Of all the films I have watched so far from the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Gertrud is probably the most likely to make regular folks sprint in the other direction. Here are some reasons: it's in a foreign language, features only people talking, utilizes long takes, is set primarily in drawing rooms, features stagey blocking, and contains mostly deadpan, reined-in performances. It was the last film by Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer, at which point it seems that he decided to throw out all the rules. The movie feels like it may have been made in the early twentieth century instead of 1964. You know what else came out in 1964? Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Goldfinger, Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day's Night.
And yet, Gertrud exudes an almost hypnotic kind of power. Like many of Dreyer's films, there is a sense of cinematic purity to them, a refusal to include the trappings and embellishments that a lesser and less-restrained film-maker might include. When all you have to look at are the faces and limited movements of two or even just one person at a time, each tiny change in the frame takes on larger meaning. It is easy to interpret the staid and still performances by Nina Pens Rode and Bendt Rothe as evidence of poor acting ability, but then you realize how hemmed-in and repressed these people are. You just have to trust that Dreyer has a point, and that you'll be able to intuit what that point is.
Gertrud requires one's attention while watching it. Not because it has a particularly complicated plot - an upper-middle class seeks unconditional love outside of her marriage, but can't find it - but because there is so little visual noise to distract you. The characters have conversations with one another about their inner-most desires and feelings, while externally they could be accused of imitating statues. This is a society that rejects any concept of deep feeling, and refuses women the emotional space to desire anything more than the most cursory affection from their husbands. In a sense, the film is a continuation of the feminist struggle of Dreyer's much earlier silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which formally has little in common with his final film.
The actors possess a dry exterior, but through subtle clues you can perceive a depth and strength of feeling that simmers just below the surface. Rode's performance is the exact opposite of the tear-streaked, ecstatic emoting of Renee Maria Falconetti's Joan of Arc: even when Rode is berating her husband for failing to pay sufficient attention to her, her face is impassive and her expression blank. She reminds me of the unjustly maligned work of Kim Novak in Vertigo, who has become paralyzed by the position into which she has been put by the men around her, something that Roger Ebert identifies in his Great Movies review of the film. Her nigh-immobile exterior belies a world of pain, just like Rode's Gertrud.