Carl Dreyer

“The Word” Became Flesh

Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), translated as “The Word” in English, is a Danish film adaptation of the theatrical play written by Lutheran minister Kaj Munk in 1925. The film has garnered much attention in the realm of spirituality in film, and is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, spiritually significant films. Among its honors are the 1956 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film, the Golden Lion (the highest prize of the Venice International Film Festival), the number one rank of “most spiritually significant film of all time” in 2010 by the Arts and Faith online community, and the Vatican’s one of fifteen “important films” pertaining to religion.

Munk’s Ordet is primarily the story of faith and love overcoming skepticism and doubt. On a small Danish farm in a hauntingly quiet rural setting, a dogmatic orthodox farmer’s family is torn asunder by various trials: one child believes he is Jesus the Christ himself, another is a cynical and stoic atheist, a third falls in love with a rival family’s daughter, forcing his father to face the doctrinal divide between their families, and all this comes to a climax in the death of the farm’s mother figure. All this conflict is put to the viewer as a question, asking, “Is there a place for the power of God today?” And the story unequivocally answers back, “Yes.” In the analysis that follows, we will investigate, through Robert B. Strimple’s book, “The Modern Search for the Real Jesus,” how Munk is able to say, “Yes,” and how that has significant implications for the Christian searching for Jesus today.

The foundational and epistemological assumption the viewer must be prepared to accept to understand Munk’s script is the Kantian distinction between scientific and religious knowledge. This is the fountainhead for the film’s skepticism and agnosticism, and its chilling desperation for faith. While referring most directly to an earthly father, the first word spoken in the film is, “Father?”, a demonstration of the distance felt between God above and men below. Miracles, a constant point of tension, are mentioned sixteen times in the film, representing the connection between the empirical, that which we sense here on earth, and the transcendent, that which is divine. Johannes’s atheist brother denies any spiritual presence on earth, saying, “It is all so meaningless – so meaningless.” Not only does Germany’s late nineteenth century Ritschlian Liberalism also put forth this strong and impossible Kantian division between heaven and earth, it also, along with Munk, puts forth this answer to the ineffable gap between the two: love; it is love, along with the faith of Bultmann-like existentialism, that Munk is able to provide an answer to the hopeless gap, albeit a faulty answer.

Picture of the play’s author

Faith and love work together for Munk’s depiction of the historical Jesus in Johannes; for Munk they become equivalents, as the reader will shortly understand. While Ritchlian Liberalism characterizes Munk’s value of love, the basis for love and Richtlian value is found in existentialism. This existentialism accounts for the psychological turmoil Johannes finds himself in. The film’s minister, after first meeting Johannes, who believes himself to be “Jesus of Nazareth,” was told something was wrong with Johannes. Therefore he asks Johannes’s brother Mikkel, “Was it… a love affair?” And Mikkel says, “It was Søren Kierkegaard.” Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, produces the “leap of faith” theology necessary to embrace value judgments like love and hope. Johannes, we are told, “had a difficult time with speculation and doubts… [which] turned inward.” Strimple explains this phenomena as “[an embracing of] uncertainty as integral to being” (119). It is this blind nonsensical faith which allows for the film to communicate change and hope in the physical realm, and allows Johannes to make sense for his family the value of love.

Value judgments like love, following after this existentialism, become far more important for Munk than any historical ones. Both Munk and Albrecht Ritschl believe, as Strimple says, that “the concept of the kingdom of God… [is] interpreted solely in ethical and social terms. The kingdom comes as men unite for common moral action, motivated by love” (51). And so Mikkel’s atheism is written off by Inger, his wife, who explains that virtue, not doctrine, brings one close with God. Mikkel confesses that not only does
he not have faith, but has no “faith in faith.”

Inger replies,

But you have something else, something more important. A heart, goodness. I tell you, it is not enough to have faith if one is not a good person at the same time. And that’s what you are… [Faith] will come… Yes. And then you will see how warm you will feel, a glow inside you, and you’ll be so happy.

This faith, a faith which finds the divine, comes only through acts of love and goodness; that is, it comes through value judgments. Inger’s “I tell you” seems to be a reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he says, “But I say to you…” This, then, is a pivotal point in the film, a point which seems to correct or re-orient the viewer’s current position with new teaching. Around this value judgment hangs the whole film.

