Sunday, 1 April 2012

Dreyer's premier… The President (1919)

It’s hard not to view Dreyer’s first feature film as a taste of what was to come and in the context of his later works, but this passionate and gently innovative film was impressive for anyone to have made in 1919.

The President was the culmination of an apprenticeship that had seen him work on scripts and editing for over 20 films with the Nordisk film company and feaured subject matter very close to the heart of the man who was himself born out of wedlock and given up to adoption.

There’s an understandable debt to Danish pioneer Benjamin Christensen as well as a structural experiment encouraged by DW Griffith’s forages into narrative complexity. But the spirituality, focus on character, use of “found” faces and overall visual invention are all freshly mixed together by the young director.

There are also some excellent performances from the cast, as good as any you’d see at the time and all the more impressive given the director's experience. Still, Dreyer was in his late 20s and had been around film for a while (not to mention his career as a reporter and balloonist!).

The film begins with a flashback 30 years to the closing stages of an old man’s life. Franz Victor von Sendlinger (Elith Pio) is winding down in peaceful comfort when he takes his son, Karl Victor (Halvard Hoff), to their old ancestral home. Now in ruins, the result of some unspecified calamity, the old home is the playground of poor children. In a flashback within the flashback, von Sendlinger tells his son of how he had fallen for a domestic servant at his father’s house.

The comely domestic (played with some spirit by Jacoba Jessen), is first seen provocatively pounding washing in a tub and similarly crushes the young man’s resistance. They began a clandestine relationship and the rest was biology... With child, she wrote to Franz' father who forced his son to marry below his class for the sake of honour.

Things obviously turned out badly and the elder man pleads with Victor to head his warning not to make the same mistake.

Flash forward 30 years and we find Victor at the pinnacle of society as President of his town, well respected and looked up to by all. But he too has a ghost from the past that is about to return to threaten all he holds dear.

A case of infanticide is due and, to his horror, he realises that the supposed murderer is none other than his daughter, Victorine Lippert (Olga Raphael-Linden). In shock he tells his loyal aid, Counsellor Berger (Richard Christensen), about his own youthful folly.

In the films third flashback, we see how Karl Victor had fallen for a governess at his uncle’s house. The two began an affair and once again the family faced the same choices. But this time, urged on by his pledge to his father, Karl Victor turns his mistress away feeling the nobler course is to uphold honour.

And, honour-bound, he remains all the years later. He must not intervene in the case and stands by as the good Berger does his best to defend his daughter from what, to modern eyes, is a clear and gross miscarriage of justice.

Victorine enters the court shrouded in a white wrap that reflects her guilt – she welcomes her death and takes the blame for the death even though the mitigating circumstances are immense…

In the film’s forth flashback, we see Victorine getting a job as a governess. Her mistress is exceptionally harsh and unforgiving, even around routine duties but when her son begins an affair and makes the young woman pregnant, she is brutal. Victorine is turned out into the dark, with no coat or shoes, left to the elements if she can fight her way past the pet guard dog.

She almost dies before being found but this is too late to save her unborn child. As abortion was forbidden and the authorities are looking to place the blame and focus away from the family, the case is found against Victorine.

She rejoices, ready to accept her miserable fate. But Victor has not given up and appeals for leniency. The cogs of state are firmly set and there will be no let off for Victorine …

Facing the most difficult decision of his life, Karl Victor does not shirk it and the next half hour of the film is a tightly directed mix of quickly-intercut, scenes as his plan is revealed in various colours…

Sepia: a dinner is given to formally honour this man who has seemingly placed honour above even familial loyalty.

Red: a torch-lit march converges on screen in stunning fashion and proceeds to approach the government buildings through the dark. This starts with a black screen and gradually gets redder as the well-drilled extras carry their torches ever closer...

Blue: the night watchman is distracted as Karl Victor’s loyal servants prepare their coach for a journey. They escape past a windmill - in direct tribute to Christensen's Mysterious X?

Just when all seemed lost, Karl Victor changes his course to save his daughter and give her a second chance. This is his chance to put right his mistake and those of his father before him and as he utters the family motto for the third time in the story…it takes on a different meaning.

But his honour is not done with him yet as it guides him towards ever more difficult decisions.

Halvard Hoff acts superbly as the Karl Victor, deep in thought and with a lot of inner motion he carries the necessary authority along with the worry. He is naturalistic and highly watchable, in spite of the slightly in-expert make-up: it matters not; we know what he’s going through.

Also a stand out is Olga Raphael-Linden who is highly photogenic in a non-Hollywood way. Willowy and graceful, with a long face and big, warm features, she carries a lot of the story’s emotional intensity in a believable way.

Her character is the most innocent and “wronged” of all the women in the film who have “sinned” by loving out of marriage and above their class. She is also willing to accept the consequences in a manner so much like her father.

The President has been wonderfully restored by the Danish Film Institute with the tints following Dreyer’s notes. You can order direct from the DFI or buy from the BFI’s Shop which is what I did in a splurge of Dreyer-mania following their recent retrospective.

It might not rank with some of Dreyer’s major works but it is an immensely impressive debut: heartfelt and rewarding.

Note: I wrote all his before finding the DFI-related Carl Th. Dreyer website – a long lost weekend of information on the master. There’s also an expert appreciation of this film from David Bordwell which I’d recommend – he knows his onions as we say in England!


  1. Yes, I undeniably extracted the picture from your blog. I hope you don't mind. Thanks for adding the link to your article. All the best, have a great week

  2. Hi Paula - I don't mind at all (hadn't spotted that!) - thanks for the comment and for your excellent blog!

    Tenha uma ótima semana!

    Muitas felicidades.


  3. Excellent explanation of tints. Nordisk decreased the use tints after this film was made, and also nice explanation of the flashback structure.

    1. Thank you very much for that Scott! I'm a frequent visitor to your excellent blog and really appreciate your comment.

      Best wishes