Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Blackmail (1929)

Why, hello, Mr. Hitchcock. I wasn’t expecting to meet you so soon.

Blackmail wasn’t Hitchcock’s first-ever film – he actually did six other silent films before this one.  This was originally meant to be a silent film as well – but midway through production, the studio asked Hitchcock to make it a sort of half-way talkie, with only one or two scenes scored with incidental sound and some dialogue and the rest of the film covered with intertitles. But Hitchcock was reluctant, partly because he thought the idea of a half-talkie, half-silent film was pretty stupid.  If you’re going to use sound, use sound through the whole thing, dammit – and that’s what he wanted to do.

However, Hitchcock had another problem. His lead actress, Anny Ondra, was a Czech émigré who had a very thick accent. It hadn’t been a problem for Ondra in the days of silent films, but for talkies, she was nigh-incomprehensible.  She was the lead, however, and it was too late to recast.  But Hitchcock was determined to turn the whole film into a talkie – so he hired a second actress, Joan Barry, to speak the lines off camera during each scene, while Ondra lip-synced her way through the whole film.  It works better than you’d think; I didn’t know this detail before watching the film, and was tremendously surprised to learn that, as I hadn’t noticed anything amiss.  At most, Ondra’s performance seemed a little stilted for the first few scenes, but that was it; when the story really picks up, Ondra’s emotive face carries the day, and I didn’t notice anything amiss at all.

And the story really picks up for Ondra/Barry’s character.  She/they play Alice White, a London shopgirl and the steady girlfriend of junior detective Frank Webber. But Alice is getting a bit bored with Frank; she picks a fight with him while out on a date early in the film, because she secretly has arranged to meet up that same night with another fellow who’s caught her eye.  When Frank storms off in a huff, she scurries over to her second date with Mr. Crewe, a dashing painter who lives on her street.  He invites her to come check out his studio and his paintings – but Crewe has some ulterior motives, and won’t take “no” for an answer, even though Alice is very much opposed to the idea of hooking up.  During the struggle, a panicked Alice grabs a knife from a nearby cheese plate and stabs him.

That’s where the story really picks up, believe it or not.  A panicked Alice tries to cover her tracks, but Frank – who is conveniently on the squad assigned to the case – discovers her glove left behind on the scene. He secretly pockets it, and goes to Alice to get her side of things and maybe figure out how to get her off. But unfortunately for both Frank and Alice, there was a witness – at least, someone who saw Alice following Crewe home, and also saw her leaving all by herself.  Instead of going to the police, though, our witness Mr. Tracey has decided to blackmail the pair.

And that leads to the scene that I felt was the most gripping.  It’s a wholly psychological showdown; Tracey has been toying with Alice and Frank for most of the morning, as Alice is wracked with guilt over her actions. But Frank gets word that Scotland Yard now suspects Tracey himself of the act – he’d been trying to blackmail Crewe over something wholly different, and had just left a subtly threatening message for him with the landlady.  Frank locks himself and Alice in a room with Tracey, then springs the news.  And for the next several minutes there is a three-way standoff – Tracey taunts Frank with the point that Alice’s involvement looks shady, while Frank taunts him back with the point that so does Tracey’s; while Alice, the only one who knows what really happened, is torn between letting Tracey take the fall, or fessing up.  It’s a deliciously suspenseful scene, even though it’s only a few minutes long.

From what little I know about Hitchcock, that suspense was his signature. But Hitchcock also did some nifty things to play up Alice’s state of mind immediately after the stabbing – including a scene (linked here) where a gossipy neighbor stops by the shop to discuss the murder.  She has a lengthy monologue about how shocking a murder by stabbing is in principle; but after only a few seconds, Hitchcock pans to Alice’s face and fades the sound down on the other actresses’ speech – except for the word “knife”, which rings through loud and clear, and is a word she perversely repeats over and over, making Alice increasingly jumpy each time.

So yeah, I dug this.

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The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)

Writing my review for The Thief of Bagdad was a bit of a chore.

