"There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.
Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle. The nonnarrative specter that haunts the narrative of GERTRUD (1964), contained in the figure of Gertrud herself, is threatened at every turn by dogs snapping at her heels — a narrative world of men with pasts and futures who stake a claim on her. But Gertrud, who lives only in a continuous present, persistent and changeless, eludes them all. And if she eludes us as well, this may be because our narrative equipment can read her only as a monotone — an arrested moment (as in painting) or a suspended moment (as in music) that can lead to no higher logic. Yet from the vantage point of her refusal to inquire, she has a lot to say to the men.
To arrive at the nonnarrative side of GERTRUD — the static essentials that no amount of narrative fide can wash away — it is useful to consider the life and art of Dreyer as well We can begin, in fact, with the stories of two men and four women — Dreyer, Hjalmar Söderberg, Josephine Nilsson, Marie Dreyer, Maria von Platen, and Gertrud — only one of whom is fictional. Starting with these family plots, we can, I hope, reach those aspects of the film which eschew plot altogether."