One of the 15 films listed in the category "Religion" on the Vatican film list.
Ordet means "the word," but what is the word? What is Carl Dreyer’s somber, ponderous masterpiece, adapted from the stage play by Lutheran clergyman Kaj Munk, really about?
Faith, certainly. Its characters are always talking about it, their own and one another’s. But what is really being said? There’s a fair bit of posturing and pretense in all this dialogue, and not everything the characters say can be taken at face value. There is much religious argumentation and debate in Ordet; yet what matters is not, I think, the actual issues or arguments, so much as underlying attitudes, especially a basic openness or lack of openness to others, and preeminently to the Other.
This may be a daunting theme, but the story, situations and characters are straightforward. On a farm in 1920s Denmark lives a white-bearded, pious old patriarch named Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) with his three grown sons. Dreyer avoids theological labels, and confusion about the various persuasions in Ordet is, I think, not uncommon, but it seems that Morten professes a traditional or conventional sort of Christianity, attending what is in his conservative milieu the respectable mainline church — presumably, the established Lutheran church.
Morten is passionate about his beliefs, and greatly disapproves of the nonconformist sect in town that meets in the home of the tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel). This community tends to be rigorous and exclusionary, places great emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion, and in Borgen’s view tends toward a dark or gloomy spirituality emphasizing death rather than life. Doubtless this sect stands also in the broader Lutheran tradition, but it seems to represent an ongoing reforming spirit within the Reformation, and has broken with traditional Lutheranism just as Lutheranism broke away from the Catholic Church. (This sect would seem to be similar at least in spirit to the pious community later seen in Babette’s Feast, also set in the Jutland peninsula of Denmark — and, incidentally, reuniting a number of cast members from Ordet).
All his life Morten has taken a stand for the faith of his fathers, opposing the unconventional movement in the town and advocating what he sees as true belief. Both he and Peter see the need for a renewal of faith, a revival, but for Morten such a revival would be a renewal of the community of faith, where Peter’s sect has turned away from the established church altogether and formed a purer but smaller and narrower community. Both men lament the tares choking the wheatfield, but Morten wishes to see the field better tended and kept, while Peter wants it torn up and sown anew.
At one time Morten had high hopes that one of his sons, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), would become a powerful preacher who would bring about a renewal of true faith. But these hopes were dashed when Johannes’s theological studies drove him mad and he began to proclaim himself Jesus in the flesh. In an exchange that invariably draws a laugh in this serious, trancelike film, someone inquires about the cause of the young man’s dementia: "Was it love?" "No," comes the reply, "it was Søren Kierkegaard."
Kierkegaard, of course, is best known for his Attack Upon Christendom, a scathing critique of the state of faith in Denmark’s established Lutheran church. Kierkegaard’s theme of the inadequacy of our faith is one with which many characters in Ordet, including Morten, Peter, and Johannes, would agree. Yet it seems clear that none of them has truly complete or integral faith either. Morten has piety, but has lost hope and believes that his prayers go unanswered and that miracles no longer happen. Peter is steadfast in his beliefs and trusts in God’s ongoing providence in the world, but lacks humanity and compassion. Johannes, lost in mysticism, is no longer in touch with reality.
Morten and Peter both criticize each others’ faith, yet ironically each accuses the other of lacking what he most needs himself. Morten disparages what he calls the "undertaker faces" of Peter’s sect and prides himself on his joyful, life-affirming version of Christianity — but Peter has a point when he argues that in practice Morten seems anything but joyful, whereas he, Peter, takes deep joy in his confidence of heaven. On the other hand, Peter’s insistence on Morten’s need of conversion is so dogmatic that it even leads him to express a horrible hope that God should allow a terrible catastrophe to befall Morten in order to break his stubborn heart and convert him — yet, in a providential masterstroke, when the worst does befall Morten, it is Peter, not Morten, whose heart is broken and who comes to repentance.
In the end, it seems that Morten and Peter both overstate their differences. Their surface quarrels about happy or gloomy religion and so forth are slogans rationalizing a mutual antipathy as much rooted in socioeconomic differences as anything else. (This point is humorously driven home by Borgen’s outraged response to the revelation that Peter, the shopkeeper, objects as firmly to the match of their children as he, the wealthy landowner, and by Peter’s sneering epithet "swine of a farmer.")
Neither Morten nor Peter is unreservedly open to God, but neither is closed to him either — a pattern that extends also to the supporting characters. Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), Morten’s oldest son, has no faith of any kind, but his wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel, Martina in Babette’s Feast) has great faith in her husband as well as in God, says that Mikkel’s good heart will lead him to belief. Anders (Cay Kristiansen), the youngest brother, who in love with Peter the tailor’s daughter Anne (Gerda Nielsen), believes that their differences are transcended by their love, but may possibly lack the will to convert belief into decisive action. Even the new pastor disbelieves in miracles, and the local doctor puts his faith in science rather than God — though at a key moment the empirically minded doctor is more willing than the pastor to suspend judgment about whether divine intervention is truly out of the question.
Only Mikkel’s wife Inger, and above all their young daughter Maren (Ann Elisabeth Rud), fully withstand the Kierkegaardian cross-examination of their faith. Maren’s faith, of course, is that of a child, to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven, and as which we must all become if we are to enter it. Commentary on the film frequently invokes the theme of "institutional religion" versus "personalized faith," a theme that is also said to relate to the director’s great silent portrait of spirituality, The Passion of Joan of Arc. But this taxonomy seems no profounder than Borgen and Peter’s arguments about somber religion versus joyful faith. Dreyer is digging deeper than these slogans, to the regions of mystery where Johannes’s mind was lost.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the stark, almost confrontational climax, which effectively turns the drama’s cross-examination of faith upon the viewer. Will we accept this, or not? If not, why not?
There are good theological reasons for a level of discomfort here. Indeed, it wouldn’t be hard to debunk the entire film at this point, to dismiss it for treading so close to a pernicious religious error that promises all manner of healing and miracles if only we work ourselves up to a sufficient state of faith, and joins Job’s three friends in blaming the believer if divine vindication isn’t forthcoming.
But isn’t there also a danger in the opposite direction? Even if we avoid the complacent dogma that miracles never happen, are we never guilty of believing and hoping too little, of being too slow to believe? If Ordet makes us uncomfortable, aren’t there passages in the gospels with which we should be equally uncomfortable — and, if so, is it Ordet or ourselves that deserves our jaundiced eye?
Faith doesn’t mean getting whatever we want, or believing whatever anybody tells us, even a madman. But it does mean recognizing that not all that seems madness really is. Superstition and wishful thinking incline us to see signs from God where none exist, but it’s also possible to be blinded by skepticism and doubt to signs that really are there. It’s no good falling for every messiah that comes along, but to miss the real messiah when he comes is no better. Looking back, we easily perceive Christ in the Old Testament scriptures, but would we have recognized him in the flesh had we lived at the time?
Johannes may have lost his mind, but was there no indication that there might be more to his ravings than mere delusions? Was there no way for Morten to suspect, had he but eyes to see and ears to hear, that God was at work in his son? A prophet has no honor in his own family; in retrospect, though, the signs were certainly there: Johannes’s eerie insights, for one thing, and above all his startling transformation. Perhaps God was plucking Morten by the sleeve, and Morten should have known it. Perhaps Johannes was right to disparage his father’s lack of faith, as Jesus disparaged his disciples’. But we dare not feel superior to them; would we have done any better, in their place? Do we in fact do any better if — no, when — our own sleeve is the one being plucked?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.