more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

250 Film Challenge: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Silent 13/50)


The story of Joan of Arc is a familiar one.  During the Hundred Years’ War, an illiterate teenage girl from Orléans said that she heard and saw saints – Catherine, Margaret, and the Archangel Michael – who told her that she must lead France to liberation.  She cropped her hair, wore a soldier’s uniform, and fought and won many battles against the English and Burgundians (the French faction that had allied itself with the English).  In 1430, she was captured by the Burgundians and tried by French clergymen, who were not only loyal to the English, but also extremely threatened by the prospect of a girl who claimed that God had promised her salvation – something that was, according to Catholic doctrine, available solely through the church.  In 1431, at the age of nineteen, she was burned at the stake as a witch; her last word, before the fire consumed her, was “Jesus.”  According to popular legend, someone present at the execution cried out to Joan’s judges, “You have burned a saint!”  In 1456, a trial authorized by Pope Callixtus III led to the declaration of her martyrdom, and thus of her innocence of heresy; she was beatified in 1909, and canonized as a saint in 1920.

A somewhat parallel similar fate befell Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  At the time of its premiere, it was celebrated on the one hand for its stunningly original style and treatment of Joan’s story; but it was condemned on the other by the English for portraying them unfavorably – and by many French, who could not support the notion of the Danish Dreyer daring to make a movie about their national heroine.  Shortly after its release, a warehouse fire destroyed the original negative.  Dreyer worked meticulously to assemble another negative, comprised of alternate takes; but after he finished, that, too, was lost in a fire.  The film was still available, but not in optimal condition: many prints were missing scenes that had been cut out by national censors; the available prints were grainy and faded; and, in short, the film was nearly doomed to the status of “lost.”  So it seemed to be forever, until 1981 – when an almost perfect print of the film was discovered in a janitor’s closet in a Norwegian mental institution, and then restored to its original lustre.


The premise of The Passion of Joan of Arc is that it is based on the actual transcripts of her trial.  As such, this is a silent film full of words: the intertitles tell us the judges’ questions and Joan’s (Maria Renée Falconetti – simply “Mlle Falconetti” in the credits) remarkably intelligent answers.  It is clear that the judges try to trick her, asking her things like, “Are you in a state of grace?”  If she answers yes, she is a heretic; if she answers no, she admits that she is a sinner.  She answers with neither of these, however: her reply is, “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may he grant it to me.”  The judges’ roaring, infuriated outrage at having been outwitted by this guileless peasant girl is palpable.  As far as the rather heavy use of intertitles is concerned, it is true that this is wordy for a silent film; but, as Tom Milne argues in “The World Beyond”, “the titles and the huge close-ups of Joan and her judges are intercut as the two separate dramas – the farce of a trial which is being manipulated to a desired end, and the tragedy of Joan alone with herself and her fear”.  It is nearly impossible to imagine the film with sound – although Dreyer apparently wished to do just that – because this really is two stories at once.  On the one hand, the film tells us of injustice, of “the most terrible of all perversions: the perversion of a divine principle in its passage through the minds of men” through the intertitles; on the other hand, the film shows us, through the deeply affecting performances, a tragedy of a girl who desperately wants to live, but who wants, even more desperately, to remain faithful to her God.

The film telescopes her eighteen-month trial to one day.  Her captors, French bishops as well as English guards, are often seen from below, as if from Joan’s point of view.  We see, as she sees, the corrupt judges looming over her.  We see their inner decay reflected in their outer state: aside from one handsome young bishop (Antonin Artaud) who is sympathetic to Joan and tries to help her, they are all craggy, wilted, flabby, greasy, and deceitful.  Joan, by contrast, is shot either from above or at her own height; and we see her astonishing courage, as well as her abysmal terror, reflected in the extraordinary face of Falconetti: eyes that seem lit from within; gleaming sun-warmed skin; and a mouth that lets drop small responses to her captors’ deliberately difficult questions, and opens wide only when the tragedy of her situation – a nineteen-year-old girl from a tiny hamlet in rural France, being put through unspeakable psychological torments that she understood would result only in her execution – becomes too much for her to bear, and her mouth cracks open wide, and she weeps.


The Passion of Joan of Arc creates an extraordinary sense of intimacy by its heavy use of close-ups, as if we viewers were standing close enough to hear Joan breathing.  As Richard Rowland writes in “Carl Dreyer’s World”:

Reliance on such a limiting device might be expected to make the film static; some critics have so described [it].  But [it is] not truly static; there is constant development.  The spectator must learn to watch for slighter gestures; the droop of an eye may carry the weight of a tragedy; the quiver of a lip will be a clue to unspoken paragraphs.  Here each fragment of a gesture is meaningful and revealing.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the silence, we become almost tangibly close to these long-dead performers by virtue of their ever-present closeness to the camera.  None of the actors wear makeup: we see each pock-mark in Joan’s inquisitors’ faces; we see each luminous tear form in Joan’s eyes; we are as immersed in this world as the characters themselves, as we would be in a dream.

This is one of the curious features of The Passion of Joan of Arc – while each film brings us into some kind of dream world, this is one of the few that truly has the look and feel of a dream, without delving into the realm of surrealism.  There is an odd hybrid feeling to this film: in some ways, it seems absolutely naturalistic; in others, it is patently artificial.  Dreyer himself wrote,

Where is the possibility of artistic renewal in the cinema?  I can only answer for myself, and I can only see one way: abstraction.  In order not to be misunderstood, I must at once define abstraction as something that demands of the artist to abstract himself from reality in order to strengthen the spiritual content of his work.  More concisely: the artist must describe inner, not outer life. […] Abstraction allows the director to get outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded his medium.  It allows his films to be not merely visual, but spiritual.  The director must share his own artistic and spiritual experiences with the audience.

