In Your Face!

“It’s a wonderful tour de force but it’ll get cinema nowhere. It’s too individual a style of expression. It has pathological interest as a study of hysteria.”

That was Ernst Lubitsch on Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC — he’s wrong, of course. Maybe being Jewish was a barrier, but then I don’t think the film’s fundamentally about religion — it’s about integrity, which is a more fundamental impulse. Ran this for students, and for myself — it’s one of those film classics I’d “seen” but so long ago and under such dim circumstances that I really couldn’t say I’ve seen it at all.

Scott Eyman, from whose Lubitsch book the above quote comes, duly uses the word “austere” to describe Dreyer’s film, a word well suited to later CTD films maybe, but one that requires some qualification here. The film’s sets are certainly austere — designed by Jean Hugo (no other credits) and Hermann Warm (CALIGARI and much more besides), they’re not only sparsely furnished, cold and stony, they’re overwhelmingly WHITE. White tends to be avoided in production design, for the normally excellent reason that in close-ups, where the background goes out of focus, it turns into a glaring void, whereas with greyish or coloured surfaces, some detail or texture always comes through to anchor the face in reality.

Of course in TPOJOA, close-ups dominate overwhelmingly, and the background is positively encouraged to recede, allowing skin textures to prevail, every pore, mole, liver spot and wrinkle lovingly lingered over. If Dreyer is guilty of any silent-movie over-simplification, it’s in the film’s apparent equation of physical aging with spiritual corruption. Integrity and purity need not belong solely to the young — but it’s OK to make that the case for the sake of argument in this film.

Antonin Artaud’s character is a more complex case than at first appears — he’s genuinely sympathetic to Joan, unlike the judges who are always claiming they are — but he’s a bigger threat to her integrity in his way, because he still wants her to sign a confession and be saved. He’s also Captain Obvious: the guys who says things like “Careful! That’s a dangerous answer!” so the dumber folks in the audience can keep up.

All this relishing of dermatological detail is rather lush and intense, but is it austere? And the film is far from slow — though there are relatively few scenes, and they’re relatively long, Dreyer’s filming is dynamic in a way that prefigures today’s “intensified continuity” — faces pop up, loom in, are tracked into, making for a very impactful mise-en-scene indeed. Far from being a cinematic blind alley, Dreyer’s experiment was an early clue to the new direction. I just wish modern filmmakers who jump in close early, and stay there, had as many visual resources for keeping the approach fresh as Dreyer evinces here.

(When David Fincher shaved Sigourney Weaver’s head for ALIENS³, critics knocked him for shooting everything in close-up: “These pop promo guys don’t know how to direct.” But obviously Fincher was copying Dreyer — just not skillfully enough, or in a suitable context, to make it work.)

Films I was reminded of — Erle C. Kenton’s GUILTY AS HELL, with its leering ugly faces thrust at the camera like so many animatronic penises; THE DEVILS, obviously — Mad Ken kept the whiteness, and much of the structure, including the emphasis on head-shaving — I was unsure just how deep the influence went until Dreyer’s maggoty skull sprang up — THE DEVILS is the pop-art porno version of TPOJOA, with 57 times the violence and 90,000,000 times the tits; Welles — the effect of these sharply focused kissers, the canted angles and rushing figures, suggests Welles must have known this movie, although it’s possible his ideas grew up independently, or both Dreyer and Welles were looking at Eisenstein (both MACBETH and OTHELLO strongly suggest this).

For a film banned in England at the time for its portrayal of the English as, effectively, blasphemous Christ-killers, the multi-national production has one distracting feature — many of the evil English characters resemble British character actors of later years.

Patrick Magee!

Cyril Cusack!

Peter Bull!

And finally, I always wonder at the circumstances that lead to the film being rediscovered in the janitor’s cupboard of an Oslo mental hospital. Screening this film for the inmates might not be advisable — surely any poor schizophrenic patient would be bound to identify with Joan and see her persecutors mirrored by the medical staff? Still, if this lead to the film being retired from the screenings roster, it may be precisely why the film survived in such comparatively good condition to be appreciated today.


14 Responses to “In Your Face!”

  1. My first viewing of Passion was one of the most memorable movie experiences of my life. After purchasing a ticket in Chicago’s “Loop” I had to trudge across the Chicago River to the venue through the worst blizzard in memory, Quite aptly, that venue was the Medina Temple, and the screening had live musical accompaniment. The few brave and determined souls that came out that night heard Richard Einhorn’s orratorio Voices of Light, performed by the Anonymous 4, the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra and I Cantori. It was stunning. Since then I’ve seen many silent films with live piano and organ, and a few with orchestra, but nothing has ever come close to reaching the heights and intensity of that magical night.

  2. The Criterion disc offers Voices of Light as soundtrack, and it’s terrifically effective. I envy your big screen encounter!

  3. Lots of strange stuf with carl Th. Dreyer. He claims not to remember the shooting of Vampyr. Was he in a trance? A bi-polar spisode. Others have suggested this had to do with the fact that during the shoot he developed a mad passion for his DP Rudolph Mate.

    Don’t know is it was ever consumeed but that’s nothign comapred to getting one’s mind around the fact that the same dude who shot Falconetti in TPOJOA also shot Rita Hayworth at her most dvestating.

  4. I saw it about a year ago at the beautiful Paramount Theater in Oakland, with live Voices of Light by a choir which emerged out of nowhere at the end to take their applause. I couldn’t quite figure out where it had been hiding.

  5. The celestial plane?

    Rudolph Mate had quite a spectacular career, even by the formidable standards of German DPs of his era.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Rudolph Mate would go on to film more surreal greats like Laurel and Hardy in Our Realtions :o)

  7. They didn’t like it! They felt the dimensional shadowing he gave their faces added a level of reality harmful to the slapstick. That’s a handsome film, though. I like flat L&H and I like modeled L&H.

    Atmospheric lighting sure didn’t work for WC Fields in Tales of Manhattan though.

  8. I think the second gent looks more like Lionel Stander personally, check it out..

    Great film, although I’ve only ever seen it silent as I was under the impression that was how Dreyer intended it to be shown?

  9. Facially a lot like Stander, but effete, and one can’t imagine an effete Stander. Even if his name IS Lionel.

    The Criterion disc says there was no specially composed score upon release, but it stops short of saying Dreyer intended it that way, so I’m not sure. I do know that I hate sitting in a roomful of people listening to every cough or belly rumble, so some kind of audio is required. And the music seems to me to compliment it magnificently. I guess maybe it’d feel more “austere” without it though.

  10. I saw a version without intertitles and no sound few years ago at the Anthology in NYC, toward the final scenes the tension in the theater was unbelievable, it was like no one was breathing (the small downstairs theater, maybe 50 people in the audience). I think Anthology has three different prints/versions and this one is supposedly the best one quality wise. Sometimes the sound can be actually distracting? Press the mute button and give it a shot!

  11. I’d have no problem watching it home alone silent, but I can’t switch off my ears so the problem of an unaccompanied screening is the inappropriate soundtrack produced by those around me, or by my own metabolism. It’s a personal preference, but I am interested to give the film a shot silent in a home viewing.

  12. trividic Says:

    Y’a un problème : (a mistake)
    Passion de Jeanne d’Arc 1928 de C.T.Dreyer
    En 1928, Peter Bull a 14 ans. has 14 years old.
    Peter Bull (1912-1984) 1er (first) film en 1936 “As You Like It”
    l’éveque Cauchon est joué par Eugène Silvain !!

  13. Don’t worry, I wasn’t seriously suggesting that these actors are actually in the film. I just noted that there were odd likenesses.

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