Almost all early Carl Th. Dreyer films show life to be one big ceremony, each generation parading in place of the last; only one, like Gertrud, finds fortitude in futility. Typically, The Bride of Glomdale (1926), Dreyer’s pre-The Passion of Joan of Arc masterpiece, and his final outdoor folk tale, is seen as Dreyer’s last light, joyous movie. And it is (though Ordet is too): the story of a couple of youths from opposite classes in some ancient time who defy their families to love each other, Glomdale’s alive in earth, and fire, and water, smoke and sky, running lovers, peasant dances and weddings. It’s also alive in vindictive parents, gushing rapids, and wooden stock-still rooms, cramped peasant quarters filmed on diagonals to appear like huge, open Flemish paintings, which threaten to both swallow up the characters and lock them in place like the encoffined dead. As in Gertrud or the end of Ordet, when the lovers move inside, or awaken in bed, they can look like museum pieces starting to breathe. Death is everywhere in Glomdale, but unlike in previous Dreyer films, it’s actively pursued both by nature and evil characters—out to kill two kids’ happiness.
Death is everywhere in Glomdale. It’s in society’s staid walls. It’s in the aching shot of the boy holding the girl against the house (left of frame) whose logs point out to the woods on the horizon just beyond (right of frame), and he traps her tight in place, playfully, just before they find release running in nature that later threatens to kill them. (House vs. nature; security vs. freedom; and that call of the wild returns in Gertrud, in which a background park looks like an impossibly faraway 2-D tapestry promising Romantic possibility, never to be entered into.)
It’s in Dreyer’s most spectacular composition, a movie in itself, from high, as peasants put on a dance around a fire, the smoke blows, and far in back, locals slowly boat down the river: the shifting partners, the slow river, the smoke all mean transience, of course (and feel like it), while the earth—the peasants specks against it—is unmoved. It’s nearly a shot from Bruegel, as peasants play as nature drifts on on its own. Dreyer, here and always, is never far from Thomas Hardy, whose own Romanticism acknowledges the world’s indifference and brutality and finds all the more beauty, then, in people’s illusions that they matter, that their feelings are echoed through the natural world, that a small town’s ceremonies are the crux of living, that innocence can be regained (it never existed but in ignorance). By Glomdale, emotionally profound as the late stuff, and as much a twilight work as them, Dreyer is already hinting that all’s vanity but vanity. Thus, characters, heroes and villains and dancers, who cling to country ritual, ideas of love, and each other. That Glomdale’s lovers can communicate, like Griffith’s, via telepathy in cross-cuts scenes apart, is some measure of their victory, but that, true innocents, they’re barely awake in the world. Their victory, as it always is in Dreyer, is in simply submitting to their own natural emotions.
Victory in submission: finally, death is in Glomdale’s action climax, as the boy is swept down a river as he tries to get to his love, a horse falls in with him, he nearly dies, and, downriver, he climbs out into his lover's arms. Dreyer’s space, writes Dave Kehr, “reflects the inner reality of his scenes, not exclusively their external arrangement. The Bride of Glomdale finds its ruling metaphor in two farmsteads separated by a river (just as the two families are divided on the marriage of their children). Dreyer begins the film by insisting on the strict physicality of the separation, but as the narrative brings the two families together, so does Dreyer’s elliptical cutting plan work to collapse the space. The two farms are finally contiguous, linked rather than separated by the river.”
Civilization is determinate, always marked by Dreyer in fixed lines and patterns, often over a blankness, and through which people pass (halfway between society and the woods, the dancers of the country dance provide pattern and movement both). But nature dissolves these artificial boundaries: the river dissolves the divisions between the lovers as it brings them together at last, if not physically, then emotionally, as Dreyer rapidly cuts and cross-cuts between the two lovers. As Dreyer has largely stuck to the cosmic view of a patient camera that, like Renoir’s or Mizoguchi’s or Christensen’s, sets up a space and lets characters pass by and interact with it, he now moves in closer and cuts faster to dissolve the film’s own relative formality: shots now flow together in sequence, fast; the film itself swept up. Dreyer brings the characters together in the climax, like any good action director, by bringing the audience at last into their situation and primal feelings. The feelings aren’t necessarily love; as in Joan’s conflagration, the emotion Glomdale finally mimics as its hero nearly drowns is its characters’ frenzy in the throes of oblivion.
Like most of Dreyer, Hawks, or Bruce Willis, Glomdale finally posits that life is only worth living on the edge of death; that love, bodies grappling is how we assert we’re alive in the flesh, and that death is the reason we need to assert it. One is nothing without the possibility of the other, though love is a victory over death in Glomdale for the very last time in Dreyer’s films; Ordet will end with the battle won and the war long lost (but death renews the affair as meaningful). Even so, whereas Griffith’s Way Down East (which is the model for Glomdale as Intolerance is for Leaves from Satan’s Book and Orphans of the Storm is for Joan) ends with a river rescue that’s paean to American independence and mulishness transcending the ways of society and nature alike, like a dreamer standing up and taking control of the dream he inhabits, Glomdale ends with a river rescue in which the savior is caught in the waves. Griffith makes movies about people who fight society’s intolerance actively; Dreyer makes movies about people who withstand it passively, by retreating into each other or themselves or empty rooms, by watching the world as ghosts. Griffith’s icy river is Death, and his man, surmounting it, is Love, here to fight it; the battle against death only proves love’s strength that was already there. But Dreyer’s river is both Death and Love: the same thing that can kill them validates their passion. Even signifies it.
Is there a more beautiful film? Just a portrait of lovers at dusk, Glomdale is about fancy’s fragile victory, like Magpie on the Gallows’ peasants dancing on graves in commemoration—of life? Of death? Like Yeats and Picasso, whose own folkland creatures come back in blown-up bits and body bags, if at all, after war, Dreyer was a last Romantic, or lost Romantic, soon unable to find a place for his fantasies in a world of institutionalized mass-murder. He’d make his problem his subject, instead; post-Glomdale, his characters retreat behind walls from these exact institutions to fantasize, probably that they could live the lives of Glomdale. From here on out in Dreyer, mindless ceremonies will be reenacted by killers, vampyrs and inquisitors, already dead: bodies without souls. Consistently, Dreyer’s rivers will be the river Styx. And Glomdale’s couple will return once more to beat the system in the stream-crossing lovers of Day of Wrath, as murderers.
The above was written as a recollection of a movie seen a few seasons ago, with half the reels out of order, and thus, quite possibly a movie that’s not The Bride of Glomdale at all, but worth remembering anyway. Corrections would be appreciated.