And indeed, there is a curiously abstract quality to the film: on the one hand, teeming with extraordinary detail in the film’s record of the actors’ faces, and on the other hand, almost like a series of medieval woodcuts or marginalia drawins.  Of course, because it is silent and black and white, we know that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a product of the 1920s, but these two features are the only that fix it to any particular time or place.  As Rowland says, its

passionate directness is of no specific day.  Such agelessness in any art is usually the result of a highly personalized style.  The artist who is branded as of his age dates within his lifetime; the individualist who goes his own way – Blake, El Greco, Berlioz, at their most original – is as fresh today as ever.  A style that represents a coherent and considered judgment of life, even in the flickering light of the cinema, transcends fashion or technical development.

The usual excessive cinematic flourishes of the Roaring Twenties are entirely absent here.  The sets are stark and bare, designed by Hermann Warm (he of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the style of the buildings depicted – naively, crudely, with little understanding of perspective – in medieval illuminations.  The actors’ faces are utterly devoid of makeup.  It is almost always possible, in viewing most other silent films, to detect hints – if not outright signposts – that point to the film’s having been made some time during the 1920s: the women’s hairstyles have the same artificial waves; the men wear the same amount of pantomime makeup as their leading ladies; there is the same thrill of the new, even in so-called period films.  There is nothing wrong with Hollywood films’ being visible products of a particular time and place, but it dates each film, quite obviously.  Of course, film has no real responsibility to portray anything naturalistically.  It is all artifice; and so if we can tell that, after a day’s shooting, Pola Negri traded Madame DuBarry’s 18th-century frock for a silk negligee and a mink coat, it does nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the movie.


Falconetti’s Joan, however, has none of the powdered and rouged sex appeal of the typical silent film heroine; she is pristinely sexless.  There is no lilt or bounce in her walk; only the heavy plod of spiritual exhaustion.  There is no come-hither gleam in her sublime eyes.  There is no vanity of any kind to be found in Falconetti’s faultless portrayal of an extraordinary young woman; just humility, determination, intelligence, passion, and equal parts grace and terror.

The poet H.D. wrote about the film in 1928:

[T]here is a Jeanne sobbing before us, there is a small Jeanne about to be kicked by huge hob-nailed boots, there is a Jeanne whose sturdy child-wrist is being twisted by an ogre’s paw because forsooth she wears a bit of old hard hammered unwieldy bulk of gold upon one finger, there is a numb hypnotized creature who stares with dog-like fidelity, toward the sly sophist who directs her by half-smile, by half-nod, by imperceptible lift of half an eye brow toward her defaming answer, there is a Jeanne or a Joan whose wide great grey eyes fill with round tears at the mention of her mother (“say your pater noster, you don’t know your pater noster?  you do?  well who taught it to you?”) there is Jeanne or Joan or Johanna or Juana upon Jeanne or Joan or Johanna or Juana.

In short, she found the film upsetting – it “caused [her] more unrest, more spiritual forebodings, more intellectual rackings, more emotional torment than any”other film she had seen.  And it is an upsetting film.  It is frequently brutal and nightmarish: Joan faints after being taken to the torture chamber, and her judges decide that they must bleed her – they will not allow her to die a natural death.  The camera records, with cruel impassivity, the act of her right arm being bound with a tourniquet; the “doctor” tapping around to feel for a vein; the scalpel goring, rather than surgically cutting, her arm; the blood shooting forth like a geyser.  Every time, I cannot help clasping my arms close to my torso, wincing and squirming as I would if I were dreaming that this sadistic little bit of medical science were being carried out on me in an awful dream.  When Joan is brought to the stake, her head shorn, she too has the look of someone in a dream.  Meekly, she allows herself to be bound to the stake.  The executioner lights the pile of wood below her, and Dreyer shows us the teeming, roiling mob attending her execution.  They are furious that their Joan is being murdered so cruelly; they cry “Vive Jeanne!” and the English guards prepare to control the crowd.

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC_MoC_Press Still 5 (Large)

Yet it is not this vision of a mob’s demand for justice that shakes us.  This is not Eisenstein, after all; it is Dreyer.  As Rowland explains, Dreyer’s

characters […] are in no possible sense “larger than life,” yet they crowd the imagination because we have seen them in their terrible isolation and with an appalling completeness, in the flesh and in the spirit.  And this is what such loving cinema techniques were designed for; the humanist (and Dreyer is one) can use them to reveal the darks and lights of humanity with unrelenting art; the antihumanist (as Eisenstein proves to be, at heart) can use them only to oversimplify men into the cogs of a vast and mindless machine.

What arrests us, what is seared into our memory, is the vision of Joan, writhing as the flames lap over her body, frothing at the mouth, her extraordinary eyes shot wide open in pain.  As she is about to lose consciousness, her head drops to one side; she murmurs, “Jésus!” and blacks out.  For her, it is finished, and whether she goes on to Heaven or merely to death, she escapes the waking nightmare of her life.  We, the spectators, sit dazed in the darkness for a few moments.  The lights come up again, and we are awakened from the dream – but it stays with us, forever.

One comment on “250 Film Challenge: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Silent 13/50)

  1. Pingback: winter in spring roundup | more stars than in the heavens

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This entry was posted on August 7, 2013 by and tagged , , , , .
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