The Movie Behind Voices of Light

The Movie Behind Voices of Light

The strange history of the silent film masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), has many of the same elements, including obsession, madness, and even fire, of Joan of Arc‘s life itself.

The Passion of Joan of Arc was made by Société Générale, the studio that had produced Abel Gance’s Napoléon. The director, Carl Dreyer, used actual excerpts from the trial transcripts as the script (the film, which is set entirely at Joan’s trial and burning, compresses the action of the trial from several months into a single day).

To portray Joan of Arc, Dreyer cast against type Maria (or Renée) Falconetti, a leading member of the Comédie-Française. Rumors abound about the excruciating ordeal Falconetti suffered during the shoot: when her head was shaved for the final sequences of the film, apparently the entire crew wept for her and she broke down; the shooting ground to a halt while she recovered.

The film, censored somewhat by the Catholic Church prior to its release, was soon hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Falconetti’s performance was (and is) considered one of the most extraordinary ever filmed:

With its extreme close-ups and bizarre camera angles, with an editing rhythm that breaks nearly every rule of the craft, The Passion of Joan of Arc makes virtually every movie critic and scholar’s short list of masterpieces. It clearly influenced such filmmakers as Bergman, Fellini, and Hitchcock, and echoes of its intense style appear in the work of such contemporary masters as Martin Scorsese. Shot without makeup and with “natural” acting, Joan looks like it was finished yesterday.

But a few months after the premiere, Joan’s judges descended upon Dreyer’s film. The negative and virtually all prints of The Passion of Joan of Arc were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Dreyer, referring in all likelihood to his workprint for the original cut, painstakingly reconstructed the entire film from outtake footage that had survived the fire. This second version was destroyed in a second fire! Devastated, Dreyer gave up and moved on to his next film, Vampyr.

From here the history of the film becomes confusing. Highly corrupt prints that somehow managed to survive the fires circulated for a while. In addition, the Cinémathèque Française unearthed a copy of the film in its vaults (at the time, it was unclear which version it was). In the late forties and early fifties, a French film historian by the name of Lo Duca pieced together his version of the film (apparently using prints from both versions) and added a score that was a montage of Albinoni, Vivaldi, and other Baroque composers. The result so horrified Dreyer that he completely disowned the “Lo Duca” version.

Then, in 1981, several film cans from the ‘20s were discovered at a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, stashed in the back of a closet. They were shipped, unopened, to the Norwegian Film Institute. Inside the cans, in nearly perfect condition, was a copy of The Passion of Joan of Arc with Danish intertitles. The accompanying shipping information made it clear that it was, in fact, a print of the original version of Dreyer’s great film.

Essay excerpted from Voices of Light‘s CD liner notes, © 1995 by Richard Einhorn. All rights reserved. Voices of Light has been performed with the silent film masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in concert halls across the United States, including Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.
Guest Writer Richard Einhorn is an American composer of opera, orchestral and chamber music, song cycles, film music, and dance scores. In addition to the oratorio Voices of Light, he has composed The Origin, an opera/oratorio based on the work and life of Charles Darwin.

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Copyright © 2017 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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