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Carl Th. Dreyer’s Film on Jewish Persecution

Mike Kuhlenbeck
April 15, 2016

by Mike Kuhlenbeck

440e811b3758INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) is perhaps best known to English-speaking filmgoers as the force behind the 1932 horror masterpiece Vampyr. However, Dreyer confronted a real-life evil that has haunted the world for centuries, the looming menace of anti-Semitism, with Elsker HverandreLove One Another.

Dreyer’s fourth film, Elsker HverandreLove One Another was released in English and in German (as Die Gezeichneten, “The Stigmatised”) in 1922. Few other films dealt with the persecution against the Jewish people in those early years of cinema, with the notable exception of the film trilogy, The Golem, a silver-screen treatment of a German novel based on a famous Jewish folktale. Directed by and starring Paul Wegener, The Golem films (made between 1915 and 1920) are considered to be among the first true horror films ever made.

By contrast, Elsker Hverandre deals with the subject in a more grounded manner. Based on the bestselling 1912 Danish novel by Aage Madelung (1872-1949), the film has been described as “a powerful attack on anti-Semitic prejudice” by University of Copenhagen professor Casper Tybjerg, who called Dreyer a “lifelong and committed foe of anti-Semitism.”

Dreyer was born in Copenhagen on February 3, 1889. He ventured into a journalism career, writing primarily about aviation. Aside from his reporting duties, Dreyer concentrated on writing screenplays. His first film to be produced was Bryggerens Datter in 1912. From 1913-1918, he worked as a screenwriter and script consultant for Nordisk Film. He made his directorial debut with the company in 1919 with The President.

Nine of the fourteen full-length films completed during his life (not counting eight short films that he directed) were made during the silent era, and most were filmed outside of Denmark. Danish film historian Mark Le Fanu writes, however, that Dreyer’s “relatively restricted output has not prevented him from being spoken of as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.”

Dreyer was drawn to the idea of recreating Madelung’s story on celluloid almost immediately after reading the text. “It possesses so much suspense and character description that it is eminently suitable for film,” he said in an interview. “I have heard Russians say that it gives such a true picture of Russian types and conditions that for all intents and purposes it could have been written by a Russian.”

Dreyer recommended the material to his German producer, Otto Schmidt, who wanted to produce a film that would appeal to audiences in England and the United States. Dreyer then scripted his adaptation of the novel. Cinematographer Friedrich Weinmann was assigned the difficult task of helping to bring Dreyer’s images to life.

As a director, Dreyer could find deep significance in even the most mundane of facial expressions, physical gestures, and the way people spoke. This was evident with his choice of casting. The film starred Vladimir Gajdarov, Adele Reuter-Eichberg, Johannes Meyer, Polina Piekowskaja, and Thorleif Reiss, as well as many unknowns who had never acted before. Late in his life, in the 1966 documentary Carl Th. Dreyer directed by Jørgen Roos, Dreyer explained how he remained true to Madelung’s story with his adaptation:

Just outside Berlin, we had to reconstruct a corner of Russia. We succeeded because I was lucky enough to find refugees who’d lived through the Russian Revolution. They gave me hundreds of amateur photographs, which were of great help. I also found two Russian artists-a painter and a sculptor-who still shook with fear. We created an authentic setting, and therefore a genuine style.

In 1922, Madelung said in an interview with the newspaper Dagens Nyheder, “One of the things I... admire most about Carl Th. Dreyer is the brilliant types he has gathered, both for the central characters and, not least, for the staffage.”

Along with trying to assemble the right human elements of the story, Dreyer and his set designer Jens Lind visited Lublin, Poland to research locations and scenery. The film’s exterior sets were based on the architecture they found in the city, which according to them had a “sizable Jewish population.”

THE STORY REVOLVES around a young Jewish woman, Hanne-Liebe, who is in love with the revolutionary Sasha during the 1905 uprising in Russia and of the ensuing anti-Semitic pogroms under the tsar. There had been scores of pogroms against Russia’s Jewish population in the 1880s, resulting in hundreds dead, physically wounded or emotionally traumatized. Then came the fictitious anti-Semitic screed known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in Russia in 1903 for the sole purpose of whipping up violence against Russia’s Jewish population. From 1903-1906, hundreds more Jews were killed in pogroms, and hundreds of thousands of Jews packed up their bags and emigrated from the Russian Empire. (Automobile tycoon Henry Ford would provide the funds to publish Protocols in English during the 1920s. He borrowed liberally from the work for his own manifesto, The International Jew, large portions of which were in turn plagiarized by Adolf Hitler.)

Elsker Hverandre had its inaugural premiere at the Primus Palast in Berlin, three weeks before German director F.W. Murnau’s classic retelling of the vampire myth Nosferatu — which had strongly anti-Semitic overtones — opened for audiences.

As with some of Dreyer’s other films, such as classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the film was not a commercial success, though it was praised for its unembellished realism and its emotional power. This was a familiar trend in Dreyer’s career as a director. With Vampyr (1932), for example, Dreyer intended to make a commercial film using a subject matter that was popular at the time. To reach a wider audience, Dreyer reluctantly transitioned from silent to talking pictures with Vampyr. The film nevertheless lost money.

However, the real wealth connected to his filmmaking, however, is the talent witnessed on the screen.

More than two decades after the release of Elsker Hverandre, Dreyer would tackle the paranoia, repression and violence of the Nazi regime in his native Denmark with his 1943 film Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag). “This film was made and premiered during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, when Jews were being deported,” notes film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The story, set in the 1600s during a period of witch-hunts in the more literal sense of the term, served as an allegory for the horrors of fascism in Europe and its effect on the rest of the world. In the film, Anna, the wife of an older pastor, falls in love with her stepson when he returns to their superstitious and backward village in Denmark. As noted by Casper Tybjerg: “The film depicts a world where puritan religion has such a merciless grip on people’s minds that they can only see passion and desire as the devil’s work — as witchcraft. Even those whose nature moves them to resist, like Anne, must invariably see themselves as enemies of good.”

Dreyer’s biographer Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that Dreyer may have cast a blond actress as the main character Anne “to avoid charges that he was making a political allegory -- though the message wasn’t lost on the Danish underground at the time, and today it clearly registers as one of the great Resistance films.”

Dreyer helped push the boundaries of celluloid, going beyond the constricted frames of each piece of film to explore something bigger. His human touch left a distinctive fingerprint. He died of pneumonia at 79 in 1968, four years after completing his final film, Gertrud.

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union member based in Des Moines, Iowa.