After making the film Master of the House in 1925, the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer spent time in France and learned that he was respected enough to get an offer he really couldn’t refuse. Dreyer was invited to make a movie in France about Marie Antoinette, or Catherine de Medici, or Joan of Arc. All women, all fascinating historical figures. He would later say that his choice was completely random, but considering the final results it’s hard to believe. This is truly a work of passion, the director’s most famous film and an important part of cinema history.
Court of clergymen loyal to England
In May 1431, Joan of Arc (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) stands trial before a court of clergymen loyal to England. She is quite a prize, the famous teenager who’s led French forces in battle against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Loyal to Charles VII, Joan stands accused of heresy after claiming that she was given a mission by God to drive the English out of France. She’s also known for wearing men’s clothes, a far more severe crime than we might think. The priests begin to probe her, but are astonished to find that this simple 19-year-old girl, born to peasants, has not only tremendous courage but knows how to avoid falling into their theological traps. How is this possible?
After failing to break Joan, which includes reading her a false letter they hope will change her thinking, the clergymen have no option but to bring her to the torture chamber…
Remarkably well preserved historical event
The trial and execution of Joan of Arc is a remarkably well preserved historical event thanks to several court transcripts that still exist today. It was a sham trial, influenced by the English authorities, that has been roundly denounced over the centuries. Considering how slowly the Catholic Church works it’s kind of amazing to learn that it took them only 25 years to overturn the verdict and excommunicate the bishop in charge of the trial, Pierre Cauchon (who was dead by then).
Just how unusual The Passion of Joan of Arc is comes across immediately. The first images set the tone and watching this movie on a big screen must have been an overwhelming experience back in 1928. Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté work with frequent close-ups of both Joan and her interrogators as they go back and forth. The images are starkly high-contrast and the angle of shots makes it clear who’s in power; apparently, holes were dug in the set for the camera to achieve the right effect. The stoic but often teary face of Joan dominates the screen and made the actress, Renée Jeanne Falconetti, immortal. She had only made one previous film, but was a renowned stage actress. It should have been the start of a glorious film career, but she never acted in front of a camera again (a fact that perhaps helped cement her legendary status). Falconetti’s performance is incredibly strong throughout the film, even if her heroic suffering tries one’s patience.
Still, Dreyer knows how to vary the proceedings, especially in the masterful way he and Marguerite Beaugé edited the film; it’s not just the close-ups that will grab your attention, but the way the duo bring tension and life to the trial.
There’s no doubt this is a visual work of art. Watching Joan burning at the stake, the filmmakers creating a crescendo of painful, powerful images, is indeed special, reminding us of how silent cinema kept reaching new heights even as the advent of sound was only a year away. I watched this film accompanied by an organ score written by Karol Mossakowski, emphasizing both the thrills of the story and its religious themes.
The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928-France. Silent. 110 min. B/W. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenplay: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Cinematography: Rudolph Maté. Editing: Marguerite Beaugé, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Cast: Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (Jean d’Estivet), Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Gilbert Dalleu.
Trivia: Original title: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Robert Bresson also chronicled the trial in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962).
Last word: “The script was taken practically directly from the transcript of her trial. Lines followed one after the other, like blows in a sword fight. Translated to film, that meant that each line corresponded to a close-up. The speed of the dialogue called for a stream of close-ups with corresponding text. It was the only way to give the audience an impression of what really happened. The public became part of the snide way in which the interrogation of Joan of Arc was conducted.” (Dreyer, interview with Torben Skjødt Jensen)