The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) has an elemental power that’s difficult to describe or explain. It elicits highly personal reactions in anyone it comes in contact with. It stirs certain emotions that few films can reach. Of course, every person sees every movie on their own terms, but with The Passion of Joan of Arc that sensation is amplified. Hilda Doolittle’s perhaps definitive essay about it written at the time of it’s release must ask two dozen questions that the essay cannot answer, most beginning with “why.” “Why is it that my hands inevitably clench at the memory of those pictures, at the casual poster that I pass daily in this lake-side small town? Is it necessary to be put on guard? Must I be made to feel on the defence this way and why? Also why must my very hands feel that they are numb and raw and bleeding, clenched fists tightened, bleeding as if beating at those very impregnable mediaeval church doors?” It’s that kind of movie.

The movie hardly gives anything away, doesn’t lead you; in fact, it denies you the emotional cues we’ve been programmed to expect. Made during a time when film language was still being written, it was bold enough to completely abandon tradition. Although the departure is radical, the effect is subtle but the viewer is never unaware of it. Dreyer and the remarkable performers he populates the frame with generate one of the most arresting experiences a moviegoer can receive.

The dialogue, such as there is in a silent movie, is taken directly from the original transcripts of the 15th-century trial of Joan of Arc. Dreyer isn’t interested in the 19-year-old’s military exploits; this isn’t a hero’s story or a biopic. Very little background about Joan or why she’s on trial is given; only what was actually said during the proceedings shed light. French audiences of the time would have been more than familiar with the back-story, as Joan was used as a rallying symbol during the first World War, culminating with her canonization in 1920.

The movie, however, is not a tale from the Lives of the Saints but a specific look at human cruelty and distrust. The story of Joan’s trial for heresy is but the canvas to explore human nature’s conviction of its own beliefs. I don’t know if Dreyer is presenting a Joan who is really a “daughter of God,” as she claims, but he is showing a woman who was willing to die to preserve that assertion and the men who were willing to kill so they could be reassured that such a phenomenon wasn’t possible.

The emotional response to the movie is generated mainly by the casting and the performances. Joan’s judges are a collection of dour-faced, serious men with accusatory faces, mean mouths and heads of severe angles. Shot after shot features a zoom into the face of a judge focusing the glare of his discerning eyes on the camera and by extension the viewer. They volley prodding questions in a mixture of anger, curiosity and smug condescension. They are a grotesque collection of evaluators, stripping away Joan’s humanity and creating her as a sort of curiosity, an aberration. Some of the faces seem kind or reveal an unhappy professionalism as opposed to sadism, but they are all critical. In contrast are the guards, but their faces are more rounded, softer than the judges; they seem dimmer. They are deriving pleasure from being physically cruel, humiliating Joan and abusing her.

At the center, of course, is Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan who gives what Pauline Kael said, “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.” Falconetti is powerful, ranging from terrified to stoic, resolved to fearful, clear-eyed to what seems like possession. The movie doesn’t allow her to be anything but remarkable as the camera remains trained on her face for much of the running time. What she’s thinking from moment to moment is anyone’s guess, but the feeling of a person trapped, on trial for her very existence, comes through at all times.

However, the performances are half the story. What keeps The Passion of Joan of Arc as mysterious as it is, what allows it to retain its ambiguous power, is Dreyer’s direction. The movie is composed almost exclusively of close-ups and there isn’t a single establishing shot. The technique heightens the feeling of confrontation; it denies the audience the distance from the story. Coupled with the script, it gives the feeling of immediate disorientation. We don’t know where we or how we got there; we can’t see the big picture. I’d say this is Dreyer’s way of having us identify with Joan, but there’s evidence against that.

I read the myopic view of the storytelling as a parallel to the astigmatic conviction of the characters. Everyone can only see what’s dearest to them; they are blind to other points of view, even at the expense of people’s lives, including Joan. We have no sympathy for the judges to be sure, but when Joan is asked, “Do you believe God hates the British?” referring to her claim that she was divinely asked to make war, her answer is less than satisfactory.

Further keeping us from wholly identifying with Joan is the movie’s striking editing which keeps us fully removed from all parties. Shots aren’t connected, eye lines don’t match up, action isn’t carried from one shot to the next. This isn’t extreme; it’s very easy to follow what’s happening but impossible to connect totally with the people on the screen, further disorienting us. It would be simply too easy to identify with Joan, who’s naturally sympathetic, but Dreyer doesn’t give us that option. In presenting us nothing but close-ups and wonky editing, he forces us to broaden our own perspective even if the movie never broadens its own.

The questions being asked are not “What would I do if I were Joan?” or “What would I ask were I a judge?” but simply “Who’s asking what and why did she react that way?” We can’t identify, we can only observe. It’s a high-wire act because it could have made the story incomprehensible, but the effect results in a disquieting experience. We are robbed of the indignation that would come in a more traditional movie and are left with only our own thoughts to come to terms with.

Dreyer’s insistence on close shots intensifies the genius of the art design. The trial is held in a large space but because of the shot selection we get only glimpses of it. During the height of expressionism in European movies, The Passion of Joan of Arc feels right at home with its severe angles and imposing architecture. It’s not as impossible as the look of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but it creates the same effect. This is an enroaching world in which the walls, like the frame of the camera, are closing in. The great screenwriter and director Paul Schrader said, “…like the faces of her inquisitors, the halls, doorways, furniture are on the offensive, striking, swooping at her with oblique angles, attacking her with hard-edge chunks of black and white.”

I agree about the effect of the design but not the purpose—the judges and guards have to live in this oppressive space too. That the movie can be read in so many ways is a testament to how open to interpretation Dreyer made his film. There’s an unsettling lack of traditional theatrical manipulation; it’s easy to see why Robert Bresson, the master of ascetics who would make The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962, was so heavily influenced. Plenty of scores, many of which are excellent, have been composed for The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I prefer to watch it in total silence, as the direction seems to demand that nothing give away emotional cues. Those are for you to provide. 

There’s a scene near the end when Joan, to avoid death, has confessed that she has not been contacted by God. For her revelation, she is punished to life in prison as a blasphemer. She is prepared for prison by having her head shaved (Falconetti’s misery during that scene is genuine; she loved her hair). Dreyer shows us Joan as she watches the clippings of her hair being swept up. The sweeper also collects in his pan the crown the guards made to mock Joan. Suddenly, Joan is struck with the resolve to reverse her statement and face the consequences. Jean Renoir said, “That shaven head was and remains the abstraction of the whole epic of Joan of Arc,” and I consider this scene to be the abstraction of the whole epic of the movie. Joan’s reaction to the sweeper remains a mystery to me, but one that I return to every time I think of this movie. Dreyer wants nothing else than to force you to ask, “Why?”

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