Restoring Joan: The Making of a Blu-ray

If you wanted to watch Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in a British living room prior to a week or so ago, there were three available options. You either had your television tuned to BBC2 on the 8th of April 1971 and caught its one and only transmission on a terrestrial channel to date. Or you were a subscriber to Film Four in 2000 long before it made the switch to Freeview. Or you imported the Criterion Collection DVD that was first released in 1999. Of course the first of these was more than 40 years ago (and broadcast a compromised version – more of which in a moment) and the second was a rather costly exercise, making the third by far the more sensible. Indeed, it was exactly this course of action which was taken by the writer of this piece some time ago, not to mention Masters of Cinema founder Nick Wrigley, for whom the Criterion disc represented his very first DVD purchase.

It’s safe to say that bringing The Passion of Joan of Arc to the UK market has been something of a pet project for the Masters of Cinema team. Before it was a label it had been a website, one that had grown out of Wrigley’s* (as well as his site, plus two others created by like-minded souls, dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, respectively). And once it became a label Dreyer became an immediate focus. His 1924 feature Michael was one of their first releases in late 2004, a lavish two-disc edition boasting both US and European prints of the film, audio commentary by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg and further additions. Adding to the enticement was the small detail that Michael had never been previously available in any home video format anywhere in the world. Four years later, Masters of Cinema would return to the filmmaker (in collaboration with Criterion) for a similarly extras-heavy handling of his very first sound feature, 1932’s Vampyr – a film whose rights Wrigley helped re-establish with Danish Film Institute.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, meanwhile, remained conspicuous by its absence. Despite its standing as one of the unquestionable greats of silent cinema (the film has put in an appearance on every other Sight & Sound critics’ poll since the very first in 1952), and despite its regular appearances on the big screen with all manner of musical accompaniment, rumours of upcoming DVD releases never materialised into the real thing. Furthermore, many of those newly composed scores were high profile events. Nick Cave performed with Dirty Three live at the National Film Theatre in 1995, for example, whilst Cat Power did much the same throughout the United States in 1999. The past decade alone has seen veteran accompanists In the Nursery combine Dreyer’s masterpiece with the architecture of Sheffield Cathedral, the pairing of Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, plus all manner of composers from across the globe: Lithuanian, Estonian, Canadian, Danish, Norwegian, the list goes on… And yet, still no disc from a British label.

Within The Passion of Joan of Arc’s wider history, this particular lack of availability was no more than a distribution quirk. Here is a film which, over the years, has had to contend with government interference, censorship, laboratory fires and a number of re-edits, not all of which gained Dreyer’s approval or involvement. In that kind of company the absence of a UK videotape or DVD seems almost inconsequential – this was certainly among the least of its fates. Indeed, whilst Dreyer may have expected some controversy as a result of being a non-French, non-Catholic filmmaker at the helm of a feature about the nation’s most famous patron saint, surely no-one could have predicted the various run-ins and disasters he would encounter over the coming decades.

Between its premiere in Copenhagen on the 21st of April 1928 and its first public screening in France six months later, The Passion of Joan of Arc had come under the scrutiny of both the French government and the Archbishop of Paris. The film had been on their radar since Dreyer’s name first became attached to the project, though it was only now that they were able to have a direct impact on the end result. They imposed a series of cuts against the director’s wishes as well as a score, Dreyer having always insisted that the film be screened without accompaniment so as to enhance its impact. (This stipulation, incidentally, is adhered to by both the Criterion and Masters of Cinema discs. Though they each contain the option to play with soundtrack, the default setting is complete silence.)

The situation would only worsen when, on the 6th of December that same year, a fire broke out at UfA Studios in Berlin destroying Dreyer’s original cut. Some prints remained in circulation, but the negative was lost forever forcing him to re-construct The Passion of Joan of Arc once again from alternative takes. Astonishingly, this version would suffer a similar fate, or so it was believed for many years: another fire, this one at the laboratory of production company Société Générale des Films, occurred in 1929. As before, a handful of prints survived and these remained in circulation for some time, slowly deteriorating through age and usage.

