For me, everything begins with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s my favorite film. It’s the film that made me fall in love with cinema. It’s not often that you can point to a specific work of art and say that it made you who you are, but that’s the case for me. Central to the film is what I (and many other cinephiles) consider the greatest acting performance of all time by Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Her face stripped of make-up, her hair cut off, Falconetti is raw and anguished. Dreyer’s film does not show the triumphant Joan of Arc, the girl-warrior galloping into battle. He shows her captured, interrogated, weeping. He shows not the mythic Joan but the human Joan, and, for me, that is Falconetti’s greatest gift–her ability to make Joan alive to us, to convey her suffering but also her mystical transcendence.
In February of 2018, I did an episode on the podcast about The Passion of Joan of Arc. I wanted to revisit it. I wanted to try to communicate what the film meant to me. A little while after the episode aired, a listener contacted me and told me about Mirko Stopar’s Nitrate Flames, a documentary on Falconetti’s life. When I watched the film, I was blown away by its mesmerizing re-enactments, meticulous attention to historical detail, and the wealth of information it provided about Falconetti, how she grew up in poverty in Paris and eventually died an early death in Argentina. She lived a fascinating, unconventional, and tragic life. Just as Dreyer showed the human side of Joan, so too does Stopar show the humanity of Falconetti while dissolving none of the mystery that still surrounds her. Stopar was kind enough to speak with me by email. In our conversation, we discuss Falconetti’s life, the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the way Nitrate Flames mixes documentary and fiction, and much more.
Her Head in Films: Thanks so much for talking with me, Mirko. Looking online, I don’t see a lot of information about you. Before we delve into Nitrate Flames, can you tell me more about yourself, your background, and how you got started in film?
Mirko Stopar: I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and from a young age I got interested in film. My father was a cinephile, and I was exposed to classic cinema since my childhood, watching films with him on television or at the cinematheque in Buenos Aires. There was an 8mm camera at home that was used for making home movies that often had a narrative and experimental touch. I decided pretty early that I wanted a career in film and did my first short movie at the age of 17. I went to film school for three years and, since my early twenties, I’ve worked steadily in TV and advertising, making the odd short film on the side. I started to pursue a film career more seriously once I moved to Oslo, Norway, both as a writer and a director, alternating between fiction and documentary works. In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in exploring a more hybrid kind of form that can combine fiction and documentary, especially an archive-based one.
Her Head in Films: What inspired you to make Nitrate Flames?
Mirko Stopar: I first saw The Passion of Joan of Arc when I was 15 or 16 and, although I didn’t like the film so much, I was completely mesmerized by Falconetti’s face and performance, which I found powerful and unforgettable. A few years after, I learned that she had lived in my home town of Buenos Aires and that she had died there, which felt very odd. And when I moved to Oslo I found out about Dreyer’s print appearing there, in a mental hospital of all places. I felt that there was a story there, very connected to my geography to begin with, but also a cinephile story full of connecting elements as well, tying the fires of the stake of Joan of Arc with the fires Dreyer’s film went through, also with madness as a recurring issue, and interesting links between Falconetti’s and Dreyer’s careers as well.
Anyway, I sensed that those strange connections to my geography were an indication that perhaps that story had to be told by me. The fact that there was almost no information available about Falconetti’s life and very little knowledge about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc was also a good motivation to investigate and make the film.
HHIF: It’s so interesting to me that you didn’t like The Passion of Joan of Arc when you first saw it. For me, I have such intense memories of seeing it for the first time, and it literally changed my life and awakened me to the transcendent power of cinema. The film really made me a cinephile.
I wish I’d known about your documentary before I recorded my own episode about The Passion of Joan of Arc. As I was researching Falconetti, I struggled to find information about her. At the time, I wondered, How can this woman who gave one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema still remain so mysterious to us? Why aren’t there more books and more information about her? That’s why I love your film so much. It filled in a lot of gaps for me and was so enlightening.
I’m wondering how you went about researching Falconetti’s life and what sources you used to find out more about her. I know that you included an interview with her daughter, Hélène . I’m curious if she specifically spoke to you for the film or if that was a previously taped interview that she did with someone else.
MS: First I investigated in Buenos Aires and found a couple of people that knew Falconetti firsthand and still had memories of her. They were children during the 1940s who took French classes with her. Then, I continued in Oslo, where I met the people who were directly connected to the finding of the original print of the film in the early 1980s. But the greatest part of the research took place in Denmark and, of course, in France. In Denmark, I met very helpful people in the Film Institute that allowed me to research Dreyer’s personal papers, including his shooting script of The Passion of Joan of Arc, with his written notes on it. That was really precious. In Denmark, I also found many written accounts about the shooting of Dreyer’s film written by technicians, Dreyer scholars and journalists. Luckily, if you speak Norwegian, you can read and understand Danish, and that helped a lot.
