Dreyer, Strangness and perversion

Dreyer, strangeness and perversion

‘The polite respect accorded a classic must not obscure the plain fact of the film's strangeness. It is one of the most bizarre, perceptually difficult films ever made, no less disruptive and challenging than the early films of Eisenstein or Ozu.’ David Bordwell - The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

One of the Orlando Consort, who shall be nameless, went to see a production of Waiting for Godot, Becket’s seminal absurdist drama. The next day at a break in rehearsal he told us how much he had hated it. ‘It was awful,’ he said. At one point he’d turned around to see if anyone else shared his opinion only to be greeted by a sea of faces in a state of ecstasy. ‘I’d have walked out,’ he said, ‘only I was there as a guest of my in-laws.’

Such condemnation of classics is rare and, though I don’t share his view, I respected his honesty. That same dynamic is glimpsed in David Bordwell’s observation about Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc which I quote at the beginning of the piece; we tend to obscure our reservations about a classic, or simply our incomprehension, with deference. ‘Interesting’ is the catch-all word most often heard in this context, a postponement of judgement until such time as one has read up on the subject and can offer something more cogent.

In the same spirit of honesty I will admit that I was worried that Dreyer’s film would be met with similar confusion by friends and strangers attending The Orlando Consort’s ‘Voices Appeared’. It is, as Bordwell points out, a very strange movie indeed. My purpose here is to address and describe that strangeness and to venture a few suggestions as to why, despite this potential alienation, audiences respond so positively. And they do. One of the striking things about the various performances that we’ve given this year is just how powerful the filmic experience is. There has even been crying and not, I hasten to add, at our execution (excuse the pun) of the music. Afterwards the audience members look dazed and distinctly upset, and none denies its affect.

So what makes the film so strange? Firstly, it’s not because it’s a silent film. For some this is their first experience with the medium and they may be inclined to ascribe its bizarreness to the unfamiliar idiom, but the grammar of film was well established by the late 1920s - much earlier, in fact - and one needs no prior experience of silent movies to understand it. However, the genre – that of the courtroom drama – is unquestionably a strange choice for the medium. Courtroom dramas, after all, are essentially wordy, characterised by verbal dexterity and, more often than not, have their roots in theatre. Aaron Sorkin, master of ping-pong, screwball dialogue, wrote A Few Good Men as a stage play first, and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men was a TV drama and then a stage play before it made it to the silver screen. One wonders how those movies would play as silent films?

It’s not as if Dreyer didn’t have a choice; Joan’s trial and execution formed only a part of her brief life. When Hollywood came to make Joan of Arc in 1948 starring Ingrid Bergman as the eponymous heroine, the narrative covered her early life at Donrémy, her time at the court of Charles VII at Chinon, her triumph in the battle of Orleans, and finally her trial and execution. Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, similarly focused on action rather than inquisition. Dreyer, though, deliberately chose to concentrate his drama in verbal confrontation, a lead followed by Robert Bresson with his 1962 The Trial of Joan of Arc, which similarly favoured the Danish director’s use of the original court material for sparse dialogue.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arcbegins with a scrolling intertitle which, rather than providing a historical context for the drama that follows, describes the source of the drama: ‘one of world history’s most remarkable documents: the record that was written during the trial of Jeanne d’Arc, the trial that led to her conviction and death’.

We then cut to a shot of an ancient tome - the court records - the pages of which are turned by a contemporary observer, so his suit sleeve and shirt tells us.  The intertitle resumes, though again there is no historical context, not even an indication of the century in which Jeanne lived. Instead we are informed that a human context will be the subject of the next ninety-five minutes; we will witness ‘the judges’ questions and Joan’s answers’ and we will encounter ‘Jeanne as she really was – not in helmet and armour, but simple and human, a young woman who died for her country.’ We are, we are told, to be ‘witnesses to a poignant drama - a young, faithful woman fighting alone against a band of blind theologians and skilled jurists.’  A finger now points to a line in the book, which, as the image fades to black, we presume is where our story begins.

