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20 March 2018

Hygge, noir or both? The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

With the current enthusiasm for all things Danish, from the cult of hygge to crime dramas, it is fitting, on the 50th anniversary of his death, to examine the legacy of Denmark’s greatest contributor to the history of cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968).

Dreyer Portrait
Portrait of Dreyer directing in 1931, from Ebbe Neergaard, En filminstruktørs arbejde. Carl Th. Dreyer og hans ti filmer (Copenhagen, 1940)

Certainly, judging by the subjects of his films and the events of his own life, it would be difficult to regard Dreyer as a typical representative of ‘Europe’s happiest nation’. He was, in fact, only half Danish; his mother, Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, was a servant on a farm in Sweden where she was seduced by her Danish employer Jens Christian Torp – a situation familiar to readers of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel Pelle Erobreren (Copenhagen, 1906-10; 12581.r.18.). Torp was already married, and when Josefine died he placed their illegitimate son in an orphanage. At the age of two the little boy was adopted by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his wife, Inger Marie, who gave him a home and a name but little in the way of emotional warmth or security. When he was 16 he broke away from his adoptive parents, but their lasting influence is evident in the ideology which underpins many of his films, set in a Denmark where religious conservatism prevails and failure to conform can have fatal consequences.

At the time when Dreyer made the transition from journalism to film, the Danish silent cinema was in its early stages, and even during his mature career as a director he lacked the support of a well-established national film industry. This apparent disadvantage, in fact, accorded well with Dreyer’s preference for solitude and independence at all costs. In his biography En filminstruktørs arbejde, Ebbe Neergaard describes the moment when the young Dreyer, visiting the vaults of the Great Northern Telegraph Company in the company of an elderly accountant who proudly pointed to his life’s work – a collection of musty files – recoiled in horror from the prospect of a similar fate and promptly resigned his post to strike out alone.

Throughout his life Dreyer was outspoken in his criticism of mass-production film-making, and his insistence on the integrity of the individual, no matter what the outcome, runs through his work. He began in a small way, writing film scripts for Nordisk Film (1913-19). Although he later called this period ‘a marvellous school’, it coincided with the decline of Danish film during the First World War, where, although neutral, Denmark lost many of its foreign markets and Nordisk’s German theatre chain was bought up by Ufa in 1917. Dreyer then left Denmark to work in the French film industry; while living in France he met Jean Cocteau and other members of the French artistic scene and in 1928 he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This, like his next effort, Vampyr (1932), privately funded by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg who also played the hero, was a commercial failure. Both were subsequently recognized as masterpieces of emotional realism and surreal expressionism, but Dreyer was deterred from making any more films until 1943, when he directed one of his greatest works, Day of Wrath. Denmark was by now under German occupation, and this story of the persecution of alleged witches in a remote Danish village stands as a metaphor for the climate suspicion and oppression which flourished in those days.

Dreyer Cover
Montage of images from The Passion of Joan of Arc reproduced on the cover of  En filminstruktørs arbejde

Many of Dreyer’s films are set in small, tightly-knit communities in rural districts. However, they do not portray an idealised world of neighbourly cosiness but demonstrate how an apparently secure web of relationships can become a trap. In Master of the House (1925), he depicts a tyrannical father’s hold over his family and its eventual subversion; on a wider scale, The Word (1955) shows the stranglehold of religious bigotry over the lives of villagers, with a strict father forbidding his daughter to marry out of their sect and a young man transformed into an eccentric ‘holy fool’ by excessive theological study. Yet there remains hope, even though in this case it requires the death of his sister-in-law Inger in childbirth to bring about the miracle which eventually transcends and dissolves the artificial boundaries which constrict their lives.

Dreyer degeneration#
‘The degeneration of family life’: the birdcage scene from Master of the House; pictures from En filminstruktørs arbejde

David Bordwell’s The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (Berkeley, California, 1981; L.42/1194) provides a masterly study of the cinematic techniques which Dreyer employed throughout his career, culminating in his last film, Gertrud (1964). He analyses not only Dreyer’s use of the camera but his choice of plays and stories to adapt in exploration of spiritual conflict, social pressure to conform and the fate of those who defy it, and the concepts of sin and transgression (though Dreyer later disowned Two People (1945), based on a crime story and directed while he was living in exile from the Nazis in Sweden). But in his choice of Kaj Munk’s play Ordet as the source for The Word, he made common cause with a figure whose defiance of a corrupt regime, like Joan of Arc’s, cost him his life. Unsparing in his condemnation of moral compromise and hypocrisy alike, Dreyer invites his audience to explore the borderlands of the natural and the supernatural, earthly and spiritual, and to think for themselves in drawing their own conclusions.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

Further Reading

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fire film ... Jeanne d'Arc, Vampyr, Vredens Dag, Ordet. Udgivet med indledning af Ole Storm. (Copenhagen, 1964) X.900/560. (English translation: Four Screenplays (London, 1970) X.981/1902.)

