Free your mind

Film - Philip Kerr escapes the matrix of commercial hype for a time when movies had heart

Sixty years separate the two films reviewed here - and how much has changed. In 2003, it is becoming increasingly impossible to unplug oneself from the stupefying machine that is modern cinema and to find a film that is about real life. Films today are downloaded experiences that have the look and feel of computer games.

Sitting cheek by jowl with the malodorous popcorn junkies in my local Odeon watching The Matrix Reloaded, it was hard not to feel like one of the floating human vegetables that fed the machine in the first Matrix movie. And as I sat there, I found myself wanting to walk to the front of the cinema and yell some common sense at the audience, like Howard Beale in Network: "None of this is real! You're just pods on seats, enslaved by a digital tyranny that wants you in thrall to a new kind of cinema. This film you're here to see talks about free will and choice, but that's just bullshit. Hollywood doesn't want you to have any choice, any more than it wants you to think for yourself. None of you is free! You're just part of the franchise. So I want you to get up, walk out of this theatre, go to the box office window and shout: 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this crap anymore!'"

It wasn't always like this. Films used to mean something. Let me take you back 30 years to Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie (1962). Nana, a prostitute played by Anna Karina, goes to a cinema and is moved to tears as she watches La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1932). This was not a case of a tart with a heart so much as Godard paying homage to one of the century's great film-makers, Carl Dreyer. Karina, real name Hanne Karin Bayer, was married to Godard and, like Dreyer, she was a Dane. Indeed, her mother worked as a costume designer for Dreyer, a director Godard much admired. In Le Petit Soldat (1960), Godard gives Karina's character the name Veronica Dreyer.

One of Dreyer's best films, Day of Wrath (1943), opens on 2 June at the NFT; but it is also available from the British Film Institute's video library, which you can buy from Amazon. Set in 17th-century Denmark, the film is a powerful tale of love and betrayal and of a community obsessed by the fear of witchcraft. A priest tortures a confession out of an old woman accused of witchcraft; meanwhile, his young wife Anna, played by Lisbeth Movin, is having an affair with the priest's son by a former marriage. The film, shot in black and white, looks like a painting by Rembrandt and seems such an implicit critique of the Nazi persecution of the Jews that it's hard to understand why the Nazis allowed the film to be made. At the time, Hitler was threatening the deportation of Denmark's Jews. It might seem romantic, but it is hard not to imagine that Dreyer's film played some part in galvanising Danish popular opinion against the Jewish persecution; either way, the Danes stood up to the SS and hid more than 7,000 Jews before they sailed to safety in Sweden. As a result, 95 per cent of Denmark's Jews survived and returned to find their homes and belongings untouched.

Day of Wrath also contains some striking parallels with Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), which is a polite way of saying it is hard to imagine that Miller never saw Dreyer's movie.

Day of Wrath is highly recommended, although it's not Dreyer's best film. That remains the hugely influential Gertrud (1964), about which Dreyer said: "What I seek in my films, what I want to obtain is a penetration of my actor's profound thoughts by means of their most subtle expressions. For these are the expressions that lie in the depths of his soul. This is what interests me above all, not the technique of cinema. Gertrud is a film that I made with my heart."

That's the way films used to be made. With the heart. Fast forward to the present day and The Matrix Reloaded, a very boring film that was made by computers. Dozens of them. Even the actors, drained of all emotion, look as if they were generated by a machine. There is less chance of finding a subtle expression on the faces of any of these automatons than there is of Kim Howells saying something intelligent about film. On the rare occasions Keanu Reeves took off his sunglasses, I looked through the windows into the depths of his soul and saw . . . nothing.

"Free Your Mind", runs the poster tagline for this Wizard of Oz of a movie. Well, what else do we call something when it doesn't have the brain, the heart or the courage to be anything but the very matrix of slick commercial tyranny?

The Matrix Reloaded (15) is on general release

Day of Wrath is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) until 20 June