Carl Th. Dreyer: Film Director & Adoptee

Carl Theodor Dreyer
(3 February 1889 – 20 March 1968)

Carl Theodor Dreyer. Photo Rie Nissen ©
Carl Theodor Dreyer. Photo Rie Nissen ©

Danish film director regarded by many critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest directors in cinema


Dreyer was born illegitimate in Copenhagen, Denmark. His birth mother was an unmarried maid named Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, and he was put up for adoption by his birth father, Jens Christian Torp, a married Danish farmer living in Sweden who was his mother’s employer. He spent the first two years of his life in orphanages until his adoption by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his wife, Inger Marie (née Olsen). He was named after his adoptive father, but in accordance with Danish practice, there is no “Senior” or “Junior” added to their names to distinguish them from each other.

His adoptive parents were emotionally distant and his childhood was largely unhappy. He later recalled that his parents “constantly let me know that I should be grateful for the food I was given and that I strictly had no claim on anything, since my mother got out of paying by lying down to die.” But he was a highly intelligent school student, who left home and formal education at the age of sixteen. He dissociated himself from his adoptive family, but their teachings were to influence the themes of many of his films.


As a young man, Dreyer worked as a journalist, but he eventually joined the film industry as a writer of title cards for silent films and subsequently of screenplays. His first attempts at film direction had limited success, and he left Denmark to work in the French film industry. While living in France he met Jean Cocteau, Jean Hugo, and other members of the French artistic scene.

In 1928, he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.


  • Præsidenten (The President), 1919
  • Prästänkan (The Parson’s Widow), 1920
  • Blade af Satans bog (Leaves from Satan’s Book), 1921
  • Die Gezeichneten (Love One Another), 1922
  • Der var engang (Once Upon a Time), 1922
  • Mikaël (Michael), 1924
  • Du skal ære din hustru (Thous Shalt Honor Thy Wife (aka Master of the House), 1925
  • Glomdalsbruden (Bride of Glomdal), 1926
From Joan of Arc.
From Joan of Arc.
  • From Joan of Arc
    From Joan of Arc
    From Joan of Arc.
    From Joan of Arc.

    La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død) (The Passion of Joan of Arc), 1928. Working from the transcripts of the trial, he created a masterpiece of emotion that drew equally from realism and expressionism. Named the most influential film of all time by the curators of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival

    From Vampyr.
    From Vampyr.

    From Vampyr.
    From Vampyr.
  • From Vampyr.
    From Vampyr.

    Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (Vampyr), 1932. Based on the novella Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu, 1872. Dreyer used private finance from Baron Nicholas de Gunzburg to make his next film as the Danish film industry was in financial ruin. Vampyr is a surreal meditation on fear. Logic gave way to mood and atmosphere in this story of a man protecting two sisters from a vampire. The movie contains many indelible images, such as the hero, played by de Gunzburg (under the screen name Julian West), dreaming of his own burial and the animal blood lust on the face of one of the sisters as she suffers under the vampire’s spell. The film was shot mostly silent but with sparse, cryptic dialogue in three separate versions – English, French and German.

  • Good Mothers (Mødrehjælpen), 12 min, 1942
  • Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath), 1943. Denmark was by now under Nazi occupation, and his Day of Wrath (1943) had as its theme the paranoia surrounding witch hunts in the seventeenth century in a strong theocratic culture. With this work, Dreyer established the style that would mark his sound films: careful compositions, stark monochrome cinematography, and very long takes. 
  • Två människor (Two People), 1945
  • Water from the Land (Vandet på landet), 1946
  • The Struggle Against Cancer (Kampen mod kræften), 15 min, 1947
  • The Danish Village Church (Landsbykirken), 14 min, 1947
  • They Caught the Ferry (De nåede færgen), 11 min, 1948)
  • Thorvaldsen (10 min, 1949)
  • Storstrømsbroen (The Storstrom Bridge), 7 min, 1950
  • The Castle Within the Castle (Et Slot i et slot), 1955
  • Ordet (The Word), 1955. A film that combines a love story with a conflict of faith.
  • Gertrud, 1964

References (sourced from Wikipedia)

The Carl Th. Dreyer website; Bright Lights Film Journal; Carl Dreyer; Allmovie: Carl Theodor Dreyer; The Passion of Joan of Arc review by Roger Ebert;—extended.aspx;Bordwell, David (1983). The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. University of California Press. p. 191.;“Dreyer film voted most influential”. Copenhagen Post. 22 September 2010. Retrieved 26 September 2010.




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