Varar Engang, Der/Once upon a Time (1922)


Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Sophus Madsen Film.


Producer: Sophus Madsen. Writer: Palle Rosenkrant, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Camera: George Schneevoigt. Sets: Jens G. Lind.

Clara Wieth, Svend Methling, Peter Jerndorff, Hakon Ahnfeldt-Ronne, Torben Meyer, Mohamed Archer, Henry Larsen, Lars Madsen.


A spoilt Princess (Wieth) turns down all manner of suitors with a haughty impartiality that increasingly vexes her father the King (Jerndorff). When she turns away the Prince of Denmark (Methling), the Prince decides to trick her into falling in love with him by disguising himself as a poor but romantic farmer. Through accident and circumstance, they are thrown together, but not before he teaches her a lesson in respect.


Thought lost for many years, this early, light comedy from Dreyer (later the master of deep, moody and contemplative family drama) reveals to an audience why it chose to hide itself for so long, rather than giving us any insights as to the development of its director.

The full version of the film is now well beyond our reach, now it is merely a patchwork effort cobbled together from fragmented stills, publicity shots, title cards and the remnants of the old film stock. Dreyer was reportedly unhappy with the finished product all his life, lamenting that this was an experiment in focusing on atmosphere above character that showed him never to try it again. These are feelings this reviewer shares, for the whole is indeed disappointing, uneven and hamfisted.

Story wise, we are dealing with a fairytale that quickly takes a turn around a dark corner. It is similar in some respects to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and with all of the duplicitous dressing up, just as aggravating. Dreyer throws in a lot to what is essentially quite simple fare; it doesn’t help us in the modern age that segments are missing and the film’s various loose ends soon knot the film into an incoherent mess that sucks the life out of your attention span.

There are some tasty matters. The Princess’ capriciousness is deadly – faced with pearls or poetry from the dashing gallants in want of her hand, she condemns them all to death. Later on, after she herself is expelled from the castle to scratch out a life in a hovel, she sees a real man hanging from a tree. The Prince, whilst in self-imposed exile in the forest licking his wounds, is visited by a mystical peddler who offers him a magic kettle with which he can see his future wife. No crystal balls in this fairytale kingdom – functionality and clairvoyance are conveniently intertwined. The performances are amusing; Wieth and Jerndorff in particular have huge fun.

One thing that is readily apparent – big kroner was lavished on the sets and beautiful costumes (even if, on closer inspection, they are contrived from a few different periods).


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