"What cannot happen has happened, and you are stunned by what you have witnessed."
- Paul Auster
In his novel Invisible (2009) Paul Auster sends one of his characters to the cinema to watch Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word). He experiences the miracle at the end of the film as a transcendent moment that leaves her awestruck yet purified.
22. December 2017
(...) After dinner, you and your sister ride the 104 bus down Broadway to the New Yorker theatre and walk into the coolness of that dark space to watch Carl Dreyer’s 1955 film, Ordet (The Word). Normally, you would not be interested in a film about Christianity and matters of religious faith, but Dreyer’s direction is so exact and piercing that you are quickly swept up into the story, which begins to remind you of a piece of music, as if the film were a visual translation of a two-part invention by Bach. The aesthetics of Lutheranism, you whisper into Gwyn’s ear at one point, but since she has not been privy to your thoughts, she has no idea what you are talking about and returns your comment with a bewildered frown.
There is little need to rehash the intricacies of the story. Compelling as those twists and turns might be, they amount to just one story among an infinity of stories, one film among a multitude of films, and if not for the end, Ordet would not have affected you more than any other good film you have seen over the years. It is the end that counts, for the end does something to you that is wholly unexpected, and it crashes into you with all the force of an axe felling an oak.
The farm woman who has died in childbirth is stretched out in an open coffin as her weeping husband sits beside her. The mad brother who thinks he is the second coming of Christ walks into the room holding the hand of the couple’s young daughter. As the small group of mourning relatives and friends looks on, wondering what blasphemy or sacrilege is about to be committed at this solemn moment, the would-be incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth addresses the dead woman in a calm and quiet voice. Rise up, he commands her, lift yourself out of your coffin and return to the world of the living. Seconds later, the woman’s hands begin to move. You think it must be a hallucination, that the point of view has shifted from objective reality to the mind of the addled brother. But no. The woman opens her eyes, and just seconds after that she sits up, fully restored to life.
There is a large crowd in the theater, and half the audience bursts out laughing when they see the miraculous resurrection. You don’t begrudge them their skepticism, but for you it is a transcendent moment, and you sit there clutching your sister’s arm as tears roll down your cheeks. What cannot happen has happened, and you are stunned by what you have witnessed.
Something changes in you after that. You don’t know what it is, but the tears you shed when you saw the woman come back to life seem to have washed out some of the poison that has been building up inside you. (...)
The extract from the novel pages 133-135 is reproduced with kind permission from the author.
Paul Auster: Invisible (Henry Holt and Company, 2009).