This is the first in a series of blog posts charting my journey in composing a new score for “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928). As I write about my journey and relationship with this film I hope to bring it to a new audience, shedding light on its significance for those unfamiliar with it, bringing new perspectives to existing fans and reaching deeper levels of understanding and relationship myself as I progress.
I first witnessed The Passion of Joan of Arc at a screening at Union Chapel, Islington, London in 2014. The screening featured a live score, written and performed by Irene Buckley, for soprano, organ and electronics. I was really struck by how fresh the film felt, it could easily have been recently produced. Buckley’s score tapped into the surreal and spiritual tone that is expressed in the imagery and performances, sustaining a deep, contemplative, dream-like state throughout the experience.
At this time, Carl Dreyer’s original uncut version had only recently been re-released. It had originally been lost in a lab fire shortly after the film’s completion in 1928, with subsequent releases created from B-roll, considered to be inferior takes by Dreyer, with censorship further diminishing the intended presentation.
In 1981, the original, uncensored director’s cut was rediscovered in, of all places, a mental institution in Oslo. It remained archived until it was scanned and restored in 2012 at 2k resolution and subsequently released on Blu-Ray.
I watched the film again recently, this time in silence. I was even more impressed and moved. Despite its narrative being based on the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the way the film is presented, particularly in the information that is omitted, gives it a great sense of taking place in an archetypal manner. Joan is portrayed with a sense of childlike innocence and effortless conviction, while her inquisitors, almost exclusively old, white men, behave in an often patronising manner, dogmatic and with great hubris.
Significant historical facts are omitted from the film. This includes the fact that the whole trial was a show trial, with the English intending to make an example of Joan. Many of the judges and clergy were operating under duress and the standards dictated for religious trials were seriously compromised. Though some references remain, with these details largely omitted the drama is free to roam more broadly as it speaks of the deeper social dynamics at work in the world. Whilst Joan’s trial is on the basis of heresy, there is a sense that she is simply a person of passion and conviction, standing up for what she believes is right, threatening the status quo whilst feeling deeply and unjustly assaulted.
In turn, the judges and clergy feel as though they represent any established order, invested in their positions whether as a matter of identity or material gain, seeking to oppress progress they do not understand. Furthermore, with Joan being the only woman present in the courtroom, there is a great sense of the oppression of the feminine, explored in a deeply emotional way that I feel is only just coming to greater consciousness in the world today.
These dynamics speak to the frustration we feel when established elites demonstrate hubris, arrogance or ignorance by dismissing, deflecting, intellectualising or otherwise interfering with social and environmental causes that we know in our hearts are important. It speaks to deep injustice, oppression; of not being heard and respected.
It is for these reasons that I feel The Passion of Joan of Arc is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1928, if not more so. Carl Dreyer, an ideological conservative, may have intended the film purely as a spiritual work; a tribute to a recently sainted woman of faith, a testament to the power of Christian religious belief. But I believe that it can speak as broadly and as deeply for the non-religious as it does for those of the Christian faith.
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. www.derekkirkup.co.uk. All images in the public domain.