PRIEST: Was it—love?
The Priest is the face of institutional Christianity in the film. He turns out to be suspiciously aligned with the secularist medical doctor. For his part, Johannes’ namesakes include St. John and, together with the film’s title, his name no doubt contains an allusion to John 1: ‘In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh’. We might also hear in this name an echo of the ‘Johannes’ to whom Kierkegaard attributed authorship of his most famous book, Fear and Trembling. This fictional author’s full name—Johannes ‘de Silentio’, John the Silent—already suggests a problematic relationship to his own words and this is certainly true of the Johannes in Ordet. Based on a play by the Danish pastor Kaj Munk, this is at any rate a film in which Kierkegaard is quite clearly in the background.1MIKKEL: No, no, it was Søren Kierkegaard.
1. Inger after Borgen and Peterson
As representatives of these two competing strains within Christianity, Borgen and Peterson are able to exemplify two strongly contrasting types of religious responses to times of crisis in general: the turn to religion (and especially to prayer) either as a means of trying in an uncertain world to secure various temporal ends—or as a way of protecting oneself from disappointment by eschewing all finite ends as worldly, trying to leap right out of time, as it were, and into eternity. We might even say these two forms of religious life represent rival strategies of ‘crisis-management.’With the introduction of the new national constitution in 1849, religion in Denmark changed rapidly. The state’s monopoly over religious expression disappeared, swept away by enlightenment philosophy that had undermined the monarchy and transformed rural society … Clergy split into several camps, called Church Movements, which became bitterly opposed to one another over the next half century … [principally] between the folk-life oriented Grundtvigians and the pietist Inner Mission … Grundtvig’s celebration of folk culture inspired a myriad of secular organizations, mostly aimed at raising the consciousness and living standards of rural society…. The Mission’s most marked feature was the sharp distinction it drew between its followers, “God’s children,” and “the children of the world.” … [It] urged converts to renounce the pleasures, fashions, and company of the sinful world from which the mission had saved them. The “holy ones” dressed in simple and severe clothing. They abstained from liquor, tobacco, card playing, dancing, and the theater. They studiously avoided any political involvement and, above all, they shunned social contact with the unconverted … The holy must keep their thoughts on heaven, not on the sinful and ephemeral world from which they came.
JOHANNES: Not one of you has thought of asking God to return Inger to you.
BORGEN: Johannes, now you mock God.
Johannes’ question—why, among the believers, there is no one who believes—has the hallmarks of irony. It echoes Socrates’ question about his fellow Athenians: among all the wise, are there any wise?3 Still more directly, it echoes Kierkegaard’s self-consciously Socratic question about the Danish Christendom of his own day: among all the Christians, are there any Christians?4 Across denominations, the forms of religious life exhibited by those to whom Johannes addresses his ironical question are exposed by it as tepid, shallow, and lifeless. In the terms of Jonathan Lear’s account of existential irony, Inger’s death exposes a chasm between the pretense of faith, as embodied in the received practices and institutions of religion, and the aspirations implicit in this pretense.5JOHANNES: No, all of you mock God with your half-heartedness … Why, among all the believers, is there no one who believes? Inger, you must rot because the times are rotten.
INGER: Dear God, please help me today also.
BORGEN: It’s because the rain has been coming through the roof.
INGER: Oh it’s you, Grandfather? You gave me quite a fright.
BORGEN: I did what?
INGER: What were you saying?
BORGEN: I said the damp patch up there was rainwater. The roof’s leaking.
While Inger transfigures her everyday tasks with a simple act of prayer, Borgen can only see dampness in the roof. However, the comparison with Inger brings into relief a feature that is common to both the patriarchs’ forms of religiousness. Broadly speaking, this is their inability to see the eternal in the finite, the spiritual in the bodily, and the transcendent in the everyday. By contrast, Inger seems to embody something of the ideal of which William Blake sings:INGER: Well I never—so it is.
As Inger says herself, addressing Borgen in a moment of religious doubt: ‘Well, I think that many tiny miracles occur all around us.’ Notably, Inger is the one who takes on the task of gently mediating between the two families on behalf of Anders and Anne. Notably, too, it is Inger who, from the outset, lovingly mediates between Johannes and Mikkel, holding out hope for both: that Johannes will return to himself and that Mikkel’s good heart will eventually lead him to faith. Together with the film’s finale, what all this seems to indicate is that, through Inger—and through her lived faith, hope, and love—time is somehow touched by the eternal.To see a World in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.
