Longing for Life

By Tim Winterstein

Here’s one for a long and ongoing conversation. Ordet is a 1955 Danish film (and 1956 Golden Globe Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film) about a family living in a small town in Jutland, where the division between the organized state church and a conversionist sect becomes the catalyst for everyone’s crisis of faith. This is a hard film to watch for people (like me) who have been inoculated to older (purer?) cinema by technological advances, high production values, fast pacing, and color.

Even so, it is clear that there is nothing unnecessary in this film. Every piece of the set was specifically put in place by director Carl Theodor Dreyer (even to the point of Dreyer going shopping for wardrobe pieces with his actors and actresses), and every shot is exactly the minimum. In fact, many of the scenes are a single shot, which sets it apart even further from modern, continuously changing scenes. Dreyer has minutes, not seconds, per shot. In the end, the set is so sparsely decorated that the viewer’s focus is forced toward what Dreyer views as essential.

Adding to the force of the film (at least for a Lutheran pastor) is that the writer of the play on which the film is based, Kaj Munk, was a Danish Lutheran pastor who preached against the Nazi occupation of Denmark and was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 for his opposition. The stone cross erected where Munk’s body was found appears twice in the film.

It is a film that grows more powerful after watching it and whose impact would grow through discussion and argument over what exactly is going on. It’s taken me three days to sort through the multiple themes even partially.

There’s the age-old fight between a staid orthodoxy, regularized religion (as evidenced by the new priest, who says that God can certainly do miracles, but that He just doesn’t), and the small group of true believers which gathers for prayer, testimony, and personalized hymns. Since the members of the organized church have not yet exhibited experience of serious conversion, they must not truly be Christians. And yet, this conflict is not strictly modern, since it is the old believers who are viewed as the happy, but dissatisfied, while the sect is serious and somber, yet satisfied. This is highlighted by the testimony of Mette Maren in the prayer meeting, who claims to be the happiest person alive, but the expression on her face suggests otherwise.

This conflict between religious groups in a small farming town leads to the refusal of the two fathers, Morten Borgen and Peter Petersen, to allow their son and daughter, respectively, to marry the other. Peter’s refusal to recognize Morten’s son Anders as a Christian and as a good match for his daughter Anne causes Morten to change his mind and push for the marriage.

Morten’s other two sons, Mikkel and Johannes, are like two moons orbiting closer and closer to the planet around which they revolve. You know the collision is coming, but you’re not sure how or when. Mikkel has rejected faith altogether, and Johannes believes himself to be (or is?) Jesus Himself. He preaches to an unseen audience from a sand dune and glides in and out of the room, denouncing the hypocrisy and unbelief of his family, the Church, and the new pastor in (painfully) slow, dream-like tones.

Is this strange enough so far? The climax comes when Johannes declares that it’s not only Mikkel’s child that will die but also his wife, Inger. And then he promises Mikkel and Inger’s older daughter, Maren, that when Inger dies, Johannes will be able to resurrect her if the rest of the family allows him to do so.

The question running throughout which is in turn addressed by each of the characters is “What is faith?” What does it mean to believe, and who really does? Is Johannes actually insane, or is he the only sane one? The obvious and stated understanding is that Johannes has gone crazy studying Kierkegaard (I did laugh out loud) and has a Christ complex because of it. But when he climbs out the window and disappears with no one able to find him, he leaves a note with a quotation from John 13:33 (Johannes in Danish!). The suggestion is that perhaps Johannes is not Christ but the Evangelist, quoting Jesus’ words. I didn’t keep track, but I’d be willing to bet that nearly all his Scripture quotations are from John’s Gospel.

How far from the Scriptural Christ have these people drifted? How far have we drifted? What does it mean to pray? What kind of answers do we expect? How does God act in the world? Those are the questions provoked by Johannes’ claim to be able to raise Inger from the dead. No spoilers, but Dreyer attains the highest tension as the audience waits and waits with the family to see if she will stay in her casket or not. (Wait—did she move? Or did I only imagine it?) The film seems to tell us that it is not too different from the way people might have waited to see if Jesus would raise Lazarus or the son of the widow at Nain—a story that plays a part earlier in the film. As the concluding scene shows, this is a film about life, life, and life abundant.

If you can put in the work required to stick with it, this is a 60-year-old film that has endured because it touches themes, dynamics, and crises that are always current. It’s also one that bears repeated viewings. Back into the Netflix queue it goes!