Born as the illegitimate child of a Swedish farmer and his housekeeper, Carl Theodor Dreyer spent the first months of his life in Danish orphanages. After the death of his mother, he was adopted by a typographer and his wife and grew up in a strictly Protestant family.
After unsuccessful attempts to earn his living as a café-musician and an accountant, Dreyer started to work as a sports journalist for the newspapers Berlingske Tidende und Extrabladet in 1910. In 1912, he joined Nordisk Film as a freelancer.
After having worked as a cutter and a scriptwriter, he made his debut as a director with the rather conventional melodrama "Præsidenten" ("The President", 1918/1919). In the same year, he directed "Blade af Satans Bog" ("Leaves Out of the Book of Satan"), another Nordisk Film production. The episode film already featured signs of the detailed pictorial composition that was to characterize Dreyer’s later works. The Danish film industry’s economic downfall forced him to realize further projects abroad. In addition to dealing with Christian motives, the relation between the conscious and the unconscious became the central issue of his movies.
In "Michael" ("Chained", 1923/24), Dreyer portrayed an artist tormented by his homosexual leanings. "La passion de Jeanne d"Arc" ("The Passion of Joan of Arc", 1928) marked a highlight in Dreyer’s film career. Starring Renée Falconetti in her only movie role, the elaborately staged drama about the last day in the life of Joan of Arc was hailed by critics as a visionary piece of art. For the producers, however, it turned out to be a financial disaster.
Among members of the European film industry, Dreyer was known as a difficult and unprofitable director. When his first sound film "Vampyr" (1931/32) failed to stir any interest among the audience or the critics, Dreyer withdrew from the movie business for ten years. His comeback as a director came with "Mødrehjælpen" (1942), a documentary for the Danish government in which he explored the situation of mothers
When he shot "Vredens Dag" ("Day of Wrath") in 1943, Denmark was under German occupation. Although set against the background of 16th century witch hunts, Dreyer’s movie about faith and tolerance very clearly pointed to the current situation. For fear of getting arrested, the director immigrated to Sweden where he shot "Två människor" (“Two People”, 1945).
After the war, Dreyer continued to direct documentaries for the Danish government. In recognition of his merits, he was appointed director of Copenhagen’s famous Dagmar cinema in 1952. Dreyer returned to making feature films with "Ordet" (1955). His last movie, "Gertrud" (1964), combined the main motives of his oeuvre: The film tells the story of a scared woman who eventually escapes from her isolation. As far as the uncompromising reduction of cinematic means in favour of a transcendent film narrative is concerned, "Gertrud" must be considered Dreyer’s most impressive work.
The film director died in 1968 before he was able to finish his greatest project - a film about the life of Jesus that he had planned for years.