It’s a macabre little story about a young couple on a motorcycle frantically racing across the countryside from one ferryboat to another. (When they stop at a rural gas station, fans of Scandinavian cinema might expect to see Max von Sydow manning the pump – as he does in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.) The couple encounter various obstacles along their way, including a railroad crossing, and a road hog whose face – as we see when the couple maneuvers around him – is the face of Death. The only ferry they end up catching is the mythical rowboat that carries souls to the Underworld. Hence, the irony of the film’s title.
You might be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (especially the great “Breakdown” episode directed by Hitch himself) or certain episodes of The Twilight Zone. I also thought of “The Monkey’s Paw” episode from the Freddie Francis-directed feature version of Tales From the Crypt, in the course of which a driver takes a look in his rear-view mirror and sees this.
They Caught the Ferry is an exercise in pure visual storytelling. Those who associate Dreyer with the slow-moving cameras of Day of Wrath and Ordet, or the near-stasis of Gertrud, might be surprised by the style of this little film (made between Day of Wrath and Ordet) which is all about speed, and uses every trick in the filmmakers’ book – fast cutting, dutch-angled POV shots of the countryside, inserts of the speedometer, and shots of the wind blowing through the couple’s hair – to convey the impression of steadily accelerating motion.
All of this was reflective of Dreyer’s personal and deeply held spiritual beliefs. For him, stasis equaled eternity. Speed killed.