LE PASSION DE JEANNE D’ARC RECEIVES ACCOLADES
by Kate Abbott
PHOTO MEGAN HALEY
Director Andrea Goodman rehearses with her Cantelina Choir as the “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is on the big screen.
She is tall and broad shouldered, her dark hair is cut short, and she is wearing a man’s buttoned-down shirt—one reason she is here, fighting for her life.
She is a poorly educated farm girl from a small town who left to join the army. She is a radical with a cause. Joan of Arc walks into a stone room in 1928, in one of the last and greatest silent films by the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer.
It’s a film with history. Like Joan herself, The Passion of Joan of Archas been censored, banned and burned. And now, it has been revived. On May 12, 2018 at Trinity Church in Lenox, the Berkshire-based Cantilena Choir will lead a rare screening and performance of the uncut film and the original score, joined by musicians from the Albany Symphony and Cambridge organist Peter Krasinski.
Now in its 14th year, the choir has performed a wide range of work in the southern Berkshires and New York, from Black American spirituals to Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Director Andrea Goodman has admired Joan of Arc since she was a teenager and turned to her in Cantilena’s first nod to silent film. Criterion re-released the full-length Passion a few years ago, Krasinksi says. The original film was lost in a fire until a worker at the Dikemark Hospital mental institution in Oslo, Norway, opened a janitor’s closet in 1981 and found a stack of film canisters. The original music is still lost. Movie houses in the 1920s had an organist or a full orchestra, Krasinski says, that would have taken on the classical French score by Victor Alix and Leo Pouget.
Many composers and musicians have created their own scores, from 15th-century chansons to Australian indie rock. Krasinski has improvised his own organ music for it, in a worldwide career accompanying classic films. He can respond to the feeling in the audience and the slightest movements on the screen.
In Lenox, he will perform under Goodman’s direction with 25 singers and 15 musicians—the first time a large ensemble has returned to Alix and Pouget’s music.
The full choir and orchestra need careful timing, Goodman says, to align the sound with the scenes. After the full-length film came to light, musicologist Gillian Anderson found a reduced score with string and vocal parts at the Library of Congress, and Goodman tracked it down. The choir will perform in French the sections for voices, about a third of the full score. She has added bassoon, oboe and percussion, adapting the music to the uncut film and using new technology to match the music to the action.
Dreyer’s film is known for its camera work, for Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan, and for the impact of close-up shots moving between her and her accusers. She is the only woman in the room; men talk among themselves and meet her eyes only to force her to say what they want to hear. They come close. Snide. Hostile. Tight with rage against her naked belief.
If you refuse the church … you will be alone.
Yes, alone. Alone with God.
To prepare for filming, Dreyer read the transcripts of the trial. Joan is one of the few women who appear in any record in 1431, let alone in her own words.
When the film begins, she has already lifted the siege of Orléans and has led French troops against the British with no weapon but a standard. She has turned the course of a war that has devastated her country for 15 years. She is 19 and believes God has called her. She is a prisoner of the British, and they are losing the war and bloodily determined to prove that God is not on her side. She is a young woman, assaulted and holding on in terror.
Dreyer insisted on a realism that makes her present, in 1928 and 90 years later. The actors appear without makeup, Krasinski says. The monks are tonsured, and Falconetti, as Joan, has her short hair cut almost to the scalp. The stone cell where she prays is real, where sunlight touches the floor and the shadow of the window bars lies like a cross. Dreyer shot the film in a complete reconstruction of the castle and courtyard in Rouen, according to Donald Greig of the Orlando Consort (quoted in The Guardian).
When Joan collapses in a fever and a doctor bleeds her arm, the arm and the blood are real. “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past,” Dreyer wrote.
The French government and the church censored it when it came out. “It’s a political story, depending on whose side you’re on,” Goodman says. “When they’re marching her to the stake, there’s a juggler, a street fair with acrobats. The music’s showing this mayhem while she’s being burned.”
