Thursday 28 January 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Star: Renee Falconetti
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Back in the nineties I was a silent movie novice. I hadn't really seen much silent cinema and I didn't know much at all about it, but even so I was massively shocked to find that an estimated 80% to 85% of silent films are completely lost. They don't exist any more. They're gone. And that's not just a few here and there, it's almost all of them! Any serious journey into silent film is therefore inherently doomed to being something of a scraping of the surface, with the abiding hope that at least the best and most important titles are what's left but the sad underlying surety that that isn't going to be entirely true. Some great stars are almost completely lost to us today except in photographs, to the degree of Theda Bara, who made forty films of which only three still exist.

The Passion of Joan of Arc isn't a lost film, but it was thought to be for many years. It was censored before its release in 1928 and the original negative was destroyed by fire. A second negative was reedited from alternative takes but this was also lost to fire. All seemed lost until 1981, when a complete Danish copy in very good condition was discovered in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital, of all places. It has been professionally restored to what must be something very close to the original, and made available to the audiences of today along with a new soundtrack, Voices of Light. This composition by Richard Einhorn is a highly appropriate accompaniment, the choral grandeur fitting the religious subject magnificently.

I don't know exactly what I expected from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Knowing that what little experience I had with silent film was with slapstick shorts or Lon Chaney horror movies, this was always going to be a little different from anything I'd ever watched before. It's a French film by a Danish director at the end of the silent era about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, made a mere eight years after she was canonised. All I knew about it was what I gleaned from watching a long and fascinating documentary on director Carl Theodor Dreyer immediately beforehand, which pointed out that it's based closely on the record of her trial that exists to this day in the Bibliothèque de la Chambre des Députés in Paris, and the script provides both exact transcriptions of the questions given to Joan and her answers. The tantalising glimpses of the film promised something very special indeed and those promises were soon fulfilled.

What Renee Falconetti does in this film could just be the greatest single acting performance I've ever seen, and while I watched it first in 2004 near the beginning of my voyage of discovery into classic film, I'll stick to that statement today, over 3,600 films later. She took the part of Joan of Arc after all the major French actresses of the time refused it, due to Dreyer's insistence that part of the role involved being shaved. She was a stage actress who never appeared again in film, and that choice helped lead to the role being identified with her forever. After seeing her stunning performance, I can understand why. Even restricted into performing without a voice, she is still mesmerising from the first moment we see her.

Her eyes are huge pools that shine brightly and shed frequent tears, though these tears never alter her demeanour. She never weeps. The tears merely trickle and she ignores them as if they are of no consequence. She is also frequently still, her head tilted piously, looking intently at something only she can see, while the judges and elder priests are far more dynamic and obviously unsure of how to proceed. Lips quiver, eyes wander, gestures are hurled and exhortations made, nervous tics and a variety of indignant reactions make themselves apparent, while Joan remains still and kneeling. She has to put up with plenty, both as a character and as an actress, yet she always manages to be something above everyone around her.

She looks holy, pure and simple, and never loses that look regardless what happens to her. Holiness is a characteristic that is nigh on impossible to act, being something that inherently comes from within. I grew up active in the Church of England, meeting and working with many church leaders and authorities who were often good men, but I only ever met one who I could truly call holy: David Hope, at the time the Bishop of Wakefield but later Archbishop of York. Somehow Falconetti taps into that holiness, radiating it as she is bled, with stark realism, to alleviate fever; prodded with a stick; ridiculed; humiliated; forced into a false confession; shaved bald; and, of course, after she recants her confession, eventually burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.
If there was anything more to want in this film beyond Falconetti's tour de force performance as Joan, there's still much more to experience. Dreyer put together a film that still looks unique today, over eighty years after it was made, and that puts it into a very select company indeed. I added a caveat in 2004 that I didn't then have enough background to suggest that The Passion of Joan of Arc is something apart from everything else cinema has ever given us, and to be frank I still don't. Since that first viewing I have found a number of other reference points, more in some of Sergei Eisenstein's films than much of the rest of Dreyer's filmography which I've been happily working through, but this still seems like something out there on its own and benefitting to no small degree from that fact.

For a start, Dreyer concentrates almost exclusively on close-ups, so we experience the story through individual expressions. It's immediately obvious that Dreyer chose his cast for their looks, something obvious not only because this is a silent film that relies entirely on visuals, but because these characters are so easily distinguishable. We see the faces of so many of those judging her, but never in one mass. They are consistently separate from each other, or only in small groups, as if they were disconnected jigsaw pieces. It's up to our minds to put the puzzle together. The camera pans across these small groups, zooming quickly in and out. We remember prominent warts and long beards that turn faces into triangles. One judge is wizened like Boris Karloff in The Mummy, another has eyes that bug like Peter Lorre's, yet another is bald but for a tuft of hair on either side of his scalp like demonic horns. The wizened judge is superb: while others rage he remains constantly calm and collected, yet calculating like an evil wizard.

These faces occupy sets as distinctive as they are. They were designed by a man called Hermann Warm, who had also made the stunning avant garde sets for one of the great expressionistic silent horror films, 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which I had seen shortly before this film in 2004. These are highly minimalist and starkly white, so as not to distract from the close-ups of features. They don't resemble anything I've seen elsewhere and really belong in the era, yet another sad reason to lament its passing.

