The Passion of Joan of Arc

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Denounced, Cut, and Burned – but Triumphant:
The Passion of Joan of Arc on DVD

In spite of the hype, DVD is more often promise than fulfillment. Many, perhaps most, of the films presented in the latest video medium contain only the film, with the draw being the clean digital sound and the sharpest visuals available, which for many consumers is lure enough. Some companies, fortunately, take the medium’s interactive possibilities and great storage capacity more seriously. The Criterion Collection’s presentation of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is a stellar example of the full exploitation of DVD. This cineaste’s dream has a gorgeous transfer of the film itself, taken from a restored version of the single good print available, as well as a quite extraordinary array of extras. These include three full audio tracks: the silent version, one with Richard Einhorn’s stunning Voices of Light musical soundtrack, and another with informative commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg. There are French intertitles and optional English subtitles. There’s a history of the production design with rare stills; a history of the film’s many versions, with clips; an essay by Richard Einhorn on the film and a video essay on the music; a demonstration of the restoration process with scene-by-scene comparisons; an audio interview with Helene Falconetti, daughter of the film’s star; and even a libretto booklet for the Voices of Light score. If these aren’t enticement enough, consider the disc’s affordability. Listed at $39.95, it’s widely available through online video stores for less than $30. Not bad for one of cinema’s supreme achievements.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the trial and death of France’s 15th century warrior-maiden reverses the cliché that "life imitates art." Like Joan, it was "denounced, cut, and burned," a story told at length on this DVD that in its way is as fascinating as the film itself. The denunciation came early, when French nationalists objected to the idea of a Dane, and a non-Catholic one at that, interpreting the history of their beloved Joan. After its release, English censors objected to what it saw as unacceptably negative portrayals of the English forces who were partly responsible – in alliance with the corrupt French church – for the death of Joan.

In a famously grueling sequence, Joan’s arm is seen in closeup being cut – stabbed, really – for bloodletting. The film suffered a similar fate, repeatedly. The Archbishop of Paris’s demand for changes were only the beginning of a series of mutilations. In 1933, the film, which failed at the box office in spite of many glowing reviews, resurfaced in a truncated version (cut from 82 minutes to only 61) featuring the prattlings of a narrator. In 1951, yet another version appeared with different cuts, new subtitles, and interpolated shots of stained glass and other indignities.

Fire was also an important part of the film’s history. Dreyer’s original negative was destroyed the same year of the film’s release at the German studio UFA. The director managed to construct a new negative out of alternate takes, but that negative too was believed destroyed at a fire at the French studio where it was housed. A variety of versions made the rounds of cinema clubs and hospitals over the next decades, and some who saw the film during these problematic screenings must have wondered what the fuss was all about given the pathetic condition of these prints.

stills from
The Passion of Joan of Arc
[click photos for larger versions]

In a surprise discovery that parallels Joan’s resurrection (as a historical hero) and transcendence, a complete original print of Dreyer’s original cut was found in a Norwegian mental hospital closet in 1981. The print had apparently been ordered by a doctor there in the 1930s; after an unknown number of screenings, it was stuck in the closet and forgotten for perhaps five decades. This version, called the "Oslo print" to distinguish it from its many predecessors, had some damage but was digitally restored to pristine condition -- after 20,320 splices, scratches, cue marks, and other imperfections had been removed.

Dreyer would go on to create at least three classics of world cinema (Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud), but in some ways this is his most radical film. He rejected the label of "avant-garde" applied to it from many quarters, no doubt because this ghettoized a film he saw as above all a human document. It’s hard to think of a better term, however, for the film’s visual style. There’s the famous use (some said over-use) of close-ups; surprising images such as the "upside-down and backward" shot of English soldiers, or the swinging camera that makes a building appear to be moving.

If Dreyer disliked "avant-garde," he did agree with "documentary" as a description, albeit more an "emotional documentary" than a "real" one. The film supports this in many respects. Dreyer drew almost entirely on transcripts of Joan’s 1429 trial for his dialogue. He refused to allow his actors to use makeup, an unheard-of conceit at that time but one made possible by the recent introduction of panchromatic film. He even dropped the credits – they were later restored – in order to increase the viewer’s belief in the story. He also disavowed musical scores (though the film was presented with them) as distracting and antithetical to the reality of the onscreen world. (It’s fortunate that Dreyer’s opinion didn’t deter Richard Einhorn from creating his Voices of Light accompaniment. Performed by the vocal group Anonymous 4, soloist Susan Narucki, and the Radio Nederlands Philharmonic and Choir, the score resonates with sweeping medieval harmonies and a majestic solemnity that’s a fine match for the film.)

