Carl Dreyer: An Unattainable Dream

Carl Theodor Dreyer is undoubtedly an individualist in the movie industry. He is a master and genius of cinematography lonely towering over the epoch and society to which he belonged. His contribution to cinema is untimely. Therefore, he remains a significant figure for movie directors from different countries and times. “Morose Dane”, “stubborn individualist”, “lonely Scandinavian”, as critics called him, became a director-legend. Carl Dreyer is one of the most striking and original directors of world cinema, who has become a classic during his lifetime. A non-standard way of seeing the world, original thematic preferences and a unique style set his name apart in history of cinema. He directed many prominent films. However, there is a film that was not directed – Jesus. It is the most important Dreyer’s film and his unattainable dream.


Carl Theodor Dreyer was born in Copenhagen on February the 3rd, 1889. Soon, his mother – Josephine Nielsen – died intending to get rid of the second illegitimate child, and the boy was adopted by the Danish family. Strict puritanical mores dominated in their home. At the age of eighteen, he graduated from the classical school as the best student of the class. After the graduation, Dreyer left his foster home forever. One after another, he changed several jobs, until he finally settled in the liberal daily newspaper. “Thanks to his writing skills, he started a brilliant career as a journalist in the most prestigious Danish newspapers” (Mazur 159).

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In 1912, Carl Dreyer came to Nordisk film studio and began to work as an author of title cards, editor and developer of plots. “In 1915, he joined the Nordisk Film Company as a full-time screenwriter” (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 108). Within seven years, twenty-two movies were directed on his scripts. The subsequent decade was the most fruitful in the creative life of the director. From 1920 to 1927, he directed seven feature films. Dreyer was forced to move from one country to another in order to find means to stage the next film. “He made some of his finest films in Norway, France and Germany” (Thomson 105).

With the advent of sound, it became harder for Dreyer to raise money for his films. Scandinavian cinema faced a protracted crisis. At this time, Dreyer returned to journalism. In 1940, after many years of absence in Denmark, Dreyer returned to his homeland, where he was lucky to get 250 thousand krones. It was a significant sum for filming. However, at that time, Denmark was occupied by Nazi troops. Therefore, the film Day of Wrath was released in 1943.

In the postwar era, Dreyer – a living classic of Danish cinema – directed a series of short films. Problems following him lifelong remained the same. No one hastened to invest in his next film. “Dreyer had difficulty raising funds for his film projects” (Mazur 159). From the creative nonexistence, Dreyer was returned by the International Film Festival in Venice in 1955, when his new masterpiece – religious and philosophical film The Word – was awarded the Golden Lion of St. Mark. For nearly thirty years Carl Dreyer had been preparing to the direction of the film, which became a triumph of cinematography of spiritual resistance (Thomson 105-107).

Carl Theodor Dreyer died on March the 26th, 1968 in Copenhagen. He is buried in the town cemetery. All his life, Carl Dreyer, a deeply religious man, who adored cinema, cherished two dreams that did not come true. He wanted to make a film about Jesus and work in Hollywood as his teacher David Griffith.

Unrealized Film

The first records relating to Jesus dated back to 1930. Dreyer recalled that the idea of a film about ancient Judea appeared when he was working on his film Die Gezeichnete, and met many Jews fleeing from Russia. In 1935, Julien Duvivier directed the film Golgotha. Danish director Sandberg – who once worked for Nordisk with Dreyer – wrote in a Copenhagen newspaper a sharply negative review of the film. In particular, Sandberg said that he personally preferred an episode of Christ’s life from the film Leaves from Satan’s Book directed by Dreyer. In response, Carl Dreyer wrote a private letter to Sandberg, in which he indicated that, although he had not seen Duvivier’s movie, he could not agree with a high estimate of his film, which was mainly a set of cards or a bad theater, and the biblical episode in particular. However, in his letter Dreyer added that a film about Jesus was not an impossible task. It was only necessary to abstract from traditional clichés and create a new and original image. Soon, Carl Dreyer began to implement this task.

The first draft of the script was written before the war and was based mainly on the study of Joseph Klausner – a Jewish historian. His book about Jesus and Christianity – Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching – was translated into many European languages. The book aroused great interest in Europe and America. Based on Jewish sources, Klausner showed Jesus as a representative of the Jewish people, who never rejected Judaism. In the notes to the first draft of the script, Dreyer wrote that the purpose of the film was to transfer the image of Jesus from darkness of churches to the nature and show that Jesus did not fly in the clouds, but walked on the earth among people.