2. Inger after Ingeborg
This illustration alludes to a particular moment of crisis in Frithiof’s Saga. Ingeborg is looking out to sea after her lover, who has been sent away from her, knowing she will never again see him. In this moment, pregnant with lost love and a long-anticipated future now forever closed off, time, as we say, ‘stands still.’ Ingeborg stands there, gazing out at the empty sea, mutely transfixed, frozen in the moment. Here, we have a moment of existential crisis, a temporal threshold, a parting of the ways, experienced as such. Kierkegaard’s thought is that Ingeborg’s gaze is a picture of what might also be expressed by the metaphor that is built into the very word in Danish for ‘moment’, Øjeblik, literally ‘glance of the eye.’When Ingeborg looks out over the sea after Frithiof, this is a picture of what is expressed in the figurative word [sc. the Danish word, ‘Øjeblik’, ‘moment’].
A careless reading of such passages might lead the reader into understanding them via old Peterson’s world-weary opposition between eternity and time. Again, however, I submit that the truly Kierkegaardian figure in Ordet is instead Inger, whose upward glance in the midst of everyday kindnesses to others perhaps betokens just the kind of ‘evenness in the restlessness’ that he here associates with ‘the eternal element’ in Christian love.That an expectancy is essentially only temporal makes for restlessness in expectancy. Without restlessness time does not really exist. It does not exist for the animal, which is completely devoid of restlessness and the clock that tells the time cannot do so when the restlessness ceases … But the one who loves, who abides, has an eternal expectancy, and this eternal element provides evenness in the restlessness, which, in time, does indeed oscillate between fulfillment and nonfulfillment but independently of time, inasmuch as the fulfillment is by no means made impossible because time is over—this one who loves does not wither away.
To be sure, it is compatible with this reaction to acknowledge the power of the film’s ending as a metaphor. A metaphor for what? One possibility here is Kierkegaard’s thought that the one who truly loves does not wither away. On this reading, Inger’s resurrection is a symbol for the eternal character of the kind of love she typifies. Moreover, we might add that Johannes’ parallel restoration to sanity could be seen as a symbol for genuine faith: where before he so identified with Christ’s historical moment that he confused himself with Christ, now Johannes comes into the authentic experience of contemporaneity.15 My own suggestion, however, is that, more than a metaphor, what Dreyer offers in this film’s divisive dénouement is a cinematic enactment of the very experience of the fullness of time. Given what we have seen of its attention to experiences of time as such, and especially to religious styles of response to times of crisis, this looks to be a perfectly fitting ambition for the film’s ending. Yet could a film really do that? Could there be such a thing as a cinematic experience of the fullness of time? Is this really what we experience as film-watchers when we witness Inger’s death—and then her, very bodily, resurrection?Instinctively, I find something stagey about this ending, with a kind of deus ex machina intrusion that does not seem necessary given Dreyer’s argument throughout for a religion of life.
3. Inger after Inter et Inter
What does this mean? Start with the idea of complete transparency. Inter et Inter supposes that, when she first reprised Juliet as a teenager, our actress’ performance was less than perfectly transparent. That is, he surmises that there was within it something opaque and obscuring—with respect to the Idea of Juliet, conceived as an aesthetic idea that transcends any particular performance. Now, while he associates the idea of Juliet with a general idea of ‘feminine youthfulness,’ Inter et Inter also thinks that any adequate interpretation of this idea must somehow bear the weight of Juliet’s ‘intense complexity’ (ibid., p. 321). He, therefore, surmises that, in her early reprisals of this role, the obscuring factor was the actress’ own youthfulness and her particular inflection of femininity: in short, audiences were always liable to mistake the idea of Juliet for this striking teenager before them and, so liable to miss, for example, something of the depth and complexity that any truly adequate interpretation of this idea would need to bring out.Time has asserted its rights. There is something that has become a thing of the past. But then, in turn, an ideality of recollection will vividly illuminate the whole performance, an incarnation that was not present even in those days of the first youthfulness. Only in recollection is there complete tranquility, and, therefore, the calm fire of the eternal, its imperishable glow … This pure, calmed and rejuvenating recollecting, like an idealizing light, will transilluminate the whole performance, which in this illumination will be completely transparent.