The film historian (and soon-to-be co-founder of Cahiers du cinéma) Joseph-Marie Lo Duca took up the mantle in the late forties. He planned to mount a theatrical re-release from one of the surviving prints of the second version and sought Dreyer’s permission only to discover that the filmmaker had never owned the rights to his own picture. He also made another discovery and this one much more important. It transpired that the second negative hadn’t perished at all, but instead had resided in a Parisian warehouse belonging to Gaumont. However, when Lo Duca came to premiere his find at the 1952 Venice Film Festival it was not entirely as Dreyer had intended. Many of the intertitles were now rendered as subtitles and a score of retrofitted classical compositions (including pieces by Bach and Vivaldi) had been added. Needless to say, the director was not pleased.

And yet this became the most widely seen incarnation of The Passion of Joan of Arc over the next three decades. It was the Lo Duca version which Anna Karina went to see on the big screen in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 feature Vivre sa vie and it was the Lo Duca version which was shown on the BBC that Thursday night in 1971. But just as Dreyer’s second negative had turned up where no-one was expecting it, so too a print of his original cut – as it had premiered in Copenhagen so many years before – emerged completely out of the blue in 1981. Furthermore, it was discovered in what is surely one of the least likely locations imaginable: an Oslo mental institute. The reason behind its presence has never been properly ascertained, though it is assumed that the institute’s director, Dr. Harald Arnesen, was a keen historian with a particular interest in Joan of Arc.

The Oslo print has since become the definitive source for The Passion of Joan of Arc as Dreyer intended. After all, it pre-dates the French censorship and consists of his final cut, not the alternative re-edit he had been forced to undertake following the UfA fire. The only difference between the Oslo print and those which have screened theatrically since 1981 or appeared on the Criterion Collection DVD comes in the form of the credits and the intertitles. Dreyer had intended that there be no credits whatsoever beyond the title itself (much as he would later do with Day of Wrath and Ordet), whilst the intertitles which he’d overseen personally for the Copenhagen premiere were in Danish. All of the post-1981 screenings and appearances presented full opening credits and translated the intertitles into French.

Masters of Cinema, who obtained the UK rights for The Passion of Joan of Arc in December 2011, have always been very careful to maintain the director’s vision in each and every one of their releases. Intertitles are maintained in their original language and design with optional accompanying English subtitles as opposed to replacement text or graphics. The films themselves are presented in as definitive a version as possible: uncut, complete, correct aspect ratio, sourced from high quality materials. Even the cover art is, wherever possible, derived from original posters from the country of origin as these are the most likely to have achieved the director’s approval. (In the case of newer titles, for example Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, such approval has been sought directly by the label.) As such, their release of The Passion of Joan of Arc would have to include the Danish intertitles and that sole title card (rather than complete opening titles) as these were the closest to Dreyer’s intent available.

Under Masters of Cinema’s usual operating procedure this particular choice may not have been available to them. All of their previous releases from the past eight years have been governed by the quality of the materials made available to them. This kind of situation is standard for the smaller labels; here in the UK it is only the British Film Institute who can rub shoulders with the major companies in terms of justifying the expense of going back to the original negative (or best surviving elements) in order to produce a new master. Only on a rare occasion is the additional cost deemed to be reasonable and The Passion of Joan of Arc has proved to be one such occasion. Rather than rely on the master already in existence (and do bear in mind that the Criterion disc is now some thirteen years old) or wait for Gaumont to begin their own full-scale restoration, Masters of Cinema opted to create their own from Danish Film Institute’s preservation negative – which had been derived from the Oslo print upon its 1981 re-discovery – and under the watchful eye of Restoration Supervisor James White, whose background included overseeing the majority of DVD and Blu-ray restorations for the BFI label for many years.

Work on the new master was carried out from start to finish in London, involved the entire restoration team at Deluxe and took place over a period roughly comparable to those which White had enjoyed whilst employed by the BFI and producing the likes of Bill Douglas’ Comrades or Jan Švankmajer’s Alice for Blu-ray consumption. Of course, every film comes with its own set of fresh challenges, though this centralised location allowed for a full control of any given situation. Importantly, the team were able to immediately inspect and review their work at any point during the process. If, for example, a certain portion of The Passion of Joan of Arc required re-scanning to ensure that framing, contrast and detail were optimal then this could be easily achieved without complication. Needless to say, the end results are really quite staggering. This new master represents the first time the film has been captured and graded at 2k resolution and with that come immediate improvements: a much wider greyscale, a greater contrast range and some astonishing detail. Indeed, the blood, sweat and tears so integral to The Passion of Joan of Arc’s imagery (the bloodletting scene remains as striking as it ever was) have never been more apparent.