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Dreyer did not give up working on the script even during the war. In 1945, immediately after its completion, he went to New York at his own expense to conduct the necessary studies. In the spring of1948, during the next trip to New York on the occasion of the American premiere of Day of Wrath, Dreyer was going to discuss the possibility of filming Jesus (as well as offer some other scripts) with American producers. However, the results of these negotiations are not known. On February the 3rd, 1949, in an interview conducted on his sixtieth birthday, Dreyer mentioned that he completed work on the next version of the script and was waiting for a response from the American producers, who seemed to be interested in the project. He was always thinking of the film’s style. He did not want to watch other movies on biblical theme, as he did not want any influence on him. Undoubtedly, Carl Dreyer was very keen on the idea of a film about Jesus. However, he was not obsessed with it. Dreyer also considered other projects. He wrote other scenarios.

Everything changed in the summer of 1949, when Dreyer met Blevins Davis. From that moment, all Dreyer’s actions had been subjected to one goal. Although, he directed two more films – The Word and Gertrud, and also wrote the screenplay of Medea, he did not consider them as independent projects, but a rehearsal for Jesus. Blevins Davis played a significant role in the Dreyer’s fate. In 1949, Davis, along with a theater company came to Denmark to put Hamlet in Elsinore according to a tradition. There, he got acquainted with Carl Dreyer. Davis was a man, who got easily inflamed with a variety of ideas. The idea that he would produce a film about Jesus directed by the famous European director extremely inspired him.

Partly, Davis had a great instinct. The topic was of current importance, and subsequent years could truly be truly called the era of the Hollywood epic biblical films. In the second half of the XX century, many films were devoted to this topic: Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, Solomon and Sheba, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, The Robe, The Bible: In the Beginning, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. The budgets of these films averaged from $3 to $5 million, and in exceptional cases reached up to $20 million. However, despite huge investments, almost all of them made the profit that exceeded the costs (Drum and Drum 270).

On June the 10th, 1949, Davis and Dreyer, signed the contract , which concluded that Carl Dreyer had to write a screenplay about the life and passion of Christ based on the Gospel. According to the plan, Dreyer should go to Palestine in order to conduct preliminary studies and then immediately come to the US to complete the preparatory work and write the script. Blevins Davis agreed to fund this work. “Blevins Davis and Carl Dreyer were the script’s owners” (Drum and Drum 270). This meeting and the signed contract determined Dreyer’s life. According to many people, Blevins Davis was responsible for the fact that a lot of work done by Dreyer virtually disappeared. However, it all started fine.

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As planned, in early July 1949, Dreyer went to Israel leaving two documentary films unfinished. Dreyer spent just over a month in Israel. There, he met an archaeologist Julius Rothschild. Dreyer consulted with him about future scenery and even signed a contract for nine pictures, which were later sent to Dreyer. In Rothschild, Carl Dreyer found a like-minded person who was well aware of his desire to reproduce the smallest details in the film. Nevertheless, Rothschild thought that it was better to make the film about Jesus in California, as the relief there was almost the same as in the Holy Land, and the work force was more qualified. In addition, Palestine changed for 2,000 years and Jesus would hardly recognize it. However, despite of everything, Dreyer wanted to direct the film only in Israel (Drum and Drum 277).

Soon after his return from Israel, Dreyer went to the United States. Davis suggested that Dreyer should live and work in his estate, and Dreyer gratefully accepted the invitation. There, he met the US President Harry Truman, who treated Dreyer very friendly and showed great interest in Jesus seeing it primarily as the film about anti-Semitism. Indeed, the main idea of the film – to show Jesus as a Jew among Jews – had remained unchanged over the years and eventually only strengthened. After his arrival in the United States, Dreyer read the work Who Crucified Jesus of a well-known researcher of Jewish history Solomon Zeitlin. Dreyer visited him in Philadelphia to show the completed manuscript. Carl Dreyer was even more loyal to the Jews than Zeitlin. Dreyer justified even Caiaphas considering his actions forced and aimed at cushioning the fate of people under the yoke of the Roman occupation. For all other questions, Dreyer received full approval (Drum and Drum 277-278).

Dreyer wrote the script in English. However, knowing that he did not know the language sufficiently, he asked to check the script. On April the14th, 1950 it was completely ready. Carl Dreyer had to find money. Although at that time Dreyer assumed to direct a black and white film – as he did not imagine the story of Jesus in color – the cost of the film was to be between $3 and $5 million. It was a very large sum for European cinema. However, it was real for Hollywood. From the very beginning, Dreyer never ceased to be interested in Davis, regardless of the attempts to find financing. Every time, Davis evasively replied that money would not be a problem. However, to start negotiations on financing, he needed to have a ready script. Davis did not want to apply to Hollywood studios. He wanted to create his production company to raise funds for the movie. Davis argued that he needed three months to raise money for the film and suggested Dreyer returning to Copenhagen.