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According to Sverre Arestad, ‘Munk early came under the influence of Kierkegaard’ who became his ‘spiritual father’ (Arestad 1954, p. 157).
Notably, the small existing literature on Kierkegaard and Dreyer tends to focus on Johannes, as a symbol of the Kierkegaardian faith that must look like madness. See e.g., (Ziolkowski 2011). This focus is natural enough, given the link made within the film itself between Johannes and Kierkegaard. As I shall argue, however, the Kierkegaardian themes in Ordet more fully coalesce around the figure of Inger.
See Plato’s Apology, 20d ff.
In several works of self-commentary, Kierkegaard present his ironical interrogation of Christendom as a unifying theme of his writings in general (see Kierkegaard 1998).
See (Lear 2014).
Where Johannes noisily confuses himself with Christ, Inger is perhaps Mary-like in her quietude and sacrificial love. On Kierkegaard on male and female exemplars of faith, and with reference to Mary, see (Carlisle 2016).
Compare in this regard the effect achieved in Robert Bresson’s film, A Man Escaped.
Compare these striking formulations from Borges: ‘Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire’ (Borges 2007, p. 229).
See, for example, Kierkegaard’s portrayal of ‘the unhappiest one’ as the one who hopes for his past (Kierkegaard 1987, p. 225ff) or his description of the temporality of certain addictive behaviors in terms of a ‘presentiment of the prostration of freedom that is reserved for the next moment’ (Kierkegaard 1981, p. 116).
As George Pattison puts it, ‘[I]n the instant she [sc. Ingeborg] expresses her feelings in a sigh or a word ‘the moment of vision’ in a strong sense is essentially past, because a sigh or a word would be an attempt to articulate what she feels within the relativistic web of language and temporally determined communication’ (Pattison 2002, p. 18)
We can anticipate here the following worry: in religious contexts, the meaning of the term ‘eternal’ radically shifts from the sense in which we have so far introduced it, in connection with Ingeborg’s perspective on her life-trajectory as a whole. This worry, likely to be felt by secular readers, raises issues too large to address here. My own view is that Kierkegaard’s term ‘eternal’ [evig] is not ambiguous but rather expresses a conception in which a core idea of one’s being granted a perspective from ‘outside of time’ is specified in different ways across secular and religious contexts. One way to capture a difference is the following. To describe Ingeborg, we need only the idea of a disruption of time from within, a break-down of the temporal flow, which affords a perspective on one’s life as a whole. To describe the Christian experience of the eternal in time, in Christian terms, we need the idea of a disruption of time from without, from God. Kierkegaard’s notion of the eternal is usefully situated in a context of post-Kantian philosophy in (Welchman 2016).
See (Kierkegaard 1985, p. 24ff); cf. Plato Phaedo 64a.
In a way that is informed by Kierkegaard’s work, this theme is central in the writings of Paul Tillich. See for example (Tillich 1948, p. 32ff).
Another possible interpretation takes its cue from the film’s opening credit which specifically references ‘Kaj Munk’s Ordet’. For the film’s original Danish audience, Munk would have been known above all as a martyr for the resistance movement. (As a result of his opposition to the Nazis, Munk was arrested by the Gestapo on 4 January, 1944 and his corpse found in a ditch the following morning. He is commemorated as a martyr in the Lutheran Church’s Calendar of Saints.) Against this background, it would not be implausible to see Inger’s resurrection as a figurative call for national renewal. My thanks to the editor of this special edition of Religions for drawing to my attention this interpretative possibility. Without at all wishing to deny them, however, I leave aside here the more political dimensions of the film.
Kierkegaard’s essay is ostensibly just about a particular crisis in the life of an envisaged actress. As is plausibly indicated by the contrast between the indefinite and the definite article in its title, however, Kierkegaard uses this particular crisis to think through a fundamental form of human experience of crisis quite generally. For further discussion, see (Watts 2017).
On the contrast between these alternatives, as general responses to crises of personal and ethical identity, see (Watts 2017).
Against this, attention might be drawn to the specifically ephemeral character of a theatrical performance in contrast to recorded film (I owe this point to Béatrice Han-Pile). As viewed by an audience at a time, however, the pictures of a motion film surely have their own specifically ephemeral character. Dreyer reflects on the relationship between film and theatre in (Wahl 2012, p. 149ff).
See (Kierkegaard 1988, p. 452ff).
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