For the second year in a row, The Criterion Collection and the Sundance Channel are partnering to present a selection of cinematic works from around the world in the “The Sundance Channel Presents Classic World Cinema from The Criterion Collection” program. These films will air on the Sundance Channel Saturday and Sunday nights at 9:00 P.M. ET/PT during July and August 2002, offering viewers something “different” for their summer viewing pleasure. “Cries and Whispers”, directed by Ingmar Bergman, airs on Saturday, July 20th, and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, airs on Sunday, July 21st. (A review of “Cries and Whispers” is available here at DVD Town.)

Similar movies, it seems, arrive in bursts at the same time. “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” opened in theatres a few months apart, as did “Entrapment” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake. “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” managed to play in cinemas simultaneously during one summer. In 1999, two new movies took their inspiration from a nobler source than volcanoes, high-society thieves, or flying celestial objects threatening Earth–the French icon Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc). “Joan of Arc”, starring Leelee Sobieski, was shown on TV as a miniseries before its DVD release. Milla Jovovich headlined Luc Besson’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”. Jovovich delivered a more robust and compelling performance than Sobieski, but Sobieski’s was the better production. However, neither of these movies came anywhere close to matching the majesty and power of the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in–you guessed it–1999.

The history surrounding the film is as remarkably fascinating as the film itself. In the mid-1920s, the French government commissioned the Danish Dreyer to make a film about one of its greatest historical figures (canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920). The French gave Dreyer a budget and a script, but he threw out the script and created a new one based on historical transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc. He compressed the numerous trials into one trial, and he shot the entire film with low-angle close-ups and medium shots. Therefore, the viewer only sees faces and actors looking rather out of perspective with their surroundings.

The French government hated what Dreyer created, and the film was either suppressed or heavily altered depending on where a person happened to be. A fire destroyed Dreyer’s original print of the movie, but he managed to create a second version of the film using unused, leftover footage that had not been burned. By all accounts, this second version closely matched the first one, but it, too, was destroyed in a fire.

Over the years, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” survived as copies of copies and bowdlerized versions edited into forms not intended by Dreyer. Indeed, the film was thought to have been lost until a copy was miraculously found in a closet in a Norwegian mental asylum. Although it suffered physical deterioration due to nitrate film stock degradation and neglect, the film was remarkably intact.

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” does not purport to offer a historical re-enactment of the events in Joan’s life. The movie does not go into detail about Joan’s purported exploits in leading the armies of France over the invading/occupying English. Rather, it focuses on Joan’s trial at the hands of a group of clergymen. Dreyer shows us the contorted, angry, confused, and threatened countenances of corrupt men who can not fathom the religious conviction of a truly devout girl. However, the movie isn’t really a contest of wills between the clergy and Joan. Rather, the real drama is found in Joan’s internal conflict. Faced with physical tortures and the shouts and abuses of powerful men, does Joan succumb to the demands of her enemies, or does she remain true to her faith?

Everyone who has seen “The Passion of Joan of Arc” seems to remember the striking visuals. (According to Roger Ebert’s review, “the film was made at the height of German Expressionism and the French avant-garde movement in art”.) Most notable is actress Renée Falconetti’s anguished visage. Dreyer found her acting as a stage actress in Paris, and he decided to make the movie without applying any make-up to Falconetti’s face. Falconetti never acted in a film production ever again (perhaps due to the strain of working for Dreyer), but the intense power that she projects leaves an indelible impression.

In recent years, there has been much speculation about whether or not Joan of Arc really did what has been attributed to her. The truth is a matter of historical record, of course, but given what was known about Joan of Arc in the 1920s, Carl Theodor Dreyer created a masterpiece about tension, conscience, and emotional horror. This film is not to be missed by anyone who cares about cinema as an art form.

