Unmaking Meaning: Motivation and Materiality in Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Too Early/Too Late and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud

by Michael Sooriyakumaran Volume 27, Issue 1-2 / February 2023 26 minutes (6271 words)

In his book The World in a Frame, Leo Braudy contrasts the “closed” cinema of a Fritz Lang with the “open” cinema of a Jean Renoir, writing:

In a closed film the world of the film is the only thing that exists; everything has its place in the plot of the film—every object, every character, every gesture, every action. In an open film the world of the film is a momentary frame around an ongoing reality. The objects and characters in the film existed before the camera focused on them and they will exist after the film is over. (1976: 46-47)

To reformulate this distinction using the terms of the Russian Formalists, we might say that a closed film—Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), for instance—is one in which virtually everything in the frame has a compositional motivation, while in an open film like Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) realistic motivation justifies the abundance of the mise en scène, which far exceeds narrative necessity (Tomashevsky 2012: 78-84; Bordwell 1985: 36).

Of course, no film is completely open or closed, and Braudy himself concedes that the two are not absolute categories but opposite ends of the same spectrum—“a revolving door of visual meaning” (1976: 55). Or as Kristin Thompson puts it in another context, “every film contains a struggle of unifying and disunifying structures” (1986: 134). How might such a struggle play out across an entire film? In an open film such as Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Too Early/Too Late (1982), the variation of stylistic parameters, extended shot duration, and the interventions of chance in the mise en scène all flaunt their own arbitrariness, thereby drawing one’s attention to the materials the film consists of. On the other hand, by severely limiting the number of objects on the screen and prolonging the duration that any given element is before the spectator, the closed style of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) sensitizes us to the visual and aural presence of the people and things in the film over and above their narrative utility. Thus, both open and closed films have the potential to “roughen” form, inducing spectators to “concentrate on the processes of perception in and of themselves, rather than for some practical end” (Thompson 1988: 36).

Un coup de cinéma jamais n’abolira le hazard

As Ursula Böser points out, virtually all of Huillet and Straub’s films incorporate one or more pre-existing texts (2005: 12), which act to unify the films. However, in contrast with both the classical Hollywood cinema and the expository mode of documentary filmmaking (see Nichols 2010: 167-171), where a story or rhetorical argument is “the dominant around which other filmic resources are moulded,” in the work of Huillet and Straub, “a tenuous or gapped narrative or argumentation fails to fully unify a film; the representation of time and space is not solely committed to a content to be transmitted, and sounds and images engage our attention as materials in their own right” (Bösser 2005: 24-25). In other words, unlike a straightforward expository documentary—e.g., The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003)—which subordinates style to the clear presentation of information, Too Early/Too Late emphasizes the autonomy of the film’s materials through the apparently systematic variation of stylistic parameters, the unreasonable duration of shots, and the irrelevant interventions of chance in the mise en scène.

Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum has remarked that the film “inverts the usual relationship in a Straub-Huillet film between landscape and text—the landscape becoming the film’s central text, the verbal text becoming the film’s ‘setting’” (1983: 197). Or to put it more plainly, the texts used in the film, both read offscreen as voice-overs, are far less dense and are spoken at a slower pace than those featured in most other Straub/Huillet films, giving the spectator more time to contemplate the landscapes and the sound of the wind rustling in the trees. Furthermore, unlike The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968) where an invented diary serves as a master text, unifying a series of musical performances that threaten to fragment into a string of disconnected recitals, Too Early/Too Late does not derive its overall unity from any one text but from the juxtaposition of two texts on a common theme, neither of which dominates the other. In the first part of the film, “A—Friedrich Engels” (shots 1-27), 1 we hear Huillet reading portions of a letter Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky schooling him on the impoverished state of the peasantry on the eve of the French revolution (ibid.: 193), while in the second, “B—Mahmoud Hussein” (shots 28-102), Bahgat El Nadi reads excerpts from Luttes sociales en Égypte recounting the Egyptian peasants’ resistance to the British occupation prior to the “petit bourgeois” revolution of 1952 (ibid.; Byg 1995: 297). 2 Notwithstanding the archival footage of the 1952 Revolution at the end of the film (shots 55-101), the images accompanying the voice-overs show the towns and villages alluded to in the texts as they appeared in the early 1980s, and were it not for the voice-overs, one would never guess that these were the sites of historic peasant revolts. 3

