The power of eyes and a face

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Released 21 April 1928 in director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s native Denmark, and 25 October 1928 in France, the country where it was filmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc is rightly, widely considered among the greatest of all silent films, and one of the greatest films period. It represents silent cinema at its pinnacle, shortly before the advent of talkies and their creaky recording technology made such films impossible to produce for quite some time.

At first glance, it might seem a film mostly built around closeups of faces won’t tell a very compelling, moving story, but that makes it the emotional powerhouse it is. I’m always so emotionally impacted. It’s a raw, stark level of emotion not found in many other films, with all the extras cut out. Eyes and faces tell most of the story.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actor who’d only appeared in one prior film, in 1917. This was her second and final film role. Afterwards, she returned to the stage.

Société Générale des Films invited Carl Theodor Dreyer to make a film in France following the success of his Master of the House in his native Denmark. The subject would be either Joan, Catherine de Medici, or Marie Antoinette. Dreyer claimed it was chosen by drawing matches.

He spent over 18 months researching Joan, who became a saint in 1920, and has long been one of France’s greatest national heroes. Dreyer based the script on the transcripts of Joan’s stacked trial and execution.

On 30 May 1431, Joan is subject to kangaroo court, headed by clergy who are no men of God. No matter how much she’s tortured or mocked, she refuses to recant her belief that she’s been sent on a mission by God to liberate France from the English.

The authorities are horrified she claims to be religious, in a state of grace, sent by God, etc., when she’s “just” a young, illiterate woman, acting without the orders of the Church, wearing clothes considered to be masculine instead of a dress or skirt, not acting meek and submissive. (Don’t get me started on people posthumously transing Joan because she wore pants and didn’t perform stereotypical femininity!)

Joan doesn’t fall for a fake letter from King Charles VII, telling her to trust its bearer, nor does she crack when shown the torture chamber. She faints, but doesn’t falter.

Joan panics when threatened with burning at the stake, and lets a priest guide her hand in a signature on a false confession. The judge then condemns her to a life sentence, and her head is shaved. Joan realises she’s disobeyed God, and demands the judges come back.

Joan recants that confession, and accepts the death penalty. All the while, her faith never wavers.

The film’s French release was held up because many nationalists were horrified Dreyer was neither French nor Catholic, and a rumour Lillian Gish had been cast as Joan. The film was eventually censored, which outraged Dreyer. The Archbishop of Paris demanded more cuts and changes.

Critics loved it, but it was a box office flop. Dreyer’s contract was cancelled, and he accused Société Générale des Films of mutilating his work to avoid offending Catholics. He sued them for breach of contract, and was unable to make another film till autumn 1931.

The film was banned in England, for its portrayal of English soldiers mocking and tormenting Joan.

A fire at Berlin’s UFA Studios on 6 December 1928 destroyed the master negative, and for decades, only versions of Dreyer’s patched-together second version were available. Then, in 1981, an original cut was discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dikemark Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near Oslo.

There were no records of the film being sent to Oslo, but film historians think the hospital director, who was a published historian, may have asked for a special copy.

This film is truly an emotional tour de force, all accomplished without any speech, or even a lot of full-body acting. Joan’s eyes and face are the story. There’s a reason she’s so beloved by the French people.

P.S.: Any comments posthumously transing Joan and distorting history to fit a TRA narrative will be deleted. Joan never claimed to be anything but a woman!

A surrealistic Vampyre story

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Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray) isn’t the type of film the average person will immediately understand and fall in love with. Even I found it very strange, and I’ve watched a lot of avant-garde and experimental films!

The film is based upon Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five Gothic short stories.

Dreyer began planning Vampyr in 1929, a year after the release of his critically successful but financially disastrous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Le Societé Générale des Films cancelled his contract after it bombed, and in return, he accused them of mutilating the film to avoid offending Catholics.

Dreyer sued them for breach of contract, and the lawsuit dragged on till autumn 1931. When he was finally at liberty to work again, he went outside the studio system.

Because the transition from silents to sound happened so quickly, without time to work out the kinks, filming was difficult. Dreyer wanted it to be silent, but it ended up with dialogue used very selectively, explanatory intertitles, and book pages.

In the early sound era, films were often reshot in other languages, with the actors phonetically memorizing their lines. Some were reshot with different actors. In Vampyr, dialogue was mouthed in French, German, and English, so the dubbing wouldn’t look fake.

Much of the dialogue is delivered off-screen or facing away from the camera, to make this process easier. The only actors who didn’t lip-synch were Sybille Schmitz and Nicolas de Gunzburg (billed as Julian West).

The only professional actors were Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor) and Sybille Schmitz (his daughter Léone). The others were recruited in trains, cafés, and shops.

Many of the crew members had worked with Dreyer on Jeanne d’Arc, such as art director Hermann Warm and cameraman Rudolph Maté.

Everything was shot on location, with many scenes in Courtempierre, France. Not only did this save money, but it also increased the surrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere. During filming, the château where much of the story transpires served as housing for cast and crew. Unhappily, it was cold and rat-infested.

The German version renamed the protagonist David and ordered certain graphic scenes censored. Other deleted scenes which don’t exist in any known surviving prints include a Vampyre recoiling against the shadow of a cross, and a ferryman guiding Allan and Gisèle with the help of children building a fire and singing.

Dreyer also prepared a Danish version for his native country, based on the German version, but the distributor couldn’t afford to finish the intertitles in that same style. The Danish distributor also wanted the book pages changed into regular intertitles, but Dreyer refused. He felt the book were as much an actor as the humans.

The German première was delayed by UFA (the main production company), since they wanted the American films Dracula and Frankenstein released first. By the Berlin première of 6 May 1932, the audience booed. In response, Dreyer cut several scenes.

The Paris première in September was the opening attraction for a new cinema on Boulevard Raspail.

A Vienna showing resulted in audiences demanding their money back. When this request was denied, a riot broke out, and cops put it down with night sticks.

By the Copenhagen première in May 1933, Dreyer was a no-show.

The U.S. version was titled Not Against the Flesh. A dubbed, heavily-edited version appeared on the roadshow circuit as Castle of Doom a few years later.

Not long afterwards, Dreyer had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a French mental hospital. He didn’t return to filmmaking till 1943, with Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

Critical reviews of this international box office flop ranged from negative to mixed. In the modern era, viewers, critics, and film scholars are much more positive. This isn’t a film you watch for the story, but rather the visuals and mood.

This is also one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really start understanding. Its many layers become more meaningful with each new viewing.

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who’s become obsessed with the supernatural, is aimlessly wandering. One night, he comes to a strange inn, where his sleep is disrupted by an old man. The intruder leaves a package on the nightstand, with the note, “To be opened upon my death.”

In the morning, Allan wanders to a weird castle, which is full of more strange visions and characters. His next stop is a manor, where the old man from the inn lives. Allan sees what looks like a shadow shooting the old man, who dies after he and the servants rush to his aide.

The servants ask Allan to stay the night, and the old man’s younger daughter Gisèle tells Allan her sister Léone is very sick. At that moment, they see Léone walking outside. When they run to help her, she’s unconscious, with bite wounds on her neck.

After Léone is carried inside, Allan opens the package left on his nightstand. It’s an old book about the history of Vampyres, which further fuels Allan’s obsession. From his reading, he learns Léone is a Vampyric victim.

The creepy doctor convinces Allan to give Léone his blood, and Allan’s dreams and visions become even stranger and more urgent. Will he be able to save Léone and defeat the forces of evil stalking Courtempierre?