Was Dreyer a Sadist?

DREYER. On more than one occasion, Dreyer was labeled a sadistic director, because he caused his female leads to suffer in his tireless search of the sublime. One of the gems from the Dreyer archives is an unpublished article on bullfight where Dreyer fervently defends the beauty of the matador’s fight with the noble bull. The art of the bullfight exists in an ethical gray zone – like the one Dreyer explored throughout his career.

Carl Th. Dreyer has been called everything from misunderstood genius, to reserved bourgeois director, to “The Tyrannical Dane” as one critic put it in an article from 1951 – in which, consequently, Dreyer’s sadistic inclinations were mentioned. Maria Falconetti’s breakdown after filming "La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc" likely sparked these rumors.

Jeanne d'Arcs Lidelse og Død_1
MASTERPIECE. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is #1 on TIFF’s The Essential 100, a tribute to the 100 most influential films of all time that is to kick off the opening of the Bell Lightbox in Toronto this fall Photo: DFI

Not surprisingly, Dreyer adamantly objected to the notion that he used sadistic means to produce the realistic scenes of human torture and abuse, which remain some of the most compelling of his oeuvre. In 1954, for example, Dreyer sent a letter to a newspaper with the pithy title, “I am no sadist”.

Labeling Dreyer a sadist does little to help understand his artistic process, but neither does it help to assert that he never did anything ethically questionable in making art. In one interview Dreyer states that Falconetti’s tears came “of her own free will – from her heart”. While Falconetti’s willing collaboration may reduce Dreyer’s culpability for causing discomfort on set, it does not eradicate it. The statement betrays instead Dreyer’s admiration for the tears that she did shed, and raises the question of how he actually imagined art related to suffering.

WITH PEERS. Reception on the occasion of the premiere of Dreyer’s Gertrud in Paris 1964: Henri-Georges Clouzot, René Clément, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Dreyer Photo: DFI

The Filmmaker as Matador

“My Article on Bullfighting”, an unpublished article Dreyer wrote toward the end of his career, offers an intriguing glimpse into his conception of art as beautiful, collaborative, and potentially dangerous. The art of the bullfight exists in an ethical gray zone – like the one Dreyer inhabited and explored throughout his career – in which pathos envisioned as serving a higher aesthetic purpose or illuminating some shade of the human predicament verges on gratuitous cruelty.

In the article, Dreyer describes the aesthetics of the bullfight, using a vocabulary drawn from the various fine arts and relating its form to Greek tragedy. He is interested less in tragedy per se than in how aesthetic effect elevates the killing of the bull from mundane sport to a veritable art form.

“While toying with death, which crouches on the bull’s sharp horns, he creates a work of art, for the consummate matador goes out of his way to ensure that all of his movements are graceful and that his posture displays dignity.”

At one point he compares the bullfighter’s movements and extensive training to a dancer’s, as if to emphasise astonishing choreography as a defense against what might otherwise be misconstrued as cruelty. Dreyer carefully delineates the often underestimated psychological and physical risks that bullfighters undertake in pursuing their profession, showing that his sympathies lie with the truly professional bullfighter who overcomes these fears.

“The majority of matadors are courageous by nature, but all nevertheless feel fear creep over them immediately before the fight. But as soon as they stand face to face with the bull, fear couldn’t be farther from their minds. The courageous matador doesn’t fear the bull.”

Dreyer’s identification with the matador makes sense when read as the brave filmmaker, a consummate professional who, undeterred by the perpetual lack of funding and the constant pounding by faithless critics, overcomes his fears to step into the ring once again.

Carl Th. Dreyer


A new website on the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer invites audiences around the world to explore the full extent of Dreyer's ingenious art through a rich collection of original material and fresh perspectives contributed by Danish and international advocates of the filmmaker’s legacy.

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The Bull's Beautiful Sacrifice

However, the most artful bullfighting performance is nothing without a spectacular bull to complete it, and the emotional heft of Dreyer’s article resides with the bull that chooses, against all odds, to fight. The bull’s “choice” to participate is clearly not a false choice for Dreyer, as opponents of bullfighting may claim that it is. A bull may refuse to charge, but he imbues the ones that do devote themselves to the fight with a doggedness and courage worthy of admiration.

“Just as one demands ‘honor’ of the matador one demands ‘nobility’ of the bull. It is not just the matadors whose names are mentioned with reverence. The bulls are also remembered. (…) In the ring, sympathy lies just as often on the bull’s side as on the matador’s, and the spectators shed genuine tears when an otherwise valiant bull must finally concede and give up the ghost.”

Dreyer’s repeated praise of the bull’s beautiful sacrifice might suggest that he found suffering for the sake of aesthetic pleasure unproblematic or easily admirable. But the ethical risks of the perilous combination of beauty and danger clearly unnerved Dreyer. He believed in film as a humanist endeavor. The urgency with which he attempted to dispel rumors of sadism must be understood in part as an uncomfortable admission that using actual suffering – even if consensual – to create effective representations of it risks violating the larger humanist goal of alleviating suffering in the first place.


No Simple Notions of Victimhood

Dreyer’s desire to make art out of the ethical ambiguity of victim and sacrifice – with its accompanying notions of free will and collaboration – might provoke an ethical queasiness in a contemporary spectator, not unlike the bullfight. It also points to Dreyer’s conviction that any honest depiction of life must address its arduous injustices.

Dreyer’s remarkable reluctance to cast the bull as the helpless victim of forces beyond its control also cautions against the attribution of simple notions of victimhood, whether to an actress contributing her full artistic potential to a difficult project, or to a bull fighting nobly and beautifully, against all odds.

Whether or not he took pleasure per se in the suffering of his collaborators, “My Article on Bullfighting” offers evidence that Dreyer lived to make art that treated not only life’s triumphs, but also the potential beauty in its cruelties

An extended version of the article is available on the new Dreyer website carlthdreyer.dk. Amanda Elaine Doxtater is Ph.D at the Department of Scandinavian Studies, UC Berkeley, USA.