Too Early/Too Late

This is not to suggest, however, that the texts themselves are unimportant, a mere pretext for Huillet and Straub’s artistry. In addition to the intrinsic interest of the information they convey, the texts play an important role in unifying the film by motivating the images of different locations in France and Egypt and suggesting a connection between them as the sites of peasant struggles that were ultimately co-opted by the bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the voice-overs’ identification of some, but not all, of these places is a stylistic parameter whose variation over the course of the film disturbs the unity of text and image by highlighting its own arbitrariness. 4 Early in the film, over a shot panning rightward across a rural landscape to reveal a winding road (shot 4), Huillet says, “In Bretagne, in three villages in the district of Carhaix, it looked like this. Frerogan: 10 well off families, 10 impoverished, 10 beggarly,” leading the spectator to infer that this is a shot of a road near Frerogan. However, near the end of the shot, a white hatchback drives up the road towards the camera, exiting on the left side of the screen, and in the next shot, an identical hatchback enters on the left, passing a sign reading “Tréogan” as it speeds away from the camera, casting doubt on the unity of text and image: Was the previous shot actually of a road near Frerogan, a reverse angle of shot 5 taken just outside Tréogan, or perhaps both? A little later, as the camera pans across another idyllic rural landscape (shot 7), Huillet identifies the location as Montref, and a subsequent shot of a sign reading “Montref” (shot 9) seems to confirm this. Alternatively, in shot 11, the lateral panning of the camera back and forth makes it impossible to read a third road sign, and only in the next shot does Huillet identify the location as Paule. In sum, the images may call into question the unity of text and image (shots 4-5), confirm it (shots 7 and 9), or neither confirm nor cast doubt on it (shots 11-12).

Other stylistic parameters include the length of the voice-overs in relation to the duration of the shots they accompany and the placement of the voice-overs within them. In the sequence described above, Huillet begins speaking over a stretch of black leader (shot 3), continues throughout most of shot 4, and after keeping silent for the next two shots, resumes in shot 7 a few seconds after the cut—whereas in shot 12, the resumption of her voice-over coincides precisely with the cut. Additionally, there is the alternation of populated and depopulated images and the relative duration of each, though even if we were to assume that Huillet and Straub varied the duration of shots systematically, spectators would not be able to perceive this under normal viewing conditions. As Noël Burch observes:

[T]he daily experience of any film-maker… shows quite clearly that the viewer’s estimate of the duration of a shot is conditioned by its legibility. […] [A]n uncomplicated two-second close-up will appear longer than a long shot of exactly the same length that is swarming with people; a white or black screen will appear longer still. For this reason…, any given cinematic rhythmical pattern measured simply in seconds and frames will never be experienced in the same way as a musical pattern, unless it consists of nothing more than the alternation of black and white frames. If the images involved are at all complex, this rhythmical unit remains little more than a pure abstraction and is not at all perceptible as a coherent pattern. (1981: 52, italics in original)

Thus, even if one were to look at Too Early/Too Late on an editing table and count the number of frames in each shot, it still might not be possible to isolate a systematic pattern governing shot duration.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that we perceive a disjunction between the duration of a given shot and the time it takes for us to scan the image. Not surprisingly, the single longest shot in the entire film, which surveils Egyptian workers leaving a factory for a full ten minutes (shot 45), is also the most densely populated, but while there is too much activity in the frame for us to catch everything that is going on, it does not take us very long to get the gist of what is happening. (By way of comparison, La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon [Louis Lumière, 1895] runs less than a minute.) Nor is the length of the shot motivated by the duration of the action being filmed; indeed, the workers have still not finished leaving the factory when the shot abruptly ends, suggesting it might have gone on even longer had the camera been capable of holding more film. Describing the experience of watching this scene, Meaghan Morris writes:

Too Early/Too Late

The camera is fixed in front of a factory. It stays fixed for what soon becomes an unendurable length of time: almost unendurable; with foreboding, I realize this is going to continue and I am going to stay. This is “real time.” […] I am absorbed in time passing so slowly that it vanishes into that timeless speed called “passing in no time at all.” […] I am mesmerized by this image, and yet, I endlessly look at my watch. (1998: xxiii, italicis in original)

As Morris suggests, the unreasonable, seemingly arbitrary length of this shot emphasizes the autonomy of its duration which is not subordinate to either the pre-existing texts—the “voice [going] on about the history of modern Egypt and something about Engels” (ibid.)—or the duration of the pro-filmic event.