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Om filmen. Artikler og interviews. Udgivet af Erik Ulrichsen (Copenhagen, 1964) X.908/793. (English translation: Dreyer in double reflection ed. by Donald Skoller (New York, 1973) 75/22116

Claude Perrin, Carl Th. Dreyer ... points de vue, documents, filmographie, bibliographie, chronologie, 50 illustrations (Paris, [1969])

Tom Milne, The cinema of Carl Dreyer (New York, 1971) X.900/6387.  

Maurice Drouzy, Carl Th. Dreyer, né Nilsson (Paris, 1982) X.950/26307

Edvin Kau, Dreyers filmkunst (Copenhagen, 1989). YA.1991.b.411

16 March 2018

The Russian Love Affair with the Arabian Horse

The title does not refer to the mythical indiscretions of Catherine the Great, although she indeed kept a number of Arabian horses, but to the enthusiasm which many famous Russian equestrians and breeders have had for the type.

Arabian - CCCP AlbumAn Arabian from an album of characteristic horse breeds of the USSR, 1953. S. V. Afanas’ev, Al’bom porod loshadei SSSR (Moscow, 1953). Cup.1253.dd.28.

Among the British Library’s collections, one book in particular illustrates the aristocratic infatuation with the Arabian. Prince A. G. Shcherbatov and Count S. A. Stroganov’s Kniga ob Arabskoi Loshadi (Saint Petersburg, 1900; British Library 7293.l.33.) combines an overview of the breed with an account of the authors’ journey to what is now Syria, purchasing stallions for breeding back in the Russian Empire. It was translated into English as The Arabian Horse: A Survey, which the Library also holds (London, 1989; YK.1990.b.3731).

Book of the Arabian Horse

Above:  The lavish cover to Shcherbatov and Stroganov’s book. Below: A mare called Latifa, bought by Stroganov in Damascus in 1895.


Shcherbatov and Stroganov championed the Arabian against the English Thoroughbred, another popular breed. They considered the Thoroughbred inferior, as it had emerged during a great confusion of equine bloodlines after the English Civil War. Cromwell’s revolution had led to the destruction of stud books and heavy loss of stallions – ‘it turned out to be impossible to reconstitute the pedigrees of the surviving animals’.

By contrast, Bedouin traditions ensured no confusion of bloodlines: ‘Our belief in the pure blood of the Arabian horse stems above all from the importance which the Arabs in horse-breeding attach to blood’. The purity of the Arabian appealed to principles close to the hearts of Russia’s ruling classes, who meticulously traced their own genealogies as well as those of their animals.

Shcherbatov and Stroganov argued that the increasing encroachment of the railway and the disruption of traditional Bedouin ways of life, such as the shift in warfare to the use of rifles from the back of camels rather than lances on horseback, brought the future of this unspoiled breed into question in its native homeland.

It fell to Russia to ensure the preservation of the Arabian’s pure bloodline, for Russia alone remained true to the aristocratic conception of an ideal purity of blood within a perceived sea of international vulgarity. In its turn, they thought, only the pure-blooded Arabian could help breed horses to out-compete the constitutional monarchies and democratic republics in equestrian sports and on the battlefield.

By 1900, the Arabian had already clearly proved its worth for improving the Empire’s stock. In the late 18th century, an Arabian stallion named Smetanka had been used as the basis for one of Russia’s best known breeds – the Orlov trotter.

Orlov Trotter - CCCP Album An Orlov trotter from the album of Soviet horses.

The project to develop a Russian trotting horse had been taken up by Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky, in his retirement after an eventful military career. Orlov had been a central player during the 1762 coup which secured the throne for Catherine the Great, and was rumoured to have personally assassinated the deposed Tsar Peter III. Through his rigorous and experimental breeding programme, the Orlov trotter emerged as one of the leading horses for harness racing and other sporting disciplines of the 19th century.