Not because it was awful, mind you. There’s some simple charm – Douglas Fairbanks stars as a carefree pickpocket, cavorting his way through Bagdad as the film starts and living in the moment. When he’s hungry he sneaks onto balconies where he sees cooking food and helps himself.  When he’s broke he picks pockets or cons people out of their jewelry. He thumbs his nose at the law and mocks the imams at the mosque, having the time of his life.

That all changes the night he tries breaking into the sultan’s house, intending to rob his safe – instead, he blunders into the bedchamber of princess. He tries taking her maid hostage, demanding she lead him to the safe – but then sees the princess herself and is instantly smitten.  Coincidentally, the princess is of marriageable age, and the sultan has put the call out inviting a series of princes to the palace so they can court her; our hero disguises himself (thanks to some pilfered finery) and joins the fray, and the princess takes a shine to him as well.

The princess’ maid recognizes him, though, and turns him in.  He is sentenced to execution, but the princess bribes the guards to let him go.  Then, to buy time and give him a chance to earn his way back into the sultan’s good graces, she announces that she wants her would-be suitors to go on a seven-month quest for treasure – whoever has the rarest prize when they get back will win her hand.

It’s a total fairytale of a story; like The Adventures of Prince Achmed, it borrows heavily from the “Thousand and One Nights” series of tales, with Bagdad presented as a neverland of exotic clothes and pious wise imams, ornate palaces and charmingly roguish thieves.  There is even a moral lesson, when Fairbanks’ thief finally turns to the imam for help and is told that the labor he undergoes to find the treasure will “turn you into a prince”, for “true happiness must be earned”.  It’s indeed a nice sentiment – but then, because this is a fairy tale, the imam also then tells him about a truly rare treasure and gives him a couple hints about how to get past the magic macguffin guarding it.

And I think that that’s ultimately why I’m lukewarm on this; it’s a fairy tale, and I’m not a fairy tale person as such.  It’s fun to watch Douglas Fairbanks – who is clearly having the time of his life in this, swinging from ropes and scaling walls and getting into fights with imaginary underwater beasts, swashing and buckling his way through the whole film. And the film itself looks pretty, with lavish sets and exotic-looking costumes.  It’s just that Fairbanks’ fun is in support of a story that ultimately didn’t grab me itself.

It’d be a fun film to show your kids on “old movie night”, but not anything I personally would re-watch.

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The Eagle (1925)

I finally got my hands on a couple of older films, so we’re jumping back a few years to watch The Eagle, my list’s only entry featuring screen idol Rudolph Valentino.

Here, Valentino is a young Russian soldier, Vladimir Dubrosky, who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine the Great. She invites him to the palace one evening, presumably to discuss his promotion – but then she comes on to him, and a flustered Vladimir flees.  The incensed Catherine declares him a fugitive and calls for his arrest for “desertion” – forcing Vlad to scurry back home.  Where he finds that his father has lost the family estate to their neighbor Kyrilla, and has just died. Tough day.

Vlad vows revenge, and he and his father’s men take up a sort of Robin-Hood existence in the woods – donning black masks and stalking Kyrilla’s family. Before long, Vlad has the perfect opportunity fall into his lap – Kyrilla’s pretty daughter Mascha is in the market for a French tutor, so Vlad dons a suit and presents himself as a candidate.  In his role as tutor, he spends his days with the pretty Mascha while planting anonymous notes to Kyrilla around the house meant to freak him out, keeping Kyrilla on edge until the day Vlad finally decides to strike.  But the longer he waits, the more he gets caught up with Mascha, to the point he starts wondering whether revenge is worth it…

It’s a swashbuckling tale, with quests for vengeance, feats of derring-do and thrilling escapes, and it was pleasant enough to watch.  Actress Vilma Blanky has fine chemistry with Valentino, and Mascha’s character has a bit more agency than the usual silent film damsel – she figures out Vlad’s secret identity at one point, and sneaks into his room to leave him her own anonymous note of warning.

