“A man’s work and the love of a woman are mortal enemies.” That is the thesis of the 1964 Danish film Gertrud.
The film is composed of long shots, wide angles, and feels like it is taking place on a stage, much like a play. The actors are all delivering their monologues while staring distantly at who-knows-what off screen. They rarely look at one another when they are speaking. And this is a film with little action and a lot of conversation, or at least at lot of characters talking.
What are they talking about? The nature of love mostly. It is interesting to watch characters wax poetically about what they think love is when it is at once so clear that none of them really know at all. They are not actually in love, and they also seem incapable of looking past their own pride into what true love really is.
The biggest offender is the title character Gertrud, played by Nina Pens Rode. The film is truly her story, and man is there a lot of ground to cover. She is trapped in a loveless marriage to a politician, has been stepping out with young up-and-coming pianist, with whom she thinks she is in love, and also has a past lover in town whom she is forced by social circumstances to see again. Whew. Talk about a full dance card and a lot of awkward conversations with multiple lovers in the room.
For Gertrud, the love she seeks is total worship of her by her lover. She wants to possess the man fully, his full attention and devotion above all things. And the men she is driven to love are all talented in their career fields, with ambition and a desire to work hard. Her first love is a poet. Her husband a politician on the rise. Her new lover aspiring to fame, fortune and fun. She can’t stand for a man to choose, or seem to choose, his ambition over her. But her lovers don’t see it that way. They are willing to grow and compromise, but they don’t see a conflict between their love for her and their desire for success.
Is she being unreasonable? I would say yes, but I’m not sure the film agrees with me. Where I think all the characters get love wrong is that in all their eyes, love is about fulfillment and happiness for them. They don’t seem to really care much for the person they are supposed to be loving. They love the way that person makes them feel. When they don’t feel that anymore, well, then their love must be dead.
Gertrud, in particular, seems able to just close herself off to others when she has surmised that love is dead. Looking through her history and hearing her reasoning, she comes to that conclusion often. This is because she demands perfect worship from her lovers, and this is something no man, no matter how honorable or noble, can provide any woman. Her desire to be loved is good, but her inability to show grace and love to those who are trying to love her seems unfair. When they fail her, she is ready to throw in the towel.
The film goes on and on as these characters debate what love is, how one is to be loved, etc. But it never arrives at the conclusion that perhaps their understanding of love is limited. This is my big beef with most films focused on the topic. Love is most always presented as a feeling or experience that is transient, fleeting, or at least able to subside like the tide. That is a low view of love. Love is a choice, a commitment, a binding thing. If love is true, it can’t subside. Love is unstoppable, immovable, unfailing. These characters are debating the merits of lust and desire and how they are not great foundations for a long-term relationship, and using the term love in their stead.
Perhaps the “modernity” with which the character approach their sexuality and their love life is why this is such a groundbreaking film. To me it’s a step backward in understanding the topic it tackles. It was worth watching, if only for the ways it assured me of a greater love than what we can imagine as mere humans.