One of the most uncompromising and remarkable films ever to have been made during the silent era, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s“The Passion of Joan of Arc” remains an acutely alien but utterly compelling experience for any unsuspecting first time viewer of Dreyer's cinema: with its relentlessly austere pursuit of what seems to be such a totally unfamiliar, formalist method of shot construction, the film abandons pretty much all the established rules which have since come to underpin conventional film grammar. Today, we take such a grammar so much for granted in our reading of the language of film, that we don’t even notice its existence; not until someone decides, as Dreyer does here, to ignore the entire system completely … then all hell seems to be let loose, and it becomes very difficult to acclimatise oneself to the disorientating jigsaw of mismatched eye-lines and jagged editing patterns which then become enfranchised, let alone deal with the fact that at least eighty per cent of the film appears to consist entirely of close-ups of the cast’s faces -- without any of the establishing shots or contextualising editing schema one would normally expect to find accompanying such images, if only for simple lucidity’s sake.
And yet, this is a film that was also undeniably very much ahead of its time in terms of it being at the apex of the establishment of a new kind of naturalism for big screen acting. We see with this film the emergence of the sort of acting style that we’re now all completely familiar and comfortable with; a kind which sets aside the larger-than-life theatricality and the heavy stage makeup that dominated silent films at the time, and aims for raw emotional truthfulness instead. In this respect, the film feels completely modern from a 21stcentury point of view, but this is precisely the aspect of it that would have seemed very radical to a 1920s cinema-going audience … perhaps even shockingly so, reared as it was on the theatrically demonstrative acting style of early cinema, which had developed as an extension of the craft of theatre performance.
Despite this, there’s something else about the shadow play of natural emotions that flit across the sometimes rueful, often pious, frequently frightened and oddly boyish face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti during the course of the ninety three minutes that constitute her legendary portrayal of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc, and which follow the guileless‘Maid of Orléans’ on her journey from the 15th century ecclesiastical courtrooms of Castle Rouen to the stake, that reminds us this is a performance quite unlike anything else attempted for the screen before it, or perhaps even since. Every aspect of Dreyer’s unconventional shooting and editing regime was entirely aimed at eventually inducing a feeling in the viewer for Jeanne’s essential humanity: the core part of the real person that’s left over after all her historical and political meanings and associations have been stripped away. The ‘saintliness’of Jeanne becomes an humanist appeal to the viewer to understand her as an experiencing, thinking, feeling human being, raised above the clutter of sentiment surrounding the legends of her heavenly visions, or the political manoeuvring involved between the Burgundians and the English in bringing her to trial in the first place … removing her even from her modern status as an icon of French patriotism.
Dreyer threw out the original shooting script and adhered to a condensed version of the trial transcripts kept in the library of the Chamber of Deputies instead. Although the hearings that sent Jeanne to the stake were spread out over five months, the film focuses only on condensing the key moments of the trial into a harrowing ninety minutes that play as though the events all occur over the course of just one day. All the actors can be seen enouncing the original words once spoken by their real-life counterparts and which were recorded in the trial transcripts, but there are hardly any inter-titles to tell you exactly what they’re saying (a device that has often led many to speculate that Dreyer once intended the movie to be a sound film, although this is unlikely): the director is all the time concerned only with creating the illusion that we are right there, in that 15thcentury castle courtroom – experiencing what a beleaguered, fragile nineteen-year-old must have been experiencing as she faced down skilled theological rhetoricians and the judges who are as equally convinced of their own rectitude as Jeanne is that God had sent her on a divine mission to save France from the English.
Since the close-up was set to play such an integral part in Dreyer’s scheme of things, the faces of his cast became an all important tool for conveying the phenomenological nuance of each character’s personal experience. With that aim in mind, every actor chosen for each part had to be able to impress upon the viewer a panopoly of attitudes and feelings as the camera, for instance, tracks across the countenances of rows of tonsured monks, idly picking wax from their ears as Jeanne is sworn in; or the dismissive, self-satisfied clerics who smile knowingly to themselves when she is unable to estimate her age without first counting on her fingers. Dreyer’s unique editing feels odd and disjointed at first … the angles appear not to match up, images swarm across the screen, apparently in a haphazard muddle; but one quickly comes to realise that we are in fact being invited to view each participant in the proceedings from a variety of competing perspectives, reflecting the conscious experience and unique particularities that constitute the psychological character of each of the various individuals in the drama, but all of them ultimately focused on the face of the one person who’s presence is the motivating factor in the terrible events that must unfold, and who’s emotional journey towards the moment she eventually finds the courage to accept her own imminent extinction for a cause greater than herself is captured with a purity of expression unsullied by actorly artifice or theatrical cant, in what critic Pauline Kael once speculated ‘may be the finest performance ever recorded on film’.
