Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Passion of The Passion of Joan of Arc

I have to tiptoe around discussing The Passion of Joan of Arc, because I'm planning a series on 150 of my favorite classics, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece will almost certainly be included in that series. What can I saw now that I won't say then (a commitment to review all the films I've bought or received as Christmas or birthday gifts holds me to this task)? The metaphor of Plato's cave has occasionally been used to describe the cinema: movies are the shadows on the wall, depicting a simplified version of the reality which lies outside the cavern in the bright sunlight. But sometimes I wonder if this interpretation doesn't have it backwards: do the greatest films allow us to penetrate reality in a way that mundane everyday experience often does not? Does this shadowplay actually allow us to go forth into the sunlight and see more clearly; is it a kind of preparation for the initially bright and overbearing sunlight? In other words: can cinema put us closer into contact with the spiritual, the overwhelming force of the universe, that Ground of All Being, which some in the past and some today have labelled "God"? If so, Passion is one of those films, and Dreyer may be the greatest director of all time.

Well, I'll leave the rest of my ostentatious pontifications for a later occasion and step aside for the remainder of this post. I often have doubts about historical writing in the blogosphere - why rehash what you've already read elsewhere? (Sometimes, though, a blogger steps up the plate and knocks historical writing out of the park - see the Self-Styled Siren's recent musings on George Sanders for an outstanding example.) But the history of The Passion of Joan of Arc is so extraordinary that it bares repeating, and luckily the Criterion Collection includes a remarkable essay called "The Many Incarnations of Joan" which documents this history. It does not seem to exist on the Internet so I hereby present, in its online debut, the essay in its entirety (save a few minor modifications), following the jump.


*I did not write the following; it is an essay which appears on the Criterion Collection DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc.

"It is impossible to tell the complicated print history of The Passion of Joan of Arc without comparing it to the narrative of the film. Judges, scissors, fire: all these elements from the story find their way into the physical history of this most spiritual of films.

"Before the discovery in 1981 of a certified copy of Dreyer's original cut, audiences had a number of different versions of the film from which to choose, and over which to argue. [...]

"The Passion of Joan of Arc premiered in Copenhagen on April 21, 1928 at the Cinema Palads, Teatret. As scholar Charles Tesson writes, 'This would be the one and only public projection of the complete version of the film.' Although there were a pair of private screenings, the official Paris premiere did not take place until October 25th at the Cinema Marivaux, delayed by the French nationalists' campaign against the film. They did not believe that a foreign director, and a non-Catholic at that, should be trusted with the myth of Joan of Arc. Jean-Jose Frappa wrote in January 1927 of Dreyer, and of rumors that Lillian Gish was to play Joan: 'Whatever the talent of the director (and he has it)...he cannot give us a Joan of Arc in the true French tradition. And the American *star*...cannot be our Joan, wholesome, lovely, shining with purity, faith, courage and patriotism. To let this be made in France would be a scandalous abdication of responsibility.'

"Though unable to stop the production of the film, the Archbishop of Paris did demand several excisions, and further changes were made by government censors. Leon Moussinac wrote that the changes 'were so serious that the public could only see an annoying, Catholic film in which the Rouen tribunal had become almost sympathetic.' These changes were made without Dreyer's input and he was, naturally, furious about them.

"But French audiences were not to see Dreyer's film, censored or otherwise, for much longer. On December 6, 1928, a fire consumed the labs of the UFA studio in Berlin, where cinematographer Rudolph Mate had developed the panchromatic stock of Passion. The original negative was destroyed, leaving only a few, already worn copies in distribution. Dreyer was completely devastated, his film seemingly lost forever to disaster.

"However, there was a solution, if an imperfect one. Famous throughout his career for forcing actors to rework even the briefest moment, Dreyer was able to create an entirely new version from alternate takes, thankfully stored elsewhere.

"Using a release print for comparison, Dreyer and editor Marguerite Beauge created a new negative which matched the original almost shot for shot; many could not tell the difference, though a disappointed Dreyer could. What seemed to be the same, however, was the end result: the second negative was thought lost to a second fire, this time at the labs of G.M. de Boulogne-Billancourt in 1929. As the thirties and forties passed, prints from the first negative became rarer and rarer, those from the second slightly less so. There was no stopping the physical loss of one of the great classics of silent film.

"Some of the corrupted versions were almost comical. Tony Pipolo, in his detailed discussion of the different versions of the film, 'The Spectre of Joan of Arc,' describes a now lost version of the film reissued in 1933 by distributor Sherman S. Krellberg. Cut to 61 minutes, this version eliminated all intertitles, instead featuring, as the poster claimed, 'the Magic Voice of David Ross, well-known to radio millions,' who 'brings all the drama and pathos of her last hours! You hear her immortal utterances as she answers the judges questions.' Pipolo quotes a contemporary review expressions 'serious doubts' about the 'narrative offered by David Ross.'

"Thankfully, the Krellberg version was immediately recognized as corrupt. The same cannot be said of a version done two decades later. In 1951, the French film historian Lo Duca discovered, in the vaults of Gaumont Studios, an intact negative in wonderful condition. It was almost certainly Dreyer's second version, apparently not lost in the second fire. Unfortunately Duca took this negative and made significant changes. Using a patchwork score of Bach, Albinoni and Vivaldi, Duca sonorized ('immersed') the film with an optical soundtrack that intruded upon the left side of the film's framing. Wherever possible he replaced intertitles with subtitles; otherwise, he replaced the original, simple intertitles with text over images of stained glass windows and church pews. The negative itself was lost, but Lo Duca's version endured for years, despite Dreyer's vociferous objection. Dreyer wrote a letter to Gaumont in 1956 that ended with this paragraph:

"'The editor has tried to make the film more accessible to the general public - by appealing to the public's bad taste. Since you appreciate art films, it would indeed be a worthy act on your part to make a copy of the silent version with the intertitles on a simple, black background, as I did in the original. An old film *classic* is a museum piece that should be restored to its original form. In my opinion to *modernize* such a film is an absurdity.'