As for Valentino….Okay, can I admit something?  I really didn’t get the appeal. Valentino is indeed empirically screen-idol handsome, and he’s a fine enough actor in what was ultimately an okay plot. But I personally didn’t see anything that seemed worthy of the swooning admiration Valentino got from fans in the 1920s.  Then again, Valentino got more fangirling over his more exotic roles, like The Sheik (which I was actually surprised was absent from the list).  It’s possible the appeal was more about the exotic role itself.  He’s not the super-romantic fairy-tale sheikh here – he’s a more down-to-earth swashbuckling Cossack.  But to my mind this is the more interesting plot anyway.

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Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

So this movie was….

Hmm.  I sincerely do not know how to finish that sentence.  “Experimental” and “avant-garde” spring to mind.  As do “non-linear”, “a product of its time” and “….weird”.

Actually, let’s go with what Man With A Movie Camera was in a literal sense.  It was a big passion project for Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov, who had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the general direction that film was taking as an art form.  He’d been struck by Nanook of the North a few years prior, and its use of “real” footage of Inuit life; even though that film did set up some shots, it also contained some footage of true-to-life Inuit customs – things that Vertov would never have seen if they hadn’t been filmed.  He was captivated by film’s ability to show people “real life” from far away.

However, instead of following the path into documentary, he feared the film industry was producing too much fiction and fantasy.  Even when there were movies about real events, like the  Battleship Potemkinfor instance, Vertov was disappointed to see filmmakers relying on re-creating and restaging events, rather than using footage of the event itself.  Or they would tell a fictional story about peasants instead of just filming the peasants.  Directors were getting stuck in studios, he feared; and he believed film could – and should – go anywhere.

Man With A Movie Camera was Vertov’s attempt to prove his point.  There’s no plot as such – it is simply a collection of footage Vertov shot in a variety of places in and around Soviet cities to show “real life”.  Shots of trolleys in Odessa are followed by footage of mannequins in storefronts, followed by a sequence of a woman getting out of bed and dressing for the day.   Shots of homeless men sleeping on benches are followed by footage of a woman giving birth, and later there are shots of women at an exercise class at a beach followed by shots of men repairing machines.

Vertov also uses some nascent “special effects” like split screens and odd camera angles, to further illustrate “what film can do”.  The whole film opens with a split-screen effect, giving the appearance of a tiny cameraman scaling to the top of a mountainous camera and setting up to begin filming:

That cameraman appears now and again throughout the film, to underscore Vertov’s point; riding in the back of a truck, camera in hand, or setting up at a beach, or striding down Moscow streets.

The only intertitle in the piece is a short manifesto statement at the beginning, where Vertov declares the film to be “AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION Of visual phenomena” and then goes on to declare that he is forgoing  intertitles, a plot, or set, or costumes, or any other of the conventions of theater.  Film could be a wholly different creature, Vertov believed.

For those expecting a conventional film – like the audiences of the time, and I suppose like me – it is a confusing document, and you do find yourself trying to grab onto a plot like you’re used to. About midway through, I realized this was actually more like the later experimental film Koyaanisqatsi – simply presenting an assortment of footage in an effort to wordlessly convey a message.  And in Vertov’s case, the message seems to simply be that such a film is possible.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

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Now this is what I needed after Un Chien Andalou – Buster Keaton!

Keaton’s plots are almost cliché by now – guy is sweet on girl, obstacles are thrown in his way, he overcomes them and gets the girl, hooray. But you don’t watch Buster Keaton for the plot twists – you watch them for his expertise in physical comedy and comic timing.

This time Keaton is the long-absent son of a grizzled steamship captain on the Mississippi. “Steamboat Bill” pilots the run-down paddlewheel boat “Stonewall Jackson”, accompanied only by an equally-grizzled first mate. Bill’s wife resides elsewhere, and Bill hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby – Bill Jr. first went to boarding school and then to college in Boston. But now, to dad’s delight, Bill Jr. is joining him to work on the boat.  And just in time too – for Bill’s rival, the entrepreneur John James King, has just rolled into town with his own much bigger and souped-up steamship, and Bill could use the help.  However – instead of the big strapping lad dad was expecting, Bill Jr. turns out to be a slight-bodied artiste wearing a beret and brandishing a ukulele.

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And to add insult to injury – King’s daughter Kitty was also in school in Boston, and has also come home to Mississippi – and Bill Jr. and Kitty were college sweethearts.