In France, I got a little scholarship to develop the screenplay at La Fémis film school of Paris, which allowed me to spend some time there and research a lot. One of the first things I got was the book written by Hélène Falconetti in the 1980s. It’s a very strange book. It reveals some things about Falconetti, especially of her early theatre career, but not as much as you would expect. Hélène had a very complicated relationship with her mother, who had her as a single mother and left her to be raised by her grandmother. When Hélène turned 17, she got her share of the fortune left by her father and emancipated herself and barely saw her mother again. Eventually, she became a lawyer and had a son who also became an actor, Gérard Falconetti, who acted in a couple of Rohmer films and in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He was diagnosed with AIDS and committed suicide at the age of 35. So, his death was the real reason behind Hélène’s book, rather than her mother’s life. Yet it’s quite shocking to see the analogies between Falconetti and her grandson’s life. Be that as it may, after reading the book I decided I would leave all the stories concerning Falconetti’s children out of the film (she had a second child sixteen years after Hélène and also as a single mother). It was simply too much.
But, while in Paris, I found out that Hélène was still alive. She was 95 at the time. My producer contacted her by phone and arranged a rendezvous for me. She didn’t show up. We tried a second time, and the same thing happened. Then, I called her myself, and she told me she did go to the appointment, but I didn’t show. I tried to ask her stuff about Falconetti on the phone, but she only wanted to speak about Gerard. I knew it was no use to keep trying, so I gave up on her. But luckily two things happened then. I managed to get the audio interview with Hélène made by a Danish director in the 1990s for a documentary he did about Dreyer. And a close friend of Hélène, named Yves, found a box for me with Falconetti’s private stuff, which included letters, photographs, theater programs and her passport. It was very touching to see the passport because it was an object she had with her when fleeing Europe during WWII, through Brazil and finally to Argentina, where she arrived penniless in 1943. The passport included information about where she embarked, where she landed, how much money she had with her, which vaccination and so on. I guess I’m lucky that because of this film I had in my hands Dreyer’s shooting script and Falconetti’s passport. I can’t see any better way you could be more intimate with those two characters.
Anyway, the research for the project took almost four years, and it wasn’t very organized. Suddenly, I found a bit of information connecting Falconetti with a person, and went on to do a new investigation on that person, to see if I could find new leads. That happened with Nobel prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who I learned was a friend of Falconetti during her stay in Rio. So I went through her letters and telegrams kept in Chile’s National Library and found interesting information about the Brazil chapter. Also with Vinicius de Moraes, who mentioned in his memories that he met Falconetti and Orson Welles together in Rio. So, every new bit of information was incorporated into my notes and slowly the form, structure and style of the film began to take shape. I had plenty of information, but it needed to be channeled in an interesting cinematic way, and that was perhaps the biggest challenge.
HHIF: It’s stunning to read about the intense journey you went on to create this film, all the sources you found, all the paths you went down even if they led to dead ends. It sounds like you were deeply dedicated to this project. Falconetti’s life was short, but it spanned across continents, from France to Argentina, and, similarly, your film traverses that physical distance as well but, for me, you also close the emotional distance between the viewer and Falconetti. You always make Falconetti a real person to us. You situate her within her time period and convey what a fascinating and unconventional woman she was. For instance, how she had two children on her own and didn’t believe in marriage, and also her interest in avant-garde theater and even her more method-style acting. She was ahead of her time in many ways.
I also had the sense as I watched the film that she was a woman who struggled, who drifted. She didn’t have a strong relationship with her children obviously. She didn’t seem to have a lot of lifelong friends. For a woman who looms so large in the imaginations of cinephiles–who is so famous–her life was surprisingly tragic. Were there any really surprising things you learned about her? Is there an aspect of her life or her personality that stays with you? I’m also interested in how making the film personally affected you.
MS: Oh, I learned plenty of surprising things about her for sure. Many ugly and tragic ones too, which I deliberately kept out of the film. I needed to find the real woman behind the myth, but I also wanted to keep her mysterious because she is mysterious, and it’s good to keep her that way. I always said that Nitrate Flames, rather than an anthology of Falconetti’s life, is a “haunthology”, that it’s more a ghost story than biopic. So, finding that balance was crucial. Showing her bright side alongside the dark. And I needed to take some distance as well. I didn’t want the film to be a love letter. I saw many portraits of film divas done that way, just hate them.