The camerawork is simply incredible and must have been highly innovative in 1928. The cinematographer was Rudolph Maté, who I knew even in 2004 as the director of one of my favourite films noir, the original DOA. What he does is so artful that it's impossible not to find serious depths beyond something that on the surface looks so impeccably cool. I didn't even need to force myself to look for meaning, the camerawork just drew me into it. One notable shot shows us a barred window entirely in silhouette so that it looks like a flag. We watch the spears above a bunch of marching helmets, pan across a bunch of raised hands, follow a stool carried aloft. Are these looks upward telling us where Joan will soon be?

Maté's camera is rarely still and each shot is short and sweet, as minimalist as Warm's sets. The close-ups are occasionally so close up that the camera has to pan down them for us to see faces in their entirety. Even the torture implements are shown in close-up, sometimes so much so that they become abstract puzzles. We see revolving spikes but not what they belong to, pan down links of chain but don't know what they connect to. One man turns a wheeled torture device so fast that we see him only stroboscopically. As you might expect from a film with expressionistic influence, shadow is well used, the shadows of swinging hooks at expressionistic angles and a helmet and pike reflected against a pillar are particularly impressive.

It's incredible to realise that all of this stunning work was done over eighty years ago, including amazing shots where the camera is suspended from an arch and rotated 180 degrees vertically to follow soldiers through an archway from outside to inside. When I grabbed a copy of the IMDb Top 250 in 2004, The Passion of Joan of Arc was the newest of its seven movies from the twenties, made only six years after Nosferatu, the oldest of them all. It's a silent film that came out at the very end of the silent era, a full year after The Jazz Singer had ushered in sound. In fact the next movie Dreyer made, the inferior but highly stylish horror film Vampyr, is about as close as I've ever seen to a silent film with sound.
And while Maté, Warm and especially Falconetti excelled themselves, the whole thing was put together by Carl Theodor Dreyer, one of the most utterly uncompromising directors that cinema has ever seen. He made no panderings to commerciality whatsoever, something of course almost impossible nowadays without becoming an inherently obscure underground filmmaker, but that uncompromising nature led to a masterpiece like this. If Dreyer couldn't make a film his way he wouldn't make the film at all; and that's why his career of over forty years only left us thirteen films, just like that of Stanley Kubrick, in this way his closest equivalent in recent times.

Dreyer also broke many cardinal rules of direction, long before any modern equivalents followed suit. He often deliberately hired actors who were not professionals and he frequently forbade them to use make up. I can't help but wonder what he would do were he to be starting out today, in a world where blockbusters have to advertise themselves on talk shows and cereal boxes and Happy Meals. Would he be able to find financing to make his films? Would the festival circuit keep such a vision as his alive or would it exclude him because he wouldn't play their games?

The Passion of Joan of Arc profoundly affected me as a work of art but it touched me in another way too. If not for that unexpected copy in that Norwegian mental asylum closet, this masterpiece would have been lost from our culture. Now I've seen it, that's a loss I don't want to think about, yet I have to think about it. If it was only saved by chance, which other masterpieces have already been lost to us and which are in danger of being lost? Most importantly, what can we do about the situation? Films are often inspirational, providing us with opportunities to reevaluate our perspectives on life and make conscious decisions on how to change. This one and its close brush with non-existence made me very interested indeed in the fight to keep culture alive.

After I was shocked by the extent of how much of that culture has already been lost, I investigated on a much wider scale and didn't like much of what I found out. The preservation of culture, whether film, book or music, is an expensive and time consuming task and, while there are many individuals and organisations dedicating much effort, there's so much more that needs to be done. What's most upsetting is that it isn't just a case of finding enough people to do a job and enough money to pay them, as the current state of copyright legislation means that there are many legal obstacles thrown into the path of those who already have technological obstacles to cope with.

It's bad enough to know that I won't ever be able to see every Hitchcock, every Chaney, every Chaplin, because some, or sometimes most, of their output are lost films, but it's somehow worse to know that there are many examples of films that exist but are withheld from release for some reason or other. When writing this review in 2004 I singled out films like the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series as good examples, but fortunately times have changed even since then and these have now been released onto DVD in box sets that I happily snapped up. So there's definitely a lot of good being done, but there are other examples out there that are still suppressed, withheld or banned.

It can't be a good state of affairs when the public is unable to experience its own culture. We live in a technological age where there is no valid reason for this culture to disappear, but political correctness and bad legislation is causing exactly that. Especially through the gnarled mess that is the state of modern copyright, we're losing more films, more music and more literature every day and frankly that sucks, as does the fact that it takes pirates working outside the bounds of law to preserve it, the modern day equivalents of Henri Langlois and his compatriots in France during the Second World War who risked their lives to save films from destruction by the Nazis. The Passion of Joan of Arc was almost lost to us. Let's work to make sure that nothing else is.


James R said...

Actually Passion was never really lost as such; despite losing not one but two negatives, the film did get released and prints of the "inferior" version circulated for decades. (It even features in one of Godard's early films.) I've read somewhere (but buggered if I can remember where) that when the print of the original version was found it proved to be remarkably similar to the version that had been around for five decades by that point. I'm not sure what version I've seen; I just know it's taken me until very recently to finally start appreciating the film (which I first saw back in 1996 and went years without liking).

Film preservation is one of those subjects that interests me greatly, along with its concomitant subjects film loss and film rediscovery. The Norwegian mental institution story is one of the greats, but I'm also fascinated by things like Von morgens bis mitternachts being rediscovered in Japan despite never having been released outside of Germany.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Interesting. I'll have to read up with a little more depth than I have thus far.

And I love the joy of discovery, whatever is being discovered. Some of my favourite stories tie to things like this: And someone should write a book on tracking down lost episodes of Doctor Who...