Straub is fond of quoting D.W. Griffith’s statement from 1947 that “[w]hat the modern movies lack is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees. […] That they have forgotten entirely” (quoted in Byg 1995: 21-22). One possible interpretation of this statement is that Hollywood films of the 1940s lacked those accidents of chance which are outside the control of the director, and indeed, Burch has argued that the first sixty years of film history can be seen as a sustained struggle against the accidental in nearly all kinds of filmmaking—a struggle that went hand in hand with the development of the classical Hollywood cinema, which strives as much as possible towards total closure (1981: 109-110). Accordingly, by leaving a space for the interventions of chance in their films, Huillet and Straub open the door to greater disunity. As Gilberto Perez writes of the driving scenes in History Lessons (Geschichtsunterricht, 1972):

The perspective from the backseat and framing through the windshield and windows and sunroof are the form, the container photography inherits from the tradition of Western painting. […] All that comes into view in the streets of Rome is a punctum that breaks through the form of the picture, a detail unamenable to meaning, a disturbance to the arrangement. 5 Those who find these sequences boring, who say nothing is happening when so much is happening out there, are bored not for lack of action but for the lack of a scheme of meaning that would subsume all that action going on in the streets. (1998: 284, italics in original)

Similarly, in Too Early/Too Late, it is the scheme of meaning provided by the pre-existing texts that enables us to perceive the interventions of chance in the mise en scène and on the soundtrack as deviations from the overall design. In one of the film’s most extraordinary shots (shot 49), as the camera pans rightward across an Egyptian landscape, El Nadi says in voice-over, “From 1945 on, the national classes again revolting together will finally make impossible the British occupation and the reign of foreigners and aristocrats who governed in its name.” If the point of this shot were merely to contrast the political upheavals of the 1940s with the calm appearance of the countryside in the 1980s, it could have ended as soon as El Nadi stops speaking. Instead, the camera continues to pan slowly for more than half a minute before finally resting on a stretch of dirt road by a stream where six men on foot and one on a donkey gradually move towards the camera, finally exiting on the right side of the screen. Then, as a solitary man in white and a donkey pulling a cart approach in the distance, the movement of something emerging from the stream draws our attention to the far-left side of the screen where previously we had not perceived any activity at all. And due to its distance from the camera, there is a period of uncertainty where we cannot be sure what kind of animal it is coming out of the water (a cow? An ox?) or if it is one animal or two, forcing us to reflect upon our desire to impose meaning on the shifting patches of colour we perceive on the screen.

In analyzing Too Early/Too Late, I have focused on how the film’s style flaunts its autonomy from the pre-existing texts through the arbitrary variation of stylistic parameters, the unreasonable duration of shots, and the irrelevant interventions of chance in the mise en scène—unlike a traditional expository documentary, where filmic technique obediently facilitates the presentation of information. However, even when compositional motivation justifies the presence of a particular element, it can never completely paper over its sloppy materiality, as we shall see in the next section of this article.

La donna è immobile

By all accounts, the Paris premiere of Dreyer’s Gertrud on December 18, 1964 was an unmitigated disaster. According to Elliot Stein, in the run-up to the premiere,

[t]he Cinémathèque Française mounted a Dreyer hommage…, French TV screened Ordet [1955], and the 76-year old director arrived in Paris to be greeted by a flurry of receptions and respectful interviews. And then it happened. It happened with all the hysteria and insecure aggression of a spontaneous, unexpected lynching: the main titles had barely disappeared from the screen at the opening night press show, when a deluge of foul-mouthed jeers and catcalls began which continued with such force throughout the evening that the soundtrack was eclipsed. […] The reviews were a bouquet of spite and scorn as had never been flung at the most meretricious of Gallic Z-nudie movies or even at any of the works of Veit Harlan shown in France since the war (1965: 56, italics in original).