Dreyer’s demand for realism dictated some bizarre strategies. The actors were signed exclusively to him for the film’s shooting time from May to November 1927, so they had to "live" their roles to the point of keeping their hair cut so it never appeared to change. This was understandable for the lower churchmen who wore visible tonsures – bald heads with a fringe of hair. But Dreyer also demanded that the higher officials keep their tonsures cut, in spite of the fact that they were invisible under the grandiose caps they wore throughout. The cast occasionally got back at him, at least verbally. They secretly began referring to him as "Gruyere" because the set had as many "holes" (trenches Dreyer built for making low-angle shots) as Swiss cheese.

In spite of the film’s realism – helped immeasurably by Rudolph Mate’s brilliant cinematography -- it’s also one of the most stylized, unrealistic in the annals of cinema. Production designer Hermann Warm, famous for his expressionist sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, based his work here on a combination of medieval woodcuts and the then-voguish surrealist movement. This is seen in the otherworldly white architecture that recalls the still, strange world of painters like Delvaux or De Chirico, as well as off-kilter images such as the two mismatched windows shown behind Joan. Dreyer’s goal of immersing the viewer in the story wasn’t so complete that he didn’t introduce anachronisms: in one scene, an interrogator is shown wearing 20th century eyeglasses. This kind of sudden, unsettling detail can be seen as an example of the godlike Dreyer in such control he had can afford to be perverse (if briefly), also as a way of introducing yet another level of disturbance to an audience already unhinged by the suffocating number of close-ups.

Dreyer was always known as a controlling, dictatorial director, and with a then-vast budget of $7 million francs (which bloated to $9 million by the end of shooting), he was allowed some luxuries that few filmmakers would see, before or since. He had an enormous, expensive three-dimensional set built, almost none of which is seen in recognizable form in the movie (much to the producers’ chagrin). He shot reams of film, which unexpectedly paid off later when he was forced to construct a new negative out of the ample supply of alternate takes. The film’s over 1,300 individual shots is more than twice the number found in an average feature of the time.

Much has been made of the film’s unusual number of close-ups; this was a strategy Dreyer felt was not only appropriate but one that would become common as cinema matured. That did not happen, of course, but his use of close-ups is among the most harrowing and claustrophobic ever captured on film. Rather than use the device as punctuation, or as a high point, Dreyer uses it to drag the viewer into the psyche of the subject. Rene Falconetti’s face, with its uncanny glowing eyes and mournful looks, proved an ideal map for the emotional territory the director wanted to explore. This performance has rightly been called one of cinema’s greatest.

"The close quarter combat between Joan and her judges" is how Dreyer described his vision of the film, but the "combat" takes place mostly on a spiritual plane, in the sorrowful stares and sudden illuminations that cross the face of Falconetti intercut with the warts-and-all faces of her tormentors. This doesn’t prevent the director from making grim hints at more visceral horrors, as in the montage of torture devices to be used on Joan that Dreyer cross-cuts with her face, or in the violent peasant uprising triggered by her death. But the thrust of the film is the power of spiritual opposition to earthly ambition and corruption, a theme so pervasive that even the architecture supports it. Joan is seen mostly in isolated shots, emblems of her lonely battle against the church and the military, but behind her the viewer is always aware of the serene, almost glowing white walls, which symbolize her purity and transcendence in the face of corrupt earthly forces.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new transfer with digitally restored image and sound. The DVD contains several special features: audio commentary by Casper Tybjerg, Dreyer scholar from the University of Copenhagen; production notes; the film is accompanied by Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, an original orchestral work inspired by the film and performed by renowned choral ensemble Anonymous 4, the Nederlands Radio Choir, and the Nederlands Radio Philharmonic; Notes on Voices of Light, including interviews, essays, photographs and medieval texts used for the libretto; interactive essay on the film's production and the life and trial of Joan of Arc; and a multimedia history of the film's many versions. Suggested retail price: $39.95.