This one-of-a-kind masterpiece forever changed my perception of cinema
When I majored in film directing at college, I brought with me my knowledge and love of the 1970s and 80s cinema on which I grew up, as well as films from the 1930s onward that I’d discovered and devoured on television. Except for the occasional Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton movie, I had little knowledge or interest in silent films, unwittingly thinking they were all primitively made and overacted. I’d be perplexed when I’d hear the Silent Era referred to in books or interviews as the greatest period in cinema history, and thought my movie-loving grandmother old-fashioned for thinking silent films were superior. Then, my freshman year, a teacher had us screen “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, and instantly everything I believed about cinema was shattered. This stark, naked telling of the last days of Saint Joan was like nothing I'd ever seen or experienced before from a film visually or emotionally. Its radical camera movements and angles went beyond any boundaries of storytelling with which I was familiar, opening up a brand-new world of filmic possibilities and leaving me with a deep realization that cinema was indeed an art form. The curators of the 2010 Toronto Film Festival named “The Passion of Joan of Arc” the #1 Most Influential Film of All-Time, the British Film Institute ranks it as 9th best film ever made, and Cahiers du cinéma ranks it as the 64th greatest. Ever since my first college screening (and I’ve seen it many times since) it has firmly remained one of my personal top ten favorites.
Its story is simple as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a compacted historical, true account of the last days of 19 year old Joan of Arc – a French peasant girl in the fifteenth century who believed God chose her to lead France to victory over England. Joan became a heroine of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and later a symbol of French unity and nationalism. She was declared a martyr in 1456, received beatification in 1909, and canonized a saint in 1920. This film came just after her sainthood, at a time when public interest in her was widespread. It provides no background of Joan, the judges, or details of her heroism, but solely focuses on her trial and execution. The film was originally to be based on a book, but seeking authenticity, its director Carl Dreyer ditched the book and the script was largely taken word for word from original 15th century transcripts from Joan's numerous interrogations, combined into one trial. For the most part, the judge’s questions and Joan’s responses in the film were those spoken five hundred years before by the actual people, with a few exceptions added for clarity’s sake. Heavy research was done, and a Joan of Arc expert was hired as a consultant. Today, almost everyone knows Joan of Arc’s fate, yet this film hypnotically transports the viewer into another time and place, presenting her final days in a freshly gripping manner.
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer was given free rein in making “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, and as such, his creative cinematic genius and artistry are overwhelmingly evident. His aim was to capture authentic emotion and what he termed (in an essay printed in the Criterion DVD version of the film) “realized mysticism”. Dreyer succeeded, as this film seems to transcend story and present what words can’t – pure, unbridled, practically spiritual emotion. One of the major triumphs of the film is its almost exclusive use of close-ups. Mostly cited for its brilliant effect, there is occasional criticism that the film over uses the close-up. I would argue that the close-up is the film. Dreyer's close-ups create a profoundly intimate bond between the characters and the viewer as he utilizes the face as a window to the soul, and through it, shines light on humanity.
Dreyer was also looking to attain a documentary feel to the film, and one of the many ways he went about it was by omitting film credits (they were added in subsequent years). In doing that, he hoped audiences would feel they were watching the actual trial and not performers. He chose his cast based on personality, and through his close-ups was able to reveal each person’s individualism and attitude as distinct from all others. No matter how briefly they are shown, we know exactly who these people are, from their demeanor to their morals. They are so precisely expressed, one can even envision their voices. Renée Falconetti’s astounding performance as “Joan of Arc” is the centerpiece, and through her eyes she turns the legendary Joan into a mortal being standing by her convictions while under cruel and relentless scorn and scrutiny.
She is surrounded by English helmet-donning soldiers and French clergymen, from the heavyset, intimidating prosecutor who we first meet picking wax out of his ear (played by André Berley in his film debut), to the conniving bishop with the moles on his face who orchestrates Joan’s execution (played by Eugène Silvain in his only film role). Through its display of delicately changing facial nuances and expressions, this silent film offers a visceral experience of humanity like no other. To help smoke out all artifice, Dreyer demanded that no make-up (or even powder) be worn by anyone in the film, and that all actors playing clergy tonsure their hair at the top of their scalps (even those actors wearing caps), as that was the requirement of all medieval Catholic clergymen.