In itself a preamble such as this constitutes a familiar opening to a film, particularly a silent hagiography such as this. The intertitles, albeit with more academic justification than many, sets the scene for the resultant drama in much the same way that the opening of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) begins with a shot of the first page of the Dickens novel accompanied by a voiceover. Bizarrely, though, there are no credits to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, either here or at the end of the film. The history of film credits is long and complicated, most recently dictated by labour union laws, but to have none at all is exceptional. Credits fulfil a very important narrative function, linking the characters with the actors who play them, and anyone familiar with the actor – or star – recognises the figure immediately. But in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc the lack of nomination is taken to extremes: Jeanne is the only character identified by name. When film scholars or commentators talk about the character of Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, played by Eugène Silvain, a leading actor in the Académie Française, they do so based on information provided by sources other than the film itself. Historians watching the film would be able to deduce who he was, but the average audience member wouldn’t know, for example, that he was a chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy, nor that Burgundy was an ally of England which, at the time, occupied France. Dreyer isn’t here expecting his audience to know this; he deliberately chooses not to tell them (and when Lo Duca, in his 1951 version, provided a voice-over that provided exactly such a summation Dreyer objected to what he termed ‘modernisation’). And in choosing not to identify the characters at all the director fulfils the stated brief of the opening intertitles: to make us witness the ‘simple and human’ aspects of the interrogation and immolation of a Saint.

The refusal to provide informing context – exposition by another name – applies not just to the historical events that precede Jeanne’s arrest and the politics of the time but to the court sequences themselves. Many details are merely sketched in, such as the fact that Jeanne is being accused of being a heretic, just as the nature of the trial being political rather than ecclesiastical invites no comment. For only by demonstrating that Jeanne was (mis)led by visions sent by the Devil could the authorities undermine not just her credibility but that of Charles VII, whom Jeanne had seen crowned King of France in Rheims in 1429 in fulfilment of her prophesy. Some seven months after she had been burned at the stake Henry VI of England was crowned King of France, and it is this struggle for the legitimacy of the monarch of France that lies at the centre of the trial.

The judges’ purpose is to prove that the voices that she heard belonged to the devil, not saints. We certainly sense the shape of their tactics by their hectoring, sometimes mocking questions, but Dreyer is neither assuming that we are medieval historians and nor does he wish to educate us; he’s only interested in the human drama. Like Jeanne we’re not entirely sure what is going on. We glean that by dressing in men’s clothing Jeanne has somehow offended the court or perhaps even ecclesiastical law, but it would only take a single line to make explain that, according to Deuteronomy, Jeanne has contravened divine law. It is as if we, as an audience, are made as simple as Jeanne, accused of things we don’t understand, bullied by hidden knowledge, kept ignorant of the charges brought and the reason for them.

We find the same sketchy exposition in the matter of the Our Father, or the Pater Noster. Early in the film D’Estivet speaks to Cauchon, and Cauchon turns to ask Joan to say her Our Father. She shakes her head and wipes away a tear. Cauchon wags a finger at her and his eyebrows rise, an admonishment or perhaps a question. Again Jeanne shakes her head. There is only one intertitle here – ‘Say the Our Father’ - and nowhere is the relevance of Jeanne’s refusal to recite it explained. Here is what Dreyer’s screenplay offers:

The Promoter, Jean d'Estivet, whispers to Cauchon:

                Tell her to say the Our Father! If she refuses,

                it will be evidence of her being possessed by

                the Devil.

        Cauchon nods and tells Joan to say the Our Father. She refuses. Jean

        d'Estivet and Cauchon exchange glances. Cauchon tells her urgently to

        do his bidding, but Joan refuses again, for she is afraid that memories

        of her mother and her home in Domrémy are going to overwhelm her.

We see Jeanne’s anguish but Dreyer withholds the reasons for the question and the reason for her distress. In itself it doesn’t entirely matter - we understand that the judges know more than Jeanne and that she’s resisting their bidding - yet we return to the same issue later in the film and here the refusal of explanation or even context is more troubling, not least because it suggests that we, as spectators might have missed something. This time it is Lemaître who instructs Jeanne to recite the prayer (Pater noster, qui es in coelis – it’s easy to lip-read the Latin words) and she obliges, her face held in close-up – beatific, uplifted – while intercut with this are two separate shots of priests looking on. Jeanne pronounces ‘Amen’ and we cut rudely to a shot of d’Estivet sneering something at the court recorder. The camera pans down and words are scored from the record. Jeanne is quietly triumphant and Loyseleur, pretending to be an honest advisor, nods his approval. We as spectators cannot, though, comprehend the nuances or of the drama without recourse to a history book, a primer on theology and, most importantly, a copy of Dreyer’s script:

A perceptible change comes over Joan. Her expression is transfigured. A heavenly light spreads over her face, she folds her hands and begins to pray. The sight of this small and helpless woman, turning to God in captivating innocence, makes an involuntary impression on some of the judges. The gentle Massieu in particular can hardly restrain his tears.