Dreyer attributed this reaction to a number of unfortunate circumstances not mentioned in Stein’s account—French subtitles that were unreadable, reels projected in the wrong order, and the projector repeatedly breaking down (J. Drum and D. Drum 2000: 263)—but when the film played elsewhere, the response was still cool, if generally respectful. In Denmark, reviewers were “polite but unenthusiastic and the audience reflected this feeling. Dreyer was treated with honor and courtesy but little real interest” (ibid.).


As with Day of Wrath (Vredens dag, 1943) two decades earlier, “[t]he chief criticism of Gertrud was that it was too slow—in fact, static” (ibid.: 256), and critics sympathetic to the film have responded to this charge in virtually antithetical ways. In one camp, there are those who try to uncover some transcendental meaning in Dreyer’s style that would justify the film’s slow pacing. In particular, Ray Carney has argued that the glacial rhythms of Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud are necessary in order to put the spectator in a meditative state where they can perceive the heroines’ struggles to give concrete expression to their spiritual impulses:

In frustrating or retarding a viewer’s narrative appetence, by denying or slowing a viewer’s reception of realistic information and events, Dreyer is engaged in a radical act of redirecting our attention from outer to inner realms of eventfulness. […] The viewer is teased away from having to attend to social values and physical relationships in order to entertain a more speculative, more meditative relationship to a character or scene. (1989: 77-78)

Alternatively, there are those who see in Dreyer’s style only the evacuation of meaning. Indeed, for David Bordwell, Gertrud is important precisely for what it does not do, for “unremittingly, almost malevolently, [refusing] to be cinema of any classifiable kind” (1981: 171). Specifically, the film pushes to an extreme the strategy of “sparseness” already operative in Ordet: “like minimal art or ‘Structuralist’ cinema, Gertrud reduces meaning but prolongs perception. Here cinematic form pulls so far from narrative function that we must confront a work which is, by normal standards, empty. (ibid.: 186) 6

Dreyer himself may have inadvertently contributed to this controversy by providing two somewhat contradictory explanations for the film’s slow pace. First, he claimed it was realistic (rather than transcendental), telling Børge Trolle:

®hythm and milieu go together, as I learned from Victor [Sjöström]. I remember one episode, I think it was during the filming of Ingmar’s Sons [Ingmarssönerna, 1919]…, where the farmers came into the room to eat. […] The farmers came in with the same heavy tread they used in the fields. They didn’t enter like modern people, storming in and sitting down; they came in soberly and calmly, took their caps off, and took an eternity to cross the floor. It had a fantastic effect on me when I saw it the first time. It set it up so that one believed it completely. (1966: 59)

Second, Dreyer suggested it provided a means of theatricalizing cinema, thereby making the film more meaningful rather than less:

If you are in front of a screen, at the cinema, you have the tendency to follow everything that unfolds on it, which is different from the theatre, where the words move through space and exist there, hanging in the air. At the cinema, as soon as they have left the screen, the words die. Therefore I tried to make little pauses in order to give the spectator the possibility of assimilating what he hears, of thinking about it. That gives the dialogue a certain rhythm, a certain style. (Quoted in Delahaye 1969: 152)

Whatever Dreyer’s intentions, for the purposes of this article it is sufficient to note that everyone agrees Gertrud is an uncommonly slow film, even for Dreyer. That said, it differs significantly from Too Early/Too Late in that the duration of shots does not feel arbitrary in relation to the filmed action; only at the end of the final sequence, when Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) closes the door in the camera’s face and the shot continues for almost half a minute, does shot duration break away from the duration of the pro-filmic action. Accordingly, if Gertrud feels slow, this is due to the pace of the drama itself—i.e., the length of individual scenes in relation to the density of events within them—and the legibility of the images in relation to their duration. It is as a result of this that, despite the closed, highly motivated mise en scène, we become sensitized to the materiality of the people and objects on the screen over and above their narrative functions.

