The youthful years
After a period of writing theatre reviews for various provincial papers, and a few shorter pieces for Politiken in 1908, Dreyer was hired by another Copenhagen paper, Berlingske Tidende, presumably in 1909 or 1910, and later, in April 1911, by Riget (a short-lived daily existing from 1910 to 1913). At both papers he covered aviation and ballooning, areas in which he had hands-on experience, and also wrote articles on those subjects for the weekly Illustreret Tidende.
In 1912, when he was 23, Dreyer, was hired by Ekstra Bladet (then Ekstrabladet), where he still specialised in aviation. His first article, which ran on his first day at the paper, 1 July, was headlined "Flyvesvindel" (Aviation Swindle) – subheaded "De sidste Dages Flyvninger" (Flights in Recent Days) – and described flights held by Aërodromen for a paying audience watching from the ground. Aërodromen apparently did not give much bang for the buck. Indignant, the young reporter concludes, "There had to come a time when Copenhageners would find that they had had their fill. – That moment has now come."
The article is signed Carl Th. Dreyer, while his next article, a brief, chatty interview with "Otto Fick, Philosopher and Gymnastics Teacher" (2 July 1912) carries the by-line that would remain his favourite: "Tommen" which means ‘The Inch’ (alternating with "Tom" and "Uncle Tom").
The big picture
As a journalist at Ekstra Bladet, Dreyer over the next few years wrote roughly two hundred articles on widely different subjects. He tried a bit of everything. As a balloonist he took a bird’s eye view, but he also delved into the criminal underworld, gaining broad insight into social and human life, useful lessons for an aspiring artist.
Apart from aviation and ballooning, he wrote reports and, especially, interviews on theatre, the circus and other amusements, inventions, trials, scandals, murder, suicide, accidents, fortune-telling, swimming, trotting and boxing. Apart from the occasional book review, he wrote a lot of advance publicity for play premieres, several series of portraits of local celebrities and "Lastens Huler – Billeder fra det mørkeste Kjøbenhavn" (Dens of Sin – Pictured from Darkest Copenhagen), a series of seven articles by-lined Carl Th. Dreyer.
Cafe ”Nordpolen” – 7/4 1913
Dansesalonen ”Fuglen” – 15/4 1913
Den mystiske villa i Rungsted – 19/4 1913
”Nyhavnsskipperen” – 22/4 1913
Logihuset ”5-Øren” – 3/5 1913
”Helsingørsgade” 8/5 1913
Spillebulen på Gasværksvej – 19/5 1913
In addition are a number of articles and interviews on the subject that would later be associated with his name. As early as 9 July 1912, Tommen writes about film under the headlines, The Sensational Film. – A Film for 20,000 Kroner. – The Three Leaps of Death. The article is an interview with the film producer Kay van der Aa Kühle, whose film Dødsridtet (The Leap to Death) was opening the next day. The interview does not reveal that the film actually marked Dreyer’s own debut as a screenwriter. This article also heralds Dreyer’s farewell to journalism. At year-end 1915, Dreyer left Ekstra Bladet, and journalism altogether, to dedicate himself fully to film. He would return later though.
The naked face
In an autobiographical sketch from 1939, Dreyer describes his years at Ekstra Bladet:
"I came to Ekstrabladet – to Frejlif Olsen, who was equally endearing as an editor and a man. I admired him uncritically. I fancy that he, who was so devoid of any form of pretension and affectation, must have had an influence on me. From him, I learned to detest untruthfulness and pretence. As a journalist, I was trained in this period to see the ridiculous in all the writers, journalists, actors, painters and sculptors lounging around in all our literary cafés, ascribing enormous importance to themselves. Freilif Olsen taught me to distinguish between the natural, the authentic – and the acquired, the stilted. Between art and mannerism, between emotion and sentimentality. His disdain for actors became in me disdain for acting in the bad sense. From him I learned to demand of people that they be natural and not playact – neither on stage nor in life. He taught me that the unadorned person is worth more than the one whose true features are hidden under the makeup, the mask and the distorted features. He taught me yet another thing, namely faithfulness to what you felt was your calling."
Idealism and gossip
Dreyer’s retrospective comment seems a bit high-minded when held up against his actual journalistic output. Ekstra Bladet did not aim high, idealistically or factually, and Dreyer’s contributions were no exception. He wrote nimble, occasionally witty, causeries, silly, semi-embarrassing scandal and gossip journalism, entirely of the kind supplied by so many filler writers of the day.