The thirty-four year old stage actress whose only performance on film this turned out to be is credited simply as Falconetti. She was discovered performing in a light comedy on the stage of a tiny Parisian theatre, and Dreyer screen tested her without makeup, concluding that her unusual but soulful features best captured the qualities of‘simplicity, character and suffering’ he was looking for in his lead actress. In fact, few other female performers were willing to abandon all the saving graces of screen makeup or to allow themselves to be filmed in extreme close-up in such an unadorned state for such long periods of time; and even fewer would agree to have their heads completely shaved on screen as a prelude to the climactic and gruelling burning at the stake which takes place at the end of the film in a reconstruction of the medieval town square at Rouen, which Dreyer had built in its entirety to better enable the cast to ‘inhabit’ completely their roles. Falconetti’s willingness to endure these indignities was only the start of her ordeal: stories of how she was required to kneel for long periods of time in discomfort on hard stone floors, or how shots were endlessly repeated over and over then studied in-depth by Dreyer and the actress (who was expected to stay behind to view and re-view the rushes with the director after everyone else had left the studio) so that together the two might glean from the merest trace of a facial expression captured during Falconetti’s performance that day, precisely the right nuance of emotion Dreyer wished to evoke – fear, joy, doubt, hopelessness – with the intent that it should be recreated in the next day’s work … these stories have become legendary and feed into Carl Dreyer’s reputation as an unforgiving taskmaster who ‘tortured’ his actors physically and mentally in order to get the results he wanted.
Falconetti’s scenes were apparently shot in hushed silence, often screened-off from the rest of the crew-- an entirely atypical way of shooting back in the days of silent cinema when all sorts of commotion might be tolerated to go on within earshot, so long as it was beyond the frame of the camera! In this instance, the relentless, close-up gaze of the camera lens on the expressive faces of all of the players, combined with the uninhibited willingness of Falconetti to lay herself emotionally bare without vanity or pretention, lies at the core of the film’s artistic triumph. But the intensity of the effect is heightened by the stark backlighting of cameraman Rudolf Maté (who also worked on Dreyer’s next film, the delirious “Vampyr: the Strange Adventure of Allan Gray”): his close-up work taking place against bold but empty chalk-white backdrops that focus our attention on the play of expression across the features of the performers placed in front of them, leaving the intimation of their existing almost as a living portraiture. Those ‘white’ sets, constructed as realistic interconnected sets of rooms instead of the usual series of open-walled stages (again, to encourage a felt sense of realism with the hope of enhancing the actors’ performances) were actually painted pink to reduce the glare. Set designers Jean Hugo (grandson of the novelist Victor Hugo) and Hermann Warm were responsible for the striking interiors of Castle Rouen – including its appallingly clinical-looking torture chamber, Joan’s grim, featureless prison cell and the imposing yet slightly skewed grandeur of the castle’s courtrooms. The fact that Warm also worked on “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” comes as no surprise, for an expressionistic bent can clearly be discerned in the set design’s array of odd mismatched doorways and slanted windows, which create a visually disorientating equivalent to the emotional tumult welling up in the faces that are cast up on the screen.
There is no doubt about the fact that “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is an extremely intense viewing experience. The opening act is hard enough to endure as we witness a defenceless, guileless innocent caught up in the dishonest manipulations of an ecclesiastical court that is attempting to employ the finest minds at its disposal to think up every trick in the book in a plot to force Jeanne into a confession (and thus, from their perspective, save her soul … for they're actually trying to help her!). But the sequence in which she is threatened with the devices of the torture chamber conjures not the actual nastiness of the acts themselves but the raw terror of what it must be like to be faced with the prospect of such an unendurable experience, as the camera alternates between Falconetti’s trembling features and the relentless turning of a giant spiked wheel. A later blood-letting scene, after Jeanne faints in horror in contemplation of the potential fate awaiting her in that room, is one of the most gruesome (and realistic – I’ve no idea how they managed to achieve this effect!) ever put on screen … it’s as though we’re suddenly in the realm of modern torture porn, but the intense concentration on the lived experience of the person who is being made to endure this suffering makes it, if anything, more disturbing.
A sequence in which a broken, scared and cowering Jeanne is mocked, tormented, abused and laughed at by a trio of smirking troll-like jailers easily equals the horror of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò” for its depiction of the state of sheer, abject, pitiable emotional squalor that human beings are capable of perpetrating on each other. The final act of the film tracks Jeanne’s wavering in the face of the terrible death sentence she faces and her final resolve when, shorn of her hair and forced to abandon her boyish clothes for the sack-like dress she is to die in, to face up to her demise without betraying her beliefs while the dreadful carnival atmosphere that surrounds her gruesome rendezvous with the stake (in which contortionists and acrobats entertain the jostling crowds before the main event, while in the far distance a hanged man swings on a noose!) contrasts with her simple, undisguised fear of what awaits her. Dreyer doesn’t waver in these final scenes: he sets out to create nothing less than a person’s final agonising moments on this Earth as experienced from inside their own head and with their own eyes, in a harrowing sequence foreshadowed by Jeanne being forced to watch her own grave being dug in front of her. A broken skull, tossed upon the displaced mound of earth in front of her pyre, emphasises the perishability of the body … a tangle of writhing worms, seconded in one of its empty eye sockets, does so with all the blunt directness one usually expects of a 1980s Lucio Fulci flick; just as the doves which take flight from one of the city towers as the smoke ascends from Jeanne’s lifeless ashen remains symbolise a purity and humanity that once was -- and which is still remembered today.
