In preparation for a lecture on Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer I watched his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc three times in a row. This is no mere form of boasting or bragging, but rather an accurate record of what it is I have been watching.
The first time through I watched the entire feature film with the sound completely off – a truly silent film. An occasional noise from a cat inside or a car outside did little to shake me from the action on the television screen. Though I had seen the film at least a dozen times before in various settings and under multiple circumstances I never recall seeing it wholly silent. Still, without musical accompaniment or the voice of an instructor bellowing over the images I found the film to be utterly engaging. Without a doubt, it is the harrowing performance of actress Jeanne Falconetti and those big emotional eyes of hers that captivates an audience, but with the music gone I focused less on Falconetti’s expressive eyes and more on the formal elements of the film. If the eyes are the windows to the soul than music must be an arrow shot at our heart.
On the second viewing, I watched the film with commentary. Normally, I find this sort of experience to be less than rewarding. These days it seems so many films come with commentary, either by the filmmaker and actors or by some scholar. I much prefer to let the film stand on its own, but since I was preparing for a lecture I figured all the information I could obtain was worth hearing. While there was a bit of factual information to be gleaned from the commentary track, it still felt diminutive when compared with the experience of watching Joan’s agony. I guess there are just aren’t proper words for some emotions and explanations just cheapen the magic.
Finally, on the third viewing, something I probably could have gotten by without, but felt compelled to play once more while making notes, I put the musical accompaniment on. While not a bad score by any means, the music felt like overkill. Still, I knew that in a classroom setting, with an audience of nubile film students accustomed to sound and movies full of music the idea of playing a film without any sound might be too confrontational.
For all the talk that is given to film being a visual medium it seems ridiculous to not try and enjoy a film on a purely visual level. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc loses nothing when the music plays with the image, but it gains a lot when you realize that he does not need music to evoke emotion from his main character. Joan’s trial is a brutal ordeal with or with sound and through Dreyer’s unique use of camera angle, motion, framing, and blocking is a close-up look at a person out of place. Joan’s faith cannot exist in the world, it is too strong, too idealistic, and too challenging. She is fighting to distance herself from the world and music would only connect her to the world of cinema. In reality there would be no music, there is no music. There is just Joan, her accusers, and her love for God. So, I decided that’s just how my students should see the film – sans sound.