This was an intense experience. “Ordet” may start slow, even dull, but gradually works itself up into an emotional crescendo I have not experienced for some time. I admit it, I was crying, several times, it is difficult not to.
The first thing you need to know about “Ordet” is that it is based on a play written by Kaj Munk, who was himself a priest on the west coast of Jutland and a very active and critical writer until he was killed by Gestapo in 1944 (which ultimately made him a national icon). He was himself very immersed in the rural environment described in the movie and while his outlook is religious, albeit a modern and sophisticated Christianity, he would have had to deal with all the religious bickering and orthodoxy we see in the movie.
“Ordet” takes place far out in the dark Jutland, about as far as you can get. People here are slow, thoughtful and very religious. The first thing I noticed was that dialects and accents of the actors were all over the place. I think all of Jutland is represented including some obviously faked ones. As this was filmed in Copenhagen I doubt they even noticed and half an hour in I also stopped caring because the tone and the attitude is exactly right. The characters we follow are exactly the kind of people you would expect to find in those parts of the country, if not now then certainly sixty years ago.
On Borgensgård lives the Borgen family headed by patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg, who nailed this role). Morten has three sons all living on the farm: Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) with his pregnant wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) and two children, Anders and Johannes. Morten Borgen is a religious man belonging to the Grundtvig’tian church (the standard church), signified by the prominent painting of Grundtvig in his living room, but to his chagrin none of his sons are following his lead. Morten is good and solid, but agnostic. Anders is not interested in religion and weak enough to accept whatever he is told, leaving Johannes. He was Mortens big hope, but somewhere in his religious studies he lost his sanity and he is now walking around in a stupor claiming to be Christ returned. That would be almost funny in this environment, but the family is deeply concerned for him as a mentally ill person and protect him rather than chastising him.
The first half of the movie is a slow presentation of these people. Very slow. We get to know them and their slow and considered approach to life. They are serious but warm people. The main action of that first hour is that Anders has the hots for a girl called Anne who happens to belong to another religious group. Indre Mission (transl. Internal mission) are religious hardliners, puritans with a bleak and solemn outlook (scary people actually) and a match between these two religious groupings is unthinkable. Peter Skrædder’s (Ejner Federspiel) blank rejection of a match infuriates Morten and makes him turnaround from a blank rejection as well to an advocate of a match.
All this is rendered insignificant when Inger goes into labor and the child cannot get out. The doctor (Henry Skjær) has to cut up the baby and that seems to have saved Inger’s life. However shortly after the doctor has left Inger dies. The Borgen family are on an emotional rollercoaster of first concern and worry, then exuberant relief and finally deepest grief. We see very little of Inger, but we hear her (Birgitte Federspiel allowed Dreyer to record the sound of her actual labor as she was giving birth in the middle of production, those sounds are not faked!) and her progress is read primarily from the expressions of her concerned family.
Only Johannes seems unconcerned. In his stupor he is rambling on about an angel of death who has come to get Inger because nobody believes in him and the other Borgen members are getting truly fed up with him.
Inger’s death hits like a hammer. The grief is very real, as the death notifications in the newspaper totally broke my heart. At the wake it is now Mikkel’s and Morten’s turn to walk around in a stupor, trying to deal with the grief. Even Peter Skrædder shows up to offer his sympathy and bury the axe. Only the children seem unconcerned. Johannes has promised them that he will bring Inger back to life and they believe him. Meanwhile Johannes has suffered some kind of shock and has disappeared only to return at the wake seemingly recovered. Instead of walking around as a madman he is now very much present and when the child asks him to please resurrect Inger he complies and asks her to wake up. Lo and behold, Inger is back among the living.
There are obviously some religious themes going on here. We have representatives of many different religious outlooks: Morten and Peter each represents religious orthodoxy, their differences are mainly a matter of degree and method. The priest, who is mainly an observer (Kaj Munk himself?) is sophisticated and modern. Mikkel practices religion in his good natured behavior, but is a declared agnostic and the doctor is an atheist, preferring scientific explanations to religious ones. And then there is Johannes who is either a saint or a madman and the child who believes unconditionally.
I do not think the movie really judges who is right and who is not. It does give us what appears to be a miracle when the madman invokes God and resurrects Inger, but does that make him particularly right? I am still trying to digest this and is not sure what it means. Frankly, I think you have to be religious yourself to really understand and come to terms with this part of the movie and, well, I am not.
Where the movie works for me is on the emotional level. I feel the same rollercoaster ride the characters go through. I cry and I laugh with them. I sympathize when they are concerned for Johannes and I get frustrated with those hardliners. Of course I am being manipulated, but it is so cleverly done and I did not see it coming. Certainly none of Dreyer’s earlier movies had prepared me for that. Definitely this is his best movie so far.
True this is a slow movie, true the acting style is sometimes theatrical rather than natural and very true this is a movie about religion that takes religious truth for granted, but it gets inside of you and tear you to pieces. Absolutely recommended.