The legacy of the silent film era is always with us, even as we move further and further away from film and closer to computer art. Not only do the compositions, costuming, and camerawork of golden age classics like Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and others continue to inform current directors’ work, CGI and otherwise, but these films have spawned their own prestigious form of music. In recent decades scores for classic silents have become the special provenance of avant-garde and experimental composers. The pairing makes sense. These are movies that raised the stakes for their medium and established the first generation of cinematic auteurs—Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, Carl Dreyer, the Danish director of 1928’s profoundly intense The Passion of Joan of Arc.
As with all of the acknowledged classics of the era, Dreyer’s masterpiece has received many contemporary musical treatments in the past few decades, including an original operetta by Richard Einhorn (on the Criterion Collection edition) and many more classical and modernist scores. But it has also been part of a parallel trend—of indie rock musicians like Dengue Fever, Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, and Dean and Britta scoring classic silent films. First, Australians Nick Cave and The Dirty Three came together in 1995 to play a live soundtrack for Joan of Arc in London. Then Cat Power accompanied the film in 1999 for several dates. In 2011, for one night only, Chicago indie stalwarts Joan of Arc performed their 80-minute instrumental score for a packed screening at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Hear it, along with the film, above. (A copy can be purchased online here.) It was an “unexpected turn for the band,” their label Joyful Noise notes, given that they had just “released their most conventionally ‘rocking’ album in years, ‘Life Like.’”
Associated with singer and sole permanent member Tim Kinsella’s raspy yelps and warped songcraft, the band here takes a post-rock direction, loud and dirge-like. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does, writes Joyful Noise, offer a “dark, flowering sonic counterpart to the film’s grim subject matter (which is a rather haunting depiction of savage religious persecution).” Dreyer’s film is indeed a grim work of art, but it is not any less beautiful for its oppressive narrative. As running titles in the Joan of Arc-scored film’s intro inform us, like its protagonist, “The Passion of Joan of Arc was the victim of several ordeals,” including censorship upon release and the loss of the original negative and a re-edited copy to fire. Likewise for the film’s actress, the great Renee Maria Falconetti, “the performance was an ordeal,” as Roger Ebert points out, with legends telling “of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face.”
Known “only in mutilated copies” for over half a century, the 1985 restoration above comes from an original Danish copy discovered “complete and in very good condition” at a Norwegian mental institution in 1981. It is a curious story. Scholars have often speculated that the historical Joan of Arc was schizophrenic or that she suffered from “one of numerous neurological and psychiatric conditions that trigger hallucinations or delusions.” Falconetti’s performance of Joan is ambiguous, suggesting on the one hand, a “faith that seemed to stay any suggestion of irritation,” as one contemporary reviewer wrote, and on the other, the dazed, faraway look of a person in the throes of mental illness. And the film’s warped perspectives and extreme close-ups and angles suggest a kind of disturbance, of the corrupt, superstitious social order that interrogates and executes Joan, and also of Joan’s mind as she confronts her implacable judges. Joan of Arc’s pulsing, atmospheric soundtrack, draws out this very tension, written in Falconetti’s every exquisite expression.
This version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. Another version, without any sound whatsoever, can be found above.