"There is no such thing as a silent film," conductor Gillian Anderson insisted Saturday afternoon in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.
She was commenting on one of the most memorable films of the pre-soundtrack era, Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which was shown to a capacity audience. That performance, with Anderson conducting a small orchestra and a half-dozen of Washington's best singers, clearly showed what she meant: "Silent" movies were a double-edged art, with live musicians (at least a pianist or organist; in big movie houses, an orchestra and, for this occasion, voices) providing an essential accompaniment to the action on the screen. The match of music and visual images was not always perfect in this performance, but it was obvious that even with partly inappropriate music, the film had a life it would have lacked with no music at all. The score, which Anderson had found while doing research in the Library of Congress, was written by composers Leo Pouget and Victor Alix for the movie's Paris premiere in 1928. This version was censored by French authorities because of Dreyer's anticlerical attitudes -- specifically, his characterization of French bishops and other clergy who tortured Joan psychologically and physically during her trial for heresy and witchcraft before handing her over to be burned at the stake.
The print shown Saturday was not the one for which this music was written but the somewhat longer and harder-hitting version used for the premiere in Dreyer's native Norway. Some segments had no music because they were not used in the Paris version, and Anderson had to adapt what was available. Other parts had music in a conventional, sentimental style associated with 19th-century devotional music -- a convenient cliche for a story about the life of a saint, but out of place in the psychological melodrama of Dreyer's film. Yet even when the sound did not fit perfectly, it gave a vitality that could not be found in soundless images. And often the music and visuals worked together, as in the devastating closing minutes of the film, when Joan receives her last Holy Communion and dies in flames. Then the result was powerful. The experience makes one wonder whether music is a more important part of the movie experience than spoken dialogue. It would be hard to make an absolute statement on this subject; both are clearly essential. But there are certainly times in nearly any movie when words become inadequate and music makes the right emotional statement.
Those who want to sample the effect of live music with "silent" film will have a chance to see Douglas Fairbanks in "Robin Hood," with Lisa Logan playing the piano score, Saturday, and the 1925-26 "Ben Hur," with Anderson conducting, Aug. 3. Performances, in the auditorium on the lower level of the East Building, begin at 3 p.m. Admission is free, and it is a good idea to arrive early because these films attract large audiences. There will be another showing of "The Passion of Joan of Arc," with a new musical score and including a performance by the "Anonymous Four" vocal quartet, at Wolf Trap at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 2. Those who saw the National Gallery performance will have an interesting chance to compare contemporary soundtrack styles with those of 1928.