“I have committed a great sin… I have denied God to save my life.”
The story of the French heroine Joan of Arc is one that has been portrayed in cinema many times; most recent retelling of note being “The Messanger: The Story of Joan of Arc” by Luc Besson. But all these variations on the story and the character of Joan are in a way doomed from the beginning, because they will sooner or later suffer the comparison with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”.
Dreyer defined the modern portrait of Joan, and with that the base in which all the following film adaptations where rooted. To truly follow in to Dreyers footsteps would mean to redefine the character anew, and in many ways this is impossible.
In Dreyer’s film Joan is a human character above all. She is an impressionable, even somewhat naïve girl of only 19 that has been put under trial and scrutiny by priests who question everything about her. From her clothing to her beliefs. They use all kinds of methods to break her convictions; intimidation, bartering and even blackmail. But the true virtues of Joan are her impenetrable beliefs, her faith in God and her mission, which ultimately lead to her martyrdom. Because claiming to be in direct contact with the divine also means that you are above the church. And this spiritual crucible is what fuels the film’s emotional impact, together with one of the greatest on-screen performances in the history of film.
That performance is of course the one of Joan, played to great effect by Maria Falconetti, who with a single look can inspire absolute empathy. One of the reasons the performances in this film are generally so good is because Dreyer did not direct his actors as they were usually directed in the days of the silent film. Instead of broad movements and strong facial expressions he directed his actors towards much more minimalist performances, which he further enhanced with his camerawork that is almost entirely comprised of close-ups. And those close-ups make even a flinch of the eye look like an act of defiance.
He further enhances the effect with his minimalist production design. The sets are almost completely blank, making the actors pop out of the screen even more. The only other thing that breaks this design pattern are the cross-shaped symbols and the intimidating torture devices. Even in his exterior shots Dreyer’s camera is pointing towards the sky, trying to avoid capturing any unwanted scenery. These exterior shots are all near the end of the film, giving the sky a more spiritual note as well.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” was hailed by the critics as an instant masterpiece upon its release. Then the film’s own trials and tribulations began. Condemned by the church, it failed to find an audience at the time. The film’s financial failure and creative interferences inspired a trial process between Dreyer himself and his financial backers. And after the original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire the film was deemed to be lost for decades, until a print in near pristine condition was miraculously found in the early 80’s in a Norwegian insane asylum, of all places.
Today the film enjoys a reputation of an absolute masterpiece, and it’s an opinion that I find very hard to disagree with.
Original title: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc
Maria Falconetti - Joan of Arc
Eugene Silvain - Bishop Cauchon
Antonin Artaud - Jean Massieu
The Passion of Joan of Arc on IMDb