Carl Theodor Dreyer: Danish film director. Born 1889, died 1968.

Illegitimate son of a Swedish farmer and his housekeeper. Most well known for his 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.


Today, Carl Theodore Dreyer occupies a somewhat schizophrenic place in the history of film. By serious students of the art, he is regard one of the most important and talented directors of all time, but the average layman has most likely never heard his name. The Bright Lights Film Journal describes him as "grand master who's become a casualty" of the deluge of "essentially minor-league talents like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas" who dominate modern cinema. Despite a forty-five year career as a director, he only made fourteen films, and faced an uphill battle getting funding for each that he did make. The ones he did get onto the silver screen, however, are almost all masterpieces.

In 1912, Dreyer was hired as a title writer at the Nordisk Film studios outside of Copenhagen after having flirted with journalism, piano, and bookkeeping. He attracted attention at Nordisk, and moved through the ranks, eventually trying his hand at screenwriting and editing. In 1918, Dreyer began his directing career with The President, which the EuroScreenwriters and EuroFilm biography of Dreyer describes as "a film typical of the era... dull melodrama with plenty of histrionics".

In Thoughts on My Craft, Dreyer writes that, "Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry." Dreyer combined this interest in the direct human experience with an equally strong belief that cinema needed to be embraced as something new, with new techniques and new images, an "evolution" of the mannerisms of still photography. As Dreyer put it: "We must conquer the camera with the camera."

Dreyer rejected the label "avant garde" for his work, feeling that it cheapened his efforts, but a better term for the collective body of his works is difficult to find. Both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet routinely find their way onto "top 100" lists of film, but neither look like anything that has been done by anyone else, before or since.

Ironically, Dreyer spent most of his life as a projectionist, unable to obtain financial backing for his work - the prevalent view was that he was an expensive and difficult director to work with. Modern releases of Dreyer's work on DVD have renewed interest in the enigmatic Dane, however, and critics such as Roger Ebert have put the spotlight on a man generally accepted as a master in his field.

  1. Bright Lights Film Journal, passim: (
  2. Senses of Cinema database: (
  3. EuroScreenwriters and EuroFilm: (

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