The Masters of Cinema series presents this all-time classic, now considered by many critics to be one of the top 10 best films ever made, in a glorious new high-definition Blu-ray edition for the UK. A DVD edition and a Limited SteelBook dual-format version (including Blu-ray & DVD) are also available. The fact that we’re now getting to see this high definition transfer, created from Dreyer’s original negative, in such near perfect condition is itself a minor miracle for a film that was once considered almost certainly lost forever, except in a highly bastardized form that the director himself considered an anathema. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” has one of the most chequered histories in the annals of film preservation: Dreyer’s original cut first opened in Copenhagen (to lukewarm reviews) but by the time it appeared in Paris cinemas it had been subjected to eight minutes of cuts against a backdrop of French nationalist distrust and Catholic disapproval of this foreign protestant filmmaker who was daring to tamper with perceptions of a major symbol of French national pride and sainthood. Worse was to come though when a fire at Germany’s Ufa studios destroyed the negative. Because Dreyer had shot each scene several times, the film was able to be painstakingly reconstructed by its original editor, Marguerite Beaugé, out of a collection of alternative takes … but then this negative was also destroyed in another fire at a French processing laboratory. As the existing copies of the film began to wear out it was believed that “The Passion of Joan of Arc" was destined to become one of those silent classics that eventually disappear into the ether forever.
In 1951, the editor in chief of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, found a negative of the second version in a Gaumont Studios warehouse. Dreyer, by this time, no longer owned the rights to his own film, so could do little to stop Lo Duca re-editing the material and adding a patriotic voice-over along with lots of anachronistic classical music pieces by the likes of Bach and Vivaldi. For many years it seemed like this version and a later attempt by the Danish Film Institute to create something at least approximating Dreyer’s original intentions from several different existent prints, were the only means of seeing the film in any form. Then, in 1981, the original negative – the same one shown at the premier in Copenhagen, which was later believed lost in the Ufa fire in Germany – turned up in a closet in a mental hospital in Oslo. It was in perfect condition, the canister still bearing the die-stamp of the Danish Film censorship office.
So it turns out that we in 2012 are now blessed with a high definition transfer, struck from the negative of the version which originally premiered in Oslo in April 1928 and which is known as the ‘A’ negative because it is believed to contain Dreyer’s own preferred shots. For the sake of comparison, the Lo Duca 16 mm version, which utilised the ‘B’ negative, is also available with this release (although not in high definition) which allows one to compare alternative takes of the same scene, as well as to appreciate the thoroughly wrongheaded nature of the extensive changes that were made in what was a rather misconceived revamp that tramples all over the original vision by adding historically anachronistic classical music and a voiceover that fills in background details about the period, in complete contravention of Dreyer’s original intent, which was to remove all such distractions from what was supposed to be an intensely intimate rendering of the human experience.
Interpretation inevitably raises its head when it comes to the issue of finding a suitable soundtrack accompaniment to the silent images. There have been many musical scores used down the years, and the Lo Duca version provides an abject lesson in how an inappropriate or obtrusive one can adversely affect one’s perception of the overall work. This edition comes with the option of viewing the film in either one of two playback speeds, either 20 frames-per-second or 24 frames-per-second. Debate has raged over which is the ‘correct’ one, but two new musical soundtracks have been composed for this edition, one for each of the included playing speeds. The first soundtrack, and in my opinion the best, consists of a sensitive piano score by the Japanese silent film composer Mie Yanashita, which complements the imagery with tender, almost folk-like melodies and sombre progressions. This score accompanies the 20 fps playback speed, which also feels the more ‘natural’of the two. Avant-garde musician Loren Conners provides a much more insistent and abstract work for the 24 fps speed, which for me is a little too overbearing, especially when we get to Jeanne’s burning at the stake, where a wail of feedback squall starts up in mimicry of the sound the scorching flames would've made and which feels just a bit too unnecessary and affected. Perhaps the best option of all, and the one most in line with the austere purity of Dreyer’s artistic vision, is the option of watching the movie in total silence, without any accompaniment at all. This Blu-ray edition also facilitates that desire, should one wish to take one’s Dreyer neat.
There aren’t any other actual disc extras with this edition, but Eureka Entertainment have excelled themselves when it comes to the reading material they have included in the package. We get a hundred page book crammed full of poster art, behind the scenes production stills and portrait shots to illustrate what is an extensive range of essays, extracts, reviews and writings collected together from a wide range of sources with a view to examining the importance of Dreyer’s work from every angle. There is also a side-by-side selection of photographic screen captures to provide a comparison of the alternative shots taken from the two negatives, and sketched plans for the design layout of the town square, as well as photographs of model versions of the set, pictured alongside behind the scenes images that show the inventiveness and ingenuity required on the part of the film crew in order to get the extravagant shots Dreyer demanded. It’s an excellent document that would be well worth having on its own if you are a fan of the film, but when it's packaged along with this superlative Blu-ray treatment of the work itself as well, the cineaste is provided with another essential Masters of Cinema purchase, and possibly one of the best yet.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!