Located in Glostrup, a quiet suburb of Copenhagen, the Danish Film Institute’s Archive is where a great portion of Danish film history, but also some unique prints of world cinema heritage, have entered a pleasant dormancy of minus 5°C.
The mundane looking front building is at the back attached to vaults, sheltering thousands of films and film objects. Inside, there is nothing as ear-pleasing as the silence of a film archive, where the continuous and vague hum of ventilators is the closest thing to the murmur of celluloid.
Mikael Braae, film historian and curator of the feature films at the DFI, generously took me on an tour of the Archive which, after passing through freezing vaults, arrived at a huge storage room where on a temporary platform my attention is brought to a wrapped object: the editing table of the spiritual father of Danish cinema, Carl Th. Dreyer, which looks as unglamorous and modest as my grandmother’s sewing table.
Only a few meters away, inside wooden boxes fresh from an exhibition in Paris, lay the architecture models of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a reminder of one of early cinema’s greatest sets, famous (or infamous?) for being a sturdy single-piece construction with bearing walls built merely to set the mood for the actors.
The man responsible for the art direction of one of the most loved but also baffling films of the silent era was the German Hermann Warm, who had also designed the key film of art direction in cinema: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Like the semi-theatrical sets of Caligari which were conceived in collaboration with painters and stage designers, Warm had Jean Hugo on his side for The Passion of Joan of Arc, though his degree of influence on the final design is not quite clear.
The setting of the story was the Rouen Castle, an impermeable 13th century fortress where the trial and burning at the stake of Joan of Arc took place between 1430 and 1431.
Dreyer, at the commencement of the production in 1927, insisted on absolute accuracy, almost a replica of the destroyed castle of which only one single tower had survived. Thus, seven million francs was spent on the recreation of the building that Dreyer had no intention of displaying fully in the film. It was just a mood maker.
Warm and Hugo immersed themselves in researching the medieval manuscripts and drawings (pictured above) for grasping the architectural details and soon came up with full plans (pictured below). Unlike normal film architecture, here nothing was impartial or fragmented. Everything was fully built and concrete.
The set, a huge concrete complex constructed in the suburbs of Paris, had those immature perspective and disconcerting angles characteristic of medieval painting, but also brought a sense of soft expressionism to the castle. For his part, Dreyer, obsessed with low angles and ground-level shots, had to dig up the ground on various occasion. In his low angles, the faces of inquisitors could turn into crude portraits of savagery reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch.
Little did the designers know that the unity of the authentic space they had created would soon be fragmented in one of the most adventures editing styles of the 1920s. The film was premiered in Copenhagen on April 21, 1928. It was a commercial flop, but an instant favorite of the critics.
In retrospect, the authentic set of the film looks mostly unreal, and in spite of minute attention to details, even by the 1920s standards, it is a décor which looks like décor. It has an MGM quality to it. The camera never makes any attempt to hide the fresh paint on the walls (in reality, when Joan of Arc was on trial the castle was already 200 years old and ravaged by wars and natural elements). In fact, the sets were painted pink to look grey in the final film—more Frank Tashlin than “transcendental.”
But was Dreyer looking for any sort of realism at the first place?
The grand décor doesn’t appear sooner than 50 minutes into the film, and again, only in fragments worthy of a deconstructivist film by Sergei Eisenstein. Even in close-ups, the minimal presence of architecture in the background is deliberately eliminated through extensive use of iris and blurred frame edges.
Joan of Arc's suffering is translated into close-ups. So is the aggression against her. The film suggests a world of close-ups as the prison of the soul, one that we should leave behind in order to enter the long shot. I haven't ever seen so many close-ups in one film, maybe except in Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1963).
As James Agee pointed out, through a daring use of close-up, a feeling of “intricate subtlety, mental and spiritual” is conveyed, mostly mental in my opinion. Yet, the film’s compositional value is enriched by lines in architectures whose geometry graphically corresponds with faces and figures: an arc in the ceiling imitating the form of the cap of a clergyman; a body standing on the threshold being formed by the architectural element, in the style that F.W. Murnau had mastered.
But the architecture of the film also contradicts and violates, and in Paul Scharder’s word, even “conspires” against Joan of Arc: “ like the faces of her inquisitors, the halls, doorway, furniture are on the offensive, striking, swooping at her with oblique angles, attacking her with hard-edged chunks of black and white.”
The architecture of The Passion of Joan of Arc is built to be ignored, challenged and deconstructed. Its solidness and immobility is contradicted first by an “unchained” camera, often curiously examining faces in tracking shots and more dazzling camera tricks (shots done on a swing and even a pendulum, giving aerial 180 degree view of the set.)
Then, if editing is meant to bring discontinuous pieces together and create a unified space which could be vaguely metric and tangible, Dreyer chooses the opposite, by hiding, folding and pushing aside any sense of continuity in space. In another words, rejecting the architecture.
David Bordwell responds to this by a call for a special kind of criticism suited to the film which recognizes disunity and contradiction, “rejecting dominant relationships between narrative logic and cinematic space.”
The set of The Passion of Joan of Arc, whether a mystery, an expensive joke, or an early demonstration of Kubrickiean grandiosity, functions as a surgical cast upon which the space in the film could be shaped and eventually healed.
Note: The architectural models and many pictures of the production are available on the Dreyer website of Danish Film Institute. This is one of the most tastefully curated online museums dedicated to a film director.