Ordet is all about the Big Questions, I don't see any reason not to lead off my review of it with Grand Statements all my own - though since the movie is anything but hyberbolic, I do so with a fair and appropriate degree of shame. First, it is the greatest movie about religion, which means something a little different here than faith or the lack of it (between them, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky have quite a lot of good things to say on that topic), or the nature of God (a subject that still hasn't quite received its proper cinematic treatment yet, though I think 2011's The Tree of Life comes as close as anything I've personally seen). Faith is, unquestionably, a major component of the film, but it is ultimately more concerned with how faith is executed by human beings sweating and stumbling through and hoping to find answers - Ordet is investigating how we believe, rather then why or if we believe. Second, it is the most demanding major film in the career of the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who is among the most demanding filmmakers ever to live, and while it is pleasingly light on symbolism and deliberate obfuscation, it still requires an intense amount of work to even start unpacking it: I've personally seen it three times now, and I'm nowhere near the point I'd like to be with it, but I'd rather write this before I turn 80, so...
The 1955 film was the second-to-last in Dreyer's career (his final work, Gertrud, came out nine years later), and it is the unmistakable product of a mature artist who was at that point as well-versed in how films are made as anyone else in the sound era; and yet he refuses all ownership or artistic claim over the picture, which has no closing credits and no opening credits but these:
For it was based upon a 1932 play by Munk, a Lutheran pastor whose dramatic works retains considerable cachet in his native Denmark; he was assassinated by the Nazis in 1944 and is regarded as something like a national hero. What, if anything, Dreyer meant for his ideal audience to take from all this is beyond guessing, though I suppose we're meant to understand that he, as screenwriter and director, along with his uncredited cast and crew, were devoted rather more to the task of bring Munk's own ideas to the screen rather than put their own stamp on the material.
And, indeed, Ordet is on the most basic surface level quite a descriptive movie. The performances are, each and every one of them, excellent, and yet there's not any kind of showcased "acting" that makes it possible to make qualitative judgments of the "this person was better than that, while the third guy was Best in Show". Not because of any trumped-up realism - in fact, the film is undoubtedly arch and stylised - but at times it doesn't feel like what we're watching is acting at all, just the most perfect expression of the characters as written and conceived, the actors serving as vessels and conduits rather than artists of themselves. Most cinematic adaptations are, on some level, an analysis of their source material, and though I speak in the ignorance of having no firsthand experience of this or any other Munk play, Ordet doesn't really give that impression; like it's an embodiment of the piece rather than an interpretation.
As for what is described: it is a relatively simple scenario about a small community in 1925, where some degree of religious feuding would appear to have taken root. Virtually all of our time is spent in the main rooms of the Borgen farmhouse, the home of the proud patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), who claims at one point to have been the first man to establish a rich sense of (theoretically Lutheran) godliness among a population of former agnostics and heathens. Now widowed, Morten fathered three sons: Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), the eldest, has abandoned faith completely and adopts an agnostic stance apparently of the "God is dead" school rather than the "God never was" one; the middle child, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), was a bright theology student driven to madness by the work of Søren Kierkegaard, and now patters about thinking himself to be Jesus Christ; the youngest, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), doesn't necessarily have strong religious convictions in any particular direction, given that he's presently courting Anne Petersen (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of the tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel), the community's leading proponent of a much severer, fundamentalist Christianity than the warm but doctrinally non-specific flavor of the Borgens. Morten and his three sons all live together, along with Mikkel's fiercely devout wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), and their two daughters.
The film breaks neatly into two almost equal halves. In the first, the main topic is on Anders's love for Anne, with Morten initally railing against the match on religious grounds, and then immediately supporting it with all his passion when it becomes clear that Peter also opposes the pair on religious grounds. It's a pacey, quiet life study, in which the religious mores of the Borgens are mixed and contrasted within the family and against the community at large - there are irresistible, though entirely superficial resemblances to The Brothers Karamazov in all of this. Then, in the second half, the very pregnant Inger goes into a difficult labor, and I need to take a moment's pause: there's not much point in discussing Ordet without going on ahead and talking about the ending, but at the same time, it's not a movie in which knowing the ending actually changes it that much. Anyway, if you feel that way about spoilers, I'd stop here: rest assured that the movie is brilliant and worth your time, even if the phrase "the great movie about religion" doesn't sound interesting to you (I'm hardly in the cheering section for organised religion).
