[Note: This introduction to The Passion of Joan of Arc was presented on March 19, 2015 at the Webster University Moore Auditorium as a part of the 2016 Robert Classic French Film Festival.]
I have been privileged to introduce several features for the Classic French Film Festival in recent years, among them some of the most revered cinematic works of all time, in French or any language. From this podium I have been honored to preface such canonical films as Grand Illusion and Beauty and the Beast. Bear that in mind, then, when I say: The feature that will we will be screening tonight is a singular and revelatory experience. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent feature The Passion of Joan of Arc is widely regarded by film scholars as a masterpiece, and justly so. You do not need not to be a connoisseur of the cinema, however, to appreciate its striking visuals, searing pathos, and timeless lead performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti. It is that extraordinarily rare species of film whose significance is almost immediately self-evident.
Prior to Joan of Arc, director Dreyer had made a respected name for himself in European film, helming esteemed works such as the Danish domestic satire Master of the House and the German romantic tragedy Michael, a milestone in early gay cinema. However, the works that are today regarded as his most formidable and groundbreaking—Joan, of course, as well as Vampyr, Ordet, and Gertrud—still lay years or even decades in the future. It is therefore all the more remarkable that a French production company would invite this Danish filmmaker to write and direct a feature about a beloved French folk hero: Joan of Arc, the maiden whose visions purportedly propelled France to its eventual victory in the Hundred Years’ War.
There had been renewed interest in Joan at the time that Dreyer tackled the project, owing to her canonization in 1920, an acknowledgement by the Catholic Church that her capture, trial, and execution at the hands of the English-allied Burgundian faction constituted a martyrdom. Dreyer also had the good fortune of having access to the recently published transcripts of Joan’s trial, which became the basis for his script.
There were earlier efforts to resurrect Joan for the burgeoning film audiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The most notable of these is Cecil B DemIlle’s silent 1916 epic Joan the Woman, a perfectly handsome feature that exemplifies that director’s grandiose and at times didactic approach to historical drama. However, The Passion of Joan of Arc dwells on a rarefied plane that hovers far above Demille’s film. As Dreyer’s introductory notes for his feature make evident, he was keenly aware that he could have simply made yet another costume drama. He instead opted for a different path. When it premiered in France in October of 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc was unlike anything that had heretofore been witnessed in cinema.
Even a contemporary viewer likely has expectations for a work of fictionalized religious and political history. Dreyer seems to savor smashing those assumptions to bits in the film’s opening scenes. Eschewing depictions of Joan’s heavenly visions or military exploits, he begins at the end, with a pitiable, anguished woman in chains. Although the director dictated that a colossally expensive set be constructed to replicate the Castle of Rouen where Joan was detained, the film that he produced absolutely revels in close-ups. It is an approach that is all the more perverse given the near absence of movie star faces in the cast of characters. Sans makeup and often severely lit, Joan’s inquisitors and wardens glower and leer over her like grotesque parodies of piggish masculinity, all warts, jowls, and crooked teeth.
In comparison, Falconetti’s countenance is positively beatific. Also untouched by makeup, it teeters hypnotically between agony and ecstasy. Dreyer pushes his camera straight into the actress’ face in one uncomfortably long shot after another, as tears—those endless tears!—tumble down her cheeks. Falconetti was primarily a theatrical performer, but that is certainly not in evidence here. Hers is a face seemingly made for cinema, capable of conveying oceans of colliding emotions via the tiniest changes in expression. Her Joan is no placid saint, but a character of ferocious feeling, alternately joyous and terrified, morose and contented. She is a woman both devastatingly relatable and not wholly of this world, her pale eyes always appearing to focus on something that lies just beyond the earthly realm.
Truthfully, there is not much of a plot to be found in the film: Joan is questioned, deceived, tortured, mocked, degraded, and ultimately executed by being burned alive. There are no heroic rescues or last-minute pardons. As in a film about the Titanic or the 300 Spartans, we know how this story ends. The genius of The Passion of Joan of Arc is that the tale’s utter bleakness is crucial to is humane power. With terrific forcefulness and urgency, Dreyer places us squarely within Joan’s experience, demanding that we feel the grueling reality of her inexorable doom just as she might have felt it. This makes for a desolate cinematic experience, to say the least, but also one that elicits profound empathy.
The modern viewer is likely to view The Passion of Joan of Arc as a deeply political film, albeit one that is less about the particulars of 1920s France than about the persecution and destruction of deviant individuals through countless eras and cultures. Despite his political conservatism, Dreyer was a filmmaker who was fascinated with the monsters that threatened society’s rules, whether they might be gay artists, proud women, accused witches, mad prophets, vampires, or even the Devil himself. Joan too embodies such outsiders: a woman who would not submit to her male captors, and therefore had to be eradicated.
One final annotation: In its present, nearly complete form, The Passion of Joan of Arc comes to us by a strange, calamitous path. Despite Dreyer’s objections, the film was heavily edited for its initial release at the behest of government censors and Catholic leaders. The original uncut negative was unfortunately destroyed, and the director’s subsequent piecemeal reconstruction of the negative was also destroyed. Prints of several versions circulated in the ensuing decades, until one of those unlikely twists occurred that seem to characterize the history of film. In 1981, a Danish copy of the Dreyer’s original uncut version was found, of all places, in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. Although it differs from an alternate French print in relatively minor aesthetic ways, the Norwegian discovery has permitted audiences around the world to finally experience The Passion of Joan of Arc as closely as possible to the way that Dreyer intended it.