The answer, then, to the distance between God and man becomes the act of love upheld by faith. Strimple explains how this value judgment should be interpreted:

In Ritschl’s estimation, religious affirmations – regarding God, for example – are strictly ‘value judgments.’ That qualifier, ‘value,’ cuts two ways: a value judgment is a judgment that affirms what we consider to be of value for our life; at the same time, it is a judgement that actually has value in making our life the kind of life it should be. A person can come to a sense of his or her own dignity and worth through the idea of a God who is his or her Creator, Savior, and Sustainer. But remember, Ritchl emphasized that this doctrine of a divine being is strictly a value judgment. (50)

The tension of value cutting both ways is well depicted in the conversation Mikkel and Inger have with Anders, the youngest brother. Though and unknown doctrine divides two families, the farmer’s and the tailor’s, the value judgment of love bridges this gap, too. Inger says, “Anders! You haven’t fallen in love with the tailor’s Anne?” …You know, they’ve got quite different ideas about religion.” Anders, knowing this to be the case, says, “We love each other. It doesn’t make any difference.” To which Inger says as the final thought, “Yes, that’s what we think too, Mikkel and I.” Inger again gaps the distance between belief and unbelief not only through her belief in love for Ander’s romantic situation, but between belief and unbelief in the divisive nature of dogma for herself and Mikkel. In this way love becomes the qualifier by which life not only is seen as communal, but is made communal. This type of common brotherhood, an acceptance of all of humankind under the banner of faith, hope, and love, appears as Munk’s explicit purpose for the film, and is proposed under the guise of blind faith in God, most clearly demonstrated in Johannes.

Munk’s view of Jesus, and even the historical Jesus, only now under the banner of love, becomes manifest in the person of Johannes. Under existentialism the issue of Johannes being divinity is a moot point (119): functionally Munk, like Ritschl, “emphatically repudiat[es] the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s two natures, yet he retain[es] the traditional terms, such as deity, in order to express the value, the unique value, of Jesus’ life for us” (51). Jesus, in this way, is not divinity condescending to die on the cross for the sins of his people, but Jesus is he who stands squarely and preeminently in that place of highest value, pointing us to community and life. Therefore, when Johannes performs god-like miracles, it is not simply a modern day miracle to bridge the gap between science and religion, a cheap trick or evangelistic propaganda, but a statement about the existential power of faith and love. Whether or not the film’s demonstration of miracles asserts something actually happening in reality is not important (notice how the clock is stopped by Anders), but important for Munk essential is the reality that a blind existential faith can and truly does produce manifestations of the divine presence, whether that be in the form of a prophet-like man or communal love.

The genuine Christian believer has no such existential blindness; his epistemology is not rooted in rationalism (15), or in a blind faith which makes room for love, but in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are a light to life’s path. Therefore, the revelation of God which came down, not the rationality of man which looks up, is the answer to Munk’s hopelessness. Jesus Christ is not Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Infinite Resignation,” or “Knight of [blind nonsensical] Faith”, neither is he Munk’s Johannes, or Munk’s faith, but He is God descended from heaven to earth in the flesh. He is not an idea, a myth, blind faith in the infinite gap, or an appropriated persona, but a person who lived and died for His people in the first century of our Lord. The true Christian can answer “Yes” to the question “Is there a place for the power of God today?” because the Jesus of history was incarnate of the virgin Mary, suffered, died, rose, ascended, gave his Spirit to the church, and sits at the right hand of God, ever making intercession. For this reason also, Ordet, “the word,” has meaning; otherwise, love cannot be defended as an ultimate value, but only a subjective one. But the Christian knows what love is because Christ, the Word, gave his life for sinners.

The film’s last word, “Life!”, representing the fullness of faith and love expressed in the characters, becomes Mikkel’s declaration of “It is all so meaningless” if it is taken apart from God condescending to reveal Himself to man (especially through the historical space & time Jesus). If the historical Jesus did not come and die, then what does “faith” and “life” mean? We know true life only if we know Jesus. The true Christian can look on Munk’s film only in appreciation for its question, but not for its answers; Jesus is made known in the gospels, not in this existential experience. Jesus is not a wandering sage pointing to the truth and the need for faith, but He is Truth pointing to Himself, and faith finds meaning only in Him. The power of God today is seen, then, in the Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. “The Word” is not something we create today, He is the eternal Way, Truth, and Life spoken forever, and given to us in the Holy Bible, the Word who became flesh.