Both fathers are appalled at their kids’ romance, and strive to keep them apart – King by posting members of his crew as Kitty’s chaperones, and Bill by putting an inept Junior to work on the ship.  But some serious bumbling from Junior nearly leads to a boat crash with King, making the situation worse.  Then Bill discovers Junior attempting an out-the-window escape to meet Kitty, and it’s the last straw – he buys Junior a one-way ticket back to Boston.

Junior also faces similar rejection from Kitty, who doesn’t know why he didn’t show up the previous night.  Resigned, he sets out for the train station.

But King has reached a last straw of his own – and has complained to the local police, declaring the “Stonewall Jackson” a public danger. Bill storms over to King’s office for a confrontation, and is instead himself arrested for disturbing the peace.  Junior happens to see the whole thing, and realizes it’s now up to him to save the family business (and win back Kitty, maybe).

Most of the big-ticket stunts come in an extended sequence towards the end, where a hurricane wreaks havoc on the town. Junior is inexplicably one of the only people who hasn’t made it into a storm cellar in time, and there’s ample shots of him dodging tree branches, fighting wind, and trying to take shelter in collapsing buildings.  There’s a stunt from this sequence you’ve probably seen – where an oblivious Junior is standing in front of a building, and the entire façade falls forward toward him, but an open window positioned right where he stands spares him from being crushed.  I’d always thought the window was well-sized – but it is tiny, just barely big enough to fit around him. Reportedly Keaton’s mark was a single nail driven into the ground at exactly the right spot.  If he had been even the slightest bit off, he would have been killed.

So…it kind of feels a little unsporting on my part to say that I thought this sequence went on a tiny bit long.  Keaton’s genius, and all of the stunts he does are astonishing, but…after five solid minutes of seeing him bumbling in and out of buildings and leaning into the wind and taking acrobatic tumbles I was wondering why he couldn’t find even one building that wasn’t going to collapse around him with hilarious results.

This is a minor quibble, though. The film still made me laugh out loud several times, just like Buster always does, and is proof of Buster’s comedic genius.  In fact, a couple of the loudest laughs I had came from delightfully snarky lines instead of stunts – there’s a moment when Bill and his first mate are watching Junior making total hash of a simple task, and the first mate turns to Bill, handing him a pistol.  “No jury would convict you,” he says to Bill, nodding towards Junior.

There’s also a clever tap on the fourth wall early on. When Bill first sees Junior, he takes one look and drags the lad off for a makeover, including a stop at a hat shop to replace the beret. Bill plops several hats on Junior’s head, and he rejects them all in turn.  But he seems to especially dislike the exact straw porkpie hat that had become Keaton’s trademark.

…Amusingly, he also rejects a Chaplin-esque bowler pretty quick.

Alas for Buster, Steamboat Bill Jr. got mixed reviews and was a financial flop, as was his previous film, The General. He made one more go with a film about an aspiring Hollywood cameraman (it’s not on this list) before signing up with MGM and entering the 1930’s Hollywood studio system. The studio gave him way less creative control, and also forbade him from doing his own stunts.  The fun went out of filmmaking for Buster, and he started drinking.  Fortunately he was able to shake it off after about ten years, and spent the next several years doing a series of television and theater appearances, only occasionally appearing in film; and when he did, it was usually as a simple cameo.

But then a new generation of critics discovered his work and gave him a bit of a renaissance in the 1960s. He’s the star of a Twilight Zone episode, specially written to take advantage of his comedic skill and featuring a “silent film” sequence.

A few years later, he and Lucille Ball did a wordless sketch together during a TV variety special.

He returned to film in 1965, appearing alongside Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Despite simultaneously fighting lung cancer (which he thought was only bronchitis!), Keaton insisted on doing his own stunts in Forum – to the amazement of the rest of the cast.

I confess that this review is not only clip-heavy to show off – it’s also because this is Buster’s last appearance in the Movie Crash Course. And we have to bid him farewell – with thanks.

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Un Chien Andalou (1929)

So there’s something you all should know about me.

