Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Ove Rud - Birgitte Federspiel - minister - Inger Borgen

Ordet
1955, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

The plot of Ordet hinges on the death of farm housewife Inger Borgen after an aborted childbirth. The story climaxes with her miraculous resurrection, but no such happy ending is given to the unborn baby boy, who lies “cut into four pieces” in a wooden bucket. It might sound disrespectful to ask why the baby couldn’t be resurrected as well. After all, Inger has been dead long enough for a death notice to appear in the local paper, and if we’re honest we know that the decomposition of an intact body is no more reversible than the reconstitution of a dissected corpse – it’s only easier to imagine.

In fact this question is not at all rude. The graphic description of the miscarried fetus invites the seemingly profane question. Mikkel is scarcely more reverent himself when he says that he loved his wife’s body as well as her soul. The gaping question at the heart of Ordet is about belief. The characters constantly speculate on the possibility of miracles, offering a spectrum of opinions on the subject… but what does the film believe, and what does it expect us to believe? If we’re supposed to find religious inspiration in the story, then why would the film puncture our faith with the nagging question of the unborn child? If the film is skeptical about religion, then how can it possibly end as it does? In fact neither supposition comes close to capturing the point of Ordet.

Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Preben Lerdorff Rye - Johannes Borgen - preaching in the sand dunes

It should help to realize that Dreyer’s previous films Vampyr and Day of Wrath were also on supernatural subjects – vampires and witches – and that both films found reason to believe in those ghoulish things after a fashion. Vampirism and witchcraft were metaphors, in those films, for real phenomena, and we can likewise expect that resurrection is also a metaphor for something real.

Although Inger’s resurrection occurs at the end, it functions as a MacGuffin, superfluous to the plot, supplying the occasion for uniting and resolving the plot’s three equal threads. Ordet revolves around the troubles of Morten Borgen’s three sons, Mikkel, Johannes, and Anders. Like Dorothy’s three companions in The Wizard of Oz, they face problems of mind, heart, and faith (which is equivalent to courage). Johannes lost his mind while studying theology and now holds the psychotic delusion that he’s the second coming of Christ. Anders is in love with the tailor’s daughter Anne, but her father forbids their marriage because of religious differences. Mikkel lacks not only faith in God but also the self-confidence that that faith might give him.

Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - cart - horses - bridge

Each of these three problems is ultimately solved through the circumstances of Inger’s death. First, after a change of heart, the tailor Peter Petersen brings his daughter Anne to the wake and graciously gives her hand in marriage to Anders. Second, Johannes walks in, cured of his madness. Third, after Inger’s resurrection, Mikkel finds his faith. The first two events might look too coincidental, too independent of Inger’s death and resurrection, while the third, Mikkel’s new faith, is too dependent on the miracle. If faith requires proof, after all, then it’s not faith. The film, however, handles these carefully, so that Inger’s resurrection justifies each of the three resolutions.

The tailor is alone at home with his bible when he resolves to reconcile with Morten Borgen. Their disagreement had recently come to blows upon the news that Inger’s life was at risk, but that alone is a thin thread tying the events together. A stronger connection emerges from the editing at Inger’s wake. The parson asks the family to join him in a silent Lord’s Prayer, and the film remains silent for about the duration it would take to say the prayer. At the moment where “Forgive us our trespasses” would begin, the tailor and his wife cross the threshold of the Borgen home, as if the prayer somehow drew the man in for the reconciliation. Petersen gives his daughter to Anders before the resurrection, but only after the miracle do the two old men look at each other in total harmony, putting their religious differences aside. Having witnessed the resurrection together, they’ve shared a religious experience that diminishes the weight of their disagreements. At last the two families can unite in love.

Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Birgitte Federspiel - Henrik Malberg - Emil Hass Christensen - Cay Kristiansen - Inger Borgen - Morten Borgen - Mikkel Borgen - Anders Borgen

The change in Johannes is a greater riddle. Shortly after Inger dies, Johannes comes to her bed offering a promise of resurrection, but he falls backward and hits his head. That night he sneaks out, disappearing for a few days until he’s come to his senses. What’s puzzling is that he returns with his demeanor changed, but his behavior unchanged. He continues to berate everyone’s lack of faith, and he continues to hold out the promise of Inger’s resurrection. The important difference is that now he prays to Christ – he no longer claims to be the Christ. His madness was not his excessive faith, but rather the all-too-common madness of pretending to speak for God – a habit Dreyer had singled out also in Day of Wrath.