[...]"[A] comparison between the opening shots of the Lo Duca version and the Oslo version [shows the difference]. Notice that the introductory intertitles are gone, replaced by a completely new voiceover. This narration refers to the '28 sessions' of the historical trial, undermining Dreyer's deliberate decision to collapse all the action into one day. Also, slight differences in facial expression and camera angle exist throughout the length of the film, proving that Duca in fact worked from the second negative. In the following, the scribe enters at a more diagonal angle; the English soldier does not wipe the seat of the stool with his sleeve; and Cauchon, in his first shot, strokes his chin.

"Another example: the bloodletting scene, perhaps the most obvious if not the most tasteful way to show the difference between the two versions. As scholar Casper Tybjerg mentions in his audio esssay [sic] on this disc, a real arm provides real blood in this shot, though it belongs to an extra and not to Falconetti. In the Oslo print, no doubt the first take is used - the blood exits with much more vigor. In the alternate version, it has to be coaxed a bit.

[...]

"In [another] short sequence, notice the image of the stained glass window used for the intertitle. More importantly, the Lo Duca version (which appears first) lacks the shot of Joan looking in the opposite direction that we find in the Oslo print [...]. Tybjerg refers to this type of editing as a crucial aesthetic strategy employed by Dreyer.

"After it became clear that Lo Duca's version could not be accepted, Arnie Krogh of the Danish Film Institute took on the project of constructing a sort of 'best-guess' version from all existing prints. His primary source material seems to have been a version of the second negative, perhaps one from Holland. Another source was a print held at the National Film Archive in London which, while missing over 190 shots and a dozen intertitles (according to Pipolo), does inexplicably contain shots found in no other version, such as [several] establishing shots[.]

"The presence of these shots in an otherwise incomplete print remains a mystery, although at least the discovery of the Oslo version proves that they did not appear in Dreyer's final cut. One possibility is that the National Film Archive received a French version, and that the shots were added during the censorship, without Dreyer's input. Pipolo does describe most of the cuts as 'related to the cruelties and sadistic behavior of Joan's judges, or they are simply of shots apparently considered too graphic in nature.' Scholars such as David Bordwell have used the existence of these shots to highlight the aesthetic choices that Dreyer made: establishing shots were filmed, but Dreyer chose to remain with repeated close-ups.

"Finally, in 1981, while cleaning out a closet in the Kikemark Sykehus, a mental institution just outside Oslo, Norway, a workman found several film canisters. These were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute - who stored them for three years without review. When they were opened, the canisters revealed not just the print of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but also the original wrapping paper bearing the Danish censor's stamp of approval and the date, 1928. (This stamp was a formality and did not indicate that changes had been made; it is well-documented that uncensored copies were exported to Copenhagen, and that the Danish censor required no changes to the film.)

"But how did a precious copy of one of the great classics of early cinema end up in such a place? Maurice Drouzy, who translated the Danish intertitles into the French titles found on this disc, reports that the medical director of the institute, Harald Arnesen, was an amateur historian who had just published a book on the French Revolution. Arnesen may have wanted to show the film publicly in Oslo; perhaps he just wanted to screen it for his staff and patients. Eric Breitbart, in his 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc: A Classic Film Rises from the Ashes,' writes, 'There are no records of it ever being shown publicly in Oslo, but program notes found in one of the film cans suggest that the film had been screened privately several times. Movie projectors were often found in hospitals and educational institutions, so it is quite possible that the staff and some of the patients in the Kikemark Sykehus were among the select public that had the chance to see Jeanne d'Arc: in its original cut.'

"But after these few screenings, the print was stored away, and no one thought to ask for its return. So, 50 years after being denounced, cut, and burned, The Passion of Joan of Arc has been resurrected in its visually stunning, original version. And thanks to the tireless work of film archives such as the Danish Film Institute and the Cinematheque Francaise, Joan should be safe from further disaster."

[This essay originally included clips which I can't duplicate here. Brackets indicate ellipses. I also included that original spelling error, perhaps out of a sense of fidelity to the source, more likely as a demonstration that we bloggers aren't the only ones who do it...]

3 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

One of the greatest films in the entire history of the cinema, and surely (with Murnau's SUNRISE, Von Stroheim's GREED and two films by Abel Gance) the greatest filent film of them all. The film is a harrowing, expressionistic masterworks that uses closeups better than any film ever made.

It also contains what I consider to be the greatest performance by an actress ever recorded on film by Ms. Falconetti. I have revered and been awe-struck by this film for many years, and watching it on the very Criterion DVD you rightly promote here is tantamount to experiencing a spiritual epiphany. Searing images that reach down into one's soul, and a rush of emotion chills one to their very essence.

No wonder you have it down as one of your personal favorites, our gifted and tasteful Movie Man. I look forward to your coverage. Carl Dreyer, one of the greatest of all directors, of course has a second staggering masterpiece with DAY OF WRATH (1943) and two others, VAMPYR and ORDET are of the top-rank.

I own that booklet, and I agree it's well-worth replicating here.

MovieMan0283 said...

Day of Wrath will certainly be on the list, as it was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had in a movie theater (was lucky enough to see it in Lincoln Center when they did their Janus Films retrospective a few years back).

Sam Juliano said...

Needless to say I'm thrilled to see this appear, as I said initially, It's my choice as the greatest silent film, with harrowing images as powerful as in any film ever made.

This is truthfully a magnificent presentation and a labor of love!