Kristofer Janson: Prestekonen

Kristofer Janson was one of the most popular Norwegian writers of his day. Several of his novels were adapted into Norwegian films in the 1920s. While Dreyer likely fell for the humour in Janson’s short story Prestekonen ("The Parson’s Wife"), he and Janson also saw eye to eye on many of life’s big questions.

Dreyer handpicked the 1901 the Norwegian writer Kristofer Janson’s (1841-1917) short story Prestekonen (1901) to adapt into his Swedish-produced film The Parson’s Widow (1920). The film has often been analysed in terms of the tradition of the Swedish directors Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, and it is, indeed, greatly indebted to them. In several interviews, Dreyer openly declared that the use of literary source material and the location shooting in Swedish films of that time were among the main reasons why, after his falling-out with Nordisk Film over the production of Leaves from Satan’s Book, he chose to leave the Danish studio and go to Norway to shoot this small comedy for the same production company that employed Stiller and Sjöström.
Dreyer surely had some familiarity with the Norwegian writer’s work. At roughly the same time that he was filming The Parson’s Widow, he was asked to assess the potential of making a film from Janson’s Fante-Anne (1913). Upon Dreyer’s okay, Rasmus Breistein started directing this film, which was shot at the same time as The Parson’s Widow and premiered on 11 September 1920, just shy of a month before The Parson’s Widow’s Swedish premiere and a little less than six months before its Danish premiere.

The most 'checked-out' writer

Dreyer’s choice of literary source material probably had a lot to do with Janson’s popularity at the time. For years, until 1925, Janson’s books were the most frequently checked-out books from the public library in Bergen, and several of his books were adapted into Norwegian films in the 1920s. Apart from The Parson’s Widow and Fante-Anne, we should mention Rasmus Breistein’s Brudeferden i Hardanger (1926), based on Janson’s short story Marit Skjølte. In terms of recognition by contemporary writers and critics, Janson was at the top of the heap in many ways. In the 1870s and 1880s, he was considered one of "the four" giants of Norwegian literature, alongside Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Jonas Lie. Like them, he received a state-sponsored poet’s stipend, though he gave up that source of income when he immigrated to America to start a Unitarian congregation (a stay that lasted from 1882-1893). It is important to note that he wrote his most important works before and after his years in America, including Prestekonen, the second of three tales in his late collection, Middelalderlige Billeder ("Mediaeval Pictures," 1901).

Janson: nationalist, freethinker, Unitarian

Janson’s writing and lecturing merge his various identities as a Norwegian nationalist, a freethinker who made enthusiastic detours into the rising socialist movement, a theologian, and a prominent figurehead of the Unitarian movement in Norway and the United States. As far as Norwegian nationalism is concerned, there are obvious historical reasons why, in the last three decades of the 19th century, it continued to play such a prominent role among the otherwise more internationally oriented Norwegian followers of the Modern Breakthrough. Because of Norway’s union with Sweden, which lasted up to 1905, many Norwegian literary works maintained a thematic focus on singular Norwegian folkways and language. A distinctive focus on Norwegian folklore is clearly seen in Prestekonen’s descriptions of traditions and daily living. Using highly authentic locations and casting peasants from Janson’s home region, Dreyer strove to be as loyal as possible folklorically to the basic concept of the short story. He shot the film at the Maihaugen open-air museum near Lillehammer, a prominent town in the Gudbrand Valley where Janson was a local hero and where he set most of his stories.

"Using highly authentic locations and casting peasants from Janson’s home region, Dreyer strove to be as loyal as possible folklorically to the basic concept of the short story."

- Kristofer Janson

In terms of literary history, Janson can also be inscribed in the Modern Breakthrough, though only partway. Throughout his life, he maintained a fundamentally religious worldview and was affiliation with Unitarianism, granted, a rather freethinking denomination. He has most in common with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who, starting in 1883 with his controversial play En Hanske (which ignited the whole Nordic "Morality Feud"), chose to represent a more chaste and to a certain extent more religious version of the basic anti-clerical tenets of the Modern Breakthrough. That the Brandes brothers, Georg and Edvard, fathers of the Modern Breakthrough in Denmark and Scandinavia, did not consider Janson to be a true breakthrough-man is clear, in part from letters between the two brothers and various Norwegian cultural personalities.

