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BSFO Musics Silent Joan of Arc


Renée Falconetti

Ninety years after Carl Theodor Dreyer’s transcendent tale of power, belief, and martyrdom first came to the screen, it remains remarkably relevant and surprisingly current.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO) will debut its new score for the definitive version of The Passion of Joan of Arc to accompany the newly available, revelatory 20 frames-per-second version on Thursday, June 6th at the Coolidge Corner Theater. Subsequent performances are inked for Sunday, June 9, 7:00 pm, at The Cabot, Beverly, MA; and on Thursday, June 20, 7:30 pm, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, as part of the MVFC’s annual FILMUSIC Festival.  .

Berklee’s Scoring Silent Films director Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz tells us more.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is simply a remarkable and astonishingly powerful film, particularly groundbreaking for its extended use of close-up and for the stunning, incredibly intimate performance by Marie Falconetti as Joan. This makes it essential viewing for film aficionados. However, the film that they are familiar with is almost never seen as intended.

Like many films of the silent era, it was shot at a different frame rate than the standard 24-frames-per-second that was instituted when sound became part of film projection. Since the standardization of film speed post 1928, films are seen at the 24 fps rate, when, in fact, most of the films of the silent era were shot at frames rates hovering between 16 and 20 frames per second, which produces the ‘sped up’ look of silent films in theaters not equipped for variable speed projection. Not until the advent and proliferation of digital projection and more careful restorations in the last few years has this been an issue that could be correctly addressed in general theatrical screenings. [And think about what playing a video at the wrong framerate did recently to Nancy Pelosi. Speed matters]

Joan was most likely shot at 20 fps, and the meditative and emotionally wrenching pace and style of the film is noticeably affected when it is played at the faster 24 fps, and it is simply more real and more powerful when it is shown at the correct, slower, speed. [The runtime will be 1:37 at 20 fps vs 1:23 at 24 fps.] The question of speed is even more significant when you add in the effect of music. Most existing orchestral scores for the film are written and recorded to the 24 fps version. Simply slowing down the performance of a piece of music by 20% does not produce a usable score. The film at 20 fps needs a different score, one that is written to and for IT.

With the latest restoration of the film (made by Gaumont, and released by Janus at the end of 2017), there is a screenable version of the film that is captured at the 20 fps rate. Seeing the restored film at this speed, with a score by the BSFO, should be a revelation, even for those very familiar with the film.

Antonin Artaud as Massieu

Our score itself is, as far as I know, totally unique in its approach.  It is actually an opera written to the film, in which the on-screen characters actually sing their lines in perfect sync to the picture. The film is literally a dramatization of Joan’s trial, which means, it is basically a courtroom drama. There are no chases, no love scenes, no action, just, basically, talk and deliberation. But the characters are constantly speaking though we cannot hear them. To address this, we have decided to bring voices to the film—not spoken, but sung. The idea of using a sung score has been done before with this film. In fact, all three large scale scores that I have seen/heard with it are done with singers. The religiousness of the subject matter lends itself, apparently, to voices and choirs. But we are doing much more than that. We are actually singing the speech that is on camera, making the score basically an opera, or oratorio. We have done similar things before, in our score for Phantom of the Opera. In that film, the action includes scenes from the opera Faust, with singers “singing” on screen. In our score, we incorporated the Gounod that is actually being sung in the film, so when Christine sings on stage, we actually lip sync her singing with a live soprano next to the screen, singing the actual section of the opera that is happening on the screen, and fitting our score around that. It is quite a remarkable thing to see in the theater; there is usually a gasp the first time it happens. For Joan, we are taking it one step further, writing for a quartet of singers, backed by a synthetic choir, singing the words (as exactly as possible) that the actors are mouthing on screen. I have put together a substantial libretto (27 pages) that will be sung in French and Latin. To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done before with a silent film score. [At the 1915 Symphony Hall Boston premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen, the great soprano Geraldine Farrar lip-synched her screen persona while the orchestra played Hugo Riesenfeld’s arrangement of the Bizet]

Finally. the film is incredibly topical, especially in the current social/political climate. It is a film about a woman who is not believed, and who is martyred (by a bunch of men) for it. It is about the way that authority is exercised, and the deleterious effects of authority gone rampant. And it is about the ways that belief can be used to control and silence. And in the end, it is about the impending rebellion that ensues. Nothing could be more current.

A wanton judge

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra creates new, original scores for silent feature classics, and performs them live-to-picture. Based at Berklee, in the world’s first undergraduate degree program in film scoring, the student orchestra composes its new works and performs as an ensemble, in a course named Scoring Silent Films, and under the direction of multiple Emmy nominee, Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz. The BSFO’s seven student composers each conduct the 12-piece film orchestra in a “reel” of the film, passing the baton, in a spectacle of musical synchrony, live-to-picture.

A two-time recipient of special commendations from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the BSFO has performed to critical and popular acclaim at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Nantucket Film Festival, the Tony Bennett Concert Hall in New York City, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a half dozen other major film and performing arts venues. The group’s scores for the new restorations of F.W. Munau’s The Last Laugh and E.A. Dupont’s Varieté [our review HERE] have been included as the official scores on the DVD/Bluray releases, and the BSFO’s scores have also been performed, live-to-picture, by other orchestras, in America and beyond, including performances by The Boston Pops Orchestra (Nosferatu, Keith Lockhart conducting) and, in the fall of 2018, the first international performance of a BSFO score, at the stunning Zorlu Center in Istanbul, Turkey, with a performance of The Phantom of the Opera. To date, the BSFO has scored fourteen iconic silent features, 12 of them commissioned by the Sounds of Silents® program at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts.

For more on the BSFO click HERE.

See related review HERE.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The running time is stated to increase by a factor of 7/6.
    It should be (1/20)/(1/24) = 24/20 = 6/5.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 27, 2019 at 8:29 am

  2. Do we want to know the percentage faster or slower?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 27, 2019 at 6:46 pm

  3. Rhetorical?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 27, 2019 at 8:00 pm

  4. right…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 27, 2019 at 11:23 pm

  5. This should be interesting. Projection with live performance–are they really going to do that–or record a live performance to be shown later? I’ve been to several live projection performances, once with H&H in 1966/7 in Symphony Hall with a French film projected with Erik Satie’s music for that film LIVE (I was a teenager then). JoA; OK I’ve seen brief clips and stills but never the whole Dreyer film. Would like to see some time a demonstration of the effect of the difference of film speed both in filming and projection. I was aware of the practice of varying the speeds during projection; the projectionist would receive a cue sheet of WHEN to change to either faster or slower speeds. In 1930 the Ohio interurban the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railway did a promotional film for its new Red Devil cars and filmed one of them beating an airplane while paced by motorcycle cops at 97mph. I saw that film in 1973–and was informed that the original was filmed at a different speed so the Red Devil was actually going faster than what we were seeing!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — June 2, 2019 at 10:03 am

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