There have been some accounts claiming that the Oslo print was discovered in its mental institution in a pretty much pristine state (comparable, say, to the Mitchell & Kenyon find in 1994), though this simply isn’t true. In fact, all you need do is sample the restoration demo on the disc (or, for that matter, the Criterion edition) to notice the amount of dirt and wear present. The restoration technology of 2012 is somewhat more advanced than that of 1999 and so much of this can now be dealt with a non-detrimental fashion. With that said, the biggest hurdle White faced was issues relating to the instability of image. Practically every cut would suffer from either a minor dip or a noticeable jump, most likely the result of shrinkage to the original print or sprocket wear. Given that he and his team were working from the preservation negative, such issues had been printed into the materials and therefore required a high degree of attention. Watching the new Blu-ray you may occasionally notice the curvature at the corner of the frames dancing around a little, thereby demonstrating the problems which once affected the image as a whole.

Of course, certain issues can only be dealt with so far. The negative element would, at times, demonstrate inconsistent patches which looked noticeably rougher or a touch softer than the rest of the film. Such portions would be re-scanned but upon re-examination it became clear that these flaws were inherent in the materials and that any attempts at seriously improving them would only be detrimental to the end results. By applying too heavy-handed an approach to digital restoration you begin to lose detail, compromise the grain structure or add unwanted digital artefacts. And while some recent film restorations have seen fit to remove the original grain structure entirely and replace it with a uniform digital grain, White has always been strongly opposed to this practice. Throughout the restoration of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a hands-off approach was strictly adhered to when it came to preserving the original grain and detail of the film.

Whilst work was being undertaken on the Oslo print, a 2k scan of the Lo Duca version was also being prepared. Masters of Cinema’s reasoning behind including this particular edit was twofold: firstly, it presents alternative takes for the entirety of the picture; and secondly, it has its place within the history of The Passion of Joan of Arc no matter what its flaws. However, it wasn’t felt that a proper restoration akin to the efforts going elsewhere were required and so a 16mm preservation print was simply scanned in and made as agreeable (and watchable) as possible. The 2k nature allows for a full HD presentation on the Blu-ray, though the difference between the versions is immediately apparent. The rough patches in the Oslo print are nothing compared to those found in the Lo Duca edit. Be aware, however, its interest is mostly academic; this is one for the scholars, not the casual viewer.

One final preparation was to make the Oslo print available in both 24 frames per second and 20 frames per second versions. The latter is generally agreed by film historians to be the more desirable of the two, though many screenings (and the Criterion disc) have opted for 24fps and as such many of the soundtracks over the years have been composed for that speed. The restoration was undertaken at 24fps meaning that the 20fps version had to be created with a little technological assistance. Essentially, an extra frame is duplicated for every five, a technique which remains imperceptible in motion (and therefore never proves to be a distraction) and also allows for playback in 1080p. The only other option was to present an interlaced transfer, although as White explains: “This was never option.”

All that remained was to add Loren Connors’ experimental score to the 24fps version and a more sedate piano accompaniment by Japanese composer Mie Yanashita for the 20fps presentation. As the restoration was underway the Masters of Cinema team had also been working on the 100-page booklet (including reprints of major articles, essays and reviews from the likes of Hilda Doolittle, Luis Buñuel, André Bazin and Chris Marker, plus newly commissioned pieces and copious illustrations), designing the typically eye-catching cover art and deciding on the best way to present The Passion of Joan of Arc to the living rooms of the British public and those who are looking to import from abroad. As it stands, the film is now available on separate DVD and Blu-ray incarnations, plus a limited edition dual-format ‘steelbook’ for the collectors’ market. For a UK home video debut, it’s hard not to be impressed with the final package.

*The contents of have been donated to the Danish Film Institute site and can now be found at is currently unavailable online.

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