Sunday, March 12, 2023


I had wanted to buy a copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” for a while. I now have the Eureka Entertainment "Masters of Cinema" series edition, making it part of an excellently-produced series that includes the definitive versions of silent films like "Metropolis," "Nosferatu," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari," along with later films like "Nashville" and "Grey Gardens" - although, if you are a serious film collector and scholar, you will be already aware of this.


My reason for buying this film is, like "Citizen Kane," it is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Both films also suffered the fate of the original camera negative being destroyed in fires. However, with the reputation of "Citizen Kane" only being firmly established after the critic Pauline Kael wrote about it in the 1970s, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was seriously studied from the start, even if everyone was watching the wrong version of it.


As befits a religious-themed, pre-"Life of Brian" film, and one not made by a French person, "Joan of Arc" was subjected to cuts mandated by French film censors and the Archbishop of Paris. The fire happened after that, and in a time when copies of films were easily discarded after use, and when those copies were routinely made from the original negative, the original film was as good as lost.


What do you do from here? Carl Dreyer was able to stitch together a second version of the film, using alternate takes, and other shots not originally used.


That version was also destroyed by a fire in 1929. "Safety film" was not introduced until the 1940s, meaning an entire art form had to rely on nitrate film stock, combustible when stored or even moved wrongly.


Until 1951, the only widely-available version of the film was a cut-down version with a commentary from an American radio personality. The rediscovery of a print of the second version consigned the bastardisation to the bin, but this version had a Baroque-style film score and subtitles added by the person who found it. All the while, the director had to look on and object to what happened to what was left of his work.


This is where it gets weird, if it didn't feel so already. In 1981, a copy of the original version was discovered, in its original wrapping from the Danish film censor, in a janitor's cupboard in a mental hospital in Oslo - in 1928, the director of the hospital asked for a copy, as they had written about French history. The Norwegian Film Institute was contacted to see if they wanted it. They took it, then stored it for three years without watching it. When they finally did, it was found to be perfect.


This sort of miraculous discovery is not new - two episodes of "Dad's Army" were rescued from a skip, some Patrick Troughton "Doctor Who" episodes were recently found in Nigeria, and the now complete version of "Metropolis" used elements found in Argentina and New Zealand. The simple thing is never to throw anything away, as you may not be the one who realises how much it is worth.

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