Based on Hjalmar Söderberg’s play of the same name (1906), 7 Gertrud consists of just nine sequences with a total of twenty scene changes in 110 minutes:

C. Opening Credits

1. The Kannings’ drawing room (shots 1-14): Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe), a middle-aged laywer, informs his wife, Gertrud, that he is likely to be appointed a cabinet minister in the near future. Gustav’s mother (Anna Malberg) pays a visit to collect her monthly allowance, and after she leaves, Gertrud tells Gustav she is leaving him for another man but refuses to tell him whom. When Gustav asks her how she plans to spend the evening, Gertrud reiterates her intention of going to the opera. (Gertrud is herself a former opera singer.)

2. Park (shot 15): Gertrud arrives for a rendezvous with her younger lover, the composer Erland Jansson (Baard Owe), and recalls how she pursued him. (2) 1st flashback: Erland’s apartment (shot 16): During a visit, Gertrud sings while Erland accompanies her on the piano. (3) Park (shot 17): Erland announces his intention to go to a party that evening being held by a woman named Constance. Gertrud asks him not to go and describes her dream of being chased by dogs.
3. Erland’s apartment (shots 18-23): Erland plays the piano while Gertrud undresses.

4. Gustav’s carriage (shot 24): Returning from a business meeting, Gustav is suddenly overcome with a desire to meet Gertrud at the opera. (2) *Opera house (exterior) * (shot 25): Gustav walks from his carriage to the entrance of the building. (3) *Opera house (interior) * (shot 26): Gustav learns that Gertrud did not go to the opera that evening.

5.Erland’s apartment (shot 27): As Gertrud is leaving, Erland promises he will not go to Constance’s party.

6. Reception hall (shots 28-47): While Gustav gives a speech in honour of Gertrud’s former lover, the poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode), Gertrud has a sudden headache and has to step out. (2) Adjacent room (shots 48-57): Gertrud runs into her old friend, Prof. Axel Nygren (Axel Støbye), who tells her of his psychiatric group in Paris. Gertrud notices a huge tapestry behind her depicting a naked woman being chased by dogs as in her dream. Gustav demands to know where Gertrud went the previous evening. Gabriel informs Gertrud he was at Constance’s party, where Erland bragged of his sexual conquests, mentioning Gertrud by name. Gustav asks Gertrud to sing for the vice-chancellor (Eduoard Mielche) with Erland accompanying her on the piano, but she faints after just a few bars.

7. Park (shots 58-60): Gertrud asks Erland to run away with her but he refuses as he is going to have a child with another woman.

8. The Kannings’ drawing room (shots 61-63): Gabriel asks Gertrud to come to Rome with him. She declines and explains to him why she originally broke off their relationship. (2) 2nd Flashback: Gabriel’s apartment (shots 64-66): While tidying up, Gertrud discovers a sketch of her face in profile on a scrap of paper with the caption, “A woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.” (3) The Kannings’ drawing room (shots 67-69): Gustav asks Gertrud to come away with him again but she is determined to be alone. Gustav appears and insists Gabriel stay for a glass of champagne. (4) Kitchen (shot 70): While the maid takes out the champagne, Gertrud phones Axel to ask for his assistance in registering at the Sorbonne. (5) The Kannings’ drawing room (shots 71-74): Gustav proudly announces he has been appointed a cabinet minister and Gabriel leaves defeated. Gustav proposes an open marriage but Gertrud insists on separating, despite the failure of her relationship with Erland. When Gertrud reveals that she never really loved Gustav, he tells her he never wants to see her again. (6) Corridor (shot 75): Gertrud flees by the backdoor. (7) The Kannings’ drawing room (shot 76): Gustav calls Gertrud back to no avail.

9. Many years later: Gertrud’s study (shots 77-80): Axel pays a visit to Gertrud, now an old woman. Gertrud returns the letters he sent her, which Axel promptly burns in the fireplace. She then reads aloud a love poem she wrote as a teenager and tells Axel what she wants written on her tombstone: “Amore omnia” (“Love is all”). (2) Adjacent foyer (shots 81-84): Axel leaves and Gertrud closes the door. 8


