Friday, May 06, 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

La passion de Jeanne d'Arc, France, 82 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Carl Th. Dreyer, Joseph Delteil
Photography: Rudolph Mate
Editors: Marguerite Beauge, Carl Th. Dreyer
Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d'Yd, Louis Ravet

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those films with a history notably beset by exceptional troubles, all too easily raising fatuous speculation on God's will. Though it did not suffer the production setbacks of, say, The Exorcist, once Joan of Arc was in the can it encountered a remarkable series of problems. In fact, in the end it was never given many public screenings at all. Vociferous objections came almost immediately from French authorities, British censors, the Catholic Church, and elsewhere, all of whom had a stake in the way the story was told, each with an agenda based on thin-skinned self-interest more than anything else. (On the changes demanded by the Catholic Church, for example, one historian of the film has written that they left only "an annoying, Catholic film in which the Rouen tribunal had become almost sympathetic.")

Then a fire destroyed the original negative. Director Dreyer painstakingly reassembled his film from second takes, deeply disappointed at the overall inferiority of this second version, though others argue there is not that much difference. But the second negative soon after burned in a fire too. The Passion of Joan of Arc thus languished in gray obscurity for decades, as prints of it were found and bowdlerized and otherwise revised to various ends, all of which only increased Dreyer's despair. He fought them but went to his death in 1968 thinking his early masterpiece was little more than a lost cause and footnote to film history.

But expect a miracle, right?

In 1981 someone found, in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, a reasonably well preserved print that had been struck from the first negative. By 1985 the film had been restored and entered the annals of film history for its tortured history and more importantly for its story, images, and bold innovations. (I think this is altogether a more remarkable story than the more recent one of the longer cut of Metropolis, which turned up somewhere in Brazil. But all such stories are remarkable.)

In attempting to reconstruct my own history with The Passion of Joan of Arc I realized, remembering that I had seen it first in 1982 in a college film class, that I must have seen one of the corrupted versions based on the second negative—probably presented by an instructor (Rob Silberman) aware of the recent discovery and anticipating what might come of it. (Alas, I have little memory of his lecture, in which he must have discussed exactly that ... really, could you pay a little more attention next time, JPK?) It did feel awfully slow and ponderous, and certainly was among the least popular titles screened in that class, but nevertheless there was something about it that was no less than thrilling for me. I stumbled out of it that day dazed and overwhelmed.

I have checked in with it a few times since then—more often than not dreading but still drawn back to it. I must admit that approaching silent films often seems a chore, and this one is additionally hard for me because of its themes and preoccupations. Yet I return to it and proceed on a kind of faith, based on the consistency of my past experience. And it is always rewarded—even more so as continuing efforts toward restoration have made better and better versions available, until now, with the Criterion DVD, it is a pristine, immaculate, and radiant thing, likely very close to what Dreyer intended us to see.

An elaborate and expensive set was built for The Passion of Joan of Arc (vaguely expressionistic, with strange angles and shapes), though it is never seen in anything close to its totality. There are any number of carefully framed and evocative shots all through, with surprising camera angles and movement. Even the numerous close-ups are approached and framed in a wide variety of ways. A new technology of the time, panchromatic film, enabled Dreyer to film his actors without makeup, which textures the action in surprising ways, and affords exactly the kind of veracity Dreyer was after. And it is all hammered together with precision and an overriding sense for structure that makes it feel solid and substantive across its brief running time.

But all that is easy to miss because of its chief innovation, which is the daring reliance on close-ups—great ballooning heads and faces that loom larger than life into our own occupy well over half of the shots that compose this film. And it is reliant even more specifically, and even more successfully, on the timeless, one-of-a-kind performance from Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc as she confronts the religious authorities of her time in a formal trial that eventually led to her gruesome death. (Much of the language in the intertitles actually comes from transcriptions of that trial, which occurred in 1430 or 1431.)

Falconetti's face is like a luminescent landscape across which march ineffable strains of faith, doubt, joy, terror, and despair, an entire gamut of human emotion and experience, each in its turn, each utterly convincing in its moment. It is endlessly fascinating. Her face essentially carries the whole thing, the beauty of it, for all its harshness without makeup and eventually even with a shorn head, contrasted against the unnerving ugliness of the priests, her interrogators.

I know this picture is not often appreciated among casual moviegoers—I recall well the grumbling (and people leaving) in that long-ago film class—but I think it's one that everybody who cares about cinema owes themselves giving at least one shot.

Other random points of interest:
  • The brief scene of bloodletting is real (and certainly hard to watch), though it is the arm of an extra, not Falconetti.
  • There is a brief shot near the end of a bare breast, and a baby suckling, which always surprises me.
  • The sequence shortly before the actual execution that includes various freaks and circus acts entertaining the crowds gathered for it is reminiscent for me of both Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks and of the traveling circus acts in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 The Seventh Seal.
  • One of the players here is Antonin Artaud, founder of "Theatre of Cruelty," who appears as a young and earnest priest sympathetic to Joan. (Michel Simon receives prominent billing, likely because he became a well-known French movie star, but he is little more than an extra here.)
  • Joan of Arc was not actually canonized until 1920, nearly 500 years after she died. Hence the period in which The Passion of Joan of Arc was made and released was also a time of heightened interest in her. Many books were published, and other films produced, about her.
  • Last (and least, because it has nothing to do with the film), Mark Twain had a lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc and late in his career actually wrote a long book based on the events of her life.


  1. I recently had this film brought to my attention, and I found your article to be a nice companion piece.

    The stories of prints lost in time and found in strange locales is really fascinating. I read something this year about many old silent movies - thought lost forever - found in old Soviet archives, near perfectly preserved. It is amazing to think that we may be seeing films that have not only been unseen for generations, but may not have even been seen by more than a handful of people when it was originally released.

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