This is an extended version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of The Parson’s Widow at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied brilliantly by John Sweeney – who will be playing live for the film in Bristol soon. See details below.
Don’t let the forbidding reputation of Carl Th. Dreyer, legendary director of films including The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, mislead you. Dreyer didn’t believe that seriousness and quality went hand in hand. “God forbid! It would be a terrible world if we only had problem films,” he said. “I put, to be sure, farce and comedy just as high. Only one most note that in back of it all is love, heart, and warmth.”
The Parson’s Widow (1920) was Dreyer’s first comedy and is a wonderful example of not just his humour but his humanism. In the words of film historian Eileen Bowser: “Once we have seen The Parson’s Widow, is it easier to find a comic element in even the most serious Dreyer films, stemming from Dreyer’s humanism, his acceptance of man for what he is, with all his weaknesses and strengths.”
This is an edited version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of Laila at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied by a spellbinding score by Rona Wilkie and Märit Falt, commissioned by Hippfest, which will be touring Scottish venues with the film in the coming months – more details below.
George Schnéevoigt was born in Copenhagen in 1893. His Danish father was a musician and his Finnish mother was a photographer. He lived with her in Berlin for much of childhood, before returning to Denmark as a young man to become a filmmaker. As a director at the Nordisk studio, he directed several films, but he also worked as a cinematographer, most notably on some beautiful films by Carl Th. Dreyer (The Parson’s Widowand Leaves from Satan’s Book, both 1920). It was when working as a cinematographer on a film called The People of the Wilds (1928), a melodrama set in the Sami community in northern Norway, that he was struck by the inspiration for his Laila (1929).
With the help of Norwegian producer Helge Lunde, Schnéevoigt was able to make Laila, an adaptation of a popular novel about the Sami people by author J. A. Friis. At the time, the indigenous Sami people, who lived in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, were the targets of a certain amount of racial prejudice – traces of which you can see in the finished film. Nevertheless, Friis’s novel took a slightly more sympathetic view, and had proved a big success. It had first been written as individual stories under the title From Finnmark: Descriptions, but Friis added more chapters to create a cohesive novel named Lajla, using the adventures of a young woman to tie the story together. Continue reading Laila (1929): the epic adventure of a young woman’s life→
One of the strands running through Carl Th Dreyer’s beautiful drama Michael (1924) is the idea that art can only be truly great when it is animated by love. The artist protagonist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) struggles to finish a commissioned portrait of a rich countess – his passion project takes his young protégée Michael (a youthful, handsome Walter Slezak) as its model instead. When Michael finishes the portrait for his master, the quality of his work betrays the fact that his own affection has been transferred to the model.
The film’s famous line, “Now I may die content, for I have seen great love” carries this lesson over to the art of living itself. Better to have loved and lost, as the saying goes. It’s a conclusion that recalls the moving speech that caps off last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Far less explicitly than that film, Michael also takes gay love as its subject – a topic dealt with more openly in certain German films of the era (Sex in Chains, Different from the Others). It’s unmistakably a gay story, seen in the 21st century. Perhaps in 1924, some members of the audience might have missed it – although not in the US, where the film was released as The Invert, and not if they were familiar with the author of the film’s source novel Herman Bang, a gay writer who wrote heartfelt stories, largely, it seems, about lonely and unfulfilled women.
Just a quick note to tell you about a very special screening of one of our favourite silent films: Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc will be shown in the atmospheric setting of Islington’s Union Chapel in July. It’s an intense, cathartic, grotesque and beautiful film – every silent film fan should see it at least once.
Do you need me to tell you that it’s based on the transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial, that Falconetti’s performance will break your heart and it’s one of the greatest films of all time? No, you knew all that. So book your tickets already.
While the director famously intended the film to be played in silence, musicians over the years have created some unforgettable scores for this masterpiece – and this screening will be accompanied by organ, voice and electronic instrumentation. You can watch a clip of the film with this score in the video above.
On Wednesday 17th July the organ will be at centre stage in the musical accompaniment to a landmark screening of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Composer Irene Buckley has created a haunting score to accompany what is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, and this London premiere performance is set to send shivers down the spines of all of those lucky enough to witness it in the atmospheric surroundings of Union Chapel’s stunning Gothic architecture. Organist James McVinnie will bo on hand, and performed at the recent Royal Wedding, plus in concert with Philip Glass and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and he also recorded with The National on their latest album. This incredible production has recently sold out in Glasgow and Cork to great critical acclaim – it’s been hailed as “a once in a lifetime experience … pure cinema genius”. The Passion of Joan of Arc comes to London for one night only and cannot be missed.
