Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Born Today February 3: Carl Theodore Dreyer


One the world's greatest writer/directors of all time was born illegitimate to a married Danish farmer and his Swedish housemaid employee, in Copenhagen, Denmark; Dreyer's birth father gave him up for adoption at birth.  He spent the first two years of his life in an orphanage and several foster homes--it's unclear what his name was; if he even really had one.  He was then adopted by one Carl Theodore Dreyer and wife, and named after his adopted father.  His childhood was unhappy, with his adopted parents constantly reminding him that he should grateful for anything they gave him, including and especially food; and in his own words from later in life, "...and that I strictly had no claim on anything, since my mother got out of paying by lying down to die."  He turned out to be an extremely intelligent young man, and left home and school when he was 16 years of age.  He managed to get work as a journalist; from there, he found work as a silent title card writer, and from there, a writer of screenplays.  His first film credit came as a writer in 1912 with Dødsridtet (The Leap To Death), a film with a crime plot, that he actually appeared in as "Balloon Skipper." [a role he would resprise in his The Hidden Message (1913)]  He wrote for a couple of Danish production companies, before being hired by Nordisk Film (one of the only silent film producers to survive into the modern age--they are still open!) in 1913.  The first film that he wrote for them was Chatollets hemmelighed.  His first direction credit comes at Nordisk in 1919, The President, based on a Karl Emil Franzos novel about infanticide, that Dreyer adapted for the screen himself.  The next film that he directed, The Parson's Widow (1920), a horror comedy, was a Swedish collaboration, produced by the Swedish production company, Svensk Filmindusrti (another company still in business), and, again adapted by Dreyer.  By the mid 1920's he was frustrated with his work in Denmark and Scandinavia, and left for the French film industry.  While there, he met many prominent members of the French artistic community, including:  Jean Hugo and Jean Cocteau.  It was in France that he finally made his great film break through in 1928 with La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, which Dreyer penned with poet Joseph Delteil based on transcripts from the historical trial.  The film is considered one the great triumphs of the silent era and a top 100 film classic by many a critic.  This would be the last silent film that he wrote or directed.  The next film that he made came in 1932 with the horror masterpiece Vampyr, which he co-adapted from a novel by Sheridan La Fanu, with fellow Dane Christen Jul.  The film featured mono sound mix by (Tobis-Klangfilm), part of the production company for the film, Tobis-Filmkunst, a Danish company, to very sparse dialogue. For the most part, the film should be considered a partial silent film because of this.  Three versions were made, one in French, one in German and one in English.  The film was panned by critics and did not do well at the box office.  After this, he left for journalism again; by 1952 he was a cinema manager.   He would go to make several more experimental type films and many more short documentaries.  One film, Två människor (1945) was a complete box office failure.  Dreyer thoroughly disowned the film, and even later claimed that it never existed.  He tried his best to have copies of it destroyed; but despite this, the Swedish Film Institute preserved a copy and it has been remastered since.  Dreyer died on the 20th March 1968 in Copenhagen at the age of 79.  After his death the screenplay for a film that he had been planning to make about Jesus was published; this has been called the great unfinished project of his life.  He is buried in Frederiksberg Old Cemetery there.  His gravestone is adorned with his signature.

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