In addition to close-ups, another unconventional aspect of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with which I was taken aback, is Dreyer’s masterfully artistic framing. The film is packed with haunting, unexpected, unforgettable images. Dreyer often boldly shows only part of a face or dwarfs an atypically cropped figure at the bottom of an almost empty frame. The entire film is set against a white background (the walls were either painted yellow or pink - depending on which report you believe) with figures moving alongside slightly off-kilter windows, doors, stairways, and rooms. This surreal, minimalistic look creates a feeling of isolation, keeping the focus on the faces while placing the action somewhere not quite on this earth, but in limbo between hell and heaven.
How Dreyer moves his camera is also extraordinary. He cleverly keeps the camera steady when showing “Joan”, while moving, zooming, or panning when filming her inquisitors. The first shot we see of the trial site has the camera slowly glide across the room, informing us more about the anticipatory vibe of the judges and soldiers than giving details about the locale. And there's a shot later in the film that begins upside down and ends right side up. Though I’m not sure what to make of it (other than a feeling of turmoil), when I first saw it I remember thinking if he can do that outrageous maneuver, one can do anything in a film. What freedom! It’s not just Dreyer’s daring camera movements, intense close-ups, and offbeat use of cinematic space that shock, his editing also breaks with tradition. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” contains more shots than the average film, most of which don’t match their preceding shot. He was undoubtedly influenced by Soviet Montage (a movement which relied heavily on editing, founded in the works of 1920’s Soviet filmmakers, most notably the great Sergei Eisenstein). Dreyer also shows his characters from any angle he wishes instead of adhering to the basic 180-degree rule of filming (keeping the camera on one side of an imaginary line between two people in a scene). And somehow he makes it work brilliantly.
Born in Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer began as a journalist, and then became a writer for silent films. He worked as a script consultant and writer at Nordisk Film for five years beginning in 1913. In 1919 he wrote and directed his first feature, the silent Danish film, “The President”. He directed (and wrote a majority of) six more features, including Swedish, German and Norwegian films, before directing “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, which is a French film. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (or "La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc”) was filmed in chronological order over a period of about six months. Though he directed other classics, it remains Dreyer’s masterwork and best known film. His next film was his first sound film, the classic 1932 German horror film, “Vampyr”. He was known for being meticulous with all details, including choosing actors, lighting, editing, and the precise placing of props, actors, and the camera.
To help actors find realism in their portrayals, he constructed authentic sets, such as stocking the kitchen set in 1955’s “Ordet” (“The Word”) with all the necessary kitchen tools and utensils (even if not used in the film), or building a set replicating a two-room apartment for his 1925 Danish classic “Master of the House”, complete with working electricity, gas, and running water. For “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, Dreyer built one of the most expensive sets at that point in European films, which included a small town with buildings, towers, a street, moat, and gate – very little of which is visible in the final film due to his wide-spread use of close-ups. His films often contained themes of spirituality, trust, and suffering, and he had a never realized dream of making a film about Jesus of Nazareth. Dreyer was a director who always sought to put truth and personality on screen in a simple artistic way and was never obsessed with making traditional type movies. Though his films never attracted large audiences, Dreyer is regarded as one of cinema’s artistic masters, and a supreme auteur. Perhaps because of his all-consuming control over each of his films he only directed fourteen feature films (plus eight shorts). Among his not yet mentioned classics are "Day of Wrath", "The Parson’s Widow", "Michael", and “Gertrud”. He was married once for nearly sixty years, until his death. Carl Theodor Dreyer died in 1968 at the age of 79.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti gives a momentous portrayal as “Joan of Arc”. As the camera uncompromisingly lingers on her huge expressive eyes, Falconetti’s vulnerability and emotional truth make “Joan” deeply human. Her agony, suffering, tiny moments of hope, joy, tension, and conflict, all produce an intimate epic driven by the changing subtleties on her face. It is a startling performance which earned her a permanent place in cinema history, and one that is often mentioned as the single greatest ever put on film. Born in a Paris suburb, Falconetti appeared in two silent films in 1917 (the short film “Le clown”, and the feature “La comtesse de Somerive") before taking to the stage in 1918. She became an established stage actress, particularly known for comedy. Dreyer saw her onstage in a comedy, somehow saw the sincere, suffering martyr for whom he’d been searching, and gave Falconetti the role of “Joan”. When she accepted it, she was aware she’d have to cut off her hair but thought she'd charm her way out of doing so. Once you see the film, you realize she lost that battle.
