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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

The Passion of Carl Theodore Dreyer

What? Who the hell am I talking about? His name is Carl Theodor Dreyer, and he directed arguably one of the greatest films in history. The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Passion is pretty intense. Not for the faint-hearted. It has a spectacular performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan at its heart. She never acted in a film again. Dreyer was Method before Method, and if he did what the rumors say he did to Renée, it's no wonder she didn't do another film. My boy Carl would have been canceled and fast!

Dreyer spent more than a year studying the actual heresy trial transcripts. He crafted a solid script boiling down months of testimony into one day, her last day. Dreyer elected to shoot it in sequential order rather than in production order. They started shooting page one on day one and continued like that. He had Renée in jail and on her knees throughout the filming.

After World War One, the Catholic Church canonized Joan of Arc, and she became the patron saint of France. After the success of his film, Master of the House, the Société Générale des Films invited the Danish Director to Paris to make a film. Any film. It was a toss-up, Marie Antoinette? Catherine De Medici? Joan of Arc? Joan of Arc for the point! No sooner than production starts, the French Nationalists publicly complain that no Dane could understand the Maid of Orleans. Then the Church gets involved.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc (1928)
Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc (1928)

By the time the film is complete, it is already in trouble. The Société Générale des Films is forced to make cuts to appease the Church but infuriates its director. The British immediately banned the film because it made the British soldiers look bad. As it should, they burned a teenager at the stake, for Chrissakes! Anyway, the reviewers applaud the movie for the acting, the direction, and the camera work, especially its use of close-ups. Without special effects, Dreyer elects to focus on Joan's face in the climactic moments. Boy, does he bang you over the head! So many close-ups. It feels like she's burning in real-time! They call slow, long, static takes "deliberate pacing" in cinema speak. Water boils faster than in this movie.

The Société Générale des Films does the Church's cuts, the Nationalists cuts, the British cuts, the milk man's cuts, and the dude at the deli counter. As a result, of the many film cuts, the film found its way to the public—official film versions run from 61 to 72 minutes. Dreyer managed to cut a version for himself, but it was presumed lost in a warehouse fire. There have been versions with intertitles, subtitles, modern music, classical musicals, and an unsuccessful Pink Floyd version. (Though the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz sort of holds together) I had a 16mm film copy that ran a little more than 45 minutes when I was a teenager.

Because of Dreyer's hostility about the changes, he gets called a prima donna by, The Société Générale, pre-dating Harvey Weinstein’s comments about. Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Mira Sorvino, by at least five decades. Then he proves it by suing for his editorial control of the film. He can't work in the three years it took in court for him to lose.

Unfortunately, the critics loved it, and the people stayed away in droves. Since 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc has been considered one of the best films ever made. The French press called it a masterpiece, but that's what they said about the Disorderly Orderly. But the film made no money, and of all the prominent European directors, he is the only one not to be invited to make a film in America. Not even once!

Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc (1928)
Renée Jeanne Falconetti still burning as Joan

Because of America's impact on early film, it became a dream of every director to make a film in Hollywood. Even the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein wanted to make a film in the United States, but even with American financing behind him, politics sandbagged him. The closest he got was Mexico, and as a result, he barely survived his return empty-handed from North America. That Joseph Stalin had no sense of humor.

But this wasn't the end of Carl Theodore Dreyer. No sir. Making a feature film is very hard, and finding a guy who knows how is harder. And so, our boy gets a couple of shots—five shots between 1931s Vampyr and 1965s Gertrude. The critics also loved most of these, except for Vampyr. In that case, both the critics and audiences agreed. It was a stinker! Watching the film now, they were wrong. It doesn't stink. I'd go so far as say it was pretty cool.

Vampyr, was very difficult for Dreyer to make. He insisted that he could only shoot the material on location, not in the studio. It was his first sound film, which was way out of his comfy space. His solution to the problem of sound was to cut dialogue. It even has interstitial title cards like a silent movie to further the exposition. Since the film was a European co-venture, all the talking scenes got shot in three languages, German, French, and English. The film received financing from the International Best Dressed List Hall of Famer, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. In exchange for his daddy's money, he had to star in the film under his stage name, Julian West. Never let the star pay for the movie. Just look at the later Tom Cruise "Star" Vehicles. It's a mistake not to make.

The New York Times reviewer, Herbert Matthews, wrote, " many ways, Vampyr was one of the worst films I have ever attended..." he also said it either held you spellbound or set you off into hysterical giggles. Audiences booed, walked out, and demanded their money back. Dreyer had a nervous breakdown and did not make another film until Day of Wrath in 1943. Working under the guiding hand of the Nazi Occupiers in Denmark, Dreyer couldn't help but make a thinly veiled criticism of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. A fact he vociferously denied, but he still skipped town to Sweden to escape any reprisals before the premiere. The reviews didn't suck, and the most significant critique was its slow pace. After the war, reviewers worldwide hail the film as a masterpiece. It's like watching ice melt. But a masterpiece. Yawn! In Denmark today, they claim it is the best Danish film ever! There's lots of ice to watch melt up there. They don't mind the glacial pacing.

I think Vampyr gets a bad rap. I think it is a cool, spooky movie. It's a great Halloween film if you need a nap. Otherwise, watch it early and then trick or treat.

Back to The Passion of Joan of Arc. It is worth a look. Check it out. Ultimately, I wonder if he would have made a good Hollywood film. Could he have made a firecracker, like James Cagney, move like quicksand? (Quicksand is SLOOOOW but is still faster than regular sand that sits there.) Who knows? It's questions like that that keep me up at night.

Carl Theodore Dreyer entertains the critics
Carl Theodore Dreyer (1889-1968) addresses his critics

The "director's cut" has been lost for decades. Gone like so many silent films, what with world wars, warehouse fires, and sound. But a print was found in a janitor's closet in a mental institute in 1981 in Denmark. It was found in its original shipping boxes and addressed to consultant physician Harald Arnesen, dated 1928. The boxes included the original Danish censor's notes. Doctor Arnesen never opened them. That last little tidbit is just a factoid, conversation spice. I don't read Dutch, and I have no idea what it says; probably, the film is terrific, if a little slow, and needs a car chase or some explosions.

I know this whole thing is a backhanded compliment. I currently own it on DVD and have owned it on VHS. It's a powerful film, but if you are in the mood for Fast and the Furious #298 or Deadpool, don't watch it. You will hate it. But if you are up for it, I recommend it. It is a keystone film in the history of the art form.

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