Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final film, Gertrud, is one of those slow, stand-offish masterpieces that tends to embolden naysayers to such a degree that admiration of it too often comes across as paradoxically both pretentious and defensive.
It’s always easier to lament the ignorance of the masses than to illuminate it.
I doubt that I can make anyone love Gertrud who doesn’t already have an affinity for slow, plotless chamber stories, but I can say what I like about this film in the hopes of showing that there really are some ideas at here worth contemplating.
The idea of a woman being faithful to the ideal of love even when her lover is not isn’t unique to Gertrud. It is the surprise twist that stabs at the heart in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for example. To a lesser extent, it is what supposedly allows us to look at The Age of Innocence as tragedy rather than merely melodrama. Hjalmar Söderberg’s play was produced in 1906, and while Gertrud seems decidedly out of step with the children sexual suffragettes of the late twentieth century (many of whom scoffed at Dreyer’s adaptation), she isn’t all that different from the Isabel Archers, Catherine Slopers, and Lily Barts of the literary world at the turn of the last century.
Lily and Catherine both remain spiritually faithful to lovers who either reject them or fail to reciprocate the degree of reckless abandon with which they pursue spiritual union. On the surface, Isabel might seem a foil rather than a mirror for Gertrud since she stays in a loveless marriage. But I think the parallel is that they are both more committed to abstractions — one to the institution of marriage, the other to an idealized notion of “love” that supersedes it — than to specific husbands or lovers.
But there is another antecedent who kept plucking at my subconscious the last time I watched Gertrud: the Biblical prophet Hosea, who God commanded to marry a harlot. On the surface, it may appear scandalous, even blasphemous to compare this story of a woman with multiple lovers to that of a prophet spiritually bound to one who does not act the part of a partner, much less a beloved.
One key difference between these stories is that there is a gender inversion here. As with Jane Austen’s Persuasion (the film adaptation of which comes in at #17 on the Arts & Faith list), Gertrud asserts that it is the female that is more often faithful to the spiritual union long after the hope of an earthly pairing has been lost. I suspect this is more often the case in great literature because women are perceived as having less power in earthly marriages and the party whose standard of living goes down with their dissolution. Thus, faithfulness to the one who has hurt them (materially as well as emotionally) is viewed as nobler than a stubborn commitment to one who might not be as economically or socially devastated by a separation.
But that way of thinking tends to view commitment in a non-sacramental sense. We understand commitment to a person, but not a commitment to an institution, an ideal, or a principle. These days we accept as normal the dissolution of a relationship when that commitment is lost for whatever reason, making us wonder what is meant by “commitment.” Gertrud is not committed to the institution of marriage, but neither is she merely personally infatuated with a particular, unattainable individual. Whether a Christian views her adamant refusal to accept anything less than her idealized version of love as a fumbling imitation of a religious, sacramental commitment or simply as a failed substitution for it will probably go a long way towards determining whether he or she feels admiration for her or impatience with her.
I personally find Gertrud both noble and frustrating. I think her noble because she takes on isolation and loneliness rather than accept arrangements that would offer material and social comfort. But I also find her frustrating because she (or the movie) doesn’t appear to think she is at all a contributor to her own situation. Pure victims are rare in life, even in the rather large pool of people intractably committed to worthy ideals.
In the context of Arts & Faith’s list of films about Growing Old(er), Gertrud sits somewhere in the no-mans-land between films about characters whose experiences, however painful, have made them wiser and characters whose trauma is the greater because of their inability or unwillingness to change and adapt. Both types of characters are archetypes of humans aging, and we tend to feel better about movies that promise us that with age comes wisdom — or at least an increased capacity to navigate life’s turbulent waves.
As with King Lear (whose film comes in at #25 on the Arts & Faith list), Gertrud clings to the certainty of her correctness in a way that has to resonate with anyone whose beliefs are out-of-step with their cultural moment. But also like King Lear, her example warns us that such dogmatism is rarely understood, much less rewarded, in this world of pragmatism and accommodation.