I can’t say I know Falconetti more than I knew her when I started. The film opens with a quote by her own daughter who says “I didn’t know my mother.” Her own daughter says that. And I definitely can’t say that I like Falconetti more after making the film than before. She was a complex woman, and that had to come forth. One important aspect is that I never idealised her. I went through the whole process with an open mind and didn’t shy away from showing dark aspects of her life. The important thing was to build a believable character one could relate to. Fortunately, she was such a “modern” woman for her times that it didn’t take a lot of work to achieve that. There was no gap, her life didn’t feel “dated” in the least.
I guess the aspect of her personality that stays the most with me is her eagerness to keep going in spite the self-boycotting and self-destructiveness, the energy and drive she had to cross Europe during a dangerous time and move to the far side of the world with no money or project. She never gave up, even if whenever she had a chance to start out again she spoiled the chance almost deliberately. I’m very attracted to these kinds of characters. I think chess player Bobby Fisher was also a bit like that.
Making the film affected me a lot, because it was a fascinating process but also a painful and hard one that took almost 6 years of my life. I found a way to work the life of historical characters in a hybrid manner between documentary and fiction that I’ll definitely keep pursuing further in other projects. Nitrate Flames wasn’t an easy film to make. When I started, I imagined that, due to its subject, I could finance the film in France and Denmark, but at the end it was made with money from Norway and Argentina, and the film was several times on the verge of falling apart due to lack of funds. But you could not expect to make a film about Falconetti and The Passion of Joan of Arc without suffering, right?
HHIF: It’s moving to hear about how dedicated you were to making the film. I’m also impressed with your ability to not glorify Falconetti or turn her into a saint. She was very complicated. I think her complexity is important to show because we all have those layers and those contradictions. Something that I wanted to touch on was the fact that Falconetti herself didn’t seem to care for The Passion of Joan of Arc, that perhaps she felt like she lived in the shadow of it. I’m haunted by the scene in the documentary where Hélène talks about going to see The Passion of Joan of Arc with Falconetti. Hélène is sitting there watching Falconetti watch herself on the screen, and there’s no reaction. She seemed estranged from the film, most likely because of the difficult conditions under which it was made, as you show in your film. Can you talk more about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Falconetti’s relationship to the film over the course of her life?
MS: The Passion of Joan of Arc was an unusual film in many respects, narratively, technically, and also in the way Dreyer handled the performance of his main actress. Falconetti was a very adventurous woman who had very limited previous film experience. She was basically a theatre actress, and although she tried herself as a tragedienne for La Comedie Francaise, her speciality was light comedies. That those two, Dreyer and Falconetti, came together was a very unusual thing.
Dreyer was very interested in the landscape of the human face and saw something in Falconetti, “some scars of a suffering past”, as he put it, that he thought he could channel into her performance of Joan. So, he prepared a very unique atmosphere on that set for Falconetti to inhabit the character and immerse herself in the performance. It took time. She wasn’t taking it very seriously at the start. As a theatre actress, she was used to a completely different way of working, and Dreyer’s direction didn’t resemble any directing method she was used to. Together, they tried different ways of approaching the performance, which included watching the rushes over and over after the working day was over and repeat and repeat again the following day to find the right emotion for each of the close-ups. As the days went on, Falconetti got more and more isolated from the rest of the cast, and slowly she started to be Joan. How she achieved that is not easy to answer, what role Dreyer played in it, or whether Falconetti informed the suffering of Joan with her own (she had a difficult childhood, living in poverty with an abusive father). Be that as it may, something clicked and the result is that one-of-a-kind performance, completely hypnotic even for our modern standards.
Why the film is so unique is due to a combination of factors: Dreyer and Falconetti at the top of their creative powers, the effervescence of Paris in 1927, a technical crew and cast that included superlative talents like Artaud, Maté, Valentine Hugo, etc, and everybody’s awareness that silent cinema was a dying form and that they were sort of making the last silent film. Apparently, Falconetti didn’t like the film that much when she saw it completed because, in her opinion, everything in it was Dreyer’s and not hers (Funnily, Lubitsch disliked the film for exactly the opposite reasons, that there was too much Falconetti in it). That’s perhaps why she didn’t make more films, because she was used to theatre acting and, in the theatre, it was she who was in command.