To have so few scene changes in a film of this length is unusual but not totally unheard of, even in Hollywood—Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) being just one example. The slowness of Gertrud is due in large part then, not to the lack of scene changes per se, but to the paucity of action within the scenes relative to their length. The most obvious example of this is the scene in the reception hall (segment 6.1), in which a group of students enter at length singing in unison, and after a wordy speech by their leader (Lars Knutzon), leave in exactly the same manner by the same route—a departure that could have been elided in the editing simply by cutting from the end of the leader’s speech to the beginning of Gabriel’s in medium close-up. The performances further retard the pace of the action with the actors reading their lines as if in a trance and pausing between each line of dialogue. When Gustav asks her if she would like to be a minister’s wife, Gertrud holds her response while the camera slowly pans from his face to her’s. Additionally, changes in the characters’ sitting positions mark the phases of certain long scenes, as in segment 8.3 when Gertrud and Gabriel move from one sofa to another before the latter resumes his entreaties and the drama comes to a complete halt while they stroll at a leisurely pace from one side of the room to the other. As Bordwell observes of Day of Wrath, “almost never does anyone in this film move and talk at the same time” (1981: 141, italics in original).

The perception of slowness is compounded less by the duration of shots than their high degree of legibility (see Burch 1981: 52). Again, one can point to classical Hollywood films boasting extremely long takes, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) being only the most obvious example. However, in Gertrud the actors and the camera change position much less frequently than in the Hitchcock film despite the mise en scène being equally sparse and legible. Indeed, there is none of the visual clutter one finds in a long take film like Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), nor does Dreyer fill the frame with a flurry of background activity as Renoir does in French Cancan. (The park where Gertrud has her rendezvous with Erland is almost as eerily depopulated as the French villages in Too Early/Too Late.) The images are also striking for their flatness. Burch and Jorge Dana have noted how emphatically the rear walls of rooms enclose the scenic space throughout the film (1974: 63), and Dreyer sometimes films entire conversations in a single two shot with the characters sitting on a sofa or in chairs with the camera placed at a right angle to the wall behind them, which is typically bare (see Gertrud’s conversations with Gabriel in segments 6.2 and 8.1). One effect of this simplification of the mise en scène, in combination with the ceremonially slow pacing of the action, is to push the drama towards the background while bringing forward the materiality of the people and objects on the screen, which compositional motivation can never fully efface.

As Thompson observes, one of the ways in which the materials of a film may exceed narrative motivation is through duration, as “[m]otivation is insufficient to determine how long a device needs to be on the screen in order to serve its purpose” (1986: 135, italics in original). Gertrud’s costumes, for instance, help to establish the story’s period and milieu, and her position within it as a respectable bourgeois housewife, but the longer we look at any one costume—and because there are so few scene changes, we have a lot of time to look at them—the more likely we are to pay attention to the folds of the fabric or the way it catches the light, especially given the visual range of her costumes: glossy with black polka dots in segments 1, 3, and 5; pure white in segments 6 (glossy) and 7 (matte); pure black in segments 8 (glossy) and 9 (matte); and a matte white dress with black spots in the second flashback. Likewise, the actors’ drawn out delivery and their repetition of certain lines emphasize the purely acoustic qualities of the words they speak, such as Gustav’s guttural pronunciation of the second syllable in “Gertrud” when he calls her name at the beginning of segment 1 (twice calmly) and again at the end of segment 8 (three times in despair).


Furthermore, the longer we look at a particular element of the mise en scène, the more likely we are to realize just how arbitrary the choice of that person or object is when so many others could have fulfilled the same purpose equally well. Or as Thompson puts it, “narrative function may justify the presence of a particular device, but it doesn’t always motivate the specific form that individual element will take“ (ibid., italics in original). Here, the presence of a character called the vice-chancellor at the reception is necessary insofar as it is his desire to hear Gertrud sing that motivates Gustav unwittingly asking his wife to perform with her adulterous lover, but the choice of the actor to portray the vice-chancellor is largely arbitrary, especially as he has no dialogue. Thus, Mielche’s ugliness calls attention to itself all the more forcefully as it does not serve any narrative function: Dreyer just as easily could have chosen a less physically repulsive actor, but for whatever reason, he decided to pick someone who looks like what would happen if the old millionaire (Joe E. Brown) in Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) had been left out in the sun too long and wilted.

