The Parson’s Widow

I am only just beginning to study Carl Th. Dreyer and his film, but one of the more interesting things to me is his use of Christian symbols and ideas. Someone who grew up under the Danish state church, which has been Lutheran since 1536, would not be able to help imbibing its traditions, culture, and symbols, and language, just as Ingmar Bergman would in Sweden. That knowledge and influence is most apparent in Day of Wrath and Ordet(and perhaps also The Passion of Joan of Arc from a different historical perspective).  

I recently watched Dreyer’s third film, The Parson’s Widow (1920; streaming here). Most significantly to me, the film does not deal primarily with the parson and the congregation, though the plot literally revolves around the parish. Sofren (Einar Röd) is engaged to marry Mari (Greta Almroth), but her father will not let them marry until Sofren has his own parish. From the beginning, the motivation for Sofren is not really about being a pastor, but about marrying Mari. But after a preaching competition between Sofren and two other, well-educated candidates from Copenhagen (who turn out to be soporific and silly, in turn), Sofren is given the parish. The complication is that the town’s custom is that the new parson has to marry the widow of the previous parson (hence the title and the comedy of the film). Unfortunately, besides his engagement to Mari, the widow Margarete (Hildur Carlberg) is probably 50 years older than he is (and may be a witch).  

According to David Bordwell, who has written the definitive English-language study of Dreyer’s films, whereas other silent filmmakers set stories of personal causes and motives against the background of various impersonal causes (e.g., wars, laws, politics, societal institutions), Dreyer emphasizes those impersonal causes as they drive the action of the plot and of the characters. So the Church, as one of the fundamental overarching forces in society, may cause people to act in certain ways, but certainly restrains and limits their choices.  

The Church is not the only cause, of course. There are social expectations and civil laws that also drive people’s actions. But one of the ways that we see the Church’s impersonal influence in The Parson’s Widow is that the specific people and events of the Church (weddings, funerals, pastors) are not central to the plot. They are the backdrop or the setting for people’s actions, but one could imagine the same story taking place in a setting of royalty or nobility, for example. However, the fact that Margarete is a parson’s widow, rather than a prince’s, does heighten the social expectations around Sofren’s limited ability to act. He is a pastor, so he cannot just carry on an affair with Mari, though he marries Margarete (not to mention that he lies and says Mari is his sister, which sets further limits on their choices).  

The strange thing is not the setting, but the fact that very little of the film actually takes place in the church. Margarete makes some biting comments about how Sofren should be praying or working on a sermon, but after his fire-and-brimstone sermon to gain the parish, we never again see Sofren in the pulpit or before the altar. They are married by a neighboring pastor, who also does the funeral for Margarete in the end. Sofren is only concerned with how he can get rid of Margarete in order to marry Mari.  

There is a nice and fitting twist at the end when Margarete finally discovers (if she didn’t know already) the intentions of Sofren and Mari. And Dreyer’s skill is evident, even in this early film. There is a double frame at either end of the film: the opening and closing scenes take place in natural locations of fields and woods; and secondly, and penultimately, there are scenes in the church itself. Bordwell points out how Sofren and Margarete are paralleled in multiple ways, in close shots on their faces, as well as how and when they appear in doorways and other places. The framing of the shots, and Dreyer’s simple set direction, constantly allows us to focus on facial expressions and human motivations.  

But the church, and Sofren’s supposed work, are the catalyst for the plot, rather than an integral part of the plot itself. This, even though the final frames are a cross-shaped iris shot! It is intriguing to me that Dreyer has clearly absorbed the language and symbols of the Church, but they press in on the characters, rather than drive them. That may come simply as a result of living in a country with a state church. That opens up questions about the effects of a moribund state church, as well as what it might mean for the Church in the United States in a so-called “post-Christian” era. Perhaps Dreyer (and Bergman) can give us some insight on a way forward, either in comparison or in contrast to their own theological positions.