That being said: Inger loses the baby (Mikkel states with forced sternness in one of the finest line deliveries of the 1950s that Morten's first grandson is in four pieces in a bucket), and then dies. She is mourned; her death even brings together Peter and Morten. And then, Johannes, who has been missing for days, shows up with his mania completely cured, and asks his family with withering contempt why they didn't pray to God to restore Inger's life. Which he then does, and sure enough, the dead woman rises from her coffin on the very morning of her funeral, spiritually piercing and a masterstroke of filmmaking; it is the first moment in a film buzzing with subdued ambient noise (birds, clocks, creaking wood, breathing, talking) that is totally silent, and her rise itself takes place in the whitest shot in the entire picture
The simplicity of the plot I've just sketched out, which takes a bit over two hours to play out, goes hand-in-hand with such richness of philosophy, spirituality, and morality that one feature hardly seems enough to contain it. I imagine much of this is Dreyer's inheritance from Munk, for much of it is buried so far into the bones of the story that it's unimaginable to separate it into parts: there is, for example the conflict between the fundamentalists' fervent embrace of a dead Christ and the Borgens' more friendly, living religion, disdained by Peter as "bright, happy", despite the fact that the fundamentalists seem perpetually cheerier than the family does; this culminates of course in Inger's resurrection. And this is in direct response to Peter's glib but chilling suggestion that he'd be fine with Inger's death if it were part of God's plan to shake Morten into the "right" sort of religion; contrasting with mad Johannes's confusion that modern Christians seem far too concerned with the safely dead and gone 2000-year-old Jesus and can't stand the idea of a present Jesus in their daily reality. I could and would like to go on, but it's too easy to turn a review of the film into a laundry-list of themes that it does a very fine job explicating on its own.
And anyway, having established a false binary, I'd like to respond to myself, when I suggested that much of Ordet is Dreyer's attempt to present Munk's play as itself, and not his own spin on the material. In fact, Ordet in its cinematic form is so intimately tied to the visual language of film and Dreyer's particular approach to visual storytelling that the theatrical basis of it has been burned completely away, and without any obvious "opening up" - most of it does still take place in a small number of locations, and frequently we only see three walls in any given space, suggesting not so much a filmed play as a play in which the camera and thus the audience is right on stage interacting with the characters.
For the interaction of the camera and the characters is at the heart of Ordet. If Dreyer's best-known (and best) film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is his film "about" close-ups, Ordet is "about" camera movement, dolly shots and pans especially. If there is a characteristic "type" of shot in the movie, it is one that occurs at least four or five times, in which we are watching a situation play out, only to have the camera twist to the side to watch someone else respond, and then back to the first set-up, locking that character back out of the shot; it is exactly the sort of thing that is typically done in an insert shot and has been since the silent era. So why, then, would Dreyer and his cinematographer, Henning Bendtsen, do such a thing, which after all calls so much attention to itself? - for if editing is the "invisible art", then not editing, but including obvious and jarring camera moves, is the very opposite of invisible. And part of me imagines that Dreyer specifically wanted us to notice how he moves perspective in these moments, or in the dozens of other places where everything about a shot calls maximum attention to whatever the camera is doing, because he wants to comment on the nature of point-of-view. To remind us, that is, that we occupy a certain perspective relative to the characters and their beliefs, and that this perspective is mutable and to a certain extent beyond our control.
While I like that - the formation and alteration of belief/perspective is the innermost theme of the picture, and it is well to have it called out in the visuals - I think that this is at best a secondary effect. I do not recall who said it that the difference between a dolly shot and a zoom is that the zoom closes a physical space off to us while a dolly expands it, and that is true regardless of whether we're moving towards or away; this might seem pointless to mention in a film with no zooms, made before the right lenses for such zooms were even available, but the point remains that a physically active camera turns the flat space of a film screen into a dimensional space that we can occupy, and in Ordet this means that the Borgen house is "real" to us in a very substantial way. And even that's not quite it. What the movement of the camera is doing, more than anything, is supplying a particular kind of sinuous rhythm to to the environment we're watching - we read tracking shots in a special way, as being "fluid" more than other shots. It's not the case that they represent our own perception: look to your left, and then back. Did it feel like a camera pan? Only if you did it extremely slowly. It probably felt more like a cut.
So, lots of camera movement lead to a certain heightened, artificial, flowing feel; and these flowing, gliding movements in and out, back and forth, leave the whole of Ordet with a gentle waving motion to it, almost like the film itself is breathing, expanding and contracting. It is a film about life - life as opposed to death in the literal and metaphorical resurrections depicted; celebrating life in the form of the humane Lutheranism of the Borgens in contrast to celebrating death, suffering, and sacrifice that goes on in Petersen's clutch of fundamentalists - and the film itself feels a bit like a living thing, moving slowly and to rhythms that become familiar to us intuitively rather than because they are insisted upon or pointed out. If it is a philosophical masterpiece, that is in no small part because it is a cinematic machine of the tightest, smartest construction, in which every last shadow and every twitch to widen from a two-shot to a three-shot has been placed with precision to make us feel one specific thing in one specific moment, so that after the whole 126 minutes of it, we have not simply watched a movie but been taken in hand by a great hypnotist and carried from despair to bliss solely on his word that it should be so. And so it is. When Ordet ends, it is on one of the most uplifting final moments in the movies, a moment of grace on par with City Lights and maybe nothing else.