Joan has said the Our Father. Jean d'Estivet is thus obliged to eliminate this important point from his charge-sheet.

Again, in our ignorance we, as spectators, share something of Jeanne’s (innocent) confusion.


I’m going to write a separate essay on the particular nature of film space in the movie, but it might help to consider the previous example in a little more detail. Lemaître’s questions to Joan about the Lord’s Prayer are shown with him looking off screen left, gazing down at Jeanne. But when he begins another line of questioning without any of the characters having moved, he is now looking up at her.  To interpret this inconsistency as metaphor is certainly possible – Lemaître has been belittled; Jeanne is now in the ascendancy - but the examples are so numerous that one hesitates to do so.

Similarly when Jeanne looks to Loyseleur for confirmation that she has done the right thing she looks off to her right and the next shot is of Lemaitre presumably meeting her gaze. Only rather than their looks meeting according to the conventions of film space, both are looking off screen left. 

There is no doubt though that they are acknowledging each other: he nods and she smiles faintly. The vertical direction of their looks is at least consistent, with her looking up and he down, but the horizontal dimension makes little sense. It’s tempting to venture something here about Dreyer commenting on Loyseleur’s deceitfulness - perhaps this is a subconscious signal to the audience to remind them of his hypocrisy? – but it rather stretches things.  Instead I think that we simply have to accept that Dreyer isn’t interested, in this film at least, in subscribing to filmic convenstions. Instead narrative space is subordinate to emotional affect, primarily the suffering indicated in the Danish title of the film, Jeanne d'Arcs Lidelse og Død, which translates as Jeanne d’Arc's Suffering and Death.


Clearly Dreyer enjoyed an artistic freedom that is granted to few. And I suspect it led him into conflict not just with his producers but also his crew. The budget for the movie was a startling 7 million Francs, this at a time when the average film budget was half a million. And it actually swelled during the shooting to 9 million, putting it in touching distance of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon released in 1927, a film which employed thousands of extras and therefore required a budget of 11 million Francs. At least one million of Dreyer’s budget went on the set, which was built in Boulogne-Billancourt in the suburbs of Paris. Yet, because of the refusal to use establishing shots (see separate essay on this) we only see fragments of it and certainly no grand establishing shot that reveals the immensity of the construction. Yes, we see the drawbridge at the end of the movie as it rises, and we see an interior courtyard with cobblestones and the occasional tower, but we don’t even step outside the castle until an hour into the film. And given the preponderance of close-ups against walls (apparently painted pink, which would have flattened the faces rather than making them ‘pop’) there’s pretty much nothing that couldn’t have been achieved on an interior set.

What the set served as instead was as a virtual home for cast and crew so that they could immerse themselves in the experience. The film was shot in sequence, and those playing priests were tonsured. This is ‘method acting’ well before the age of Brando and De Niro, all of it in the name of authenticity, and one can imagine the actors enjoying it. By the same token, one can only imagine the ire of the production designer and his crew when they saw the final cut.

For all this strangeness, the film is not difficult, which is to say that it is comprehensible and emotionally engaging. We feel Jeanne’s suffering and, like the crowd, are horrified by her death. And if the film is challenging, to use Bordwell’s word, then it is because the demands that are made on us by Dreyer’s historical vision are visceral rather than intellectual, this despite an opening intertitle that suggests a cold, detached documentary style. By the time we reach the final rolling intertitle a lot has changed, not least the shift from historical authenticity (the source, the document) to spiritual supposition (the soul, Heaven, the heart). This involves a virtual abandonment of the source material, for what happens in the courtyard – the execution, the rioting, the brutalisation of the crowd – are not a part of the source material.

The final sequence of the film creates an obvious rhyme with the opening and answers several motifs. Rather than the downward look of the camera at the court records, in the final segment of the film a series of shots describe upward movements – extremely low camera positions with the crowd running over it, flames rising to the heavens, the drawbridge lifting. Finally we have a shot of the stake and, in the background, a cross, and the camera tilts upwards. The rolling intertitles now begin, similar to those of the opening sequence though in larger font: ‘the surrounding flames protected Jeanne’s soul as it rose towards Heaven - Jeanne, whose heart has remained the heart of France..... Jeanne, whose memory for all time will be honoured by the people of France.’ (punctuation from Danish intertitles). At one level this is a sleight of hand on Dreyer’s part, though it answers the stated purpose of the opening words of the film, as so much of the strangeness of the film does. It’s a remarkably powerful film and, if you haven’t seen it, then do make every effort to do so, whether or not the Orlando Consort is on hand.

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