Presented on DVD with its original 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) video ratio, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” shows its extreme age. You’ll often see that the corners of the image have been “rounded”, indicating the way lenses/cameras once captured live-action on film. There are instances of flicker, dust, specks, and grain that can not be removed, as you can see in the DVD’s “Restoration demonstration”. However, given the fact that this print of the movie was thought to have been lost, there’s really little room for quibbling. The digital restoration may make physical defects highly noticeable, but the final image looks surprisingly stable, clear, and strong–no fuzziness or murkiness here.

Since “The Passion of Joan of Arc” was made in the silent era, you won’t find a primary audio track. Instead, you’ll find that the film was edited with intertitles (title cards dispersed throughout the movie) that display relevant dialogues. However, silent movies were often shown with live musical accompaniment, and The Criterion Collection included a Dolby Digital 5.1 music track on the DVD. (You can watch the movie with or without the music.) The music that plays on the music track is Richard Einhorn’s “Visions of Light”, an oratorio inspired by the movie after the composer saw it. Einhorn actually went to Joan’s hometown and recorded the sounds of ringing bells in the local church; he incorporated these recordings into his music.

Basically, this DVD is like a preview of multi-channel audio formats such as DVD-Audio and SACD (Super Audio CD). The rich music floods the room, and the mix has been well-designed to take full-advantage of multi-channel capabilities. Various vocalists and instrumentalists are often separated to the left and right speakers, and the clarity of the music is hauntingly beautiful. Although the music was not intended as some sort of soundtrack, it matches the film extremely well. The music complements the onscreen action’s swells and lulls in dramatic tension. (Obviously, you should buy the music CD of “Visions of Light” if you enjoy listening to it, but one can play the DVD with the TV turned off and enjoy the music by itself.)

Optional English subtitles are available.

Once again, Criterion eschewed quantity in favor of quality when it comes to a DVD’s extras. The bonus materials shed substantive light on the film’s production, aesthetics, history, and restoration. You’ll also discover that “Voices of Light” is more than just filler music, that it is a serious piece meant to pay tribute to the movie.

Casper Tybjerg, a Dreyer scholar from the University of Copenhagen, provides an audio commentary on one of the DVD’s audio tracks. Although Tybjerg pre-wrote his remarks before recording the commentary, it doesn’t feel as if he’s just reading from a piece of paper. Rather, he shares a wealth of information that aids the viewer in understanding the richness of Dreyer’s film as well as its turbulent history.

The other extras have been divided into 3 sections: “History and production”, “Restoration demonstration”, and “About ‘Voices of Light'”.

In “History and production”, you’ll find multimedia essays (text pages and photographs) about the film’s production design and version history. There are also a couple of audio excerpts from an interview conducted with Hélène Falconetti (the daughter of Renée Falconetti) by Richard Einhorn.

The “Restoration demonstration” is a multimedia essay on the restoration of the film. Basically, there are text pages intermingled with video clips showing how the movie had been mangled over the years and the extensive work done to restore it to close to Dreyer’s original vision.

Obviously, “About ‘Voices of Light'” focuses on Richard Einhorn’s music. Einhorn contributed a text essay in which he discusses the creation of the “Voices of Light” oratorio. The essay also includes historical information about Joan of Arc (handy for those unfamiliar with the history) since Einhorn did extensive research of his own before composing “Voices of Light”. There’s a video essay about the musical composition that includes video interview snippets of Anonymous 4, and you’ll also find direct access to moments in the movie when a segment of the music is played.

Color bars are available to help you adjust your monitors for proper viewing levels.

There are 2 booklets and an insert included in the DVD keepcase. The first booklet provides a brief note about the film written by Dreyer, film credits, DVD credits, and chapter listings. The second booklet is a libretto for the sung text used in “Voices of Light”. The insert is an advertisement for the “Voices of Light” CD album.

Entertainment Value:
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is one of the great achievements in cinema. Alas, so many of today’s (so-called) “film students” or “film majors” refuse to see black-and-white movies, much less ones made in the silent era. Their lack of respect for anything made before they were born indicates a lack of seriousness about the medium itself. Criterion’s DVD, which pairs the film with a gorgeous oratorio by Richard Einhorn, would be a good place to start for viewers unfamiliar with silent films.