For as long as I can remember, my biggest body-horror trigger is anything having to do with eyes. I’m not even sure why – I’ve never had any kind of traumatic eye injury, nor has anyone in my family. I’ve got 20/20 vision, and one eye was even tested at 20/10 once. My brother had amblyopia as a very young child, but that was fixed through the strategic use of eyepatches for a couple years; no surgery. Still – any time I see or hear about anything that involves poking, cutting, piercing, or even just touching eyes, I get a full-body shudder and sometimes even start flailing like I’m trying to drive away bats.  I can’t even watch someone put in contact lenses.

Which brings us to our next film, the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. I came very, very close to skipping over it; my hardcover copy of the 1001 Movies list book has a note I wrote next to its entry, in large block capitals – “NO WAY IN HELL.”  And that is because, in the film’s most famous sequence, a man comes up behind a woman and he

(Kim’s shoulders tense, she stops writing)

 (five minutes later)

 comes up behind a woman and he

(stops writing again, closes laptop)

 (twenty minutes elapse)

 behind a woman and he

(closes laptop again)

 (takes deep breath)

 (reopens laptop)

 and he uses a razor to slice open a woman’s eyeball.

(squeals, slams laptop shut and flees to bedroom, grabs childhood-favorite Snoopy doll on bookshelf, and hides under covers with it)

 (one hour elapses)

 ….So I had my trepidations.

But the film is short, it’s free on Youtube, and the….offending scene is early.  And, it would be cheating if I skipped it.  So I gave myself permission to cover my eyes at that bit, since it was just a few seconds and would be over soon.  Even so, as it got up to that part my hand almost instinctively shot out and hit the “pause” button on my screen so I could brace myself first. It’s said that there’s an edit just before the actual razor slice, where you can tell that they’ve swapped in a cow’s eye; I couldn’t tell you if this is true, because my hands were over my eyes and that is the only way I was ever going to be able to get through this film and that scene and you can’t make me watch it so there.

Anyway.

The rest of it…wasn’t bad, but it was baffling. Un Chien Andalou was a collaboration between the surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, both of whom intended that the film not make sense. Instead, it’s a series of unconnected images which Buñuel and Dali lifted from their own dreams – a man wearing a nun’s wimple rides a bike, an androgynous woman idly pokes at a dismembered hand on a sidewalk, a man’s mouth disappears and he replaces it with a woman’s armpit hair.  Buñuel and Dali selected their sequences with the intent of not making sense or providing a narrative structure – they wanted audiences to bring their own interpretation to the scenes. Viewers over the years have tried reading a narrative structure into it, largely because most of the action is performed by a single couple stuck in a room together; however, that wasn’t the intent.  It’s just sort of a stream of….stuff.
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Also, this being Europe between the wars and Buñuel and Dali being surrealists, they wanted to shock audiences. So there’s a handful of violent actions (as we know), and some sexualized moments when a man gropes a woman’s bare breasts.  This was shocking for audiences at the time, to be sure – on top of them also being uneasy about not knowing what in the bleeding hell was going on.

Nearly a century later, audiences may be more jaded. Visceral body horror aside, there was only one other sequence that got any reaction from me other than mild bafflement – a man drags two grand pianos through a room in one scene, each one topped with a decomposing donkey carcass. As the sequence goes on, though, you see that each of the ropes also has a priest tied to the underside, each being dragged along as well and both looking thoroughly confused.  I had to chuckle at that.

I did a bit of spelunking on Youtube after watching, when I saw there were some “[So and so] reacts to Un Chien Andalou” clips; save for a couple of serious Buñuel fans, though, most other reactions were similarly confused variations on “….I have no idea what this means.”

This could be another “it’s not them, it’s me” situation, though. I’ve always had a mixed response to contemporary art, and to Surrealism in particular; either I have a visceral, gut-level response to something, or I’m left cold.  Reading about context doesn’t help, either – for me, even though I know the meaning behind Damian Hirst’s shark-in-a-tank piece, it will forever look to me solely like a half-finished natural history museum exhibit.   It’s the same here – I’ve read that Buñuel’s inclusion of the donkeys on the pianos were inspired by seeing dead donkeys in the farm fields when he was a kid, but it was the priests that caught my eye. And no matter how many times I read that the razor scene was inspired by Buñuel seeing a very thin cloud bisecting the moon, my reaction will always be a shrill internal shriek.