Johannes’s name, like the film’s allusions to Lazarus, points to the Gospel of John, which begins by identifying God with Logos – literally “the Word”. It cannot be insignificant that Ordet, whose title means “The Word” in Danish, happens to coincide with the central subject of Day of Wrath, which was so adamantly skeptical of the influence of words. Just as the four written texts in Day of Wrath were ill omens, Ordet inserts four dire texts within about five minutes: Inger’s death certificate, Johannes’s departure note, the death notice, and the funeral card. Ordet is consistent with Day of Wrath – both films insist that human language cannot be entrusted with divine power. In the key scene, Johannes prays to receive “the Word that can make the dead come to life,” yet there is no indication that any literal word effects the miracle. Inger begins to stir long after the pronunciation of Christ’s name, and it seems unlikely that there would be any particular magic in the command “arise” which sparks her movement. Again, it’s important that Johannes speaks now not for God but through God, beseeching the deity, with no authority apart from the innocent faith of his little niece Maren at his side. The “Word” in the film’s title, which raises Inger from death, can only be an expression of some divine will, certainly not of any human will.

Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Preben Lerdorff Rye - Ann Elisabeth Groth - Johannes Borgen - Maren Borgen

This brings us back to the question of belief, whether the film takes a religious stance; and this question is answered in Mikkel’s story, which ends the film. A casual viewer might conclude from Inger’s resurrection that the film piously insists on the possibility of miracles in opposition to a scientific point of view. A closer look at Ordet does not support that reading. In fact the film personifies science and religion in the doctor and the parson, who, rather than being at odds, are closely paired. When they first meet they drive off together; they arrive at the wake together; and they’re seated side by side at the climax. While drinking coffee they chuckle over their differences, which are not as great as one might expect. The parson believes in miracles, but only in exceptional circumstances, whereas the doctor acknowledges the miraculous nature of events that science allows. The film, presumably, embraces neither view.

If Mikkel simply accepted God on the evidence of the miracle, that would be too pietistic, too contrary to real experience, too vulnerable to the challenge of the fetus’s inconceivable resurrection… but Mikkel’s awakening is not the stereotypical religious conversion that Morten tells Peter he can’t stand. Inger’s first words after coming back to life are about her unborn boy. “The child… is it alive?” Mikkel answers, “Yes, Inger. It lives at home with God.” “With God?” Inger asks. “Yes, Inger. I have found your faith.” If Mikkel’s faith were merely a belief in miracles, it would be a kind of superstition. Instead, knowing the baby cannot return, Mikkel has found the courage to live as if his son remained alive. Inger, who already had this faith, is not bothered at the news, and Mikkel knows she will not be bothered, which is why he dares to tell her “Yes,” that the baby is still alive. In response, Inger kisses her husband’s cheek passionately, and the film allows a string of saliva to link the couple physically. Far from being some pious affirmation of religious miracles, Ordet revels in the physical material of life, even something as vulgar as saliva. The film’s last word, repeated three times, is not some abstraction like the name “God”, but rather “life” – which is precisely what the film believes in and wants the audience to believe in. Inger’s resurrection is a metaphor for this rediscovery of life.

Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer - Henrik Malberg - Ejner Federspiel - Morten Borgen - Peter Petersen - coffee

Once we look at Ordet this way, we can acknowledge what so few commentators are willing to admit – that the film is a comedy. It’s not just a classical comedy with its happy ending, but also a wickedly funny movie. Johannes flusters the parson with his unanswerable logic, and he always enters at precisely the wrong time, upsetting his father with talk of a corpse in the living room or a man with an hourglass and a scythe. When Mikkel tells the parson about Johannes he interrupts himself: “Here comes Father, so we’d better talk about something else.” Mikkel says the parson “seems a pleasant sort of fellow,” and his father answers, “That’s what he’s being paid for.” Later, cheered by the doctor’s good news, Morten tells his servant to send the man a pair of geese at Christmas, and the doctor replies, “I am not a vet. They will die under my treatment.” Instead of looking at Ordet as an overly serious religious statement, it would be more accurate to see it as a celebration of life, grounded in humor and physicality, and finding wonder even in life’s roughness and fragility.

CONNECTIONS:

The Wizard of Oz – Trio of men whose problems concern mind, heart, and courage or faith

Day of Wrath – Four insertions of written texts with dire significance; skepticism toward the influence of words; warning against the temptation to play God

L’avventura – Search for a missing character in a wild setting, with a montage of characters calling the missing person’s name

Breaking the Waves – Character named after John the Evangelist, with implied reference to the gospel’s opening line; contrast between two versions of Christianity; miracle at the end