‘Realised Mysticism’: The Use of Voice in Two Films by Carl Th. Dreyer

By Dalia Neis

passion-of-joan-of-arc-carl-dreyer-5.jpgThe Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928

“The words are perfectly formed, but are not heard with the physical ear. Yet they are received much more clearly than if they were so heard; and however hard one resists it is impossible to shut them out. For when in ordinary life, we do not wish to hear, we can close our ears or attend to something else; and in that way although we may hear we do not understand.” – Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

The Spanish Medieval Mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, claims that she heard the voice of God. She writes about the nature of this divine voice, hearing the voice in all its clarity without physically hearing it. This paradox is acknowledged to be a significant aspect of the Mystic’s experience in hearing voices; the voice of God cannot be heard in the literal and external sense, it is words that full within the inner ear, reaching out beyond the limitations and authority of the voice of the religious institution. [1]

The coming of sound in cinema generated a parallel anxiety and conflict over the nature and status of the voice. According to a vast proportion film theorists and filmmakers writing in the 1920s [2], the sound film appeared to externalise the voice to the extent of eradicating the internal voice unique to the silent film aesthetic, erasing also, the inner voices as heard and imagined by the spectator [3]. Sound technology was viewed as solely employed for the function of ‘Talking Pictures’, that is for the synchronisation of the spoken word to the actor’s moving lips. This usage of the voice in film correlates to the word of the law and authority, the unbendable, rigid and literal dimension of the voice, as opposed to the fluid and divine voice; the voice which comes from beyond and reaches into the inner ear:

“Tone and vision, sight and sound, eyes and ears, the gate ways to the mind are all appealed to. We are visionaries, we may become prophets. We are adepts, moving at will over foreign lands and waters, nothing is hidden from us. The Movietone has to do with the things outside the sacred precincts. There is something inside that the Movietone would eventually I think, destroy utterly, for many of us .” [4]

The American Imagist Poet H.D. uses the rhetoric of the Mystic to describe her anxiety of the ‘the Movietone’, the external voice taking priority over the ‘visionary’ internal tone of the Silent film. It was the prioritisation of the dialogue-driven film that stimulated a very literal and one-dimensional relationship between voice and image. The ‘talking picture’ manifested itself as the dominant feature of sound cinema, and so provoked resistance.

It was in the very midst of this technological evolution and anxiety, that the Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, made his films. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), his last silent film, and Vampyr (1932), his first sound film, express the paradoxical conflict of the internal and external voice:

“Oh! But…Joan of Arc is also words! …Whether the text predominates, or the image – it is all the same. In addition, it is a proof of stupidity not to recognize the very important role of the dialogue. Each subject implies a certain voice. And that must be paid attention. And it is necessary to find a possibility for expressing the voice as much as one can. It is very dangerous to limit oneself to a certain form, a certain style.” [5]

The above quotation is a reaction in an interview to a film critic who saw The Passion of Joan of Arc as glorifying of the silent moving image over the dialogue-driven sound film. Dreyer highlights the dangers and limitations of this stark dichotomy, arguing through and despite technology, for the potentiality of film to transgress the borders between silence and sound, voice and image. The Passion of Joan of Arc, though technically a silent film is not literally silent; the silence becomes a key creative process in functioning as a unique symbolic expression and vehicle of the voice.

Like St Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc also heard the voice of God. Unlike St Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc died for prioritising the voice of God over the voice of law. This is of crucial significance to Dreyer’s understanding of the film as a film about words. The voice in this context immediately foreshadows the entire backdrop of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The whole film is about the conflict between the internal, visionary voice and the external voice of law. [6]

Before The Passion of Joan of Arc begins there is an intertitle explaining that the film is a direct transposition of the Medieval manuscript of the trial of Joan of Arc: “At the Bibliotheque de la chambre des Deputes in Paris resides one of the most extraordinary documents in the library of the world – the record of the trial of Joan of Arc. The questions of the judges and Joan’s responses were recorded exactly.”

passion-of-joan-of-arc-carl-dreyer-4.jpgThe Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928 

The entire collection of intertitles in the film are all the direct citations from the actual statements, questions and answers as transcribed in the manuscript [7]. Dreyer, in an interview in 1964, states:

“All the words spoken were those of history. The careful study of the trial transcript, the sharp exchanges and answers was what determined the stylistic feature that The Passion of Joan is famous for.” [8]

By incorporating this explanatory text into the prologue of the film and inter-cutting it with an image of a hand flicking through the pages of an old manuscript. Dreyer immediately introduces and self-consciously comments on the use of voice through the particular dynamics of the spoken and written word:

“For me, it was, before all else, the technique of the official report that governed. There was, to start with, this trial, with its ways, its own techniques, and that technique is what I tried to transpose to the film. There were the questions; there were the answers – very short, very crisp. There was, therefore, no solution that to place close-ups behind these replies. Each question, each answer, quite naturally called for a close-up. It was the only possibility.” [9]

Dreyer discloses the paradoxical tensions involved in the filmmaking process; the attempt to visually resurrect and give voice to a now silent but once spoken history. The voice is microscopically explored in the film through the particular dynamics of the spoken and written word. It is through Dreyer’s careful and deliberate approach towards the silent film aesthetic that creates a unique tool in expressing and resurrecting the voice.

The film, itself alluding to these levels of transformation, becomes a meta-commentary on this process, creating a framework for the once spoken word to be paradoxically resurrected without literally being heard or spoken.   In the first scene of the film the context and ritual of the trial is introduced. In this short introductory sequence the written word of the text does appear to conform to the physical actions and gestures of the moving lips of Joan of Arc. The written word in this context, functions merely as a mouthpiece to the silent moving image, synchronising the written word of the text with the mute mouthing of Falconetti’s close-up image. The recitation of the oath, the voice of law prevails and externalises itself in this context through the conformity of text and image. The film in this light can be perceived as a silent film making up for the lack of sound technology.

passion-of-joan-of-arc-carl-dreyer-3.jpgThe Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928

Whilst this sequence is exemplary of the text functioning as a descriptive dialogic mouthpiece for the characters, this technique is deliberately subverted as the film unfolds, paving way for the internal voice.

The interrogators attempt to persuade Joan of Arc to sign a petition denying that the voices she heard were from God. A close-up of Joan of Arc gazing defiantly at the interrogators is juxtaposed with a rapid collage sequence of the moving mouths of the angry interrogators. There are no intertitles intervening in this collage. It is clear that it is anger that is being expressed, that the interrogators are shouting at Joan. There is no need to translate this within the format of intertitles. Putting words to this image whether written (in the form of intertitles), or spoken as dialogue (through synchronised sound), would limit the dimension of the voice. The voice in this case would be externalised and literalised through the limits of technology. Dreyer reduces the shouts to the disembodied gestures of the opening and closing mouths. The camera zooms into the interrogators mouthing their anger. It is the way in which they move their lips that the spectator understands the difference and contrast in pitch and tone of the voice. It is through the silence of their gestures alone that the sound emerges, allowing the spectator to internally formulate the essence of this voice.

The American composer John Cage defined a new level of listening to sounds through the simple observation of the sound process: “New music: new listening. Not an attempt to understand something that is being said, for, if something were being said, the sound would be given the shapes of words. Just an attention to the activity of sounds” [10]. The Passion of Joan of Arc operates through a similar process; through the inconsistency of the intertitles, the spectator is forced to readjust to a new kind of aural experience. We watch out for the intentions and particular tones of the voice, rather than the literal meaning of the spoken and written words. [11]   The contrast of the interrogators’ physical gestures to those of Joan of Arc are extreme: Her mouth does not move, it remains fixed, what moves is her hands. Her reaction to the horror that her interrogators impose on her is to clasp her mouth, grab her neck and cover her ears. It is these gestures that on one level can be read to express her muteness, her lack of voice in contrast to her interrogators. (In fact, it is this reading which governs Mark Nash’s and David Bordwell’s understanding of the voice.) Yet on another level, it could be read as her last desperate plea for the internal, visionary voice to transcend and prevail over the authoritative voices of her interrogators. Through pointing to her throat, her mouth and ears, she touches and alludes to the mechanism of voice, the limits of these external organs to articulate a voice, and to the limits of her interrogators’ voice. She points to the inner voice which will never surrender to the voice of authority and law. Dreyer writes about ‘realized mysticism’, referring to the gestures behind the look, the soul that is turned inside out. Through holding her mouth and holding her ears she becomes deaf and dumb to the outside external world and reaches within, concentrating on evoking the internal voice. Her gestures also seem to take on the archetypal and familiar image of the scream, associatively referring us to the infamous Munch painting of same name.

passion-of-joan-of-arc-carl-dreyer.jpgThe Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928 

By hearing Joan’s internal voice, we the spectator, re-enact the Mystic’s vision, the capacity to hear voices, through the silence of the film. The final scene of Joan of Arc burning at the stake is not merely the tragedy of the ‘death of a saint’, but the death of the internal voice in the face of the external, authoritative voice.

The Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs writing in the 1920s celebrated Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc precisely for its silent aesthetic, its paradoxical capability to express the inner voice, which he termed as ‘mute dialogue’ through the dimension of facial expressions:

“Now the film has brought us the silent soliloquy, in which a face can speak with the subtlest shades of meaning without appearing unnatural and arousing the distaste of the spectators. In this silent monologue the solitary human soul can find a tongue more candid and uninhibited than in any spoken soliloquy, subconsciously.” [12]

Whilst the words spoken are affective through the silence, that the essence of sounds is understood without sound, Balázs limits this to the silent film aesthetic alone. Vampyr continues this exploration of the internal voice through the transition to sound.

Dreyer’s first sound film as an exploration of voice is facilitated by the particular logic and framework of the horror film genre: “In Vampyr I want to show that horror is not a part of the things around us, but of our own unconscious mind.” [13] Vampyr, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, continues a fascination of the mystical, internal voice to the extent of creating an entire film that eradicates any external voice. The Passion of Joan of Arc is the tension between the internal and external voice, whereas Vampyr is a film that has no trace of the external, placing the subjective, internal voice as its expressive priority.

In the supernatural world, the domain between life and death, it is justified to hear voices; there is no need to apologise. The horror film carves out a privileged zone where we the spectator along with the characters are given the opportunity to indulge in the horror of these voices. The supernatural context is a space where our conventional aural and visual perceptions are challenged and redefined: "There exist certain predestined beings whose very lives seem bound by invisible threads to the supernatural world. They crave solitude…they dream…their imagination is so developed that their vision reaches far beyond that of most men. David Gray’s personality was thus mysterious." reads the first introductory title of the film.

Vampyr as a horror film is about the horror of hearing these voices, it is not a godly angelic ‘still small voice’, as heard by Joan of Arc, but a voice which disturbs, a voice which seduces and terrifies. There are the voices that are heard by the characters and by extension, the spectator, who through the main protagonist of David Gray, hosts and leads us into this sinister soundscape, continuously pointing to, exploring and following this supernatural maze of voices.

There are disembodied chanting voices that constantly haunt the soundtrack of the film. These voices emerge out of nowhere, startling the characters in the film, extending this curiosity to the spectator as we are led through the landscapes through the protagonist of David Gray. In one of the first scenes of Vampyr, the protagonist, David Gray, has arrived at an inn in the midst of a remote village. There is a close-up of David Gray’s hand locking his bedroom door. As his hand is turning the key into the lock, the sound of a chanting voice fades in. The sound is barely audible, and the actual words cannot be made out. David Gray unlocks and opens his bedroom door, tiptoeing through the dark corridors, seeking the source of this disembodied voice. David Gray never sees the source of the voice, he constantly misses it. We observe David Gray, as he turns the corners and walks up the stairs, never capturing the voice. The chant breaks into a momentary silence and teasingly continues just after David Gray resigns in his attempt to disclose this sound after he returns to his bedroom and locks his door.

vampyr-carl-dreyer.jpgVampyr, 1932

Thus the voice functions and remains as a mystery in Vampyr, and not a revelation, as in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc. There is no certainty or message that this voice brings. It is just an undefined human sound. Joan of Arc hears the voice of God directly and transmits the message; she is threatened because of its content. In Vampyr, we are hearing voices, but of no direct and productive outcome. We are in this case unproductive Mystics, the voices we hear our of not of this world, but they are not the voice of god either. The sound of the film, asks us to suspend this notion of clarity through sound, and yield to its mystery.

The human chant is not solely confined to the disembodied and invisible plain; the characters in Vampyr are also defined through their very particular ways of speech. Their voices express a similar dynamic to that of the chant. Dreyer states: ‘”In choosing the actors, the spoken film’s director must pay much attention to the voices. It is very important that they are tuned after each other and that they harmonize together.” [14] Dreyer places deliberate emphasis on the tone, pitch and rhythm of speech so that the spectator does not concentrate on what the characters are saying but how they are saying it. The contrast of the actors’ voices is enhanced through their distinct differences of tone, pitch and rhythm. Giselle speaks with a soft, weak and hesitating voice. David Gray’s voice is fluid, slow and melodic. Together their voices fuse, creating a symbiotically unified chant; yet there is no harmony achieved in this context, only a flat, sinister and otherworldly release of sounds.

