Carl Theodor Dreyer moves from an expiring hourglass to the grass growing over a crumbling stone castle, and within five minutes there’s flesh both fragile (the elderly patriarch bent over his cane, remembering his youthful indiscretion) and sensual (the servant in the kitchen, spilling out of her dress). His first film is a tale of sins repeated and injustices perpetuated, a frail dictum ("The majesty of justice is the holiest on earth") stretched over three generations until it snaps. The maiden-abusing folly of the withered aristocrat (Elith Pio) is passed right on to his son (Halvard Hoff), the dutiful magistrate who returns to his burg to find that the governess on trial for killing her newborn (Olga Raphael-Linden) is his own illegitimate daughter. Bearded men in robes pass judgment, the spectators sitting in the gallery are of course the film’s audience, yawning and applauding and weeping before the unfolding melodrama. As innocent as Goethe’s Gretchen yet ever so delicately longing for death, the accused girl drifts into the courtroom in white shawls and, hearing the verdict, bows her head in a slow, protracted arc that’s closer to languid interpretative dance than to silent swooning. The barrister is afterwards celebrated at dinner, but then he looks out the window and his crise de conscience is given sudden, potent visual form by the torch-bearing revelers in the street, a flaming procession curving in the dark this way and that like the guilty twists in his mind. Expiation takes place, fittingly, amid priapic ruins. A melodrama of knuckle-gnawing cads and seduced and abandoned virgins and tragedy announced via telegram, a painterly style unmistakably informed by Bloch and Whistler. Panning shots of tiny figures before blocky judges (The Passion of Joan of Arc), mortified fêtes (Gertrud), silhouettes and shadows (Vampyr) are some of Dreyer’s early bedrock images, Hitchcock in The Manxman and The Paradine Case reflects the theme. With Richard Christensen, Jon Iversen, and Jacoba Jessen. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce