Carl Th. Dreyer and Thorvaldsen

To the dramatic music of Svend Erik Tarp, played by the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra, the camera first pans over Thorvaldsens Museum then zooms in on Thorvaldsen’s self-portrait statue. The scene is set in Carl Th. Dreyer’s film about Thorvaldsen, which was shot in Thorvaldsens Museum in 1948 in preparation for the centenary of the opening of the museum.
See the film in the museum or here.

Thorvaldsen, (Carl Th. Dreyer, DK, 1949). Preben Frank Film og Dansk Film Co. for Dansk Kulturfilm. Foto venligst udlånt af: DFI/Billed- & Plakatarkivet.
Dreyer shooting the film on Thorvaldsen (Carl Th. Dreyer, Denmark, 1949). Preben Frank Film and Dansk Film Co. for Dansk Kulturfilm. Photo kindly lent by DFI/Picture & Poster Archives.

Carl Th. Dreyer (1889-1968) was one of the most important of Danish film directors ever, and with films such as The Day of Wrath and The Word, he is even remembered as one of the most important film artists in the history of international film. In 1947, Dansk Kulturfilm gave him the task of creating a film devoted to Thorvaldsen.

A challenging collaboration

The then director of Thorvaldsens Museum, Sigurd Schultz, was contacted with a view to providing Dreyer with help and support during the filming. Dreyer wanted both to move some of Thorvaldsen’s sculptures from their original plinths and to put them on turntables so they could be illuminated from all angles.

After some consideration, the museum agreed to move the sculptures. They had not been moved by as much as a millimetre since the opening of the museum, and in addition Dreyer’s wish to view Thorvaldsen’s works as sculptures in the round represented a breach with the norm hitherto, which was that the sculptures were best seen when viewed from the front. It was in this way that the majority of Thorvaldsen’s sculptures had always been presented in the museum galleries, and so it remains.

So Dreyer’s wish meant that the museum also had to embark on a good deal of mental reorganisation before agreeing to shift the sculptures around in a purely physical sense. In addition, moving the sculptures was bound up with certain risks. Eventually, however, the museum went with the idea.

The shooting of the film

A large grey curtain was set up as a back cloth in the museum’s entrance hall, and the works of art were then placed on a specially designed revolving plinth and illuminated with a spotlight so that they could be filmed from all angles in accordance with Dreyer’s wishes. Shooting took place between 22 August and 20 September 1948 in Thorvaldsens Museum and in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, where Thorvaldsen’s sculptures of Christ and the Apostles stand.

That participating in the film project was a major undertaking for the museum is indicated by a letter from the museum’s director, Sigurd Schultz, to Ib Kock-Olsen, the director of Dansk Kulturfilm, in which he says:

“In view of the risks entailed, the demands made on us by the two gentlemen [Dreyer and co-director Preben Frank] with a view to moving the marble were very harsh indeed, and it was a difficult process for us to get through at what was not exactly a convenient moment. We are relieved that there has been a happy outcome without mishap, but they were not far from putting our security officer out. He was obviously overworked when at the last moment he was faced with carrying out the arrangements for the hundredth anniversary celebrations. However, we also managed this without mishap. And so now everything is fine.” (Dated 24.9.1948)

Millions of television viewers

Dreyer’s Thorvaldsen film was seen by over 9 million people. It was shown no fewer than 429 times by associations, schools etc., encompassing an audience of altogether 52,338 people. In addition, the film was shown ten times on television with the number of viewers estimated at 9,050,000. 105 copies of the film were sold in the USA.


For further information you are referred to the article The Artits’s Touch: Dreyer, Thorvaldsen, Venus, by Claire Thomson.

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