The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

"The Passion of Joan of Arc." Detail from original movie poster.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  114 minutes.  Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti (as Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (as Évêque Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (as Jean d’Estivet), and Antonin Artaud (as Jean Massieu).  Cinematography by Rudolph Maté.

In honor of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I am writing about a silent film that has disturbed me more than any other film, silent or otherwise, that I have seen in a long time.  It is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.  In response to the film’s intense emotional focus, Roger Ebert wrote, “Perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, ‘What is this story really about?’  And after he answered that question, he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.”  Ebert does not explicitly tell us what that answer is, but I have an idea.  Dreyer has made a movie that is about a horrifying trial of the self, in which a woman decides to remain true to her faith in spite of the most dire and violent consequences, and about the nightmare feeling of being unjustly persecuted and in a state of utter powerlessness.  Most fundamentally, it is about how much the world can strip away from us when it chooses to reject us utterly.

The person who undergoes this trial is Joan of Arc, who is captured and examined after her triumphant and short-lived battle career in the fifteenth-century French wars against the English.  The style of the film holds everyone involved in Joan’s persecution accountable for what happens to her.  This is accomplished primarily through director Dreyer’s unique decision to use only close-ups and medium shots to tell the story, thereby focusing our attention on the faces of Joan and her accusers.  The result is an intense claustrophobia.  From the very beginning there is no way out politically for Joan without the sacrifice of her deepest beliefs, and no way out visually for us: as long as we look at the screen, we see either the faces of Joan’s persecutors, often looking directly at us, or we see Joan’s weeping face.  We are trapped, and as the trial and subsequent tortures and humiliations mount in intensity, the film’s incredible focus conveys a difficult and fatal truth: for Joan, as well as for us, there is no escape from injustice.  

For a silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc is extremely talky.  The long trial sequence consists of constant conversation back and forth between the inquisitors and Joan.  Title cards appear often to explain what is being said, but all of that talk accomplishes nothing.  Joan, played by the French actress commonly known as Falconetti, believes that her inquisitors’ questions are irrelevant.  She comes from an entirely different universe of meaning.  There is a famous moment early on when she is asked how Saint Michael, whom she claims appeared to her, wore his hair.  She is baffled by the inquiry.

At times, Joan’s face is overtaken by a possessed look as she tries to decipher her spiritual experiences for the judges.  Perhaps this aspect of the performance ages most poorly, as it draws from the melodramatic conventions of early silents.  Although I see the need for conveying Joan’s conviction that her sublime visions are fiercely real, Falconetti can look a bit mad at times, but mad in a way that is recognizable to us as part of those conventions and so not particularly unique.  She is at her best when she is filled with looks of sorrow and hopelessness, and when she is, there is nothing like her.  Her acting in this film, essentially her only performance in a movie, is commonly called the greatest performance ever captured on camera, praise that is almost oppressive for the critic to deal with.  How does one even begin to write about something that everyone compliments in this way?  And yet during the melancholy scenes I have just mentioned, I felt something extremely visceral in reaction to Joan’s tremendous suffering that justifies such a positive assessment.  I was astounded by the extent to which Falconetti plumbed the misery of Joan’s impending doom.  Director Carl Theodor Dreyer famously worked with the actress to create this effect, and she achieves it so successfully that one would never guess that in her life prior to making The Passion of Joan of Arc, Falconetti worked as a stage actress specializing exclusively in light comedy.

Much can also be said for the actors playing her persecutors in the film, although I should point out that they are never referred to over the course of the movie by name or title.  We nevertheless come to recognize so many of the judges by their faces alone, owing in part to the aforementioned use of close-ups.  The chief inquisitor is recognizable by his large brooch and many warts, for example.  There is a great deal of ugliness in the judges’ faces, which are shot in high contrast and without make-up, as they hound and oppress Joan.  In contradistinction, Falconetti, although also filmed without make-up, is shot with a different lighting effect that makes her looking stunning even in her deepest moments of suffering, including after her already short hair is crudely and unevenly shorn in a particularly humiliating scene.  Even the sight of tears slowly coursing down Falconetti’s cheeks is strangely beautiful.  Perhaps it is because her Joan is so pure in her devotion, so honest in her answers, and so unwavering—despite the fact that at one point she signs her mark on a renunciation of her purported crimes, an act that she later recants before her death.

I watched the Criterion version of the film with Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” soundtrack in accompaniment.  Although I know that Dreyer preferred to screen his films silently, I nevertheless enjoyed most of the score and thought it was often very appropriate.  Yet I disliked it in one of the scenes that takes place in Joan’s prison cell, during which hooligan guards seize the straw crown she has been weaving and place it on her head.  This is a horrible scene, clearly reminiscent of the mocking of Christ with the crown of thorns, and yet the soundtrack has a playful lilt, emphasizing the mirth of the laughing guards.  As they mocked Joan, I was enveloped in the abject horror of her situation, and it seemed to me that there were many other, and more sobering, ways of scoring the scene.  I raise this point not merely to complain but rather to demonstrate also, to be fair to Einhorn, that due to the fact that we do not have access to what most silent soundtracks were like (a lot of them being invented by, and not well preserved by, musicians at individual theaters), we do not know what the scene with the guards “should” sound like.  It is also challenging to construct a suitable present-day score that feels period-appropriate and reflective of the original context.  “Voices of Light” breaks free from some of the restrictions of 1920s silent movie house music: it is a complex musical reworking of sacred texts for small orchestra and chorus. 

Einhorn’s score seems to emphasize the holiness of what we see as much of the libretto is derived from the writings of medieval women mystics.  It also channels Joan’s pious angst in a way that enhances the beauty and devastation of the feature.  In the end, the soundtrack serves to underscore the idea that what we are watching is a display of legitimate and attention-worthy suffering in the tradition of Christian passion plays, and this is suitable enough, as Joan was canonized by the Roman Catholic church in 1920, eight years prior to the making of this film. Ultimately, however, Dreyer’s Passion emphasizes the great wrong done to a devout woman rather than the glory of her sainthood.