Janson’s ideal socialist society

Even so, this does not change the fact that Janson throughout his life maintained a high level of social consciousness and remained a sworn critic of the church as an institution, as is clear from various of his religious lectures and essays. Apart from his lectures critical of the church, Janson, in 1891, for example, also holds two so-called workers’ lectures, ideologically siding with socialism. Jumping off from American conditions, Janson fervently speaks out against free competition and the free market. In their stead, he posits the ideal of a societal system abolishing any form of class distinction. In keeping with traditional Marxist thinking, workers will have a right to and control the means of production, which must, along with all land ownership, be taken over by the state. All citizens will be public servants receiving equal pay (payable via credit cards!), and women will have equal opportunity to contribute to the community and be granted suffrage. While he openly sides with socialism, it is important for Janson to stress that he is not in favour of a revolution to achieve the idealistic end goal. On the contrary, "History shows that progress happens slowly, by evolution and not by revolution." Note that this is the exact same wording later used by Dreyer in his 1955 essay Fantasi og Farve ("Fantasy and Colour"). Who knows, maybe Dreyer got his phrases from Janson’s lectures?

Unitarian charity and evolution

It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that Janson never abandoned his deist worldview. Jansonian socialism remains a Christian socialism, his radical thoughts linked to an overarching message of charity deriving from the Sermon on the Mount, which most Unitarians consider to be the central passage in the Bible. With its more undogmatic concept of God, Unitarianism was the religious denomination that seems to have exerted the greatest power of fascination for socio-critical intellectuals in the last half of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century. The international Unitarian community counted among its members the likes of Charles Dickens and Edvard Grieg. In fact, it is largely because of his very active work on behalf of Unitarianism that anyone even deals with Janson today. Histories of Norwegian literature written after World War II mention him only briefly, whereas extensive biographical works about him by Norwegian and American Unitarians are in print, most recently the partly fictional Visdomsperspektivet (2004) by Anne Lofthus Solheim and Rolf Erik Solheim. The Solheims also made sure that Janson got his own website, (

As the previous makes clear, Dreyer’s decision to adapt Janson is in no way accidental. Conceptually, Dreyer sees eye to eye with Janson on the singular mixture of faith in progress and interest in religious issues. They also share a more cautious faith in a new societal order; witness their nearly identical words about evolution rather than revolution. Dreyer’s anchoring in theology is definitely looser than Janson’s, however, and it is impossible to imagine Dreyer joining any specific religious denomination. For that, his conceptual foundation is way too diverse and ambiguous.

Humorous depiction of the church as an oppressive institution

The three stories in Middelalderlige Billeder, of which Prestekonen is the second describes how the church in three different periods of Norwegian history (in chronological order, from the 13th to the 17th century) destroys the lives of individual people by demonising and repressing sexuality. Based on authentic historical material, Janson in extended passages tries to emulate official, clerical and dialectic usages of language, which he was able to reconstruct through written sources. Often, he employs elaborating sources as well. A mission of this kind to attain the highest possible precision of authenticity undoubtedly appealed to the always exacting Dreyer.

The first story in the volume, En Klosterhistorie ("A Cloister Tale"), describes clerical oppression in the 13th century, when Scandinavia was still Catholic. The vast bulk of the story takes the form of an exchange of letters, written in a simulated use of period language, between a monk and a nun who have loved each other since childhood. The many erotically charged phrasings in the letters reveal their longing for carnal union, but zealous clerical indoctrination has trained the two lovers to mask their longing in religion. A pilgrimage allows them to have a brief sexual union in nature, but inner fealty to Catholic dogma dictates that they commit suicide together.

Prestekonen is followed by Forfulgte ("The Persecuted"), in which Janson expands his targets to include not just the church but also Denmark as a late-17th-century colonial power. Torleiv has set up a modest life for himself in a crude house he has built in the woods, where he lives in a platonic relationship with his dead wife’s sister, Signe. One day they are visited by the sheriff’s tax collector Sir Laurits who, to strengthen his position in the king’s administration, likes to concoct transgressions against non-existent laws, terrorising peasants in the outlying villages. Taking off from a clerical push to eradicate "much secret immorality," he accuses Torleiv of living in sin with Signe. When Laurits’s men come to arrest Torleiv and put him before a judge, he resists and kills one of them, and he and Signe must flee into the mountains. The hard life in exile kills Signe, while Torleiv is caught and tried by a panel of judges and clerics, whose interrogation methods and harsh words about his deceased sister-in-law eventually drive him mad. By all appearances, this final story would seem to hold immediate appeal to Dreyer, but perhaps he passed it over because of its resemblance to the plot of Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans Hustru ("You and I," 1918). Perhaps Dreyer chose the second tale in the book because of his preference during this period for framing issues in a humorous way, and Janson most definitively pushed humour to the forefront in Prestekonen more than in the other two tales.

By Morten Egholm | 14. June