«Pathos, Performance, Volition: Melodrama's Legacy in the Work of Carl Th. Dreyer by Amanda Elaine Doxtater A dissertation submitted in partial ...»
Pathos, Performance, Volition:
Melodrama's Legacy in the Work of Carl Th. Dreyer
Amanda Elaine Doxtater
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Scandinavian Languages and Literatures
and the Designated Emphasis
University of California, Berkeley
Committee in charge:
Professor Mark Sandberg, Chair Professor Linda Rugg Professor Linda Williams Fall 2012 Pathos, Performance, Volition: Melodrama's Legacy in the Work of Carl Th. Dreyer © 2012 by Amanda Elaine Doxtater Abstract Pathos, Performance, Volition: Melodrama's Legacy in the Work of Carl Th. Dreyer by Amanda Elaine Doxtater Doctor of Philosophy in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures and the Designated Emphasis in Film Studies University of California, Berkeley Professor Mark Sandberg, Chair This dissertation reads melodrama as an important influence in Carl Th. Dreyer’s work and oeuvre and shows that his work demonstrates melodrama’s relevance to the tradition of Scandinavian art-house, modernist cinema. Dreyer’s work has come to embody a stern and severe aesthetic seen largely as the epitome of artistic restraint rather than indicative of melodramatic expressivity. Dreyer began his career in cinema, however, at the Danish studio Nordisk Films Kompagni in the 1910s when the company became synonymous with early Danish film melodrama and other spectacular, mass-produced, popular fare.
Scholars have subsequently labeled this decade “The Golden Age of Danish Melodrama.” Although the standard reception of Dreyer’s work predicates his status as a masterful auteur director upon his decisive break with the company’s production model, its themes, and popular-culture ambitions, this dissertation argues that asserting such a break occludes intriguing continuities in Dreyer’s oeuvre.
The rich proliferation of melodrama scholarship in decades following Dreyer’s death in 1968 has radically expanded what can be understood as “melodrama,” allowing important affective concerns in Dreyer’s work to come to light. Melodrama scholarship allows us to characterize Dreyer’s innovation of cinema not only on formal terms, but now also through his developing representations of human suffering, volition, interiority, and emotion. No longer exclusively a genre, style, or theatrical tradition, melodrama is now better understood as a powerful and adaptable mode that informs a variety of media, ranging from soap operas to novels by Henry James. The connotations of melodrama available to earlier scholarship and to Dreyer himself could not avoid its strongly pejorative sense; more recent work has made clear the pervasive presence of the mode as a productive category in both “high” and “low” forms of culture. Consequently, Dreyer’s unique inflection of melodrama reflects his simultaneous relation of repulsion and of attraction to the mode, driven by his perceived need to distance himself from melodrama’s low-art stigma. To negotiate this paradox Dreyer continually reimagines and pressures the mode while remaining sympathetic to its core interests: its depictions of suffering, its humanist faith in art’s capacity to convey something about existence, and its existential desires to recuperate meaning in a world shaken by modernity’s upheaval of traditional cosmologies. Neither fully modernist nor fully submissive to realism’s illusions, melodrama provides a productive framework for understanding both the aesthetic ingenuity and more conservative elements of Dreyer’s modernism.
The first chapters of this dissertation outline advances in melodrama scholarship relevant to the project and then trace the category of “melodrama” through the standard reception both of silent-era Danish film melodrama at Nordisk and in Dreyer reception more generally. The final chapters parse out Dreyer’s innovation of melodrama in three of his major works, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, 1928), Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943), and Ordet (The Word, 1955) by comparing his “mature” films and by drawing upon key moments in the melodramatic scenarios he wrote at Nordisk. In Jeanne d’Arc Dreyer innovates corporeal spectacle, the ethical interaction and thrill of performance, and exploits the limits between “live theater” and film by conflating phenomenological and semiotic performing bodies. Day of Wrath extends and heightens melodramatic tensions surrounding domestic melodrama’s conveyance of interiority through expressively charged bodily surfaces. Dreyer uses the body and psychological interiority of his protagonist, Anne (whose will and desire are stifled by relationships in the domestic sphere), to evoke a melodramatic worldview rife with epistemological uncertainty and ambiguous causality. In The Word, Dreyer juxtaposes elements of maternal melodrama with intense depictions of male suffering and tears to create art-house melodrama’s version of a male-weepie. This film also bears traces of Dreyer’s persistent interest in the materiality of the filmed body and in depicting gradations of consciousness, drawing on multiple precedents in early Danish film melodrama. In conclusion, Dreyer’s oeuvre vitally broadens our understanding of the potentials of the melodramatic mode and the specific tradition of “Scandinavian art-house melodrama.”
I am deeply grateful to my family for all of their enduring love and support. Without the kindness, humor, and understanding they show me everyday, this project would not have been possible. They have given me strength.