But. I have watched it. And now I never have to watch it again in my life.  Huzzah.

(You will note that I have not included a still of that scene in this review because are you kidding me)

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

We should dispense with some history before I jump in here, even though there is vanishingly little chance my readers will be unfamiliar with the story of Joan of Arc.  But just in case: Joan was a 15th– Century French peasant girl living in regions then occupied by England. At the age of 13, she started hearing the “voices” of Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael, urging her to take up arms and save France from the English. We will set aside the question of the truth of her visions – whether we believe them or not, it’s a fact that many of her contemporaries did. Even so, her youth, illiteracy, and gender should also also have been strikes against her; but she nevertheless managed to locate Charles II (the heir to the French throne), convince him to mount an attack on the English occupiers, and even lead armies into battle herself, in two successful campaigns which ultimately saw Charles II crowned in the city of Reims.

But Joan wanted to keep going, and was captured by the English during an attack on Paris.  There she was turned over to the Parisian church leaders, who brought her to trial – convicting her not of treason, but of heresy. She was burned at the stake in 1431.  Almost immediately after, however, public sentiment turned to Joan’s case, and within 25 years Charles II was able to convince the Pope to grant Joan a posthumous annulment of the verdict.  She was canonized a Saint in 1920.

I say all of this as context for this film in particular, and its approach to Joan’s story.  Joan’s canonization and the dramatic details of her story made her a popular subject for drama in the 1920s. Readers may be familiar with other movies about Joan, or with the play by George Bernard Shaw. Most other productions focused on the whole of Joan’s life, however, or with the military campaign which brought her into the public eye. The Passion of Joan of Arc instead focuses solely on her trial and execution, and is based almost entirely on the actual court transcripts and records from her interrogation.  We don’t get any battle scenes with Joan brandishing a sword – we only get the crossfire of Joan and her interrogators.  Instead of lavish scenes with the French court or a poignant staging of the young Joan hearing her voices, all we see is the spare courtroom in Paris, and the dirty plaza where she is burned.

Actually, half the time we don’t even see that – filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer shoots the film almost entirely as a series of intercut close-ups on the character’s faces as they speak.  So most of the film is a parade of angry-looking men debating with a visibly frightened, but resolute, young woman. Dreyer does stack the deck a bit with the casting – most of the churchmen are older, and the mean-looking kind of old to boot (although one had hair that reminded me a bit too much of the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert).

Joan was an unknown vaudevillian actress named Renee Falconetti, who was unconventionally beautiful, but remarkably expressive.  Falconetti’s performance lays Joan’s emotional turmoil bare on her face.

So no, you don’t get any battle scenes. But you get Joan’s story stripped down to its essentials, which gives this film immense power.  Whatever you may think of Joan from a religious or historic perspective doesn’t matter; this film asks us to look at this on a human level, pointing out that here was an uneducated teenager facing off in a court of religious law against several older and more educated men, and that she not only had the strength to stand up to them, she also stuck to her principles despite the knowledge that doing so would bring her certain death.  Even if this about someone other than Joan, that is an astonishingly powerful story.

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A historical footnote – some strange rumors circulated in France while Dreyer was making the film, including the idea that Lillian Gish was set to play Joan (!). The Archbishop of Paris therefore took a dim view of the film, and demanded a pre-screening to make some cuts before the film could be screened in France. Dreyer objected, but was powerless. A year later, a fire destroyed the master copy of the film, then in storage in Berlin; Dreyer tried to re-cut a backup using outtakes and some surviving prints, but that negative was also destroyed. Then in 1981, a janitor at a Norwegian mental institution discovered a copy of Dreyer’s original cut, inclusive of the bits censored by the Archbishop, in a broom closet. There is no clear explanation as to what the film was doing in such an astonishingly weird place – film historians’ best guesses are that the institution’s 1928 director may have requested a copy, since he was also a historian. But since this is a film about a saint, I’m inclined to believe there’s a bit of a miracle at work.