There is scarcely very little information about Dreyer's childhood and adolescence. When he became an adult person, Dreyer started his professional activities working as a journalist. After opportunities appeared in the film industry, he accepted a position as a writer of title cards, and soon he begun working as a scriptwriter. When his energetic passion for movie making became uncontrollable, he decided to write his own screenplays, and began to look for someone who would finance his projects.
Since it was difficult to find financial support in his own home country, Dreyer frequently had to go to other European nations. In France, he became acquainted with famous directors, like Jean Cocteau, and established artistic connections who would somehow facilitate his journey as a filmmaker. In 1919, he directed his first movie, Præsidenten.
Highly influenced by the expressionism of the twenties, Dreyer managed to work on this period in a succession of movies that were, more or less, well received. Despite some difficulties, the twenties were his most prolific decade. He made eight movies — almost one per year — of which La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, made in France, proved to be the most successful.
His next movie, Vampyr, was released in 1932. This movie — a loose adaptation of literary works by famous nineteenth century Irish gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu — was partly financed by the dilettante actor Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, that starred in the film as the main character, Allan Gray, though he was listed in the credits as Julian West. The screenplay was written by Dreyer and Christen Jul.
With an intriguing premise, a somber, but incisive storyline and a very lugubrious stylistic sensibility, Vampyr certainly was one the best movies directed by Dreyer, and certainly was a landmark of European cinema at the time. Despite its conciseness — the movie is only seventy-three minutes long — its lucid, but dark tonalities, as well as its pungent quality, gave the film a realistic and sober tenacity, that becomes insidious as the story reaches a climax. The movie proved to be technically difficult to make, though. Since it was Dreyer's first sound film, he had to shoot in three different languages. To surpass this difficulty, the director used little dialogue, and basically kept the silent movie method of title cards to communicate to audiences the narrative, as the plot unfolds.
Gunzburg was not a professional actor, and Vampyr was the only movie in which he worked in his life. It is speculated that Dreyer accepted him for the role mainly because he was financing the film, though most of the cast was also made of amateur actors. Later, Gunzburg emigrated to the United States, and found fame as editor of several prominent magazines.
Vampyr was Dreyer's only movie made in the thirties. In the forties, he experimented for the first time with short films, eventually becoming fond of the format, and directing six of them. He also directed two features, 1943 Vredens Dag, and 1945 Två människor. Vredens Dag was a sixteenth century period drama, that became a very celebrated movie in some countries, after it was released. With a script written by Dreyer, Mogens Skot-Hansen and Poul Knudsen, the movie was based on a play called Anne Pedersdotter — authored by Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen —, which, by its turn, was based on a real life event, about an eponymous woman that was burned at the stake in 1590, in Bergen, because she was accused of witchcraft. After the movie was made, Dreyer left Denmark, and went to Sweden, as his country was being occupied by the nazis.
His next movie, Gertrud — which would be his last — was the only one he made in the sixties. Released in 1964, this drama, based on an eponymous play authored by Swedish writer Hjalmar Fredrik Söderberg, is about an unhappy opera star, the titular character, played by Nina Pens Rode, who discovers love in a complicated and unusual moment of her life. A movie that met with some controversy upon its release, eventually Gertrud was lauded as a precious and refined cinematic work, and today is considered a fundamental part of the director's artistic legacy.
After Gertrud, Dreyer stopped directing and retired. In a forty-five years career, having directed twenty-two movies — fourteen feature films, and eight short movies —, with at least five of them being considered masterpieces, Carl Theodor Dreyer has certainly left his mark in twentieth century cinema, having contributed to develop a singular, profound, polyvalent and expressively sensible form of art, that undoubtedly would not have been conceived in the same way, without his technique and gloriously audacious virtues. Disseminating the enormously rich, dense, majestic and diversified Scandinavian culture by reevaluating its proverbial literary traditions, and adapting some of its most controversial and relevant works to the screen, Carl Dreyer managed to create amazingly beautiful and consistent masterpieces, that somehow discreetly revolved around his poignantly personal and extraordinary perspective on life.
Dreyer died in Copenhagen, in March, 1968, at seventy-nine years old. He was survived by his wife, Ebba Larsen, who died nine years later, in 1977.