It’s true that she had suffered during the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was a long shoot that took 9 months, and the process was very exhausting, but it wasn’t because of this that she didn’t make another film. She just took that job as yet another adventure. She loved to take risks and try new things and provoke and puzzle fans and critics. Once she was done with it, she moved on to another thing. What she didn’t imagine was the effect the performance would have on her public figure, that she would forever be associated with that role. She hated that. She spent the rest of her life escaping Joan of Arc and strangely, Joan of Arc kept coming and coming back to her life. The daughter says in the film that she also had to live her life as “the daughter of Joan of Arc” and she hated that, too. There’s that magic moment in which both mother and daughter go to the cinema to watch Dreyer’s film in the early 1930s and, while Falconetti sits emotionless watching herself on the screen, her daughter watches her mother watching herself.
So, I guess the film ended up becoming a turning point in Falconetti’s life, and the same applies to Dreyer’s, because his career was never the same after making that film. Distances apart, The Passion of Joan of Arc was like Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles spent the rest of his life escaping Kane but still everything he did was Kane. I was really surprised to learn that Falconetti and Welles did meet in real life, and in Rio de Janeiro during a film screening, for lack of a more convenient setting, and that they were introduced to each other as “Joan of Arc, meet Citizen Kane”. It was too good to be true, but for some reason, it made perfect sense.
HHIF: I wanted to touch briefly on something you talked about throughout the interview, and that is the hybridity of fiction and documentary. It fascinated me while watching the film and was most apparent during the re-enactments. At times, I couldn’t tell what was archive and what was re-enactment. You do a great job of re-creating certain scenes, and I thought the period detail was meticulous. I’m wondering if you’d like to talk more about that hybridity in the film and how it was achieved? You also mentioned pursuing that type of hybridity in future projects. So, lastly, I’d love to know if you are working on anything right now or what your next project might be!
MS: If I’d had the means, I would have made this story as a fiction because the material was so rich. The challenge was to make a documentary that the audience could feel like a fiction. For me, it was crucial to avoid the TV documentary clichés, like the use of talking heads. For that same reason, I considered not using voice over, but decided to do it at the end, shaping it into a film noir narration because there was a noir component in the material connected to the idea of an unsolved mystery. So, I felt like why not try a nasal voice that for the cinephile could remit to Double Indemnity or such films. To reinforce the “noir” concept, we used many film excerpts of Argentinean noir films from the 1940s to illustrate some of the situations.
That the film was conceived as a fiction shows also in the screenplay approach. The film was written word by word, image by image, on paper beforehand, which is not the way you usually work with documentaries. In documentaries you gather hours and hours of material and find the film at the editing table. In fiction, a screenplay page equals a minute of film. We had a 63-page screenplay and the film is 63 minutes long. So, that part of the process was very precise. Same with the score. Our wonderful composer made 35 different themes and motives for the film, which is kind of crazy. There’s music all the time. That’s not typical of a documentary. Another decision was to use voices all through the film, voices that you don’t necessary identify, but, if you immerse yourself in the illusion the film proposes, you let yourself be carried by them all the way through. You just stop questioning who’s talking, if the woman we’re seeing on screen is Falconetti or not, if the image is real archive or a re-enactment.
Right from the start the film tells the audience that there is no material left and that we’ll be dealing with pieces of an unfinished puzzle. So, the film creates the illusion that there is material, and probably only 10% of what you see on screen is real. The information is real, but most of the material we use to put that information on the screen isn’t. The lack of material forced me to invent the storytelling devices, the witnesses, the tapes, journals, articles, newsreels, and also a good part of the archive, to create my own archive. In that respect, the material suited this need because this is a story about representation, about a character that “acted natural on the stage and theatrical in real life”, as the daughter says. I never saw the re-enactments as re-enactments but part of the concept of the film. I hate re-enactments in documentaries in fact. The re-enactments were done in two different aesthetics, the “nitrate” aesthetic, and the “Dreyer” aesthetic. And for both we used sets, costumes, extras–again, the fiction approach. It’s good if you couldn’t tell what was archive or re-enactment because that was the idea.
Since Nitrate Flames, I’ve been developing two or three other projects that follow the same hybrid approach, but, for each of them, I find a different concept and a different storytelling. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a film also about a historical character: the guy that killed the most whales in history. It’s like a Norwegian Captain Ahab, a very challenging project, with a completely different sensibility than Nitrate Flames but also with a lot of things in common in the way we use archive and film excerpts and voices and convey the illusion of seeing the character on screen when, in fact, there’s almost no material left of him. This way of making films is hard and takes many years and the films are seldom seen outside film festivals, but the good part is that you’re very free to play with the form and it is very fun making them.