While Dreyer was skilled at striking down on hypocrisy, affectation and dirty dealing, it does not seem entirely beyond reproach that Dreyer the reporter did interviews and wrote advance publicity of films that Dreyer the filmmaker had scripted. In 1913-1914, he comments on and defends issues concerning Nordisk Film, where he was also employed. Apparently, that was not seen as a problem in his day. Dreyer’s personal attacks likewise tend to be on a questionable level. His portrait series "Vor Tids Helte" (Heroes of Our Time) (1913), which extended an established genre in the paper and was followed by other series in the same vein – one was Dreyer’s own "Gode Mennesker" (Good People, 1914) – is practically nothing but tomfoolery and inanity, often in combination with perfidy and facile judgements, to boot.
“Heroes of Our Time” comprises 45 articles, some presenting several persons. Among the subjects that are still remembered today are the sculptor Kaj Nielsen, the critic Kai Friis Møller, the painter Sigurd Swane, the politician Peter Sabroe, the brewery mogul Carl Jacobsen (Carlsberg), the actor Johannes Poulsen, the painter J.F. Willumsen and such film personalities as Ole Olsen, Valdemar Psilander, A.W. Sandberg, E. Schnedler-Sørensen and Asta Nielsen. The series "Good People" (1914) portrayed, among others, the Swedish film director and actor Victor Sjöström, the Danish actors Carl Alstrup and Olaf Fønss and the Polar explorer Knud Rasmussen.
Dreyer’s portrait of Asta Nielsen is particularly cringeworthy. The young reporter, who purportedly felt called to ridicule falseness and rack the idols of his day, does not seem to be without considerable arrogance and conceit himself.
"Asta Nielsen-Gad is – as plump, uneducated Carl Jensen puts it – horribly created. I will not repeat Carl Jensen’s guttersnipish and boorish statements, but inwardly I agree with him. Asta Nielsen-Gad really has some quite unfortunate forms. Long and overgrown she is, rearwards flat as an ironing board. She is flat chested and chemically devoid of calves, to boot. She sways like a reed in the wind."
The golden age of Danish cinema
More than 50 of Dreyer’s articles for Ekstra Bladet deal with film or include references to films. Few profundities or incisive analyses are seen to have flown from young Dreyer’s pen in that regard. Still, when taken together, these topical writings – reports, advance publicity, interviews – provide a vivid picture of the colossal activity and the colossal confusion that reigned in Danish film in those years.
It was the heyday of Danish film, an unparalleled golden age that would never come again, when the film industry, it seemed, could coax nothing but golden eggs from the goose – or polar bear (the Nordisk Film company trademark), more accurately. Dreyer’s articles are snapshots of the state of film: film companies coming out of the woodwork, theatre owners wringing their hands over the new medium, financiers, fortune-hunters and hucksters dancing around the new golden calf, instant fame, instant riches and instant ruin.
Interesting articles include two about Ole Olsen, the dynamic founder of Nordisk Film. One was an interview (2 Nov. 1912) and one was a portrait (“Heroes of Our Time”s, 26 Feb. 1913), a rare flattering one at that. In the interview, Dreyer writes that "Ole Olsen’s early years are lost in impenetrable darkness." Here may be a point of overlap for young Dreyer, whose own family history was lost in equally impenetrable darkness (until Martin Drouzy’s biography in 1982 shed some light on it).
The journalist as screenwriter
On 3 August 1912, Dreyer wrote an article about the shoot of a new Danish film, Bryggerens Datter (Dagmar). Headlined "Paa Filmskomedie" (On the Set of a Film Comedy), the article reports from the set of 'Bryggeren' (The Brewer), which opened a few days later as Bryggerens Datter (Dagmar). In the article, Dreyer fails to mention that he himself wrote the film’s script. A few days later (on August 7), under the by-line of Uncle Tom, he writes a brief interview with the film’s producer, Kay van der Aa Kühle, which concludes with this inside exchange,
" 'Who wrote this last film?'
'A young journalist. His name is not worth mentioning.'
'So he should be kept down?'
'Sure, keep him down!' "
His name did get out, however, when the film was reviewed (on 10 Aug. 1912). A reviewer with the by-line of Tilskuer (Observer) writes,
"We must grant a few of the writers who have started writing for the cinemas that they are not lacking for ingenuity and we must concede of the more industrious of our film shooters that they shy away from nothing, as long as it can be arranged for money. Hr. Carl Th. Dreyer’s Bryggerens Datter (...) in its last half includes one-and-a-half more surprises than we are used to meeting on our road through life, even if that road frequently leads through our theatres for moving pictures."