It is through the function of the chant that expresses the notion of an internal voice: The voice as chant is drawn from the mystical traditions of internal voice, where the emphasis is not merely placed on the content and clarity of the spoken words alone, but on their vibrational power. Through listening to the chanting voice, the external, literal, and descriptive layer of language loses its conventional meanings, paving the way for the internal and primal dimensions that transcends the words of language as we know it. [15]

Vampyr re-enacts this of the chant; it is not the words, but the sounds that the voice produces that are important. The voice expresses a particular rhythmic and vibratory soundscape that does not purge and elevate the listener but horrifies and confuses the ears. The chant is not mystical in the ‘godly’ aspect, but rather used as a Gothic form of disturbance, expressing an ambivalent world peculiar to that of the supernatural.

The Mystic transcends the institutionalised and authoritative understanding of the voice, and very often, through hearing an internal, visionary voice, is condemned to death for heresy. By analogy, one can classify the death of the silent film as the death of the internal voice giving way to the birth of an authoritative and external voice through sound. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films remain outside of the authoritative institution of film and resonate with the Mystic’s vehemence and determination to transmit the expression of the voice with all of its complexity and tensions.


[1] The Mystic specifically defines her/himself apart from the institutionalised spirituality of Religion – For further definition of the mystical experience, see Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience of Abraham Abulufia, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998).
[2] In Elizabeth Weis & John Belton (Eds), Film Sound, (New York: Columbian University Press, 1985), there is an entire chapter devoted to the early theorists and filmmakers who collectively resisted a particular kind of sound cinema.
[3] See Chion’s discussion of the Silent film spectator’s celebrated experience of constructing imaginary voices and imposing them on the characters in the screen. Michel Chion, The Voice In Cinema, (NY, Chichester: Columbian University Press,1999).
[4] H.D 'The Mask and the Movietone' in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (Eds) Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernity (London:Cassell, 1998).
[5] Carl Th. Dreyer, Skoller (Ed), Dreyer In Double Reflection, (New York, 1973) 63.
[6] In concluding this essay it came to light that both Mark Nash and David Bordwell see The Passion of Joan of Arc as a film about language. Nash however, in his reading, draws primarily from the confines of the psychoanalytic ‘hysterical discourse’, Whilst Bordwell does not directly address the layer of the visionary voice as heard by Joan of Arc.
[7] I am indebted to scholar Casoer Tybjerg, who from the DVD commentary on the film exposed the historical context of the manuscript in relation to Dreyer’s film.
[8] Carl Th. Dreyer, Skoller (Ed), Dreyer In Double Reflection, (New York, 1973) 26.
[9] Ibid, 27.
[10] John Cage, Silence, (London: Murion Bayers, 1968), 13.
[11] Richard Einhorn, the composer of ‘Voices of Light’, the most recent orchestral accompaniment to the film, was inspired to create a voice for the film. He began as a curious spectator, provoked by the film’s encouragement in creating internal, imaginary voices.  The music is meant to create the missing voice of Joan of Arc. The choral music is composed of fragments of texts by women mystics, including Joan of Arc’s letters.
[12] Béla Balázs, ‘The Close-Up’, Film Theory & Criticism, (NY & Oxford University Press,1979).293.
[13] Carl Th. Dreyer, Skoller (Ed), Dreyer In Double Reflection, (New York, 1973) 65.
[14] Ibid, 159.
[15] For further discussion on the concept of the chant in the mystical tradition, see Hazrat Inayat Kahn, The Mytical Aspect of Sound 1983: Omega, New York. It seems that it is this concept of the voice that also converges with many of the European intellectuals approach who resisted the coming of sound – particularly, H.D and Béla Balázs.


- Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience of Abraham Abulufia,, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998)
- Elizabeth Weis & John Belton (Eds), Film Sound, (New York: Columbian University Press, 1985)
- Michel Chion, The Voice In Cinema, (NY, Chichester: Columbian University Press,1999)
- Mark Nash, Dreyer, (London, BFI,1977)
- David Bordwell, The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, (California, University of Berkeley Press, 1981)
- Carl Th. Dreyer, Skoller (Ed), Dreyer In Double Reflection, (New York, 1973)
- Béla Balázs, ‘The Close-Up’, Film Theory & Criticism, (NY& Oxford University Press,1979)
- John Cage, Silence, (London: murion Bayers, 1968)
- H.D ‘The Mask and the Movietone’ in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (Eds) Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernity (London: Cassell, 1998)
- Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, The Silent Scream, Hebrew edtion, (Hebrew University Press: 1975)
- Hazrat Inayat Kahn, The Mystical Aspect of Sound (Omega: New York,1983)   
- J.M. Cohen (Translator), The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself (Great Britain: Penguin 1957)