Gertrude (1965): Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) Sublime Romantic Drama

Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) directed Gertrude, a sublimely crafted  romantic drama, based on the 1906 play by Hjalmar Söderberg.


Theatrical release poster

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Nina Pens Rode renders an astonishingly nuanced performance in the title role of Gertrud Kanning, a challenging role–she is the center of the tale and practically in every scene.

She is ably supported by Bendt Rothe as her husband, and Baard Owe as her lover.

Gertrud, Dreyer’s final film, is notable for its long takes, one of which is a 10-minute take of Gertrud and her ex-lover Gabriel discussing their pasts.

Though the film had initially opened to divided critical response, it is now considered one of Dreyer’s major works and a masterpiece of international cinema.

Gertrud, the tale’s heroine, is a former opera singer in Stockholm in the early 20th century, who’s presumably happily married to the lawyer and politician Gustav Kanning.

Gertrud reproaches her husband for being more devoted to his career and status than to her. She also confides about meeting another man, who she believes loves her more than anything else. Under these circumstances, she is seeking divorce.

Gertrud then meets her lover, the promising young pianist Erland Jansson, in a park, and reaffirms her devotion to him.

In the evening Gustav goes to pick Gertrud up at the opera, but can’t find her. He confronts Gertrud about the opera, and demands one last night before separation.

The next evening the Kannings attend a dinner party at the house of the poet Gabriel Lidman, with whom Gertrud had an affair in the past.

When Gertrud tells Gustav that she wants to go away with him, he informs her that he’s expecting a child with another woman. Lidman makes a futile attempt to persuade Gertrud to leave with him instead. When Lidman and Gertrud were a couple, he also had valued his career above her.

Kanning makes a last attempt to persuade Gertrud to stay with him, agreeing that she keep her lover at the same time. The attempt fails and Gertrud moves alone to Paris to study psychology.

Thirty years later, Gertrud and Nygren reflect on their lives. While still holding that love is the only thing that matters in life, she opts to be alone because of her refusal to compromise on that position.

This was Dreyer’s last film and his first since Ordet, also a great work, in 1955. In the intervening years, he had attempted to make films based on Euripides’ Medea, William Faulkner’s Light in August, and wrote treatments based on Henrik Ibsen’s Brand, Strindberg’s Damascus and Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. He also worked on his long planned but never realized film about the life of Christ.

Dreyer had considered adapting two Hjalmar Söderberg works in the 1940s, the 1905 novel Doctor Glas and the 1906 play Gertrud, but none of the projects was realized. The Gertrud project was revived when Dreyer read a 1962 monograph by Sten Rein called Hjalmar Söderbergs Gertrud, which analyzed how the story is driven by seemingly trivial conversations and failures to communicate. This inspired Dreyer to make a film where speech is more important than images. Adapting the play into a screenplay, Dreyer chose to abridge the third act and added an epilogue, which was based on the life of Maria von Platen, Söderberg’s original inspiration for Gertrud’s character.

Stylistically, Gertrude was mostly made up of long takes of shots of two or more actors talking to each other, emphasizing Dreyer’s principles of kammerspiel. Over the years, Dreyer’s filming style had become subdued and compared to the fast cutting in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the tracking shots in Vampyr, this film contained slowed-down camera shots with restricted angles and an increased length of single takes.

Gertrude demands viewers’ attention to detail since the portraiture of the main characters is complex and multi-nuanced.  End result is a majestically crafted, interior contemplation of the nature of romantic love, erotic desire, and responsibility to the needs of self as well as those of significant others.

Of all Dreyer’s works, it is the most intimate and subtle, culminating a lengthy (four decade) career which was nothing short of brilliant.

Critical Reaction–Then and Now

The film premiered at Le Studio Médicis in Paris on December 18, 1964 in terrible conditions: failed equipment, poor subtitles, and reels shown in the wrong order. It was released in Denmark January 1, 1965 through Film-Centralen-Palladium.

A screening at the Cannes Film Fest in May was booed.  Then a later screening at the 1965 Venice Film Fest got mixed response; half of the audience walked during the film, but those  who stayed gave the film standing ovation, which reportedly moved Dreyer to tears. Nonetheless,  the film won the FIPRESCI prize at the 1965 Venice Film Fest.

Gertrude was selected as the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 38th Oscar Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.

Jean-Luc Godard rated the film number one in his list of the best films of 1964.  His colleagues at the Cahiers du cinéma voted it the second-best, beaten by Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Andrew Sarris rated it the second-best of 1966, only beaten by Blowup.

In the 2012 edition of Sight & Sound’s poll of film critics, conducted every decade about the greatest films of all-time, Gertrud tied for 43rd place.


Nina Pens Rode as Gertrud
Bendt Rothe as Gustav Kanning
Ebbe Rode as Gabriel Lidman
Baard Owe as Erland Jansson
Axel Strøbye as Axel Nygren
Vera Gebuhr as Kanning’s Housekeeper
Lars Knutzon as Student


Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Produced by Jørgen Nielsen
Screenplay by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Grethe Risbjerg Thomsen (poems), based on Gertrud by Hjalmar Söderberg
Music by Jørgen Jersild
Cinematography Henning Bendtsen
Edited by Edith Schlüssel

Production company: Palladium

Distributed by Film-Centralen-Palladium

Release date: December 19, 1964 (France)l January 1, 1965 (Denmark)

Running time: 116 minutes