Produced by Skandinavisk-Russisk Handelshus, Dagmar was Dreyer’s second realised screenplay. The first, as mentioned, was The Leap to Death, produced by the same studio and premiering 10 July 1912, which also afforded Dreyer an occasion to appear as a balloonist.
In April 1913, Dreyer was hired as a screenwriter at Nordisk Film. He wrote his last article for Ekstra Bladet on 11 Dec. 1915. In the following years, Dreyer became increasingly involved in his film work at Nordisk and eventually he did not need the extra income beyond what Nordisk was paying him.
Dreyer made his directorial debut with The President (shot 1918, Swedish premiere 1919, Danish premiere 1920). Apart from the occasional article or opinion piece, Dreyer did not write for the papers during those busy years when he established himself internationally as one of the most important film directors of his day. It was only after Vampyr flopped in 1932 and he was no longer able to find producers for the films he wanted to direct, and was unwilling to direct the films he could find producers for, that he returned to journalism.
On 1 January 1936, Dreyer was hired by B.T. Still using the pseudonym Tommen, he wrote a regular column for the newspaper, reporting almost daily on "Life at the City Court" (Livet i Byretten). These humorously fashioned causeries on minor cases at the city court provided him with an income for years (until 1941).
Dreyer was briefly a film critic for B.T. For four months, from January to May 1936, he reviewed 12 films: Peer Gynt (Germany, 1934), Les misérables (US, 1935), Anna Karenina (US, 1935), Les croix de bois (France, 1932), Captain Blood (USA, 1936), Modern Times (US, 1936), Novyj Gulliver (USSR, 1935), The Milky Way (US, 1936), Traumulus (Germany, 1935), Things to Come (UK, 1936), La bandera (France, 1935) and La marmaille (France, 1935).
The reviews are kept in a discursive, sometimes philosophically reflexive tone. Generally, his attitude is negative. Only Chaplin’s Modern Times is treated warmly (though Dreyer also raises several objections). Compared to the films’ reception by other Danish critics, Dreyer’s reviews were the most sceptical, and least enthusiastic. From a historical perspective, Modern Times clearly was the only truly outstanding film among them. Dreyer’s rejection of Peer Gynt, Traumulus, Novyj Gulliver and La marmaille is hardly problematic, and all three have been forgotten. Things to Come, from a screenplay by H.G. Wells, though it does not rank as a masterpiece, still enjoys a certain cult status as a prophetic British science fiction film. Les croix de bois, to which Dreyer denies any artistic merit and which he criticises for giving "a deceptive and distorted picture of the World War," has since gained as prominent an advocate as the French film historian Georges Sadoul and has been rediscovered and issued on DVD. Most striking, and most characteristic, is Dreyer’s criticism of such films as Les misérables, starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton; Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo; and Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn. Dreyer had no understanding of solid Hollywood mainstream films. Dreyer’s review of Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood is his most original, taking the form of a satirical retelling of action transposed to local Danish conditions (as the only of these reviews, it is signed Tommen).
Journalist and artist
In his brief period as a film critic, Dreyer was less outstanding than one might have expected of an outstanding film director. B.T., too, seems to have been unhappy with his chronic dissatisfaction and made him cede the spot to the paper’s other reviewers, with whom he had been sharing the copy all along and who knew how to supply more facile and audience-oriented reviews. Dreyer viewed the films from the vantage point of eternity. For a film director, that is a grand and idealistic vantage point; for a film critic it is surely the recipe for non-stop disillusion. Dreyer was too big a match for the films and the result was that he disparaged them. For Dreyer scholars, the reviews are interesting nonetheless, especially because they shed light on Dreyer’s view of acting and film adaptations.
Journalism was Dreyer’s jumping-off point to artistic activity and it became his refuge when his directing career stalled. After he became a great and uncompromising cinema artist, he did not care to look back on his dubious journalistic origins. But his early articles, in particular, are interesting, because they are a window on past conditions and, especially, because they add facets to the characterisation of Dreyer’s personality. They paint a curious portrait of the artist as a young man. One might say that it is essentially a redeeming feature of this otherwise so severe and profoundly serious artist that he got his start as a cheeky, irreverent newspaper hack.
By Peter Schepelern | 11. August