Review | This ’50s Danish flick will keep you on your toes

“Ordet” is a multifaceted analysis of Christianity.

One of the main characters in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Ordet” (a Danish word which translates into English as ‘The Word’) believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He speaks in a strange, discomforting tone of voice, constantly asking aloud why the people around him, his family and others, do not believe in him. In one scene, while talking to a minister, this character (named Johannes) declares, “People believe in the dead Christ, but not the living. They believe in my miracles from 2000 years ago, but they do not believe in me now.”

As a character, Johannes is difficult to spend time with, but as a representation of philosophical (or, even more uneasily, theological) ideas, he is one of the closest things to an anchor in this film.

“Ordet” is simultaneously very simple and very complex. It is simple because it is one of the best examples of minimalism in all cinema, with every scene, every set, every camera movement and every gesture stripped down to its bare essentials. It is complex because it deals with that most difficult subject, religion (specifically Christianity).

Most films dealing with Christianity are insular, aimed at a small demographic of already converted Christians, and purposefully do not veer into complicated territory for fear of alienating their audience (look at the massively successful “God’s Not Dead” franchise). “Ordet” does the opposite, intentionally contradicting itself multiple times. It is the rare piece of art dealing with Christianity which would satisfy neither a hardline Christian or a hardline atheist in its conclusions.

The story follows a family of Danish farmers (the Borgens) over the course of a few days in 1925. Each member of the Borgens is going through a different crisis related to their faith. Older brother Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) claims to have no faith, while his wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) is still religious. The younger Anders (Kay Kristiansen) is in love with a girl named Anne (Gerda Nielsen), but is rejected due to her father’s fundamentalist beliefs. The previously mentioned Johannes (Preber Lerdorff Rye) has gone insane after studying Søren Kirkegaard and believes himself to be the reincarnation of Christ. Above them all is the family patriarch, and widower, Morten (Henrik Malberg) who is deeply religious but finds himself in conflict with the world around him.

Almost every scene in the film is a dialogue between two or more characters, with the topic being faith in each case. As tragedy and mystery envelop the characters, each comes to their own conclusions, as does the film itself, in its shocking ending, the content of which throws a wrench into nearly every character’s preconceived notions, as well as the audiences.

A film as sparse as this might intimidate first time viewers. The shadow-laden black and white cinematography, coupled with the weightiness of the subject matter, might convince some that this movie is too difficult to enter, but “Ordet” is not the mausoleum it at first appears to be. Rather, it is a living, breathing work of art that can be approached lightly. One of the amazing things about it is that it never forces anything upon the viewer. One can agree or disagree with the conclusions that a character reaches, but in the very next scene the film will do just that as well, throwing anything previously said into sharp relief as a new point of view is reckoned with. The ending, which I will not spoil, places everything in the past two hours into question and will certainly baffle some people.

“Ordet” is worth watching even if one does not wish to engage with the film’s theological ponderings at all. It serves as a wondrously satisfying piece of film art in its own right. Has there ever been a black and white film with blacker blacks than this, or whiter whites than this? Anyone who believes that black and white cinema lacks the depth of color will find themselves spellbound at the visuals here.

The slow pace, though perhaps alienating at first, allows the viewer to settle into this world, and become mystified. The long takes that make up the film (there are 114 individual shots in the whole movie, and at the longest they are upwards of seven minutes long) eventually achieve a hypnotic effect. Even when nothing major is happening on screen, the camera is always moving, roving, searching.

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most famous work is the silent “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” After making that film in 1927, Dreyer only completed four more movies, averaging one per decade, until he made his final film in 1964. He was 66 years old when he made “Ordet.” At that age, when one is closer to the end of their life than the beginning, one is often content to settle for answers that are easy, rather than search and question as they might have when they were younger.

If “Ordet” is any indication though, Dreyer never stopped questioning. This film never settles for an easy answer, and even its miraculous conclusion is riddled with doubt. To watch “Ordet” is to place oneself in the headspace of its creator; it is to search, without knowing if the search will ever end. For Dreyer, and for curious viewers, the search is enough.