Quick Thoughts: Gertrud (1964)
Made by Carl Theodore Dreyer, this is the Danish film of the series.
Gertrud is a quiet and nuanced film, one that seemingly only observes a narrative about a faulted character who does not change. Slowly paced with a plethora of long takes (it only took 3 days to edit what took 3 months to shoot), the frame and image of Gertrud says little beyond a statement of patience and realism. For this, this film will alienate a good portion of its audience today as it did when it was first released. I, however, found this film to be a compelling meditation on choice and desire.
As Dreyer’s last film, this has been seen to sum up his career, which was often centred around a biblical film about Christ that was never made. So, not only is this film about faulted choices, but it is a reflection of a more general concept of faith and reason being found in absence; a paradox that can result in both intensely negative and positive outcomes. In such, just as we may infer that Dreyer’s motivation to make films was predicated (to what degree, we cannot accurately know) on the telling of the Christ myth that he never got to put to screen, this story is about a woman who loves, and never attains her utmost ideal and in turn suffers for this, but nonetheless cherishes the fact that she did once have love.
There is much that could be critiqued about the way in which Gertrud then lives her life, and Dreyer emphasises the capacity for critique by never showing Gertrud in true straits or even providing much evidence or reason for her unhappiness. Instead of showing what went wrong with her marriages, only alluding to a few select notions through Gertrud’s (who seems like an unreliable narrator) dialogue, this narrative is focused on dissatisfaction and so sees Gertud leave her husband, fail in having a romantic affair, and all whilst ruminating pointlessly upon what could have been with her ex-husband. What she does wrong is quite evident throughout this film; her standards and desires are too high and she, along with her partners, fail in communicating or – and this is primarily on Gertrud’s shoulders – fighting for reconciliation.
By the end of this narrative, Gertrude becomes a highly unlikable character in essence, but, on screen, she is a silent symbol for accepted failure. In such, her conflicts and problems are a burden that she never confronts, as we would expect to see in a traditional romantic film. This leaves her a cynical, bitter and delusional character at heart. However, though she, seemingly voluntarily, embodies misery, she does not complain about it. The lack of a fight for romance and to re-adjust ones perspective to retain a new kind of happiness and love is then the biggest fault of this narrative if we were to see it as a morality tale; it suggests that people should hold on to their pride, arrogance and their unrealistically high ideals. However, Dreyer’s direction deeply embeds an observatory quality into this narrative. This in turn suggests that he does not, and neither should we to some degree, judge his character (at least, not until her story is fully told). Gertrud is not then a morality tale, but a reality check – and such encapsulates the concept of Kammerspielfilm from German cinema, which is concerned with a realist depiction of the lower middle class. There is then no “what if…” about Dreyer’s film, rather, an ominous and resounding, “what is”.
Primarily a reality check, Gertrud can become a cautionary tale if we chose to judge and learn from the humbly miserable archetype that our main character comes to be. And such suggests the quiet nuance of this film that, with reflection, is silencing because of the truth that it seems to present. Ultimately a beautifully realised film, Gertrud is then a deeply, though not intensely – it drives deep, but without melodrama, smoke and explosions – affecting, film.
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