LENOX – A landmark silent movie by a legendary director. A lost music score. A well-respected community choir. A nationally known organist. It sounds like a disparate grouping if ever there was one. Next Saturday, all of these forces will converge on Trinity Church in Lenox for a public performance of one of the great silent movies of all time, director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” (Original French title: “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc”) Cantilena Chamber Choir of Lenox, directed by its founder, Andrea Goodman, will accompany the film. Trinity Church is its performing home. Peter Krasinski of Boston, a specialist in organ accompaniment of silent films, will be on the church’s organ.
Krasinski, Goodman and the choir will be joined by a 12-piece orchestra made of players coming mostly from the Albany Symphony.
The 1928 film, produced in France, stars Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. The plot is based on the actual trial record of heresy proceedings brought against Joan of Arc in 1430.
Upon being captured by the English-friendly Burgundians in the Hundred Years’ War, Joan was imprisoned, tried, found guilty and executed in 1431 by burning at the stake, at age 19.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is generally considered a momentous piece of cinema history. Dreyer’s direction and Falconetti’s performance have been lauded as some of the best ever, not only in the silent genre, but in all film.
The name “silent movie,” however, seems to be somewhat of a misnomer.
Krasinski, who has traveled throughout the world to play scores for silent film screenings, said that the genre, despite the lack of audible words coming from the characters on screen, is rich in sensory experience. “A silent move is anything but silent,” Krasinski said. “They had rich musical scores to help interpret the action on screen. Along with their subtitles periodically explaining the storyline, as well as filling in some key dialogue, the films themselves provided a platform both for great audience entertainment through acting and live music.”
Krasinski said he has played the accompaniment for “The Passion of Joan of Arc” before, but that he was looking forward to working with Goodman and the Cantilena Choir for the first time, as the version of the film and score itself was also going to be something of a first for him.
“This one is going to be a bit of a departure from the one I usually do,” Krasinski said. “But I anticipate it will be great fun. I first played this movie a long time ago in Gloucester. I usually study a movie, get to know the venue where it will be played, familiarize myself with the instrument, and then, for lack of a better way to put it, just let the music happen.”
That’s not by accident either. Improvisation, Krasinski continued, is one way the organist of a silent film can carry along the action on the screen and convey moods, emotions and urgency, among other human traits.
Goodman said that so much of the intrigue of choosing this movie to perform was the history of its production survival. “Dreyer’s second version was the only one played for years after a fire destroyed the original master, a full unedited negative,” Goodman said. “But in the early 1980s, a worker at a Norwegian mental hospital found some canisters of film and sent them off to the Norwegian Film Institute, where they sat for three years before someone finally looked at them.”
It turned out, Goodman explained, that the film found in Norway was Dreyer’s original cut prior to French government and Catholic church restrictive editing and regulation.
“At the time of its production, there was much consternation over a foreigner like Dreyer, who was Danish, telling the story of Joan of Arc,” Goodman said. “It was considered a very French story, and embedded in the psyche of its people. So, various cut versions were shown. But what it was doing in a Norwegian hospital storage area over 50 years later, no one really knows to this day.”
Only the reduced full score by Leo Pouget and Victor Alix, and the string and vocal parts have survived, found in the Library of Congress. For the Lenox performance, the wind parts have been recreated and added, Goodman said.
While many versions and arrangements have been written and performed worldwide, according to Goodman, the original 1928 score is rarely performed, echoing the sentiments of organist Krasinski.
There will be a pre-concert lecture on the film and the score at 6:45 p.m., prior to its 7:30 p.m. curtain time.
Goodman added her own hopes for local audiences to appreciate why the “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a masterpiece.
“The set was the most expensive movie set built at the time, and Dreyer’s direction led to one of the greatest cinematic events of all time,” Goodman said. “It’s also a rare opportunity to really hear the wonderful music that was intended for it, which enhances the watching of this film. Prepare to be moved. It definitely is an emotional experience.”
“They had rich musical scores to help interpret the action on screen. Along with their subtitles periodically explaining the storyline, as well as filling in some key dialogue, the films themselves provided a platform both for great audience entertainment through acting and live music.”
PETER KRASINSKI, organist, on silent movies