‘Gertrud’: What Is The True Nature of Love?

By  · Published on March 13th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they look back on a life in love and celebrate a simpler (but often more difficult) form of filmmaking from Carl Theodor Dreyer.

In the #43 (tied) movie on the list, a marriage falls apart, leading a woman to seek a lover and, above all else, love.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So I’d like to jump in with a reaction to Gertrud more than a specific question, and I want to hear your take. For a film that’s so heartbreaking, tragic, even cynical in its depiction of romantic relationships and unions, the film is also remarkably uncompromising and sincere in its perspective on love itself – what love should be, what it should mean for each partner. Or, at least, Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) herself is remarkably uncompromising on this subject.

Scott: Without a doubt, but I don’t see a great disconnect between those two ideas because love, as a life-altering force, has the potential to create great tragedy and emotional difficulty. Any root-deep exploration of the topic has the opportunity to look at love as a wedge and as an adhesive.

Landon: Love is difficult and inconvenient certainly, and at worst it can be tragic. I’m wondering if the film suggests by the end that finding sustainable love as Gertrud sees it is impossible. That partners inevitably don’t see quite eye-to-eye.

Scott: Suggests, probably. Although a bleak message from Dreyer isn’t something to drop a jaw over. If it suggests something impossible, it also has to suggest that compromising is a key element to finding a partner. That’s the contradiction: in order to find love, you have to be open to altering your definition of love.

However, this film seems so rooted in Gertrud and Gustav’s (Bendt Rothe) experience that I wince to think of it as a universal statement.

Landon: That’s a good point, and it also goes to show that this bleak ending seems mostly so from an outsider’s perspective. Gertrud herself is actually quite content by the film’s end that she lived a life in which she did, however fleetingly, find and experience love on her own terms. Her life alone is not one without love, but as a result of the richness and depth of love she sought.

That’s a pretty progressive view of coupling from a filmmaker born in 1889.

Scott: And from a play written in 1906. A nice reminder that modernity didn’t begin in the 60s.

I also couldn’t help but think of Ordet, which came out a decade earlier, but focuses on an antique society – a rural one – that explores family and love in a few similar ways.

Landon: And with similar camerawork and performance styles that put us in a unique place with regard to charactrer psychology – stylistically speaking, this is not the Dreyer of Passion of Joan of Arc.

Yet all films portray some definition of uncompromising, idealistic love.

Scott: He actually discovered there were more shot styles beyond close-up after 1930.

Landon: We can see the rest of the room! All those beautiful sofas.

I truly love the camerawork in this film and Ordet, both of which I was introduced to through this list. At first glance, it seems uncinematic, but it put me in an active relation to the emotional stakes at play. When Gertrud calls things off with Gustav, I didn’t share Gustav’s surprise yet I could only infer how long Gertrud had been waiting to see this. I had access to both their experiences. There are no antagonists in this film; it’s a truly empathetic form of filmmaking.

Scott: Rare and difficult, and I wish I understood the technique better because what’s magical about it is how it allows us to be in the center of a space. Millions of movies shoot in bedrooms and living rooms, but few make you recognize the full spectrum of the space. So a hat tip to DP Henning Bendtsen is in order.

Landon: Absolutely, and I think his particular work with actors does a lot of the artistic labor here with respect to his use of space. They, like the camera, only move selectively and decisively. Sometimes, again, it comes across as theatrical on the surface, but getting a performance out of somebody who barely moves allows for some rich moments of subtle emotion. For instance, when Gertrud kisses Erland goodbye on the hand after staying at his house and closes her eyes, you can feel the depth of her passion.

The film does so much with restraint. A hat tip for restraint is in order, too.

Scott: I need to go grab a hat.

I wonder about what it takes to transcend the play-like and bring “a bunch of talking” into the cinematical. This is certainly a strong example of that, Glengarry Glen Ross of course (but it has the benefit of moving around and being irritated constantly).

Landon: Yeah, and David Mamet’s directed films feel very stagey. I wonder if Dreyer’s accomplishment here has something to do with his relationship to hyper-formalized silent cinema. He knows, as we discussed with Joan, what the camera and editing can do in close-up form, and with his sound work he explored the possibilities of medium and long shots: not as an opportunity for movement but, like you said, a means of exploring spaces (psychological, social, emotional).

In all of these films, though, Dreyer gives great attention to something that’s difficult to focus on as much on stage: the intricacies of expression via the human face. This seems to run throughout his work.

The performances here are primarily internal, not external. And I struggle to think of any filmmakers who have accomplished something similar. Dreyer seems singular in this regard.

Scott: It takes a lot of faith as a director to trust actors to that extent, not to mention the rest of the filmmaking personnel. Powerful nuance is ninja-level work. If there’s a correlation in popular film, it might be Hitchcock’s Rope— with the surface-level connection to making small spaces come alive, drawing out performances that stand on facial expressions and telling a story of obsession.

Landon: I like the image of Dreyer and his crew as Scandinavian ninjas.

Scott: Gertrud had no idea they were even filming the intimate moments of her life.

Also, they were mutant turtles.

Landon: Rope’s a good point of comparison, and it speaks to the fact that Dreyer is using tools familiar to classic sound filmmaking that were rarely realized or utilized to their full extent as such: the wealth of possibilities in simply placing people in a frame in a room.

Yet Gertrud was his first film after Ordet (with a 9-year gap in between) and movies had changed a great deal by 1964. As Philip Lopate points out, arthouse audiences were used to the jump-cutting of the French New Wave by this point and, like many great films, booed Gertrud as festivals. Watching Dreyer’s later work is like unlearning some of the showier tricks of cinema, and getting down to the power in its root simplicity.

Scott: You’ve hit on a frustrating problem with several New Wave movies. I typically get slapped very softly for saying so (and the S&S list has forced further evaluation of that movement), but there’s a great sense of skipping over storytelling for flash and charisma. It’s partially why so many FNW movies feel dull or hollow, whereas something like Gertrud is raw, naked and profoundly personal.

Or maybe I just can’t relate to debilitating ennui.

Landon: Maybe if debilitating ennui came in ninja form.

Scott: And had more car crashes.

Landon: It’s the difference, I think, between making cinema about cinema and using cinema for the possibilities of exploring a variety of topics and themes.

Scott: Like the definition of capital-L Love or how pretty Claire’s knee is.

Landon: Exactly. That’s not to say that Dreyer’s films aren’t also about cinema or that FNW films aren’t about other things besides cinema, but Dreyer’s work in this sense is anti-modernist: he wants his audience to see past the medium and into the characters’ souls.

In that way, he is kind of a theater director.

Scott: And yet not merely a transplant.

Landon: He’s moving through that 4th wall that other filmmakers are satisfied to break.

Scott: That kind of a filmmaking is a necessary, inevitable, natural antidote – the way something like Glengarry or Margin Call comes along to remind people that talking can be powerful.

Call it the The Third Law of Cinematic Motion.

Landon: It’s so simple and seemingly intrinsic to the medium, but it feels so new and radical when revisited because so few filmmakers put their trust in the possibilities of people talking in a room. It’s like the comeback of the Academy ratio in films like Meek’s Cutoff and Grand Budapest Hotel: it feels like a radical choice in the face in newer conventions, but it’s always been there.

Which, beyond all the inherent problems of lists, makes me glad that filmmakers like Dreyer and Ozu are mainstays on lists like S&S: they’re necessary reminders of what can be done with cinema’s deceptively simple tools.

Scott: Simple tools like the throwing star and shuriken.

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