Watching Carl Dreyer’s first feature, 1919’s “The President” is like observing humanity through a pinhole. The sets are so claustrophobic that the characters appear to be living inside a box. The color dyes, which are based on Dreyer’s notations but have not been applied until this restoration, seem to drain color rather than add it. Amber, indigo, and crimson take their turns against backgrounds so dark that life becomes a colored silhouette.
Dreyer relates his genetically related episodes through flashbacks that are still as revolutionary today as Godard’s jump cuts were in 1959. For the three generations of men who pass through their genes the mistake of marrying beneath their station, life is a trap from which there is scant chance of redemption. Warnings are passed from father to son to grandson, but fate will suffer no tampering. Like Poe’s unlucky inheritors of the Usher curse, each man was doomed even before his birth.
While Dreyer’s later masterpieces are known for the slow deliberation of their theatricality, “The President” is pure cinematic invention, its 75 minutes moving like a jackhammer to the soul,holding us in the grip of hope and bad expectation until the collision of tragedy and happy endings that resolves the curse without letting its victims off the moral hook.