A man enters a funeral room. Tall, slender, unassuming, with a beard, he is not imposing in any way. He walks slowly towards the woman lying in the coffin in the middle of the room, and, after a short exchange of words with some of the people waking the woman, he performs an act that would make everyone (including the viewers – those who are religious, but also those who are not) question their faith: he resurrects the woman.
The man is called Johannes Borgen, and he is the second son out of three of Morten Borgen, a 1925 Danish farmer. The oldest son is Mikkel, a kindhearted agnostic who is married to the religious and loving Inger. The youngest son is Anders, who wants to marry Anne, the tailor’s daughter, a relationship that is not approved by either of the two young people’s fathers, due to religious differences. The night that Morten goes to the tailor Petersen to ask him to allow his daughter to marry Anders (and the tailor refuses), the pregnant Inger goes into labor and, after terrible suffering, dies, along with the newborn baby.
The style of the scene is minimalistic. There are subtle shadows on the characters of Mikkel and Morten. The clothes are very simple, as one would expect them to be on early 20th century farmers. There is a stark contrast between the blackness of the men’s clothing and the whiteness of the dead woman’s attire. This, combined with the light shining (indirectly) on Inger, gives an eerie quality to the scene, lending it a subtle sense of spirituality. It makes the viewer believe that there is something more than one could see with the naked eye. The actors focus more on the “inner drama” of the characters, not allowing too much emotion to perturb the scene, giving it a very down-to-earth quality. Carl Th. Dreyer’s ambition was to give a true sense of authenticity, of realism to this film, in regards not only to the exterior settings, but also to the inner life of the characters. And he succeeded. The reactions feel genuine and believable. The “profane” surrounds us, and the people are real. But it’s a realism that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Here, it’s not the style that counts, but the substance. Everything, from the lighting to the acting, takes a back seat to the events that unfold in front of us. The tone of the direction is very subtle, very subdued, not allowing anything to really take us out of the real world it created. This approach makes the miracle much more poignant than if Dreyer would have used more elaborate settings, or more “traditional” acting styles.
Johannes (who claims to be Jesus Christ, believed throughout the film to be insane) is reluctant at first, not really wanting to perform any sort of miracle, reprimanding the others for not having enough faith (as in Matthew 17:19-20 (The King James Bible) – “Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”). It is Inger’s daughter who asks him to do it (reminding us of Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,” the child being the only one throughout the film who “sees” who Johannes really is, believing in him). Johannes brings back Inger to life in a very simple and unassuming manner.
There is no heroic music in the scene, no close-ups of Johannes’ face, not any kind of emphasis is put on his action. This has a greater emotional impact on the viewer than any type of glorifying shots of Jesus. The realistic nature of the scene makes the religious undertones much more powerful than in any other self-proclaimed “Christian” movie. Here, Dreyer has truly brought the sacred into the profane, making us believe that miracles can be performed by anyone, as long as one has faith.
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