Saved From the Flames

by Fiona Pleasance

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), was made in 1928, and is set almost exactly five centuries earlier. At the film’s core is a display of raw human emotion quite unlike any seen in the cinema before or since, its visceral nature expressed in tears, in spit and in blood, taking in faith and torture, and ending in confusion, in fire and in death.

The significance of The Passion of Joan of Arc can hardly be overstated. The film was critically acclaimed on its release, even as it was (isn’t it so often the way?) a commercial flop. The movie was placed at number seven in the first ever Sight and Sound “Greatest Films” poll in 1952, and has been a more-or-less permanent resident of various canonic lists ever since – most recently at number 9 in the 2012 S&S poll; it and Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu are the only two survivors from the original Top Ten.

The power of the film resides not only in the acting and in the emotion displayed on screen, but also in its strangeness. By the late 1920s, the system which we have come to know as Classical Hollywood Cinema , with its conventions of film style and narrative (amongst other aspects), was already well established, and had been adopted not only in Hollywood but around the world. Yet Dreyer rejects many of these codes. Famously, there is not one conventional establishing shot in the entire movie. Dreyer spent several million francs constructing an elaborate set (the courthouse, a church, the prison, the square where Joan is burned at the stake) and then proceeded to reveal it only in little bits and pieces. The framings are often unconventional, asymmetrical and imbalanced; a couple of shots are even entirely upside-down.

Similarly, the cues on which filmmakers usually rely to make the filmed space comprehensible to viewers are largely ignored. Only a handful of shots can be interpreted as signifying a character’s point of view. While the interrogation scenes are generally filmed as straight-ahead shot-reverse-shots, Dreyer leaps over the 180° line as it suits him. Even the tracking shots, of which there are several, which might normally be expected to provide a sense of the rooms in which they are situated, are often so short or held so close on their subject matter as to be virtually no help at all.

Of course, the point is: it doesn’t matter. Who needs analytical editing when the narrative has such force? Who worries much about the surrounding space when the face at its centre holds the viewer’s attention in its steely grip?

Because, for all that the film itself is old, and the period in human history which it depicts is older still, much about The Passion of Joan of Arc seems very modern. The unmade-up faces of Joan and her interrogators have almost none of the stylisation which we might have come to expect from silent cinema (this was only possible due to the relatively recent introduction of panchromatic film stock). Costumes are simple and, even now, look authentic. Acting styles are largely naturalistic and all the more powerful for it.

This modernity even extends to the subject matter. Obviously, the issues of religious belief and of faith, the role of the church and its power over the individuals in its care, are central, and still relevant today. Joan, whose intervention in the Hundred Years War had led to a string of victories for the French, was tried by supporters of the English invaders on the trumped-up charge of heresy. Yet at times, Joan’s views seem to pre-empt those of Martin Luther by a century as she emphasises her personal relationship to God, unmediated by the institution of the church. Even if her judges had not been politically motivated they would have found such sentiments dangerous.

Other things which might make the contemporary viewer feel uncomfortable are the use of torture to extract a confession (at one point, the emptying of a bottle of liquid into a funnel implies that waterboarding might be on the menu), and the prolonged and unedifying sight of a group of old men haranguing a young woman.

In no aspect of the tale does Dreyer pull his punches. Joan is humiliated and spat on; her hair is shorn. The bloodletting, a maggoty skull, the burning at the stake: all are detailed with an unflinching eye.

I would not be the first to point out the irony that Joan’s fate in the movie (and in life) was shared by the film itself. Nitrate stock is notoriously flammable, and fires started in film labs and projection booths with depressing regularity. The original negative of The Passion of Joan of Arc was destroyed in a fire at a laboratory in Berlin in late 1928, mere months after the film’s French premiere, when just a handful of prints had been struck. As the remaining rushes were stored elsewhere, Dreyer was able to reassemble the film using alternative – if occasionally inferior – takes, only for this negative also to go missing after a fire in 1929. Only a small number of prints of both versions survived.

Sadly, this story is the rule for silent cinema, not the exception. As Penelope Houston writes in her book about film archives, Keepers of the Frame (BFI Publishing, 1994), an enormous number of film negatives were no longer in existence, “even by 1929. It is generally assumed that some 75 to 80 per cent of all silent cinema has been lost, most of it gone beyond recall unless caches still exist in the unexplored recesses of the archives or in the holdings of private collectors”. Recent high-profile finds in just such recesses, like the discovery of a hand-coloured version of George Méliès‘  Voyage dans la Lune, or the 16 mm alternative cut of Metropolis found in an archive in Buenos Aires, tend to divert attention from the fact that the bulk of silent cinema is irretrievably lost.

So we must be doubly grateful that, unlike the fate suffered by so many other films of the period, the story of the movie of The Passion of Joan of Arc has not just one, but two happy endings. The second, alternative-edit negative of the film resurfaced in the early 1950s, whereupon a writer called Joseph-Maria Lo Duca re-cut the film again, replacing the intertitles with subtitles and adding a score. It should be pointed out that Dreyer, whose preferred soundtrack accompaniment was silence, was vehemently opposed to this version.

Then, in the 1980s, a private collector came good; another print was found. Unbelievably, it was one of two copies made for the Danish release of the film; the premiere in Dreyer’s home country had taken place before that in France, where the film’s backers, actors and subject matter hailed from, and so the cuts which Dreyer was later forced to make to appease the French Catholic church were absent. Even more unbelievably, the print was found in a storage cupboard in a Norwegian mental hospital, whose consultant doctor, since deceased, was, apparently a hobby historian on the side. Even today it is not exactly clear how the print came to be in his possession, but we should be grateful that it was.

That the film was only available in bowdlerized versions for about sixty years after its original release makes its high ranking in the canon even more remarkable. Fortunately, thanks to digitization and the efforts of specialist labels such as Criterion in the US and Eureka in Europe, an ever-increasing number of those silent movies which have survived the past eighty years is being made available to the general viewer.

The rediscovered original print has formed the basis of all restorations of the film since, and, despite Dreyer’s view of musical accompaniment, a number of new scores have also been composed. Eureka’s latest release in its ‘Masters of Cinema  series is the first to make the film available on Blu-ray, and the first to present the film in 20 fps. I won’t rehash the arguments surrounding playback rates here (see Michael Brooke’s piece “The Maid Remade” – sadly not available online – in the December 2012 edition of Sight and Sound for further details), but both 20 and 24 fps versions of the film are included, one on each disc. Suffice it to say that, including as it does these two versions, each with one music and one silent track, the original Danish intertitles (with English subtitles), the Lo Duca release from the 1950s and a detailed accompanying booklet, Eureka’s new edition should contain everything that The Passion completist’s heart desires.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, from the Eureka ‘Masters of Cinema’ series, is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 19 November 2012.

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