The Passion of Carl Dreyer: Paris celebrates cinema’s ‘forgotten’ master
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” was regarded as a miracle of cinema long before its original print resurfaced in a Norwegian mental institution. A new retrospective at the Paris Cinémathèque helps rediscover its revered director.
The sheer quantity and variety of films on offer throughout the year is one of the great marvels of Paris. Whichever day, whatever the time, whether one fancies spaghetti western, theNouvelle Vague or martial arts, at least one of the city’s 431 screens is bound to oblige.
Screenings of century-old silent movies can be harder to come by, even in the city of light – but not this autumn. Last month, viewers were treated to a new release of Murnau’s 1927 classic “Sunrise” (“the most beautiful film in the world”, as François Truffaut put it). Next up is a chance to rediscover the work of another of cinema’s masters, who accompanied the transition from silent film to sound.
“Carl Dreyer is undoubtedly one of the great names of cinematography – so great he sometimes seems a little intimidating,” said Jean-François Rauger, head of programming at the Cinémathèque française, the Paris film archive and museum that is hosting a comprehensive retrospective of the Danish director’s work.
“We noticed that Dreyer’s films were seldom shown in cinemas, that a body of work so crucial to the history of cinematography had vanished somewhat,” Rauger told FRANCE 24. “It is important to make sure young generations can see these films that are never shown on TV.”
Rauger said it was the role of the Cinémathèque, a largely state-funded institution, to “remind viewers why some filmmakers are regarded as the great masters of the art”, particularly when their work is rarely screened.
While “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (“La passion de Jeanne d’Arc“), Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, is regularly ranked by critics among the finest movies of all time, its director has been largely forgotten by the general public. In part, this may be down to the fact that his extraordinarily varied body of work is difficult to categorise.
Dreyer’s repertoire encompasses comedy, social realism, period and horror. His work is sometimes furiously paced and elsewhere languid. It can be loquacious or use dialogue with parsimony. Some films are centred on searing close-ups, where others favour long shots and painterly compositions.
“He made few films, but every one of them is unique and singular and fundamental for the art of cinematography,” said Rauger.
Dreyer is best remembered for the six feature films he shot in the thirty-six years between the “Passion of Joan of Arc” and his last work “Gertrud” in 1964, four years before his death. Most were commerical flops, forcing him into long spells during which he wrote about cinema, but could not shoot.
It wasn’t always so. In fact Dreyer started off as a hugely prolific filmmaker, releasing eight films between 1918 and 1925, when the golden age of Danish cinema was coming to an end. He later dismissed his early work; but its success at the time paved the way for the job offer that would change his career and, to some extent, the medium itself.
A ‘landscape of human emotions’
His appointment to shoot a French film about Joan of Arc – France’s national heroine, who had just been made a saint in 1924 – was scoffed at by many nationalists, who noted that the filmmaker was neither Catholic nor French. Rumours that Hollywood star Lillian Gish would take on the lead role only heightened their disdain.
Dreyer’s detractors were right to suspect his film would be anything but a patriotic show. He soon cast aside the script he was handed and poured over the court records of Joan’s trial for heresy, condensing its four months into a single day. Out went the 15th-century battle scenes and epic triumphs, leaving only the tussle between the future saint and a dogmatic church.
The Dutch director spent a large part of his enormous budget building a fake castle in a country littered with very real ones, and then reduced the fabulously expensive set to an abstract, claustrophobic décor that appears to conspire against the Maid of Orléans, like her inquisitors.
He dug holes in the set to achieve the low camera angles that enhanced the interrogators’ threatening gaze, and elaborated an extraordinarily dynamic montage for Joan’s cross-examination, in which hostile faces surround and prod her.
Dismissing the celebrity candidates put forward by producers, Dreyer eventually found his Joan in stage actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (credited as Maria Falconetti in the film), in whose unvarnished, life-weary features he foresaw the passion and suffering of France’s martyr-heroine.
Throughout the shooting, he filmed his lead actress at mercilessly close quarters, insisting that Falconetti wear no make-up and agree to have her hair shorn. The result of their collaboration is a performance so absorbing it continues to amaze audiences almost a century on.
Under Dreyer’s gaze, “Falconetti’s face becomes a landscape of human emotions,” said the Cinémathèque’s Rauger, highlighting the filmmaker’s ability to “discover radically new expressions through narrow close-ups”.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” has enjoyed cult status over the years – it is Falconetti’s tears that prompt Anna Karina to shed tears of her own in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivre sa vie” –, but the film was a commercial fiasco at the time, and its tormented history would go on to mirror the trials of its protagonist.
Dreyer was powerless to prevent government censors and the archbishop of Paris from slashing whole scenes, and then a series of fires destroyed the original negative as well as subsequent cuts. The full movie was thought to be lost forever, until a perfect print miraculously resurfaced in the closet of a janitor for an Oslo mental institution in 1981 – though the filmmaker was dead by then.
In later films, including “Vampyr” (1932), “Day of Wrath” (1943) and “Ordet” (1955), Dreyer continued to explore the themes of faith, intolerance and death that he tackled in his earlier masterpiece.
His depiction of Joan’s ordeal has been likened to the Stations of the Cross; and though Dreyer died before he could fulfill his lifelong dream of filming a life of Jesus, the passion of Christ permeates so much of his work it is as if he had done it already.
The Carl Dreyer retrospective runs from October 12 to November 6, 2016, at the Cinémathèque française in Paris.