Dreyer, Carl Theodor

Dreyer, Carl Theodor

(kärl tā`ōdôr' drī`ər), 1889–1968, Danish motion picture director. He began making films in Denmark in 1919. His Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), widely regarded as a classic of silent filmmaking, made extensive use of close-ups and stark lighting to increase the film's dramatic effect. He experimented with innovative techniques in Vampyr (1931), his first movie with sound, which explored the power of evil and the horror of human suffering. His later works, usually adaptations of plays that employed a slow pace to build great cumulative power, include Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).


See studies by T. Milne (1971) and D. Bordwell (1973).

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David Gray (Julian West) dreams of his own funeral in one of the most famous scenes from Carl Theodor Dryer’s classic film, Vampyr.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor (1889–1968)

(pop culture)

Carl Theodor Dreyer, thought by many to be Denmark’s greatest film director, was born on February 3, 1889, in Copenhagen. He began his working career in 1909 as a journalist, and in 1911 he married Ebba Larsen. On the side he began writing scripts for a motion picture company, Scandinavisk-Russiske Handelshus, and in 1913 Dreyer quit his job to work for Nordisk Films Kompagni.

Six year later, he was given the opportunity to direct his first film, Praesidenten (The President), for which he also wrote the screenplay. Dreyer made several movies in Denmark and Germany but gained prominence with Du Skal Aere Din Hustru (The Master of the House) in 1925. He was invited to France to work and there made his notable La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc in 1928. Soon after the appearance of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the film industry began its transition to sound and it was not until 1932 that Dreyer directed again. His first sound movie remains the one for which he is best remembered.

In 1932 he directed Vampyr (released to English-speaking audiences as The Dream of David Gray), lauded by some critics as the greatest vampire film of all time. Others have complained of the slow pace of the film, suggesting that it failed as entertainment. Loosely inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu‘s female vampire story “Carmilla”, Vampyr implied the horror that surrounded the action on the screen and invited viewers to participate with their imagination.

The story concerned an older female vampire who was preying on the daughter of the owner of the local manor. David Gray, a visitor in the town, discerned the true nature of her malevolence and took the lead in destroying her.

Two memorable scenes stood out in Dreyer’s communication of horror. In one, early in the picture, a policeman was sitting with his shadow cast on the wall behind him. Suddenly, the shadow started to operate separately from the policeman and walked away. Later, Gray dreamed of his own funeral. He could see out of the casket, which had a small window just above his face. As he awoke and gazed through the opening, the vampire’s face appeared looking back at him. Dreyer produced part of the atmosphere of Vampyr by shooting much of the film at dawn and at twilight. He also discovered a flour mill where the white dust in the air and the white walls added a eerie quality to the scenes photographed there. Dreyer chose amateur actors whose overall appearances, especially their faces, communicated aspects of personality he wished to explore. He brought out their inherent features by the frequent use of closeup shots and little makeup. He sought to create a feeling of uneasiness in his audience, a feeling that would remain even after the conflict of the story had been resolved.

Following the completion of Vampyr, Dreyer left filmmaking and resumed his journalism career. He did not make another film until 1942, when he produced a documentary during World War II. He made a number of films through the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1952 he was given the management of a film theater by the Danish government. His 1955 film, Ordet, received the Golden Lion Award. Vampyr was his only treatment of the vampire theme.

He died in Copenhagen on March 20, 1968. He spent his last years on a project to make a movie about the life of Christ, but the film was never produced.


Bordwell, Carl. The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Carney, Raymond. Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 363 pp.
Dreyer, Carl Theodor. Four Screen Plays. Trans. by Oliver Stallybrass. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970. 312 pp.
Everson, William K. Classics of the Horror Film. New York: Citadel Press, 1974. 247 pp.
Thomas, Nicolas. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. II: Directors. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor


Born Feb. 3, 1889, in Copenhagen; died there Mar. 20, 1968. Danish director and scriptwriter.

Dreyer began his directing career in 1918. The film Leaves From Satan’s Book (1920) exhibits Dreyer’s striving for the maximal expressiveness of cinema language. In the films The Parson’s Widow (1920, Sweden), Michael (1924, Germany), and Master of the House (1925), whichcriticize the bourgeois way of life and morals, the basic theme of Dreyer’s films is presented—the loneliness of man, who defends his spiritual freedom and is at times doomed to death. This theme is most fully expressed in the film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927, France), one of the most significant achievements of the silent film. In the films The Day of Wrath (1943, adapted from H. Wiers-Jenssens), The Word (adapted from the play of K. Munk), and Gertrud (1965, adapted from the play of H. Soderberg), Dreyer continued his experiments in cinema language and developed the main theme of his films, which increasingly lent themselves to a religious and mystical interpretation. Dreyer’s documentary films constitute a significant part of his contribution to the Danish art of the cinema.


Om filmen. Copenhagen, 1964.
Fire film. [Copenhagen] 1964.


Sémolue, J. Dreyer. Paris [1962].
Carl Th. Dreyer cinéaste danois, 1889-1968, 2nd ed. Copenhagen [1969].