‘Ordet’ is an Excellent Movie for Lent

Life and death, faith and unbelief, the Cross and the Resurrection — all are found in this 1955 film

Detail of an Ordet movie poster
Detail of an Ordet movie poster (photo: IMDB.com)

Ordet (1955) is filmmaking entirely suitable for the season of Lent, not least because it is a film that makes you think, and possibly pray. 

On beginning to watch this film, initially at least, an audience may be bored by its lack of outward action. But, if persevered with, it may well find a way into your soul. 

Perhaps that is because its director Carl Dryer (1889-1968) lets the extraordinary, the truly miraculous break into the microcosm of an ordinary life, through the words, actions, but above all the presence of one despised by the world as a fool.

The Christian idea of the Holy Fool is that of one perceived as foolish in the eyes of the world but who is, nevertheless, an unnerving and wise presence — a truth-teller. Both in the Christian East and West, there is a long tradition of such individuals who witness to a spiritual reality beyond this world. 

Periodically, they have appeared on cinema screens, as is the case in Dryer’s Ordet, which is set in the Danish winter of 1925. The world depicted is a self-contained one of rural lives as uncomplicated as their Calvinist piety. Initially, the audience sees a settled lifestyle shot through with constant references to the Bible, but all this is about to be rent asunder.

In the midst of this cold austere beauty the Borgen family farms their land. The widowed head of the family is staunch in his Christian beliefs, if doubtful of the real power of God. However, his children reflect different religious positions. His eldest son no longer believes, while his youngest goes along unthinkingly with his father. The middle child, Johannes, is different — he has lost his mind. 

Johannes was a student of theology, but too much exposure to the writings of Kierkegaard caused him to suffer a mental breakdown. As a consequence, he has retreated from the world and now, intermittently, emerges from his room quoting Sacred Scripture in mournful lamentation. Like some prophet of old, he appears perturbed by the lack of faith he sees all around him. Increasingly, he begins to disturb both believer and unbeliever alike.

At first, Johannes’ repeated and unexpected appearances seem to disrupt the film’s narrative. Yet, the plot slowly builds. And, as it does, Johannes begins to transform in the audience’s mind from being an irritation to a compelling curiosity.

In a film where displayed are unattractive religious quibbles over who are the Saved and who are the Damned, and where the community’s new pastor appears to have little to contribute other than platitudes, we sense in the background an increasingly authoritative voice, namely, that of Johannes, seemingly crying in the wilderness. Eventually, the sound of this voice begins to permeate all around it. This becomes especially apparent in the pivotal scene about childbirth where, with the possibility of new life or death, Johannes talks to the daughter of the woman then in labor.  His presence becomes more than reassuring — he and his words start to transcend what is taking place. What happens next is worthy of a place in the film canon of the truly unexpected as the film’s climactic scene is one of the most unforeseen occurrences in cinema, coming as it does with a grave, startling power shot through with Apocalyptic suddenness, reducing all involved to silence.  

Ordet was based upon the Danish stage play I Begyndelsen var Ordet (In the Beginning was the Word) written in 1925 and premiered in Copenhagen in 1932. The play’s author was Kaj Munk, a playwright and Lutheran pastor who was known for his cultural engagement and later martyrdom in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis. The film version of Munk’s work, called simply Ordet (which in Danish means The Word), proved an unexpected commercial and critical success, at the 1955 Venice International Film Festival it won the Golden Lion. 

Films have their moment and as quickly disappear. Over half a century later, curiously, Ordet seems to be of the moment, in particular this communal moment of isolation and uncertainty, and for some an ending.  Like Dryer’s most famous work The Passion of Joan of Arc (1926), the film invites the audience to share the interior suffering of the drama’s protagonist. However, the overt drama of the trial St. Joan is replaced in Ordetby something seemingly more mundane but that, in the end, proves just as dramatic.

All the familiar compromises and half-hearted attempts to engage with faith and its promises are in Ordet but so, too, through the presence of the Holy Fool is a radical alternative to unbelief. In the end, the film’s conclusion changes everything, leaving the audience gasping as much as its characters. Wisely, Dryer lets the action and Johannes’s final intervention occur and then abruptly ends the film, as newfound words of faith still ring out. Life and death, faith and unbelief, the Cross and the Resurrection — all are here on our screen, and, perhaps, have been never more needed.