The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Nick Burton Film & Screenwriting

videocam The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

reviewed by Nick Burton

Published in Issue No. 36 ~ May, 2000

Danish director Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is one
of those essential and seminal works of film art for which the appellation “masterpiece”
seems inadequate. The DVD, put out by the Criterion Collection, gives
the great silent film a new life. With the negative having been destroyed in
a fire a long time ago, it looked like a good print of the film didn’t exist
until one was unearthed in a closet in a Norwegian mental institution sometime
in the ’80s. A score, of sorts, was added in the form of Richard Eihnhorn’s
gorgeous Latin oratorio, “Visions of Light,” which appears on the DVD (complete
with libretto that quotes Hildegard von Bingen) as an extra.

The story of the film is simplicity itself: Jeanne d’Arc is put on trial by
“orthodox theologians and judges” in Rouen for heresy. (The film opens with
a shot of the existing hand written documents of the trial that exist in the
Chambre des Deputies in Paris.) Insisting that she was chosen by God to save
France, the 19 year-old is told that she is, in fact, an envoy of Satan. When
she tells them she will not dress like a woman until her mission is done, they
threaten her with torture. Half crazed with fear, and finally threatened with
the stake (after a bleeding, no less), Jeanne shakily and halfheartedly signs
a confession of heresy. Jeanne is sentenced to life imprisonment, but before
she is sent away, recants her testimony, telling her judges that her confession
came solely from her fear of being burned alive at the stake, a fate to which
she is then immediately sentenced . Outside, the people of Rouen engage the
soldiers in a riot, insisting that a saint has been executed.

What makes this film remarkable in its execution is that the film is shot entirely
in close-ups, the actors (whom Deyer would not let use any make-up) looking
uncomfortably real in their austere, claustrophobic setting. Without a single
wasted shot by cameraman Rudolph Mate (the film is an all too brief 82 minutes),
the action of the film is impressively limited to the faces of the actors. One
reads every wrinkle and crag on the faces of inquisitors Eugene Silvain and
Maurice Schutz (who was also in Dreyer’s no less astonishing Vampyr),
and one sees the sympathy on the face of the priest played by the poet/polemicist
Antonin Artaud.

But it is the face of Maria Falconetti as Jeanne that gives this film its poetry.
In her wide, watery eyes can be read the most rapturous faith and the most trembling
fear. It is one of those amazing silent film performances that actually benefits
form the lack of words – no words could ever be as eloquent as Falconetti’s
haunted, unforgettable eyes. And don’t think because this is a silent film that
you should expect an overwrought, corny performance; Falconetti’s acting stands
with anyone’s from the sound era and surpasses most. The same goes for Dreyer’s
flawless direction – there is nothing here, from the unconventional camera angles
to the rapid editing of the finale, that looks anything but fresh.

Apart from Einhorn’s score, the DVD extras include a look at the great production
design by Hermann Warm (the designer of the German Expressionist masterpiece,
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
), a detailed look at the various versions that
have existed of the film (it was originally highly censored in France), and
a fascinating audio reminiscence by Maria Falconetti’s sister Helene. If you
are interested in film as an art form, this is an essential and unforgettable

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Nick Burton lives in Newport Beach, California. His fiction has appeared in many small press and web publications, inlcuding: Chronicles Of Fiction, Pauper, and of course Pif.