Orlov PortraitAbove: A portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky from Sergy Dmitrievich Sheremetev, Alekhan (Saint Petersburg, 1898). 09603.dd.13. Below: Tolstoy based his 1886 work Kholstomer on the life of the Orlov trotter Muzhik I, born in 1805. Leo Tolstoy, Kholstomer (Moscow, 1951). YF.2011.b.1596.

Kholstomer Cover

According to the coaching expert Andreas Nemitz, wealthy Russians typically used Orlov trotters as the centre of a troika to pull their droshkys, flanked by two gallopers. Captain M. H. Haynes, a British observer of Russia’s equine culture at the end of the 19th century, wrote that Orlov trotters ‘admirably suit the requirements of fashionable Russians, who love to go as fast as their coachmen can drive them, even over the roughest cobble stone pavement, which of course does not suit the long fetlocks’.

Orlov Pair A pair of Orlov trotters in harness from Capt. M. H. Haynes, Among Horses in Russia (London, 1900). 07293.i.46.

Russia’s Arabian and Orlov trotter populations declined sharply during the 20th century, harmed by the wars and social upheavals of this time. In 1997, enthusiasts founded the International Committee for the Protection of the Orlov Trotter to secure the future of the breed.

Despite the development of more competitive breeds since its heyday, the Orlov trotter is still well loved by enthusiasts and amateurs alike. As Sherbatov and Stroganov wrote in 1900: ‘One has only to glance at the Orlov-type trotters … to recognise immediately in the proudly-arched neck, the bright, prominent eye, the thin skin, the silky mane, the high-soaring tail and the overall nobility of their bearing, the Arabian blood infused only once, more than a century ago’.

Orlov TodayAbove: An Orlov trotter, image from Wikimedia Commons. Below: 
 the Orlov trotter in action, image from Wikimedia Commons

Orlov in action

Mike Carey, Eastern European Curator.


‘A Russian History’, The Arabian Magazine 29.5.2013 [online] available at [Accessed 27.2.2018].

Vsevolod A. Nikolaev & Albert Parry, The Loves of Catherine the Great (New York, 1982). 83/10566.

Andreas Nemitz, ‘Traditions and Styles in the Way of Driving Horses Part One’, The Carriage Journal 36, 4 (Spring, 1999), 152-4. P.P.8003.qn.

‘Orlov Trotter’, International Museum of the Horse (2018) [online] available at [Accessed 27.2.2018].



13 March 2018

Konstantin Somov and Hugh Walpole in Russia

One of the curious aspects of working with the material book is the sudden confrontation of its physical properties, the weight of proofs, the storage of sheets and missing gatherings – and its combustibility.

I was reading a work by Hugh Walpole, written in Russia during the First World War. A copy of the first edition of this novel, The Dark Forest, published in 1916 is in the British Library, and contains two curious pieces of evidence: a printed dedication to Konstantin Somov, and a pencil annotation stating that almost the whole of the edition was destroyed in a fire at the printer’s warehouse.

Walpole Dark forest dedicationHugh Walpole, The Dark Forest (London, 1916) C.134.c.9. Front endpapers with a note describing the fate of the edition and a handwritten dedication by Walpole to Sir Gerald Kelly.

Fires were not, unfortunately, uncommon in the printing trade at that time and accounts abound with records of losses or inventories depleted by smoke damage. More commonly mice or cats are blamed for the loss of sheets or full gatherings. However, I had been reading about Walpole’s experiences writing a novel and attending to proofs in the conflagration of the Eastern front, so a fire in what was the safe shores of ‘home’ was all the more shocking.

Walpole was a popular, though now largely forgotten, English writer who, in the First World War, travelled to Eastern front as a volunteer for the Russian Red Cross. He stopped in Petrograd before joining his ‘Otriad’ on a tour of duty near Lviv in May 1915. He managed to get a position as a ‘sanitar’ (medical orderly) and in his memoir ‘The Crystal Box’ he vividly described the conditions in which he wrote his novel at the Galician front:

Standing beside some carts in the Galician lane, my knees trembling with terror, the wounded moving restlessly on their straw, the afternoon light like the green shadow of a dried-up conservatory, I found a pencil and, steadying my shaking body against the cart, I wrote.

