Saturday, February 6, 2010

1928: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

1928: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc the first time, the way that I did, remains one of the most memorable cinephile experiences I've ever had (and probably will ever have).  It was 1995, the Summer, and I was out in Los Angeles visiting my brother.  Modern classical composer, Richard Einhorn, had recently composed a piece entitled Voices of Light and was performing it for the first time in Los Angeles at the incredible John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.   So I decided to go, alone (maybe my favorite way to take in a movie).  They projected the film on a massive screen and then as it played these hundreds of people behind the screen (musicians and vocals) provided the accompaniment.  It was roaringly powerful and as transcendent as any artistic experience I've ever had.   
Dreyer's film for me is all about Renee Jeanne Falconetti's face.  Simply put, it's the MOST emotive thing I've ever seen on a screen.  
Everyone always talks about what the talkies could do that silent films couldn't (and of course there are obvious things).  However, in my favorite silent films, it's not just directors making a film without sound; it's a different artform in many ways, with different strengths and weaknesses.  If you ask me to show an example of what a silent film can do that the talkies can never really imitate, this is the film I would use.    

Other contenders for 1928:  Admittedly, there are some major gaps I still have to fill for this year.  The most notable are probably:  Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port, Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, King Vidor's The Crowd, Fritz Lang's Spies, and Victor Seastrom's The Wind.  I also have never seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Farmer's Wife, Jean Renoir's Le tournoi dans la cite, and Jean Renoir's short film La petite marchande d'allumettes.  I've seen Queen Kelly once, but it didn't really stay with me.  I really like Un chien andalou, but it doesn't affect me in the same complete way as my top pick.  The only two runner-ups that could really challenge for this spot are my two favorite Buster Keaton films: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Cameraman.  To me, they're the two Keaton films with the most energy and the most mind-blowing action sequences.  But, finally, I give the edge to the Dreyer as it affected me more deeply than any other film I've seen from this year.

2/15/10 I watched Charlie Chaplin's The Circus.  It wouldn't contend for my top spot.  I can't say it emotionally wrapped me up as much as some of his other films.  But it does have a lot to say both about the nature of humor and the role of the artist.  It also reminds me that Chaplin, at times, could get at deep melancholy about as well as anyone.  

2/16/10 I watched Frank Borzage's Street Angel.  It wouldn't contend for my top spot, but I did like that it was less melodramatic than Borzage's Seventh Heaven.  However, some of the plotting, particularly the central "catch", did keep me from fully embracing it.

2/23/10 I watched Fritz Lang's Spies.  Although it wouldn't contend for my top spot, it definitely sets up many of the archetypes and rules for what we've come to know as an action film.  Lang's exceptional eye is on display several times here; I think the first five minutes are particularly strong.  Some of the rest of the movie's narrative, however, feels a little on the long-winded side.  

4/23/10 I watched Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal.  Strong imagery and composition again from Dovzhenko, especially when he decides to move the camera.  However, I found the storyline in Earth a little easier to follow, and ultimately the later film (Earth) affected me a little more. But very interesting final shot in this one.  

3/16/11 I watched Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York. Probably an influence on L'atalante, but it lacks the heavy atmosphere and transcendent poetry of Vigo's film.  There are some heartfelt moments here and von Sternberg shows glimpses of his own expressive abilities, but the story drags to the entire venture's detriment.  

10/30/11 I watched Jean Renoir's La petite marchande d'allumettes. Another avant-garde, quirky, surreal short from Renoir, much like Charleston Parade.  Decent showcase for Hessling but mostly not really memorable.  

1/29/12 I watched Fred Niblo's The Mysterious Lady.  Garbo is sexy personified in this very efficient, inventive, and entertaining early work. Oh, and did I mention Garbo?

9/15/13 I watched the second installment of Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey: 1918-1928 The Triumph of American Film.  Another compelling entry focused primarily on Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd.  My favorite parts, however, are when Cousins moves into von Stroheim and Dreyer and illuminates aspects of both in ways I had never heard.  

10/13/13 I watched King Vidor's The Crowd.  Masterful in how real to life it seems.  Vidor takes us on an emotionally uncomfortable ride and manages so much of the exposition through inventive and efficient cinematic devices.  Visually striking and emotionally loyal, it is a masterpiece although because of the subject matter you may end up like me more in admiration than in deep love.  

11/8/17 I watched Paul Fejos' Lonesome.  I wish Paul Schrader were here.  I've heard him list off on a number of occasions the things that cinema does particularly well and I always thought his list quite astute.  But one thing he may or may not have mentioned that I think the medium does unusually well is restraint.  When the cinema holds back from giving the audience what it craves for an extended amount of time and then finally delivers, the result can be incredibly powerful and moving.  I'm thinking of Fellini's restraint from using a close-up until the very end of Nights of Cabiria or Marker's sudden burst of movement in La Jetee or the emotional restraint Bresson exhibits throughout the entirety of Pickpocket until the very final moments.  Here, the restraint has to do with sound and as with the very best examples of restraint, when it finally breaks or gives in, it comes as a complete shock.  The first time the two characters spoke in Lonesome I did not know what to think.  I have seen a good number of films but I have never gone into a silent film expecting to hear two characters speaking to one another 30 minutes in.  But Fejos does not stop there.  He dazzles with color, he dazzles with montage and then when it is time for him to bring it all to a close, he does that gloriously as well.

8/30/20 I watched Victor Sjostrom's The Wind.  There are some tremendous sequences.  I particularly admired the way that Sjostrom builds suspense from the moment we know Wirt Roddy is headed back to Letty's house to the time he actually arrives.  Sjostrom displays extraordinary restraint and as a result is able to create much more discomfort and even horror when he allows the moment finally to materialize.  


  1. If forced to choose for 1928, I would tend to agree with you and choose Dreyer's crowning achievement here. But a recent one that I have watched and adored was Sjostrom's The Wind. Another undisputed masterpiece and must-see.

  2. Dave, THE WIND is definitely one I want to see! It sounds great.

  3. Jeffrey: You caught me off guard here with these quick shot posts one after the other! LOL!! Yes, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is the best film of 1928, and may well be (SUNRISE notwithstanding) the masterpieces of the silent era. Dave is quite right with Sjostrom's THE WIND, which features Lillian Gish's greatest performance, but it's a textbook study of how to convey mood and psychological state through visuals alone. Von Sternberg's THE WEDDING MARCH is a towering masterwork as well, coming close to equalling his GREED.

    Best Film of 1928:

    Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)


    The Wind (Sjostrom)
    The Wedding March (Von Sternberg)
    L'Argent (L'Herbier)
    The Circus (Chaplin)
    Street Angel (Borzage)
    Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton)
    Two Tars (Parrot)
    The Last Command (Von Sternberg)
    Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel)
    Show People (Vidor)

  4. Sam, so great to have your expertise and guidance here! You've clearly seen much more from this period than I have. I have just added some of these to my Netflix queue and will work on finding the others.

    Yeah, I apologize for the succession of quick posts. I'm enjoying these, got inspired, and the rest just sorta happened. Thanks again for the great and helpful comments here!