Though not a prolific director, or one whose films were consistently popular with critics nor the public, Carl Theodor Dreyer is considered one of the greatest directors in Danish cinema. His use of compact, almost Spartan storylines combined with austere visuals and quick, close-focus cinematography has had a substantial influence on such later directors as Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. Orphaned early on, Dreyer's adoptive parents were financially struggling blue-collar, deeply religious Danes. Though they met his basic physical needs, the strict Lutheran concepts with which they raised him would later figure prominently in his work, which was frequently centered upon provocative explorations of psychological guilt and metaphysics. Dreyer became a journalist in 1910 after failing to make it as a cafe pianist or a corporate bookkeeper. With his tabloid, he wrote celebrity profiles; this helped him connect with the entertainment industry. Two years later Dreyer was writing titles for films from the Nordisk company, which lead him to screenwriting and infrequent jobs editing films. He wrote 23 screenplays before directing his first film, The President (1918), a pretentious but ultimately routine melodrama that was neither a critical nor a box-office success. Dreyer attempted to mimic the episodic structure of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in his second feature, Leaves from Satan's Book (1919). Like his first film, this one was considered pretentious, but despite the film's flaws, it did contain fleeting glimpses of his future greatness.
Following Satan's Book, Dreyer sought to escape the financial instability of the Danish film industry and ended up making films in Norway, Sweden, France, and Germany, but try as he might, he was never able to escape battles with his producers and backers many who were said to have considered Dreyer an extravagant, extremely stubborn artist. The reputation was justified as the director considered his films works of art and doggedly refused to cut corners. Dreyer made his first great film, The Parson's Widow (1920) in Norway with funds from the Swedish company, Svensk Filmindustri. The story is rife with a psychological richness not often found in melodramas. His next film, Mikael, a study of a tormented artist trying to cope with his homosexual desires, was made in Germany. This film too demonstrated Dreyer's ability to evoke realistic, highly concentrated emotional responses from his actors.