Why the organ? Why the chapel? Well, the cine-concert is the highlight of a week of events at the Union Chapel called the Organ Project, celebrating the restoration of its classic Henry Willis organ, originally built in 1877:
Restoration is complete on the Union Chapel’s 19th Century organ, which will officially be launched to the public on 14 July 2013 in a week long programme encompassing traditional recitals, stunning contemporary performances and the London premiere of Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece of silent film, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, set to a new critically acclaimed score for soprano, church organ and electronics. In the launch week and future concerts,The Organ Project will not only honour the legacy of this amazing instrument but also discover new musical perspectives by exploring styles and genres rarely attempted on a mechanical organ. Proceeds will go towards Union Chapel’s Organ Education Outreach Fund.
The Passion of Joan of Arc screens at the Union Chapel on 17 July 2013. Doors open at 7pm and the film will screen at 8.45pm. Tickets cost £15 in advance. Read more and book tickets here.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
When Sight & Sound unveiled the results of their once-a-decade poll of The Greatest Films of All Time earlier this year, I was both relieved and disappointed to see Carl Th Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc riding high at number nine: relieved that the film was there at all (it has been literally in and out of the top 10 every decade since the poll was first conducted in 1952), but disappointed that it wasn’t higher. Why? Because, quite simply, it is more deserving of the top spot than any other film.
Rightly famous for its unbridled use of close-ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the nearest cinema has ever come to capturing and rendering the human soul on-screen. But lest you worry that that makes it little more than a relic of pious Christianity, the emphasis here is very much on human. As the opening titles state, the film is concerned with a “simple and human” Joan, one who should be seen not as a warrior, but as “a young woman who died for her country”. Dreyer’s choice of religious subjects has led to great misunderstanding of his oeuvre and, in no uncertain terms, his interest throughout his career remained grounded in a thorough examination of human (and often female) suffering.
Here, the suffering woman is Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans, a young peasant girl who led an army into battle in the hope of driving the English out of 15th-century France. Believing herself to be working under the auspices of three different Saints, Joan was eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake at the age of 19. It is her trial and execution – her Passion – that Dreyer retells, basing his film upon the transcripts of the actual trial.
Avoiding the spectacle of many historically set films, Dreyer opted instead to keep his camera focused on the faces of Joan and her assailants. Condensing, as he does, the events of Joan’s lengthy trial and execution into a single day, Dreyer approaches a unity of time, place and action – and yet, for all his painstaking historical research, the film’s fractured use of cinematic grammar elevates the action beyond the physical world and into a metaphysical realm. The sparseness of the film’s sets eliminate depth, while the constant close-ups and broken eye-lines render the space unimportant (and, to an extent, unintelligible). Joan and her suffering are all that matter, all we must understand. The historical context and politics are secondary; first and foremost is a scared, tormented young girl. Dreyer may have denied that his film belonged to the avant-garde, but this is not conventional film-making: every aspect, from the architecture to the camera movements, from the rhythm to the compositions, conspires to contribute to Joan’s assault. Even now, after more than 80 years, Dreyer’s film is as fresh and as powerful as the year it was made: this is form and content synthesising at the highest level. And, while it would be a crime not to comment on the uniformly superb performances, to do so would be to undermine the purity of the film’s perfection. Falconetti does not play Joan. She is Joan. And Joan, for now and for evermore, is Falconetti.
Thankfully, Mie Yanashita’s piano score turns out to be something of a marvel. Echoing the rich simplicity of the film itself, Yanashita focuses on the film’s tenderness, allowing moments such as the shedding of Joan’s first tear a new beauty. Listening to this music with the breathtaking 20fps restoration was like seeing the film again for the very first time (a feeling no doubt cultivated by the insertion of the original Danish intertitles and their new English translation). There is a startling splendour to the restoration, and while the 24fps version may feel more familiar, moments there slipped over take on new resonances here, while the slower pacing allows a fuller savouring of the images in all their glorious detail. As the film progresses and the tension mounts, Yanashita isn’t afraid to pick up the drama, yet still manages to avoid the occasional heavy-handedness that marred Utley and Gregory’s recent score. While it’s perhaps true that Yanashita’s score never reaches the dizzying heights of Einhorn’s, it’s a moving and graceful accompaniment nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Loren Connors’ tedious and barbaric soundtrack to the 24fps version, which somehow manages to do the impossible and actually take the life out of the film. Perhaps it will appeal to some, but I found it insensitive and intrusive, and for me it detracted from the viewing experience far more than it added to it. I would certainly urge first-time viewers of the film to steer well clear.
It should be noted, of course, that Dreyer expressed a preference for the film to be viewed silent, and Masters of Cinema has loyally made this the default option for playback, so in some respects the choice of soundtracks is irrelevant. However, being given the choice of two scores (or three if you count the silence) and two playback speeds makes this a very special package indeed.
