Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Kirk Baird

Toledo author's book captures a lifetime of friendship

Toledoan Jan Wahl first met celebrated Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1954, while attending the University of Copenhagen on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Dreyer was best known for 1925's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was named the most influential film of all time at the 2010 International Toronto Film Festival, as well as 1932's Vampyr and 1943's Day of Wrath.

The two men had previously corresponded in letters and now that Wahl was close by, Dreyer invited the college student to be part of the making of his next film, Ordet (The Word).

And thus a lifelong friendship was cemented, which each maintained through years of personal letters. Wahl was upfront with Dreyer about his desire to turn their correspondence into a book, and the filmmaker obliged, personally editing the chapters as he received them "with corrections he painstakingly made in fresh blue ink."

Dreyer died in 1968 at the age of 79, and now, nearly 45 years later, Wahl has published the book, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker ($40, University Press of Kentucky).

While the book includes letters long after Ordet was completed, it's the period during its filming that Wahl remembers best.

"Here I was 21 years old and he treated me like an equal, not as an equal film director, and I stayed the whole summer," Wahl said. "He was making the outdoor scenes of the film and it was a terrible, rainy summer in Demark and the shots would get delayed and delayed, so I got to talk to him a lot. I [had] learned great shorthand, so I was able to write down all these wonderful things that he was saying and about the film he was working on and his future projects, of which he hoped there would be many, but it turned out there would be only one other film after that."

That film was the 1964 drama Gertrud, based on a 1906 play by Swedish writer Hjalmar Soderberg. But the project Dryer longed to make was a movie about Jesus. Not coincidentally, a recurrent theme in most of Dreyer's films is a suffering main character ennobled at the end.

Dryer wanted his Jesus film to be the equal to if not surpass The Passion of Joan of Arc. He showed Wahl the script, who thought it was wonderful, and the director spent time in Israel researching the story.

And while the director was ready to make the film, he lacked the funding to make it possible. Dryer needed $6 to $8 million to make the film he envisioned. He spoke with religious groups interested in funding the project, but Dreyer insisted on having absolute control over the film or he wouldn't do it.

"He was such a perfectionist," Wahl said.

But in 1966, when Wahl saw his friend last at the premiere of Gertrud at the Lincoln Center in New York, Dreyer was happy to report that he finally pulled together the funding for his Christ movie.

"But it was too late," Wahl said, "the strength was all gone out of him as he waited 10 years to make the film."

Dreyer proved to be one of the few great silent film directors who successfully made the transition to sound in cinema. And while the filmmaker never wanted to be a Hollywood director and cede control of his movies to executive whims as well as having to work with the various unions on set, his films have aged as well if not better than most of those from his studio brethren from the same era.

"I think his films are more intense," Wahl said. "You don't just walk out of a Dreyer film; it follows you home."

Contact Kirk Baird at or 419-724-6734.

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