Dreyer earned a reputation for being a tyrant of a film director and there were many rumors that he was abusive to Falconetti during filming. However, many Dreyer biographers state that he wasn’t the devil he was reported to be, and that he and Falconetti got along rather well. Working closely together, they watched each day’s footage and he would inform her of parts he liked and what changes he wanted, and they’d reshoot it with her making any adjustments. She became so proficient, she could effortlessly take his direction and eventually shoot scenes without rehearsing. Suffering from mental illness throughout her life, Falconetti reportedly had a mental breakdown after filming ended. Not interested in films, she never made another. With the arrival of WWII she left France, eventually moving to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There is no information about her being married, but she did have a daughter, and her grandson was French actor Gérard Falconetti. When attempting to return to the theater after WWII, now overweight, she went on a self-imposed diet from which she died. Renée Jeanne Falconetti died in 1946 at the age of 54.
Antonin Artaud plays the sympathetic priest (“Jean Massieu”) who takes “Joan’s” confession. Artaud was a French actor, writer, poet, theater director, and artist who became a famous figure in Europe with the theater of the avant-garde and his Theatre of Cruelty movement. His film career began in 1923, and includes the French films “Graziella”, "Napoléon Bonaparte”, and his final film, "Lucrezia Borgia" in 1935. He wrote the scenario for the 1928 experimental French film "The Seashell and the Clergyman", which is noted as being the first surrealist film (preceding the famous "Un Chien Andalou" by one year). Antonin Artaud died in 1948 at the age 51.
Dreyer headed an international cast and crew which included top-notch cinematographer Rudolph Maté and his spectacular high contrast lighting. Born in Krakow (what is now Poland), Maté began in Hungary as an assistant cameraman for Alexander Korda, and then worked with famed cameraman Karl Freund (who I wrote about in my “The Good Earth” post). Maté worked as a cinematographer for films in the UK and Europe, transitioning to Hollywood beginning with 1935’s “Dante’s Inferno”. One of film’s most respected cinematographers, he photographed classics including "Vampyr" (again with Dreyer), "Gilda", "The Pride of the Yankees", "Cover Girl", "Dodsworth", "That Hamilton Woman", "Stella Dallas", "The Lady from Shanghai", "To Be or Not To Be", and Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent”, for which he earned one of his five consecutive Best Cinematography Academy Award nominations (the most consecutive Oscar nominations for any cinematographer). He took to directing in 1947, and directed thirty-three films and TV shows, including “D.O.A." and "When Worlds Collide”. Rudolph Maté died in 1964 at the age of 66.
Like Joan of Arc herself, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” was burned and resurrected. The film premiered in Copenhagen on April 21, 1928, which turned out to be the only time Dreyer’s complete version was publicly shown. Its next premiere was to be in Paris in October that same year, but there was some backlash in France because Dreyer was not French and made a film about their national heroine, and with concerns by authorities about its portrayal of a corrupt church. As a result, the Archbishop of Paris and the French Government both made edits, and by the time of the Paris premiere, about half the film had been cut – all without Dreyer’s consent. That same year, Dreyer's original negative was destroyed in a fire in Berlin. Because he filmed so many takes, Dreyer was able to nearly reconstruct his film using alternate takes, though not to his satisfaction. The negative for the second version also went up in flames in a second fire. What remained were only a few prints of the original version, which were in mostly bad shape. By sheer luck, in 1981 a complete Danish copy of Dreyer’s original version was discovered in a closet in a Norwegian mental hospital. It was remastered in 1985, and that's the version generally shown today.
I don’t normally recommend watching versions of films not authorized by their director, but this is one exception. Dreyer never settled on specific music to accompany the film, and different scores were used at different premieres. Decades later, after Dreyer’s death and the discovery of the original print, additional music was created as accompaniment. One was by American classical composer Richard Einhorn, who stumbled on a photo from the film, which he had never heard of. Intrigued, he screened the film and was so bowled over, it inspired him to write a score. In 1994 he completed his score for the film and titled it “Voices of Light”. His acclaimed Oratorio score featuring orchestra, the female quartet Anonymous 4, choirs, soloists, and the sound of the church bell from Joan of Arc’s actual church back in France (which he recorded when visiting), is completely in tune with the medieval atmosphere, tone, and emotionality of the film. I was lucky to watch the film years ago at UCLA with a live performance conducted by Einhorn featuring Anonymous 4. I highly recommend watching it with Einhorn's "Voices of Light" soundtrack if given the option.
This week’s film breaks the rules of convention and speaks the universal language of emotion. It is an unforgettable display of truth, injustice, and radiance, and I truly hope you watch this one as it promises to be a film you will never forget. Enjoy “The Passion of Joan of Arc”!
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