After his tour ended in October 1915 Walpole returned to the UK to publish his novel, excited by what he had achieved. The Dark Forest and his second novel The Secret City: ‘capture an atmosphere that would I know escape me afterward. … they are not bad books because as records of a foreigner’s apprehension of a country at its most critical time, they are true.’ In 1916 he went back to Russia to found the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, part of a British initiative to counteract German propaganda.

Walpole’s time in Russia was formative of his literary taste. On 28 March 1915 he noted in his diary that he was with Arthur Ransome, Hamilton Fyfe, Konstantin Somov, and other Russian friends debating that ‘realism no good any more for Russia – Symbolism also dead. Alexis Tolstoi most interesting new novelist.’

Ransome Truth about Russia After Walpole left the Anglo-Russian Bureau, his friend Arthur Ransome continued to report on the situation as in this pamphlet, The Truth about Russia (London, 1918) 8286 f. 17.

Walpole’s mentor in Russia was the acclaimed painter Konstantin Somov. A former member of the ‘Pickwickians of the Neva’, the circle whose ideas were to be key in the creation of innovative magazines such as Mir Isskusstva (‘The World of Art’), and of the Ballets Russes, Walpole was a sentimentalist and his reaction to the Russian Modernists is complex: in his appreciation of plays at home or in Russia he frequently mentions the emotion of specific scenes, individual actors or joint performances. He was not ‘highbrow’ and also went with Somov to watch wrestling and barebacked riding, and his enthusiastic observations are drawn into his novel: ‘I adore a circus; and when I can find one with the right sawdust smell, the right clown, and the right enthusiasm, I am happy.’ Yet he was drawn to the idealism of the Russian Revolution.

Somov Lesebuch der Marquise
 Illustration by Somov from Frans Blei Das Lesebuch der Marquise: ein Rokokobuch (Munich, 1923) YA.1994.a.19985. Somov was working on this book when Walpole was in Russia.

Somov had not followed Diaghilev to the West, finding for the time being artistic fortune in his own country. Escorted by Somov, Walpole was thus able to socialise with leading representatives of Russia’s new culture, such as Sologub, Glazunov and Scriabin, and to see legendary stars such as Tamara Karsavina in La Fille Mal Gardée, recording that she ‘seemed inspired’. In addition to the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, Walpole set up a small office in Moscow with R.H. Bruce Lockhart which had good relations with Moscow’s cultural life. As Karsavina recalled in her memoir Theatre Street, entertainments continued, Lockhart gave banquets, wrote stories for the wide-circulation Russian trench newspapers and took propaganda films to the Russian troops. Walpole himself reported on the build-up to the October Revolution, writing the official report for the British government, and portraying it in his second novel The Secret City which won the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1919.

Karsavina Portrait

Picture by Edmund Dulac of Tamara Karsavina in the ballet Parade in 1920, reproduced in Karsavina’s memoir, Theatre Street (London, 1930) 010795.d.46. in which she records her friendship with Walpole.

The development of his taste in Russia would lead to Walpole’s re-evaluation of the role of cultural production and his desire for a ‘broadbrow’ view of the arts. He recalled his Russian experiences in the forewords to his works on Russia, recommended Lockhart’s A British Agent to the British Book Society, and wrote an introduction for an edition of Saki's Reginald and Reginald in Russia. His experiences also gave him a lifelong collecting habit; he filled his house in Cumbria with paintings, books and sculptures and later donated works to the Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Britain Walpole helped Russian friends who came over after the Revolution, seeing Somov again on his way to New York for an exhibition of Russian revolutionary art in January 1924. Somov urged Walpole to support the artists by writing magazine articles, but Walpole had moved on.

Somov was disappointed in their US reception: the American public were more interested in prerevolutionary art and icons. He moved to France he continued to paint and produce illustrations. He corresponded briefly in his later years with Walpole, offering to sell him paintings to add to his collection, something Walpole could not resist.

Daphne Somov p127
Illustration by Somov from Longus Daphnis et Chloé translated by Paul Louis Courier. Grande Collection du Trianon, No.8 (Paris, 1931) 012403.f.38.

Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon, University of Bedfordshire

This work is part of a larger project and forthcoming article ‘The origins of the ‘Broadbrow’: Hugh Walpole, Konstantin Somov and Russian modernism’ co-authored by Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon.


Hugh Walpole, ‘The Crystal Box: Fragments of Autobiography’, in The Bookman (Feb 1923) PP.6479.e.

Hugh Walpole, The Secret City: a novel in three parts. (London, 1919) NN.5340