There is a reason to believe that Davis almost immediately lost interest in the project. However, Dreyer had almost unconditionally believed in Davis for another seventeen years. During the time, there was only one meeting between two partners. The presented correspondence includes 256 letters and telegrams. 210 of them were written by Dreyer and only 46 by Davis. Dreyer returned to Copenhagen on June the 4th, 1950. He was full of enthusiasm and continued to study the staging scenario in details looking forward to the news from Davis. However, there was not any news. Moreover, after the letter dated September 7, 1950, in which Davis said he was going to meet with the four manufacturers to discuss the financing of the film, he became silent for six months. Only assumptions can be made whether Davis had made any real attempts to find funding for Jesus or his interest faded before Dreyer’s departure from the United States.

Meanwhile, Dreyer’s financial position was very difficult. He began to look for a job. In March 1952, the Danish government appointed him a director of the Dagmar cinema. In such a way, he received financial independence. At that time, Dreyer did not have to make movies for money. Once again, he was able to devote all his time remaining of management activities to prepare to direct Jesus. In April 1952, Dreyer received a letter from Davis, in which he reaffirmed his interest in Jesus and unwillingness to direct the film in Hollywood. In 1953, Davis spent about six months in Europe, and Dreyer persistently offered him to meet in London. Davis’s response was that he had better come to Copenhagen. However, he did not visit him there.

In July, Dreyer tried to get $7500 from Davis to continue researches, but he did not succeed. The help came from the Danish government, which awarded Dreyer a grant of 8000 krones, about 1,000 dollars, for the research in the British Museum. Dreyer was touched by the attention to his work. Soon, Dreyer received another letter from Davis, in which he proposed to publish the script of Jesus. Probably, Dreyer agreed because Davis gave the script for reviewing to Albert Williams – the Bible scholar from the University of Denver, who proposed to make minor changes. Mainly, edits were made to emphasize absolute divinity of Jesus and finish the film with the scene of the Resurrection of Christ and the reaction of the apostles. Williams argued that it would make the film more appealing to Christians. However, Dreyer’s main intention was to save a pro-Jewish theme in the script. Dreyer was not interested in a theological idea, but in the person of Jesus and the Jew Jesus, who went beyond the expected. As a result, the scenario of Jesus was published only after Dreyer’s death (Drum and Drum 280-281).

In 1954, Carl Dreyer was busy filming The Word. “The Word was a trial run on for the project Jesus – a tantalizing sketch in preparation for the ultimate goal” (Wahl 64). Dreyer still believed that Jesus would be shot in Palestine in Hebrew. The film would not have subtitles for international rentals. Instead, the voiceover would read the introduction to each episode. However, when familiar scenes started, the sound would be only in Hebrew in order to create a sense that it was a document. Carl Dreyer also believed that there would be Hebrew music in the film. It was its integral part. He found ancient chants and instruments. The film would be continuous, so that one episode smoothly flowed into another. Jesus would do and say only what is written in the text of the Gospels.

In 1955, Blevins Davis wrote Dreyer that Kay Harrison – the president of the European branch of Technicolor – was interested in Jesus. It seemed that the project gained a new impetus. In August, Davis and Dreyer finally met in London (for the first time since they parted in the US), and Davis even gave him 2500 dollars, so that the latter could continue to work on the film. However, since that time Dreyer never met Davis again. Soon, Dreyer made a proposal to direct Jesus in Paramount Pictures. However, he received a negative response. Paramount Pictures had just filmed The Ten Commandments and the management believed that the biblical theme was exhausted. Because of the conflict in the Middle East, Dreyer was offered to make the film in Italy. However, the director was categorically opposed.

The situation with the film remained unclear for many years. Since 1960, Bjorn Rasmussen – the Danish newspaper critic – joined the project Jesus. Through various organizations, he tried to draw attention to the film and raise funds for its production. The project received wide acclaim and proposals for fundraising came from a variety of sources. In Denmark, Dreyer was treated as a living classic. He applied to Columbia Pictures and received a negative response.

In 1967, the producer of the film was finally found. It was Camilo Bassoto from the Italian TV. He was ready to accept all Dreyer’s conditions. At the meeting, Dreyer set his conditions. Shooting had to take place in Israel. The orientation of the film remained unchanged. Henning Bendsten was going to be the film’s operator. Under these conditions, Dreyer was ready to work from morning till night. It would seem that Jesus received a new chance. However, it was too late. Dreyer was 77 years old. In the past, he began to experience difficulties with health and spent much time in hospitals. In 1967, his energy returned to him. In 1968, he fell ill again and soon died. Carl Dreyer did not start shooting the movie of his life.


Carl Theodor Dreyer is a Danish filmmaker, innovator and one of the greatest masters of European cinematography. His strict ascetic manner, detailed analysis of human psyche, ultimate focus on issues of good and evil, sin and holiness determined the direction of many European filmmakers. He directed many outstanding films and became a classic in his lifetime. However, two of his most notable dreams – to shoot a film about Jesus and work in Hollywood – did not come true.

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