Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Nina Pens Rode - Venus statue - park

1964, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

If we’ve learned anything from Day of Wrath and Ordet, we should tremble at the sight of written words in a Dreyer film. Whether it’s the “Dies irae” lyrics, an edict to burn a woman alive, or a death certificate, words on the screen always bring horror. The same goes for Gertrud. In the second flashback, the heroine finds a handwritten note on the desk of her lover Gabriel Lidman, a stupid, casual, needless thought written to nobody in particular: “A woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.” This pointless note brought a crashing end to a three-year relationship, and when the flashback ends, Gabriel tells Gertrud, “My life was ruined by a bit of scrap paper.” In fact this paper ruined her life as much as his.

Dreyer typically attaches so much dread to the written word (he once made a movie called Leaves from Satan’s Book) that he must display them sparingly. Before that flashback the only diegetic words displayed legibly on the screen, apart from the headline for Gabriel’s birthday, were on a poster for Beethoven’s Fidelio on the wall of the opera house. That title could hardly have come at a worse time for Gertrud’s husband, because he passes it at the precise moment his wife consummates her affair with the young musician Erland Jansson. There’s one other written text displayed at the end of Gertrud, and we’ll come to that, but first there’s the question of a pair of written words that’s described but never seen. At the end, Gertrud has recently made arrangements for her burial, with the epitaph “Amor omnia” – “Love is everything”. If Dreyer is consistent then we have to infer that there’s something dreadful even in those seemingly happy words. One of the first aims of Gertrud is to teach us to feel that dread.

Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Gustav Kanning - Bendt Rothe - Nina Pens Rode

It’s not that the movie is opposed to love. Rather it’s Gertrud’s attitude to love that we should recoil from. The idea that love is “everything” is a definition of romanticism, a belief that “love” (she really means sublimated erotic desire) is something pure, absolute, elevated above everything else in life. It denigrates the compromises and accommodations that make a loving relationship work, while striving for an imaginary perfection that cannot exist. Before Gertrud finds the fateful note on Gabriel’s desk, the film spends two minutes showing her tidying up his home – a metaphor for her quest for purity.

Gertrud is not alone in her romantic worship of love. At the ceremony honoring Gabriel, a young student toasts the poet by contrasting him with his generational peers: “Most young people today have been raised by parents who were married in church and lived an ordinary life, a life having nothing to do with love.” Lidman is apparently a romantic artist, but even he, with some of the wisdom of age, seems so embarrassed by the student’s filial contempt that he declines to address the approbation directly (“You’ve spoken about love. As far as thoughts go….”). Gertrud’s beloved Erland Jansson is more in the mold of the young student, and the film does not regard him kindly. The composer’s romanticism masks a deep self-centeredness, to the extent that he boasts publicly of seducing Gertrud. The difference between the musician and the poet is that Erland lights candles beside a fragment of sheet music, whereas Gabriel lights candles beside the mirror that frames his beloved Gertrud. Each man has his altar.

Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Gabriel Lidman - Ebbe Rode - Nina Pens Rode - mirror

The rococo mirror was a gift from Gabriel to Gertrud, and her appearance in it on the third day is among the most arresting scene entrances anywhere. She emerges from the dark background until she’s framed like a painting, and she’ll recede the same way when Gabriel’s time alone with her is up. It’s as if she lives more on the wall than in the room. Throughout the film she’ll gravitate to art the same way she gravitates to romantic love. She lives in a world of poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and opera. She meets her lover in an arcadian landscape, and her home is decorated like a fine arts museum. She tells Erland that “Life is a long, long chain of dreams drifting into one another,” and even he seems taken aback at her detachment from reality. She finds her dream of being chased naked by dogs echoed in a tapestry behind her, and she tells her lover that she had awakened from it, not with a clearer sense of reality, but with the belief that she and he were “completely alone in the world.”

It’s important that the calamitous scrap of paper that had ended Gertrud’s love for Gabriel, sending her into a loveless marriage, a sordid affair, and the long loneliness of aging, was not only a bunch of words but also, on its other half, a sketched portrait. Dreyer’s distrust of words now extends to art and images, as if they have a comparable power to lead people astray. People tend to idolize art the way they idolize words, preferring it to the reality that it represents. After Gertrud discovers Gabriel’s sketch she rips up a photo of herself, destroying her love both symbolically and in reality; and when she finally leaves Gustav he rips up the exact same photo, with presumably the same effect.

Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Erland Jansson - Baard Owe - Nina Pens Rode

There’s an odd symmetry in Gertrud. Gertrud has three lovers, plus a fourth man whose friendship “never turned to love,” all of whom converge at Gabriel’s ceremony. The surnames of the three lovers are Lidman, Kanning, and Jansson – an alphabetic cluster (J, K, L) – while the fourth, Nygren, is removed by one letter. Similarly, the film takes place across three consecutive days, plus a fourth at the end separated by a space of three or four decades. The film begins and ends with clock chimes, and chimes also punctuate many of the transitions between scenes. Grandfather clocks stand over the opening and closing scenes. The four men form a biographical sequence describing Gertrud’s life: her past lover, her husband, her hoped-for love, and the man she flees to. All of this frames Gertrud within a carefully constructed vision of time, looking at her as if from four angles: her past, her present, her imagined future, and the fourth – separate from the others – a kind of timeless perspective.

Without the coda at the end, Gertrud would be a kind of horror story. Her uncompromising romanticism brings anguish on her and on those close to her. Unexpectedly, however, the film leaps forward to her old age. It’s too honest to show a change of heart, which would ring a false note. Any hint of redemption would make the ending sentimental. Gertrud stands by her belief in romantic love, and she pays the price for it, becoming a lonely old woman. Nevertheless time softens her punishment, and her friendship with Axel Nygren, with its cherished memories, is a token of what she’s salvaged from life. Just as she had felt “something resembling love” in her marriage to Gustav, in her friendship with Axel she seems to have experienced something resembling the felicitous kind of relationship that her romantic demands had prevented.

Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Axel Nygren - Axel Strøbye - Nina Pens Rode - tapestry - dogs

The same three-plus-one structure, the pattern that describes the four men and the four days, appears one last time, beginning with the last insert of written words. Gertrud reads Axel a poem she had written when she was sixteen:

Just look at me. Am I beautiful? No. But I have loved.
Just look at me. Am I young? No. But I have loved.
Just look at me. Do I live? No. But I have loved.

Again we find the sequence of a life in three stages, and again we find Gertrud locked in a self-imposed prison of romance, taking sad consolation in a selfish idea of love; but moments later she adds what amounts to a fourth verse, telling Axel, “When I’m near the grave and look back on my life, I’ll say to myself, ‘I suffered much and often made mistakes, but I have loved.’” Like Gertrud’s relationship to Axel, and like the coda itself, this fourth line represents an opening of perspective, an imperfect wisdom that acknowledges the imperfection of both life and love.

Before parting, Gertrud tells Axel that her grave, the one with “Amor omnia” chiseled on it, will have anemones in the spring. “You’ll come by one day, pick an anemone, and think of me. Take it as a word of love that was thought but never spoken.” From a director who had long dwelt on the destructive power of words, finally we have the best kind of word – an unspoken one, expressed not in human language but in nature, and the love it expresses is a more ideal love than the kind Gertrud has striven for all her life.

Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Axel Nygren - Axel Strøbye - Nina Pens Rode

In a film with so much doubling, Gertrud’s last gesture is a total contrast to its counterpart at the end of the first day, which had closed with Erland waving to her from his window. His arm was in silhouette, his back turned to the camera, and his gesture was the glib triumph of a seducer. Now, at the end, Gertrud faces the camera, softly lit, and her gesture radiates the warmth of a long friendship. She closes the door, disappearing for the last time as she had initially appeared in the frame of a doorway, but now instead of Gustav’s ornate house this door belongs to a simple country cottage. In spite of Gertrud’s enduring romantic ideals, life has brought her down to earth.


Meshes of the Afternoon – A woman, betrayed or disappointed by her lover, lashes out against an image of herself (a mirror or a portrait)

Day of Wrath – Written and spoken words portend disaster

Brief Encounter – Married woman torn from her husband by romantic notions

Wild Strawberries – Honorific ceremony; blending of past, present, and future; perspective of old age

Fever Mounts at El Pao – Destructive effect of words and paper; public speech full of falsehoods (Governor Vargas & Gustav Kanning)

L’eclisse – Extensive play with frames; break-up in the opening scene

Charulata – Critique of romanticism in a bourgeois married woman; overly decorated home

Eyes Wide Shut – Title of Beethoven’s Fidelio used ironically to comment on a couple’s infidelity