A heartfelt thank you to: Dean Krouk and Anna Jörngården (founding members of IDEA—International Dissertation Encouragement Alliance), Elisabeth Ward, Nan Gerdes, Laura Horak, Althea Wasow, Dr. Carol Morrison, Claire Thomson, Isak Thorsen, Morten Egholm, Kenneth Thorsted de Lorenzi, Rachel Doxtater and Pragyan Mishra for their assistance with everything from editing to listening to accounts of my archival adventures over beer. I give special thanks also to Susan Oxtoby for her work coordinating a Dreyer retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive and for the unforgettable glimpse into Gertrud she granted me. I thank James Schamus for his blind faith in hiring me as a research assistant for The Moving Word. The experience brought about a fateful initial contact with the Danish Film Institute’s Dreyer Collection.
This project would have been neither possible nor nearly as intellectually pleasurable without the generosity shown to me by the fantastic staff of the Danish Film Institute.
Pernille Schütz, Lisbeth Richter Larsen, Thomas Christensen, Lars Ølgaard, Tobias Lynge Herler, and Henrik Fuglsang are inspiring facilitators of research and great colleagues. I can’t thank them enough.
Casper Tybjerg at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at Copenhagen University graciously helped me with institutional support in Denmark and provided me the opportunity to share my research in its early stages. He has set the bar high with his meticulous scholarship on Dreyer and Danish Cinema. The American Scandinavian Foundation and the (lamentably!) now-defunct Georg Brandes Skolen in Copenhagen also provided me with crucial research funding and support without which this project would not have been possible.
I gratefully acknowledge members of my dissertation committee, Linda Williams and Linda Rugg for their insightful feedback, openness, and encouragement. And words cannot really express what working with Mark Sandberg on this project has meant to me.
With his unflinching pursuit of excellence, generous guidance, intellectual curiosity, endless patience, humor, integrity, and masterful grasp of the comma he has been the kind of educator and scholar that I aspire to be.
“In all art, it is the human being that is most crucial.” Carl Th. Dreyer1 As Denmark’s most distinguished auteur film director, Carl Th. Dreyer (1889is best known as a paragon of serious European art-house cinema. His work has become synonymous with artistic restraint, control, and uncompromising cinematic virtuosity. Though Dreyer created relatively few feature films during his long career, each comprises a wealth of immaculately composed images and introspective psychological portraits. His unique vision of the human predicament—brought forth through slow, stylized dialogue and minimalist mise-en-scène—has become known as the acknowledged fare of tried cineastes and connoisseurs, but the bane of popular audiences.
Absent from this picture, however—out of frame as it were—is the story of Dreyer’s emergence from one vibrantly boisterous tradition of Danish melodrama and his inspiration for another: Nordisk Films Kompagni (Nordisk) and Denmark’s enfant terrible, Lars von Trier, respectively. Dreyer learned all facets of filmmaking at Nordisk during the Golden Age of Danish film melodrama in 1910-1920. Dreyer cut his teeth, in other words, working on Nordisk’s spectacle-packed, multi-reel “social melodrama” full of “intrigues and espionage and thefts and swindling and betrayals, […] the ‘social’ element of sinking and rising in society, leading the wild life and going to the dogs” (Neergaard, Historien 36-7). During its heyday between 1911-1917, the company dominated Denmark’s domestic film industry and distributed films all over the world as well. Only the French companies Pathé Frères and Gaumont surpassed its production.2 Though Nordisk films initially enjoyed a positive reputation for high production values, nuanced dramatic stories in cosmopolitan settings, and titillating love stories, the company soon came to embody a model of mass-produced, simplistic popular culture.
Carl Th. Dreyer’s career began at Nordisk, but many scholars would later contend that it only truly began after he left the company in 1921. In their critical readings, the two films Dreyer directed at Nordisk (the only feature-length works he directed there), Præsidenten (The President, 1919)3 and Blade af Satans Bog (Leaves from Satan’s Book, 1921), stand as the first of a series of uncompromising aesthetic experiments as a burgeoning director determined to raise film to a high art and unable to do so in Nordisk’s “film factory.” Dreyer’s artistic reputation has been cast in opposition to all that Nordisk represented: its production model, its desire to cater to popular audiences, and its melodrama.
Following Dreyer is Lars von Trier, whose films Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) have garnered him both praise and critique as art-house, postmodern melodramas. Though Dreyer might well have criticized von Trier (less for his films than for his immodest public antics), together, the two Danish directors form a dominant genealogy in European auteur cinema. The Danish Film Institute’s introduction “I al kunst er det mennesket, der er det afgørende” (“Filmstil” 75).
See Thorsen, “Rise and Fall” 53.
In what follows I introduce each of Dreyer’s films using their original titles and then refer to them afterward by their English titles.
to an article by Peter Schepelern about the two geniuses declares their fundamental connection, “The two great Danish filmmakers, Carl Th. Dreyer and Lars von Trier, are bound by an artistic kinship (kunstnerisk slægtskab). Women suffer, and are tortured and burned at the stake, but even as far down as individual shots in some of von Trier’s earliest films, you can see traces of Dreyer’s style.”4 Unlike the work of von Trier, however, critics have conscientiously avoided calling Carl Th. Dreyer’s mature work melodramatic. In this dissertation, I argue that Dreyer’s oeuvre provides a key link in this genealogy of art-house, modernist melodrama that very much begins at Nordisk, where Dreyer encountered a surprisingly alluring iteration of the melodramatic mode from which to draw.