A standard piece of writing advice is to show rather than tell. Carl Dreyer’s final film, 1964's Gertrud, is a film that shows people telling and it does this to explore the significance of why people choose to tell what they tell. The actors appropriately seem to be sleepwalking, their eyes rarely fixed on each other, and everything that happens in presumably the present moment takes on the quality of a distant memory. It’s a sweet, melancholy film about the potential trap of human consciousness.
Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is the wife of a politician, Gustav (Bendt Rothe), who’s soon to become a cabinet minister. But she’s having an affair with a young musician named Erland (Baard Owe). In addition, a lover from her past, Gabriel (Ebbe Rode), a poet, is still bitterly devoted to her and she has a platonic friendship with a writer named Axel (Axel Strobye).
Early in the film, she tells Gustav about a dream she had in which she’s naked, being chased by dogs. Later in the film, she’s shocked to see this dream realised as a peculiar mural at a party she attends where Gabriel is honoured. It’s not the only time art in the background seems to reflect character preoccupations. Here Gertud waits for her lover beside a statue, the Venus de Medici, that would decades later make a significant appearance on Twin Peaks.
In this case, it seems to reflect Gertrud’s recurrent preoccupation with what she considers the inability of men around her to feel anything for women beyond carnal lust. It’s ironic that the man she’s talking to in this scene is Axel, her platonic male friend. The conversation they’re having is related to psychology and she tells him about how her father, perhaps a Calvinist, had taught his children that everything in life was predestined. She tells Axel that she is determined to choose her husbands herself in defiance of her father’s worldview.
“’Husbands’, plural?” asks Axel. “Yes,” she smiles. In the first part of the film, she tells her husband she wants to divorce him, not simply because of her young lover, but because, she tells him, he doesn’t really love her. As evidence, she mentions how he often becomes lost in thought, not speaking for long periods. He insists this is simply because he has a lot on his mind to which she replies that he can’t have these things on his mind and also be in love with her. She doesn’t speak in an angry or argumentative tone but with a gentle wistfulness, as though everything happening were so firmly determined that no argument or new piece of evidence could possibly matter. As though everything were predetermined.
Later in the film, she tells Gabriel the reason she left him is because she found a scrap of paper on his desk in which he’d written that the working life of men and the love of women could never be reconciled. Her breaking off with him seems to have been to reject this worldview and yet she’s arguably internalised it by the time she’s breaking up with Gustav. She retroactively explains to Gabriel that she left him because his love had in reality been only lust.
The men are just as given to speaking as though enacting memories—Gabriel and Gustav look at her as rarely as she looks at them in dialogue and as they either accept what she tells them or reject it they each deliver their own soliloquies of reminiscence, confirming her narrative or promoting another.
In Europe in the mid-60s, film was becoming more and more about examining the nature of the artform and by extension storytelling itself—this is the postmodernism that shaped New Wave filmmaking. Arguably, Gertrud does this too, despite being based on a 1909 play, but there are none of the fourth-wall breaking moments of some of Godard’s films. Instead we’re watching people live and breathe in a life Gertrud describes as a “chain of dreams”.
Gertrud is available on The Criterion Channel.