In sum, Gertrud demonstrates the failure of a highly motivated narrative to fully exhaust its materials. Indeed, by stripping his mise en scène to the bare essentials and prolonging the duration that any given object or person is on the screen far beyond the time necessary for the spectator to grasp its narrative significance, Dreyer draws our attention to the materiality of the people and things in the film: Characters become physiognomic specimens, costumes and décor a shifting pattern of light and shade, and the dialogue a string of phonemes. This is not to say, however, that the spectator’s perception of the materiality of the mise en scène obliterates meaning completely. Rather, the film’s style makes us acutely aware of the process of representation—or as Carney puts it, Dreyer’s style “continuously reminds us that meaning is enacted“ (1989: 55, italics in original). Thus, as with the obviously fake flames in Gabriel’s fireplace in the second flashback, we perceive both what the people and objects on the screen represent and what they actually are.

As Jurij Tynjanov observed, “The unity of a work of art is not a closed symmetrical whole, but an unfolding dynamic integrity; between its elements stands, not the static sign of equation and addition, but always the dynamic sign of integration and correlation” (2002: 128). Braudy’s concept of the open and the closed hints at this dynamic relationship in that the difference between a Renoir and a Lang (or a Huillet and Straub and a Dreyer) is not a matter of kind but of degree—namely the degree to which their films motivate their materials. Where a closed film strives to motivate them as thoroughly as possible, an open film like Too Early/Too Late flaunts the arbitrariness of its style through parametric variation, the unreasonable duration of shots, and the interventions of chance in the mise en scène. That said, if one looks at any closed film long and hard enough, the pretext of narrative motivation begins to unravel, confronting the spectator with the contingent materiality of the people and objects in front of the camera. Indeed, it is precisely the closed style of Gertrud —the bareness of the mise en scène in combination with the extremely slow pacing— that sensitizes the spectator to what Donald Skoller calls “the presence of the present” in Dreyer’s films (1973: 123, italics in original). People who go to the cinema only for a story or for useful information are not really seeing or hearing what is right in front of them.


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  1. For the sake of simplicity, I have counted the film’s two credit sequences and the stretches of black leader immediately following them as one shot each (shots 1 and 28), whereas I have counted the other stretches of black leader in the film as distinct shots (shots 3, 34, 42, 44, 60, 62, 91, and 95).
  2. “Mahmoud Hussein” is a pseudonym used by El Nadi and Adel Rifaat, two Egyptian-born Marxist intellectuals who have lived in Paris for decades (Butler 1976: 123).
  3. There are, to be precise, four different versions of the film—English, French, German, and Italian—though the images and location audio are identical in each. As Barton Byg points out, this means “the voice-overs of this film are necessarily always at least 50 percent translated and read by a non-native speaker” (1995: 19). Why is there not an Arabic language version? In a recent interview, Straub claimed that El Nadi and Rifaat have “always refused to have the film shown in Egypt,” where their work is largely unknown (quoted in Condorelli 2011). This analysis is based upon the English language version of the film.
  4. On stylistic parameters, see Burch 1981 and Bordwell 1985, chapter 12.
  5. On the concept of the punctum in still photography, see Barthes 1981, especially 25-27.
  6. In recent years, Bordwell has distanced himself from this argument, which he now finds insufficiently historical (see Bordwell 2010).
  7. On Söderberg’s play and the changes Dreyer made to it, see Rosenbaum 1995: 109-111.
  8. James Schamus claims there are 89 shots in the film (2008: 14), which either means that I have missed a few in my own count or that Schamus’ tally includes not only the opening credit scroll but also the four intertitles which separated the film’s three acts and the epilogue in the original 1964 release version and are missing from the prints of Gertrud currently in circulation (Rosenbaum 1995: 112). As Rosenbaum points out, it is unclear if Dreyer removed the titles himself, but he did voice some misgivings about them to Trolle, saying “[t]hey didn’t quite fulfill the purpose I had for them,” as well as suggesting they would not have been necessary had it been possible for Dreyer to make the film in colour as he originally intended (ibid.; see also Trolle 1966: 58).

Unmaking Meaning: Motivation and Materiality in Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Too Early/Too Late and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud

Michael Sooriyakumaran is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared in Asian Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Frames Cinema Journal, and Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Visual Narration.

Volume 27, Issue 1-2 / February 2023 Essays   arthouse   carl dreyer   danièle huillet and jean-marie straub   danish cinema   french cinema