As often happens with many films we explore on Lost in Criterion, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1955 masterpiece Ordet (“The Word”) is sitting with me and simmering in my mind long after Pat and I finish our conversation. Ordet is about life, and in that, perhaps, about nothing at all. It raises a lot of questions about religion and spirituality and truth, and offers few answers beyond confusion and mystery. But in it's third act the conflicting views of Christian faith - agnosticism, fundamentalism, liberalism - coalesce around the death in childbirth of Inger, heartbreaking still even in its commonness. But that is not the end of Inger's tale, for Ordet is, in the end, a tale of renewal, rebirth, resurrection. Inger's literal resurrection coincides with the return to sanity of her brother-in-law Johannes, the catalyst of the miracle who after an existential crisis triggered by reading too much Kierkegaard had believed himself to be the living Jesus Christ. And in this miracle comes the renewal of faith for agnostics and misguided-Christians alike.
But then the action itself and if any conclusions are to be truly drawn from it - well, Dreyer leaves that a mystery - the incomprehensible mystery of God. A master filmmaker, throughout his work - The Passion of Joan of Arc, Days of Wrath, even in the decidedly non-religious Gertrud - Dreyer never gives definite answers to the big questions he’s raising.
There have been few artists as enigmatic as Dreyer, but Sufjan Stevens is up there. I’ve been spinning his latest release Carrie & Lowell as I digest Ordet and the works of Dreyer. Taking it’s name from Stevens’ late, estranged mother and her husband, this is an album of death, of loss, of questioning, and of renewal. Or it may be. “Every road leads to an end”, Stevens says in the opening track, and leads us on a dark path before declaring that there is “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, no relief. But even that despair is not the end.
Like Peter and Morten in Ordet, Sufjan cries out to the “God of Elijah”. Elijah’s is a God of struggle, unlike the God of Jacob we are not wrestling against him. The God of Elijah is wrestling against the darkness of the world, against unbelief in the face of great power. This is a God of mystery and miracle. Peter and Morten give thanks to this God in response to the resurrection of Inger, and it is the first step in their own renewal. Sufjan cries out to this God in Drawn to the Blood “How?...How could this happen?” (And like the title character in Gertrud, he comforts himself in the fact that his “prayer has always been love.”) But through all this struggle, through the ebbs and flow of emotion and pain, Sufjan, like Dreyer, leaves us still wondering about what we’ve witnessed and what happens next. In the final lines of the album he begs that the subject of the song “Blue Bucket of Gold” either swear to love him or warn him away, because he needs one or the other for closure. Closure is elusive though, in real life and in great art.
The story we see is not the whole story, just snapshots and moments into the emotional pivots of hurting people, real or imagined. Dreyer believed that his movies presented reality because the mystical, properly understood, is real. And it’s real to Sufjan in the same way, even as it slips away.
Inger’s resurrection may be a high point, but it’s not the end of her story. Joan’s death may be finite, but the film doesn’t end there, it ends with a riot erupting around her burning body. The story doesn’t end yet, and there’s hope in that.