Completing the package is another, alternative version of the film: the complete ‘Lo Duca’ cut. When the original camera negative was thought lost to a lab fire, Dreyer reassembled the film using alternative takes … only for this new version to be lost to a second fire. However, in the 1950s the French film historian Joseph-Marie Lo Duca stumbled across a print of Dreyer’s second version. After recutting the film, Lo Duca put his version into circulation, despite Dreyer’s disapproval. Generally considered a bastardisation of Dreyer’s original vision, the Lo Duca version of the film has been relegated to the status of curiosity ever since the miraculous discovery of Dreyer’s first version in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s. Yet, for those with a passion for Joan, it’s a fascinating alternative version – an imperfect version of a perfect film. The first thing that struck me about it was the fact that the actual experience of watching it is nowhere near as horrendous as one would expect, given the interference. Additions such as an opening voiceover detailing the historical background may go against the very fabric of Dreyer’s intentions, but his genius still shines through. What’s more, a comparison of the Lo Duca and original versions teaches us much about Dreyer’s film-making choices.
Such a comparison is made easier by the excellent essay Two Passions – One Film? by the preeminent Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg, found in the accompanying 100-page booklet. Alongside Tybjerg’s essay are pieces by Chris Marker, André Bazin, Antonin Artaud, Luis Buñuel, HD, and Dreyer himself. But the bulk of the booklet is formed by a chapter from Jean and Dale D Drum’s Dreyer biography My Only Great Passion, which, in detailing the film’s production, puts lie to the idea of Dreyer as a cruel despotic director who tortured Falconetti’s performance out of her (written with approval and assistance from Dreyer, My Only Great Passion remains the definitive Dreyer biography).
Although the excellent booklet goes a long way towards making up for it, it’s a shame that no audio commentary was included in the package (especially given Tybjerg’s excellent commentary on the Criterion DVD). However, while Tybjerg’s commentary and Einhorn’s Voices of Light mean you shouldn’t throw away your Criterion disc just yet, it’s undeniable that the new restoration and the choice of versions take the Masters of Cinema release to the next level. This is an essential purchase in every conceivable way.
The coming of sound was always going to be a shock. But bear with me, dear readers, you’ll soon become accustomed to this new-fangled technology. Silent London has branched into the world of podcasting and and the first edition is ready for you to download and listen to now.
Episode one features Ewan Munro and Pete Baran chatting to me in the studio about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent films, the forthcoming British Silent Film Festival, their favourite recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases and a lot more. Sight and Sound contributing editor Mark Sinker also takes the time to tell us about his favourite silent movie, Nosferatu. You’ll information about pretty much everything we discuss on the podcast somewhere on this site, but you may also want to click here, to see the BFI YouTube channel. The music is by kind permission of Neil Brand, and the podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio.
Today, Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for one lost-and-found silent masterpiece, and five subsequent sound films shot many years apart – but the little-mentioned fact is that the 1920s were his most productive decade. The BFI’s forthcoming retrospective, The Passion of Carl Dreyer, offers a chance to to shift the balance. In March, you’ll be able to see all nine of the Danish director’s silent features on the big screen, from 1919’s daring The President to the timeless The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). A closer look at Dreyer’s silents is always rewarding, both for their continuity with the themes of religion and female suffering found in his later films such as Ordet and Day of Wrath, and for the revelation that this serious Scandinavian was also a master of comedy.
Dreyer had been working as a journalist when he was first hired by the Nordisk company in 1913 to write intertitles and to edit and write screenplays. This was a boomtime for Danish cinema: in the teens, Nordisk was not just making hundreds of films a year but exporting them widely too. From writing intertitles, he discovered the strength of distilled, almost elliptical speech – he later talked about how he whittled down the dialogue in Vampyr (1930) until it was almost a silent film, and it was all the more powerful, all the more eerie, for his labours. Dreyer worked on the screenplays of several literary adaptations at this time, which also cemented his opinion that great films should have literary sources – and all his features did.
It was as he grew more confident in his work at the studio, and was working as an editor, that Dreyer developed his signature film-making style too – before he had even stepped on set as a director. As David Bordwell has written, Nordisk’s films at this time were predominantly shot in the “tableau” style, with the actors blocked in sophisticated patterns on a deep stage. When Dreyer got behind a camera he ditched that approach in favour of an edit-heavy style more popular with American film-makers such as DW Griffith. This distinctive, modern, method is apparent in his very first feature, just as it is in the barrage of close-ups that comprise his final silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The purpose of this post is to offer a quick introduction to Dreyer’s silents, which are for the most part much less widely seen than his sound films – and really do draw a different picture of the director. I assume that most of you are familiar with The Passion of Joan of Arc – if you haven’t seen it, you must take this opportunity to do so – but I also highly recommend many of the others, especially The Parson’s Widow and The Master of the House.