From Dreyer to Trier

DREYER. "Carl Theodor Dreyer possessed the pure heart and natural humility of the passionate individual," Lars von Trier once said about his greatest role model. Of all the artists Dreyer has inspired, von Trier is perhaps the best example of a contemporary director who has assumed Dreyer’s intellectual and filmic legacy – even some of his earthly possessions, to boot. Here we outline the filmic connections between Dreyer and von Trier.

To unfairly simplify Danish film history, one could make the claim that the only two directors that really count are Carl Theodor Dreyer and Lars von Trier.

They are the groundbreaking innovators, the supreme auteur figures who stick out in a landscape of convivial folk comedy and delicately realistic mainstream.

There is another connection between Dreyer and von Trier, a kinship of mind. Von Trier early on made Dreyer his admired role model, and both share a slightly arrogant detachment from the reverberations in the local echo chamber.

The suffering woman

In his youth, von Trier had a job at the Danish Film Institute (the erstwhile Statens Filmcentral) that gave him the chance to view Dreyer's "Jeanne d'Arc" countless times on an editing table. He later picked up Dreyer's great motif, the suffering woman, both in his socalled Golden Heart Trilogy, especially "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark", and in his two America films, "Dogville" and "Manderlay". The miraculous ending of "Breaking the Waves" owes an obvious debt to the climatic resurrection in Dreyer's "The Word".

Von Trier also marked his reverence for the master by making a TV film from Dreyer's unrealised "Medea" script, the only time von Trier ever worked from someone else's script or a literary source.

A bizarre TV clip from 1989, a preview to the broadcast of Dreyer's "Gertrud" on the centenary of the director's birth, shows von Trier strolling through Frederiksberg Cemetery in Copenhagen, praising his idol and ostensibly trying to "resurrect the ghost of Carl Theodor Dreyer by our childhood faith," then kneeling by Dreyer's grave and making the sign of the cross.

Dreyer's tuxedo

Von Trier is the lucky owner of Dreyer's desk and teacup. He also owns Dreyer's old tuxedo, bought in Paris in 1926 when Dreyer was working on "Jeanne d'Arc".

Dreyer had given the tuxedo to Henning Bendtsen, the director of photography on his late films. Bendtsen, who also photographed von Trier's "Epidemic" and "Europa", then passed it on to von Trier, who wore it in his TV mini-series "The Kingdom", in the brief opening and closing segments where he talks directly to the audience. Von Trier disguised as Dreyer.

This is a preview of a feature article on von Trier's connections to Dreyer that Peter Schepelern is preparing for the Danish Film Institute's new Dreyer website www.carlthdreyer.dk. The article will be published over the summer.