Newly released on Blu-ray from the good folks at Eureka!/Masters of Cinema is a superb edition of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a masterpiece of world cinema that recently made the much-hyped 2012 Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll of the ten best films of all time. It was also the movie I chose to inaugurate a new Global Cinema class I taught at Oakton Community College earlier in the year. Below are thoughts on both the enduring film itself as well as Masters of Cinema’s terrific new hi-def transfer.
If the motion picture, with its primarily visual vocabulary and ability for ubiquitous worldwide exhibition, is the most international of art forms, then the most international decade it has ever known may well have been the 1920s. This was when the movies had reached a state of full artistic maturity but had not yet been segregated by nationality according to the dictates of spoken language. (In the memorable phrase of Roger Ebert, “Talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations.”) The late silent era was a time when film stars crossed national borders with regularity. “Foreign” accents and even the inability to speak the language of a given country were not yet a hindrance: Swedish actress Greta Garbo came to Hollywood around the same time that American actress Louis Brooks decided to try her luck in Germany. Directors too traveled far and wide: Alfred Hitchcock made his first two movies in Germany, Sergei Eisenstein directed an experimental short in France, while Ernst Lubitsch brought his famous “touch” to Hollywood and stayed for good. As a result of this cross-pollination of talent, the late silent era saw the release of a number of films that functioned as grand summations of what had come before, movies that integrated the innovations of filmmakers working in different countries over the decades. Chief among these is the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, a production of the French studio Gaumont that was written and directed by the Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most unusual, modern-looking and best movies of the entire silent era. Unlike most Joan of Arc biopics, including Luc Besson’s The Messenger and virtually all of the ones produced in Hollywood, it eschews battle scenes and externally dramatic heroic deeds in favor of the more interior, spiritual journey undertaken by the revered saint in her final days on earth. Dreyer focuses only on Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution, which is unusual in itself but his recreation of the period is so authentic, his style of filmmaking so pure and refined and the lead performance of Renee Falconetti so naturalistic that the first time I screened it in class, several students told me they felt like they were watching a “documentary” that had somehow been made in the 15th century. Abetting this sense of realism is the fact that virtually all of the film’s dialogue (represented, of course, by intertitles) is taken verbatim from the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, as a handy prologue makes clear. Interestingly, Robert Bresson virtually remade Dreyer’s movie as The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962 by also focusing on Joan’s final days (though Bresson misguidedly attempted to “correct” the earlier film by removing all traces of acting). In the 1990s, Jacques Rivette split the difference by making two companion piece features: one about Joan in battle and another focusing only on her trial.
The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently features techniques associated with the Soviet Montage, French Impressionist and German Expressionist movements but Dreyer has combined them with other techniques and in such unorthodox ways that the end result feels entirely fresh and new. The most prominent visual trope in Joan is its famous and relentless use of extreme close-ups, a technique that looks as radical today as it must have in 1928. In the early stages of the film especially, Dreyer uses extremely tight framing of both Joan and her trial judges to capture every emotional nuance of Falconetti’s performance and every wrinkle on the faces of her interrogators, as well as to convey an overall atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression. Dreyer notoriously had large and expensive sets built for the movie and then for the most part refused to show them. The almost perverse lack of wide shots leads to a feeling of unbearable intensity; Dreyer repeatedly denies viewers the relief, the sheer breathing room, that a more distanced view of the action would have provided.
The influence of German Expressionism can be felt in the glimpses of the sets that we are occasionally able to see behind the actors. The windows that appear on the wall behind and above the judges are crooked and mismatched, featuring bizarre, diamond-shaped window panes. They look almost like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is unsurprising considering that the legendary German art director Herman Warmm designed the sets for both films. This aspect of the set, though rarely glimpsed, combines with the ugly, leering faces of the old judges to convey the impression of a twisted, abusive authority. (Significantly, the only character to show Joan sympathy is a handsome young priest played by the Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud.) The pacing of Joan is relatively slow in these early trial scenes, reflecting Dreyer’s belief that “Rhythm and milieu go together.” Later, the action dramatically breaks into rapidly edited sequences when Joan is faced with the torture-chamber and when French peasants begin rioting outside of the prison compound. The former scene reflects the influence of French Impressionism, where editing is used to show how a character experiences time subjectively (i.e., time seems to accelerate for the terrified Joan); the latter scene uses fast editing in a Soviet-style montage to compress time, space and action. Both scenes have a shocking force precisely because they follow the slow, steady rhythm that Dreyer has carefully built up beforehand.
A year ago, I reviewed the new blu-ray of Citizen Kane and analyzed that film as a kind of self-conscious “synthesis” of all the major historical movements in cinema that had preceded it. I believe The Passion of Joan of Arc fulfills this same function for the silent era; as with Kane, Dreyer’s synthesis is not a dry, academic exercise but rather a means for the director to use all of the cinematic tools available to him to execute his story in the most effective way possible. The end result is, after all, emotionally involving to the point of being occasionally gut-wrenching. Dreyer blends his disparate aesthetic approaches together and ultimately subsumes them into what might be termed the great Dane’s singular “ascetic style” – one that draws us into Joan’s inner world and conveys a sense of her soul. This is a style that Dreyer would continually refine and improve over the course of his next four features (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud). Yet there is no better place to first acquaint oneself with the filmography of one of the best directors of all time than with this passionate, enrapturing portrait of the beloved Maid of Orleans.
Notes on the Blu-ray: The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc deviates from previous home video releases in several key ways. First, the bad news: Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Visions of Light,” included on Criterion’s 1999 DVD release, is not included among the soundtrack options. This is cause for regret because “Visions of Light” is a masterpiece in its own right and is as close to “definitive” as a non-original score for a silent film can be (like most silents, Joan had no official original score). Instead, MoC has provided two newly commissioned musical soundtrack options, a traditional piano score by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita and a more modern one by avant-garde composer Loren Connors. Both scores are serviceable but, in the absence of “Voices of Light,” one might consider watching the movie with the sound turned off completely. Dreyer’s film has a very unique rhythm, the integrity of which might come across most powerfully if experienced in total silence. Now the good news: the image quality is astonishing and Eureka/MoC, as with nearly all of their releases, have taken painstaking care to get it right. The film is presented at two different speeds – 20fps and 24fps – in much the same way that the same company’s release of Touch of Evil was presented in two different aspect ratios. (The Criterion DVD runs at 24fps and appears to my eyes to run slightly too fast. Kudos to MoC for giving the viewer multiple options.) Also of great interest is the fact that Joan is presented here for the first time on home video with its original Danish intertitles, written by Dreyer himself, with optional English subtitles. This is an improvement over the Criterion DVD, which only offered Gaumont’s original French intertitles. Finally, the Blu-ray image quality itself trumps that of the Criterion DVD in every possible area, including contrast, clarity, and fine object detail. This is, in short, the version of this movie one needs to own. Hopefully, Criterion, who presumably still hold the rights to the Einhorn score, will release their own Blu-ray at some point in the future and offer the option of multiple musical scores – including not only the Einhorn but also this intriguing-sounding one written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).