Film Preview: “The Passion of Joan of Arc” — Silent Film Meets Opera

By Tim Jackson

This screening of Carl Dreyer’s classic film will offer some exceptional, and exciting, musical strengths.

Marie Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer, is one the greatest films of the silent era. So it well deserves the kind of special treatment — including a new score — that’s being served up by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, under the direction of Sheldon Mirowitz. (The 1928 film will be screened, with fresh musical accompaniment, on June 6 in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline at 7 p.m. and on June 9 in The Cabot in Beverly at 7 p.m.) The BSFO  has previously composed scores for a wide variety of silent films, with a particular interest in the work of F.W. Murnau — Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), The Last Laugh (1924), and Sunrise (1927) — along with E.A. Dupont’s Varieté (1925), Harold Lloyd’s classic college comedy The Freshman (1925), and last year’s The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Mirowitz, a professor in Berklee’s Film Scoring Department, points out that this screening will offer some exceptional, and exciting, features: “The film was most likely shot at 20 frames per second, and the meditative and emotionally wrenching pace and style of the film is noticeably affected when it is played at the faster 24 fps. It is simply more real and more powerful when shown at the correct speed.  The question of speed is even more significant when you add in the effect of music. It will be (to my knowledge) the first orchestral style score for the 20 fps version of the film.”

The Passion of Joan Of Arc brings an operatic fervor to courtroom drama. Characters are constantly speaking though, of course,  they are not heard in the silent version. Intertitles are called on to pull considerable weight. But Dreyer also uses visuals in a groundbreakingly dramatic way to convey the legal debate and spiritual writhings. He makes brilliant use of extended close-ups. A 1928 review in The New Yorker described the startling effect: “The pictorial quality is unusual, the faces, being brought forward so enlarged as to reveal the porous nature of the skin at times disconcerting and even shocking especially in the case of the prelates who are questioning the girl.”  The review continues: “The close shorn head of the peasant girl (a remarkable Marie Falconetti) with its fine sculptural molding suggests the sublimity of her conviction and the simplicity of her origin.”

As the orchestra composed the score, Mirowitz says that the notion of film-as-opera was invaluable: “We have decided to bring voices to the film — not spoken, but sung.  The idea of using a sung score has been done before with this film — in fact, all three large scale scores that I have seen/heard with this film are done with singers.  The religiousness of the subject matter lends itself to voices and choirs. But what we are doing is much more than that.  We are actually singing the speech that is on camera — making the score basically an opera, or oratorio.” To achieve this aesthetic goal,  a quartet of singers, backed by a synthetic choir, sings the words (as exactly as possible) that are mouthed on screen. (A 27-page libretto has been put together for this version, which is sung in French and Latin.)  “It is quite a remarkable thing to see in the theater — there is usually a gasp the first time it happens” insists Mirowitz.

The subject of The Passion of Joan of Arc is timely: a women martyred for her beliefs by a group of all male accusers in the name of religion. Joan’s accusers often look directly at the camera; Dreyer emphasizes the most sinister and leering faces among them. The increasingly grotesque visuals in this patriarchal nightmare are shaped to induce a state of paranoia. As the interrogation goes on, the shots move from the ‘normal’ to the distorted and aggressive. Angles become oblique and space is fragmented, to the point that viewers are disoriented. We don’t know where subjects are sitting or, sometimes, in what direction they are facing.  The heads of random spectators and jurists seem to pop up out of nowhere.

The film, Mirowitz explains, is often performed silently, an homage to its astounding visuals, which still contain an unnerving power. But this screening assists Dreyer’s legendary pictorials in an unusual way.  Add a talented group of musicians and singers performing an original score with vocals and you have a very distinctive treat — silent film as opera.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts