.

Dreyer appears to have been living out of a suitcase for much of that early decade, finding work where he would be allowed the greatest creative freedom. And before his film career started, he was at first a clerk – bolting when he realised, to his horror, that he might spend a lifetime as one – then plunged into journalism, writing scathing, scandalous portrait pieces for the tabloids.

Jeanne darc manus The collection holds a large number of Dreyer film scripts, typically his own version, or versions with handwritten notes, additions, modifications, changes to the scene sequence, etc. The example here is from "La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc". The collection also includes large drawing plans from Jeanne d’Arc signed by the film’s architect, Hermann Warm.

He even became a balloon pilot around 1910, and he also reported on his first airplane flights, once risking life and limb perched between the wheels under the plane on a voyage across the Sound to Sweden. Again, this contrasts sharply with the rest of his life, which he spent in a modest apartment in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, with his wife and grown daughter, who kept the apartment after his death.

Dreyer's personal archives

The Danish Film Institute holds all of Dreyer’s films. They are continually restored, and fresh prints are made. Apart from the films, the Film Institute holds a unique collection of materials by and about Dreyer. The collection comprises Dreyer’s own files, which were donated to the Danish Film Museum after his death in 1968, as well as comprehensive donations from his estate and more. Highlights in the collection include the director’s working papers and original screenplays, plus research materials, including for several unrealised film projects, such as "Jesus af Nazaret" and "Mary Stuart". In addition are personal letters, photographs, film awards and parts of his book collection.

Carl Th Dreyer postkort The more personal sections of the collection include postcards, like this one, dated 1908 and addressed to a young Ebba Larsen, the future Mrs Dreyer: "Dearest! I’m in Innsbruck, in a very cosy restaurant most admirably furnished like a real old beer pub. I would love to see you sitting here next to me, taking it all in with wide-eyed wonder. As I sit here thinking of you and your last letter, I recall a verse by Chr. Winther: All, all the sorrow in the world is struck from the heart when love so desires. Regards Carl Th."

In 1910, he wrote Ebba two cards from Kristiania (the future Oslo), which he calls a dead-boring town. The second card simply reads: "You are so sweet. I want you to have another card." The card is signed, "Your balloon man." The two cards are from 18 October 1910. Two days previous, Dreyer boarded a balloon piloted by one engineer Krebs to compete in a race to Kristiania. There they land, 540 kilometres and 25 hours later, winning the race, while their opponent went down in North Jutland in Denmark. The newspapers hail the feat and Dreyer, too, files a story on it illustrated with his own photos.

In 2008, the Danish Film Institute received a generous grant from the Velux Fund to catalogue the Dreyer collection and to develop a website to disseminate the collection, making the materials available to researchers and the general public alike. And because of the worldwide interest in Dreyer, the website, which went online May 2010, is in both Danish and English.

Visit the website at english.carlthdreyer.dk.

Carl Th Dreyer foto Rudolf Mate